Aspen marks 60 years of lift-served skiing
January 10, 2007
Aspen, CO ColoradoASPEN Aspen celebrated its entry into the big leagues of the ski industry 60 years ago today – Jan. 11, 1947 – with the official opening of the original Lift 1 on Aspen Mountain.Even then, Aspen knew how to throw a party. The newly elected governor of Colorado, K. Lee Knous, and other dignitaries made the trip to the mountains in a special train from Denver to bash a champagne bottle onto the single-seat chair and celebrate Aspen’s effort to create an unparalleled winter sports Mecca.When that bottle broke, it marked the beginning of the end for Aspen’s Quiet Years – the decades that the town scraped by after the silver crash of 1893.Only a few other ski areas in the United States had chairlifts. Sun Valley, Idaho, apparently installed the first in 1936, according to Wikipedia. Alta, Utah, opened with a lift on Jan. 15, 1939, according to the online encyclopedia.ColoradoSkiHistory.com reports that the Gunnison Ski Club installed the state’s first ski lift in 1939. It was made out of old parts from a mining operation. Winter Park erected something called a J-bar in 1940.Oddly enough, Aspen’s chairlift wasn’t even the first in the Roaring Fork Valley. The Red Mountain Ski Area opened in Glenwood Springs in 1942 with wooden towers for its single-seat chair, according to the Colorado ski history website.
Berthoud installed what it thought was the nation’s first double-seat chair in 1947 only to find that Hoodoo Ski Area in Oregon built a double the year before.Like always, Aspen found a unique claim to fame. The Aspen Skiing Corp. founders and townsfolk claimed they had “the longest ski tow in the world despite Sun Valley’s vociferous claims,” according to a Jan. 2, 1947, article in The Aspen Times.Technically the chairlift was two lifts. Lift 1 started close to the present location of Lift 1A and climbed to where the top of Lift 6 is now located on Aspen Mountain. Passengers then climbed aboard Lift 2 and took it to the original Sundeck.Klaus Obermeyer was a ski instructor on Aspen Mountain that year but didn’t attend the ceremony for reasons he cannot recall. “Maybe I had a ski lesson and was trying to earn my $10 for the day,” he laughed.He recalls the original chair fondly. The ride from the base to top took a half-hour – on a good day. Lift 1 “stopped frequently,” he said. There was a warming hut with a wood stove at the midway point. Skiers crowded into the hut to warm up before shivering their way to the top, according to Obermeyer. The single chairs had a blanket attached for the riders’ lap.Lift 2 was more of a “homebuilt” contraption, he said. The wheels that the lift’s cables ran through were located right over the passengers. Grease and oil would frequently drip on passengers. The Ski Corp. promised customers that it would dry-clean any ski clothes that were soiled.
“They did a lot of dry-cleaning,” Obermeyer said.That wasn’t the only funds the early Ski Corp. founders dished out. Chicago industrialist Walter Paepcke, who led Aspen’s rebirth, and the early investors in the corporation, scraped together money for the chairlift and facilities at the mountaintop, according to “Re-creation Through Recreation: Aspen Skiing from 1870 to 1970,” a research piece by Anne Gilbert available through the Aspen Historical Society’s website.Friedl Pfeifer had the vision of Aspen Mountain’s potential as a ski resort. He realized the boat tow, which used to haul skiers up the mountain, wouldn’t cut it. A Times article referred to the chairlift as a $250,000 project.Red Rowland poured the concrete for the 49 tower foundations; Frank Willoughby widened roads with his bulldozer; and Percy Rideout led a group of volunteers who cut early trails, according to Gilbert’s paper. Frank and John Dolinsek, two Aspen boys just back from World War II, were hired for the construction crew. They still live near the base of the old lift.The lift unofficially fired up on Dec. 14, 1946. Pfeifer and his 3-year-old daughter had the honor of the first ride. Aspen Times columnist Leonard Woods wrote that the lift symbolized that Aspen had found “a new, good, and profitable way of life. It means that we in Aspen are now carrying the ball.”
While Pfeifer got the first ride up the lift, a different character took the most memorable rides. Obermeyer said that Bingo, ski instructor Fred Iselin’s lovable St. Bernard, occasionally rode up the lift. Bingo journeyed alone up the mountain nearly every day during the ski season for lunch at the Sundeck. They gave him a rest every now and then with a ride up the lift.The addition of the chairlift wasn’t enough by itself to assure Aspen’s success as a ski resort. It was still a tough mountain to ski, Obermeyer said. Skiers only had the option of Dipsy Doodle and Buckhorn, with a lot of traversing, to get back to Lift 2, he noted. Most of the skiing was down to the bottom of the mountain. The construction of chairlift No. 3 and additional trails made mountaintop skiing popular, Obermeyer said.Aspen Mountain now has 673 acres of terrain and eight chairlift. It typically logs between 300,000 and 350,000 skier and snowboard rider visits per season.The “official” opening of the original chairlift drew about 2,000 revelers to events including a parade, fireworks and ski jumping demonstrations. Reports say the lift tickets that winter cost $2 for a single ride, $3.75 for a day, and $140 for a season.The Aspen Skiing Co., successor of the Ski Corp., is throwing a party today to celebrate the 60th anniversary of lift-served skiing. The Skico will serve free beer and cake for as long as it lasts at the Ajax Tavern at the base of the Silver Queen Gondola starting at 2:30 p.m.The Skico urges attendees to bring old ski passes. Whoever produces the oldest pass by 4 p.m. will win a grand prize surprise. Skico is also urging people to brush up on Aspen history so they can answer trivia questions for additional prizes.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.