Buttermilk, Aspen Highlands hit 50
December 5, 2008
ASPEN This is a big birthday year for two of Aspens local ski mountains Aspen Highlands and Buttermilk-Tiehack, perched across Maroon Creek from each other, just west of Aspen that have at times been underrated by the skiing public.They are distinct in almost every way. Highlands has long been considered the locals mountain and for years has attracted more telemark skiers than the other hills, while Buttermilk-Tiehack has long been Aspens beginners mountain before it became known for its network of park and pipe terrain. Both mountains got their starts from a combination of healthy competitive spirit and a perceived need for less demanding terrain than was available on Aspen Mountain, the flagship ski hill of the Roaring Fork Valley.The Aspen Skiing Corp. was not even a decade old when a local rancher named Whip Jones decided to build a competing ski area on the eastern side of the Maroon Creek valley.That same year, 1958, the Skico watched as another local rancher and savvy businessman, Art Pfister, together with his neighbor, skiing legend Friedl Pfeifer, opened Buttermilk-Tiehack Ski Area just west of Maroon Creek, making use of land owned by Pfister and Pfeifer on the mountains lower slopes and around the base.Both ski areas were viewed as beginner mountains in those early days, although from the start both had their share of more challenging terrain, and the western edge of Highlands, from Loge Peak to the bottom of Moment of Truth, was designed to be a difficult downhill race course.Now, after half a century, this tale of two mountains features a pair of dramatically changed ski hills neither Aspen Highlands nor Buttermilk-Tiehack, as the saying goes, is your fathers beginner hill any more.At Highlands over the last decade, the Aspen Skiing Co., which bought the area more than 10 years ago, has opened what many believe to be the best skiing in the continental United States the fabled Highland Bowl, scene of a fatal avalanche in 1984 that took the lives of three noted locals.And across Maroon Creek, the main portion of Buttermilk (the Tiehack appellation is generally omitted) has been transformed by a monstrous half-pipe and other features into a terrain park on steroids, a multi-year venue for ESPNs Winter X Games. Tiehack, the eastern flank of the ski area, awaits further developments.Despite the half-century mark that both areas have reached, the Skico has planned no big celebrations, said David Perry, vice president of the Skicos Mountain Division.According to Perry, the ongoing changes at the two hills reflect an evolutionary concept linked to the Skicos current marketing theme The Power of Four. The company has a deliberate plan, he said, to evolve each of the four mountains [Aspen Mountain, Snowmass, Highlands and Buttermilk] in its own natural direction, the natural attributes of the mountain.In the case of Highlands, he said, that has meant taking advantage of the mountains in-bounds, backcountry terrain … adventure skiing, with ever steeper and deeper runs.Over at Buttermilk, Perry continued, it was a natural for a terrain park, a pipe and what they used to call snowboard parks. Buttermilk has, I think, come into its own.
In the mid-1950s, Harvard-educated businessman Whipple Van Ness Jones bought land at the base of the Aspen Highlands mountain from Hadd Deane, owner of the nearby T Lazy 7 Ranch.Jones originally had no plans to create a ski area, according to his grandson, Rick Jones, who grew up in Florida but came to Aspen to manage Highlands from 1986 to 1991. Instead, Jones said, his grandfather planned to seek a high-altitude advantage in training race horses, an idea his wife came up with.Deane, with his eye on the profitable ski business at Aspen Mountain, had asked the U.S. Forest Service to study whether his remaining mountain property, on the other side of Maroon Creek and behind the T-Lazy 7 ranch, would make a good ski area. Rick Jones recalled that his grandfather had invested some money in the Deanes investigations.But the Forest Service study, according to Rick Jones, concluded that the land Whip Jones now owned would make the better ski area. Deane had no interest in being Jones junior partner, and the Aspen Skiing Corp. also declined to get involved, Rick Jones recalled. So Whip Jones set out to do it on his own.Selling timber cut from the slopes to help pay the costs of development, and hiring ski industry legends Pete Seibert and Earl Eaton to lay out the runs, Jones carved out an area that in the first years was served by only two chairlifts, a Poma and a rope tow, according to Highlands Patrol Director Mac Smith.Smith has skied or worked at Highlands since 1960, when the area was only two years old, he was only eight and his family had moved to the valley from the East Coast. From the beginning, Smith said, Jones had big plans, including a design to install a gondola from the base all the way up to 11,675-foot Loge Peak. Smith said the outline of that early gondola route can still be seen in aerial shots of the mountain.Recalling the spring-loaded Poma platter lift that served the lower slopes of the mountain, Smith said, It would actually suspend you in the air, because as a kid you didnt weigh enough to bring the spring all the way to the ground, and you were just praying your skis would be pointed in the right direction when you landed it was an E-ticket ride just coming out of the Poma box.Smith recalled that Jones had already surveyed the mountain for later expansion, and that by the time Smith started working there, first as a dishwasher at an on-mountain restaurant in 1971, then as a patrolman starting in 1973, the Cloud 9 and Loge Peak lifts were up and running.Loge, he recalled, was a feat of engineering with the old five-tower support near where the lift would swing skiers far above Maroon Bowl, causing more than a few heart palpitations.In fact, Smith recalled, they had a sign at the bottom [saying] if you had a fear of heights, you shouldnt take the lift.Smith said Jones had tried powder tours on the Maroon Bowl side of the hill for a year or two, and that he made plans in 1976 to build a new lift, called a Deep Steeplechase, to serve the Steeplechase terrain that was then being created. But the famous drought year of 1976-77 ended that plan, and both Steeplechase and the Highland Bowl terrain are now served by the recently opened Deep Temerity lift. In an hour-long interview, Smith recalled the glory of Highlands in the 1960s and 1970s, noting that in its best year, 1975-76, the area logged more than 300,000 skier days 10 times the 30,000 tickets sold in 1958, and about twice the number of skiers who flocked to the mountain when ski school director Fred Iselin brought in national ski instruction expert Cliff Taylor and what was known as the Graduated Length Method of ski instruction in the early 1970s.That really grew his business, Smith recalled of the GLM boom, which taught people to ski starting out on very short boards and slowly introducing the skier to longer skis.Other innovations and crowd-pleasers included helicopter skiing in Highland Bowl; the popular Patrol Jumps of the 1970s and 80s, in which ski patrol members would ski-jump over the Cloud 9 restaurant building, to the delight of customers; and contests such as the Bash for Cash on Upper and Lower Stein, the Hot Dog competitions on Scarletts, and regular Nor-Am ski race events.And many longtime locals can recall the days when Aspen Highlands boasted one of the most popular aprs ski spots in the area, in the old A-frame base lodge.The partying started with The Christian Endeavor, which Smith recalled as the place to be in the 1960s and 1970s. It continued with Schwanees, owned by Joe Schwanabeck of Glenwood Springs. Both were bar/restaurants that featured live music in the main room and a less raucous atmosphere in the Loft Club upstairs in the A-frame. People from town would come out here just to party, to be part of the aprs ski scene, recalled Mac Smith. These days, there is still a bar at the base of Highlands, but as with many aspects of Aspen, its not the same.
It was a totally different energy, Smith recalled. Now, the people that go down there, they dont know each other. And its more of a family thing.Along with the social scene at the base, the ski area itself languished for a time, lagging behind others in development of new lift technology and new terrain. In 1994 Jones bequeathed the entire place to his alma mater, Harvard University, in what was said to be the largest single gift the school had ever received from an alumnus. A couple of years later, it was purchased by nationally known developer Gerald Hines, whose real interest was in redeveloping the base area and who, in turn, sold the ski mountain itself to the Skico.It was the Skico that capitalized on pioneering avalanche control work performed by the Highlands patrol in the deadly Highland Bowl, where in 1984 an avalanche killed three popular patrollers Chris Kessler, Tom Snyder and Craig Soddy.After several years of investigation and consideration, starting in 1997, the Ski Co. started opening up areas of the Bowl in a succession of triumphal moves. Reached only by hiking from the Loge Peak lift terminus and for expert skiers only, the bowl now sports some 20 named runs and is publicly acknowledged to be some of the finest in-bounds skiing in the country.
Longtime local Betty Pfister recalled this week that, some time before her late husband, Art, and his erstwhile partner, Freidl Pfeifer, created the Buttermilk Ski Area, the two couples and their kids used to get together to discuss a shortcoming in what Aspen had to offer its skiing guests: There really was not much beginner terrain.We all felt the only mountain around [Aspen Mountain] was just too difficult it scared people, recalled the 87-year-old Pfister.And so the two men, who owned neighboring properties on and around Buttermilk Mountain, got busy planning a new ski hill on their lands, and the brainstorming sessions continued.I remember one night, just the four of us got together at Pfeifers, and tried to think up a name [for the new ski area], she said. Although she could not remember who first suggested Buttermilk, she said it had an easy-going ring to it that matched the image they were after.
And to celebrate the naming, she said, the group decided to create an alcoholic drink on the spot, a contrast to a popular drink in Aspen at the time, the Aspen Crud.We wanted to be the opposite of that, she said, so they put together a blend that she believes contained buttermilk and rum as its core ingredients.This was quite a cocktail party, she said, laughing.The names Tiehack and Buttermilk hail from legends about Aspens early mining days, when miners, known as tie-hacks, would cut trees to be used both as timbers to shore up the mine tunnels or as ties for nearby railroad tracks. The wives of the tie-hacks would carry lunch to the men on the hill, including pails of milk, but the trip was so long and rough that the milk was churned into buttermilk by the constant sloshing.Or, recalled Betty Pfister, it may have come from a story Art told, about a miner sent to get groceries in town for his tie-hack cohort. By the time he got to town, he got so drunk the only thing he could remember on the list was buttermilk, she laughed.In any event, the two partners hired another local ski racing legend, the late Dick Durrance, to map out some likely routes on a photo of Buttermilk Mountain, and in 1958 opened the Main Buttermilk ski runs.Tiehack, Betty Pfister said, came later, with a T-bar serving runs that Pfeifer named Sterner #1, #2 and #3, after a family that had once owned land at the base of the mountain.In 1963 the Aspen Skiing Corp. bought Buttermilk, and in 1969 the company installed the Upper Tiehack lift to give skiers better access to expanded terrain. In 1983 the company installed the Lower Tiehack lift to bring skiers straight up to the base of Upper Tiehack from a newly developed parking lot.But the most dramatic and popular changes to the mountain did not arrive until snowboarding, which caught fire in the early 1990s and rapidly injected new blood into snow sports.The Skicos Perry confirmed rumors from that time period that the company was considering closing Buttermilk for lack of interest, but it wasnt serious talk. And when the producers of the X Games started looking for a Colorado venue, Perry said, we were able to give them a dedicated mountain, one where the appearance of a circus-like atmosphere of hard-charging competition for several weeks every year would not displace a large number of customers.And the beauty of it was, people could go elsewhere, to one of the three other local ski areas, if they were put off by the hubbub at Buttermilk, Perry stressed.The transition from a laid-back family mountain to a venue for aggressive snowboarders, skier-cross competitors and a heightened sense of activity was a difficult one, Perry conceded.But, he said, Now the two parts of the mountains customers have learned how to co-exist. Families still send their little kids to the ski school, parents can challenge themselves on Tiehack, and the teens and 20-somethings can throw themselves into the terrain parks and the half-pipe for a thrill.The definition of a family mountain has changed, Perry said, explaining that it now includes a park and a pipe.The pipe is now built to Olympic standards and has been rated the best in the state by Transworld Snowboarding magazine, Perry said, and the other on-mountain features are all megasized for the X-Games in January and the more local Aspen-Snowmass Open in February. After that, he said, the features are shaved and cut-down so that non-professionals can use them without fear.
As for whats next for Aspen Highlands and Buttermilk, Skico officials said they are now exploring the Maroon Bowl side of the Highlands Ridge for its lift-served skiing and boarding potential. And preliminary plans are being discussed for a single, high-speed chairlift from the base of Tiehack to the top.The end is not yet in sight for other possible changes to either area, Perry firstname.lastname@example.org