The Roch Cup a ski-town legacy
November 30, 2007
Editors note: This piece ran first in the September 2007 Skiing Heritage magazine. We will publish it in two parts, the first this week, before this years World Cup races begin in Aspen, and the second Dec. 9, the last day of the races.Aspens Roch Cup was always more than just a ski race. From its first running in 1946, it was a celebration of skiing as the economic and spiritual engine of Aspen. The annual event helped breathe new life into the scruffy, post-silver boom, post-World War II mining town, revitalizing not just the economy, but the self-esteem of a community, struggling to emerge from its Quiet Years.Aspen had once been the largest silver-producing town in the nation. In 1890, its 12,000 residents ran four schools, six newspapers, three banks, two theaters, an opera house, and a small but thriving red-light district. When the U.S. government abandoned the silver standard in 1893 just a year before Aspen coughed up a 2,200-pound nugget, one of the largest ever found Aspens fortunes nose-dived. By 1935, only 700 people called Aspen home. Enter Andr Roch, a Swiss mountaineer and avalanche expert hired in the winter of 1936 by a trio of enterprising outdoorsmen/entrepreneurs interested in developing a ski area above Aspen. Roch spent the winter in the high country, surveying the terrain, and declaring the conditions, as reported in The Aspen Times, superior to the Alps, or any skiing country I had ever seen, for its powder snow and depth lasting into June.
Rochs influence was far-ranging. In just one season, and with infectious enthusiasm, he managed to mobilize an entire community around the sport of skiing. He gave free ski lessons to the locals, co-founded the Aspen Ski Club (originally the Roaring Fork Winter Sports Club) and laid out a first-class racing trail, insisting that only the toughest of lines would draw the finest skiers. The goal of reviving Aspens economy was paramount, and with this in mind Aspen Ski Club volunteers hiked up Aspen Mountain the following summer and hand-cut, to Rochs precise specifications, the trail they would name in his honor.Roch Run was a daunting and creative masterwork that included a twisting corkscrew carved through the trees that would test a generation of racers. With no lift access, just the trek to the start at 10,350 feet, almost 3,000 feet above Aspen was a serious endeavor. But many would brave it, and the Ski Club staged the U.S. Western Amateur Championships in 1938, and the U.S. National Alpine Championships in 1941. Pfeifer creates the cup Freidl Pfeifer had tackled Roch Run while on leave from 10th Mountain Division training in nearby Camp Hale. Inspired by the mountains potential, he pledged to return in peacetime to make a life in skiing. Fresh from Army discharge, the St. Anton protg of Hannes Schneider hit the ground running. By 1946 he had started a ski school, assumed management of the Ski Clubs boat tow (two sleds, hauled by an old mining hoist, with a nasty tendency to dump skiers on the ascent), founded the Aspen Skiing Corporation with Chicago industrialist Walter Paepcke, an early patron of Aspen arts and culture, and started construction of Aspens first chairlift, which would open, to great fanfare, the next year. But Pfeifer couldnt wait for Lift Ones completion to create the annual race, which he knew, like Roch before him, was essential to drawing attention to the area. Established as a combined downhill and slalom (but awarded to two-way, three-way and single-event winners in every discipline over its 60-year history), Pfeifer named his race the Roch Cup and assigned its running to the ski club Andr Roch had helped found. The Ski Club comprised a broad swath of Aspen society from merchants to matriarchs, all of whom would donate time, beds, meals, muscle and their soon-to-be legendary hospitality in support of the races, often personally bankrolling the weeklong event. Paepcke would donate the perpetual trophy, and within a few years a silver bowl, the Bingham Cup, would be donated by Mr. and Mrs. Robert Bingham, for the fastest female finisher of the Roch.Today the Roch Cup is the longest-running perpetual award for an international-caliber race in the history of U.S. skiing, having outlasted every other renowned annual classic. As long ago as the mid-1970s, Sun Valleys Harriman Cup, Altas Snow Cup, Tahoes Silver Belt, the Quebec Kandahar, and Stowes American International were already dead or dying. None was being run as an international-caliber event.
If it seems unlikely that Aspen, renowned more today for its property values than its community values, would end up keeper of the flame of Americas longest-running ski race, its not at all unlikely. The Roch Cup was key to Aspens reinvention as a ski town, and since it never really stopped staging the race in one form or another, a vital thread to Americas skiing history remained unbroken. To the extent that Aspen has weathered with any grace the triumph of real estate values over its longer traditions of volunteerism and funky, ski-based vitality, then the Roch Cup played an essential part. Still, it was a minor miracle the race survived to see the modern era. Aspens volunteer ethic was key, but so, too, was the single-minded resolve of one feisty Aspenite who simply refused to let the Roch die on her watch. Ruth Whyte, for 30 years the Aspen Ski Club race secretary, badgered World Cup officials relentlessly through the 1980s to present the Roch or the Bingham trophy to World Cup winners. As a result, the historic cups are prized today among World Cup racers, awed by the long list of champions engraved on their sides, a list that, thanks to Ruth Whyte, grows by another name every season.But there was a moment when escalating costs and liability were rendering Aspens scrappy gather-round-the-campfire approach to staging international ski races an approach that had worked brilliantly for three decades quaint and obsolete. The town was forced to get with the times or lose its classic race. Two FIS/World Cup conditions were nonnegotiable: that the Aspen Skiing Company assume operations of the races from the Aspen Ski Club, which it did in 1981 (dividing organizational responsibilities before assuming full control in 1998), and that the venerable Roch Cup name be surrendered, if necessary, to satisfy World Cup sponsors. Later on there would be more hoops: snowmaking, water-injection and safety criteria; construction of The Berlin Wall, an engineering marvel to permanently widen and make safer the exit of the downhills renowned Airplane turn; European griping that the food was unsatisfactory, the lodging unacceptable, the air too thin, the snow too soft. But for Aspen, staging the races was always the thing and, in the end, it seems hard-wired into Aspens DNA.Down the CorkscrewTwenty men and three women raced the inaugural Roch Cup in March 1946, a year before Lift One would finally take the sting out of the hike. Barney McLean, from Colorados Hot Sulphur Springs, recalls ascending through a foot and a half of powder with climbing skins attached to my skis, and front-pointing the steep sections. Others would hitch rides on rough mining roads up the backside, and hike the 20 minutes from Midnight Mine to the start. The course paid tribute to Aspens silver-mining heritage. Its open meadows and natural parks soon led racers over abandoned mine shafts, massive tailing dumps and mining access roads that repeatedly cut across the trail. This was just a warmup for the Corkscrew, a precipitous 400-foot pitch to the finish, with five curves cut in the actual shape of a screw. Early Roch racers recall it as so narrow that their outstretched poles touched either side. When Roch himself finally laid eyes on it in 1949, he said anyone would have to be crazy to ski it.It was like old New England trail racing in the Rockies, says Dave Durrance (son of the legendary Dick Durrance), who watched the early Roch as a wide-eyed 10-year old. Diving right into it was the only sane approach, insists Johnny Litchfield, 10th Mountain veteran and owner of Aspens Red Onion bar and restaurant in 1946. Hell, youd pick up speed, sure, but try side-slipping something that narrow, and youre just creating problems. Nail it though, and youd carry so much speed out you had no choice but to jump the road at the bottom. If you hit that road on your heels, you were airborne, baby! The finish line lay inside city limits at the top of Monarch Street, where an easy schuss through the streets of Aspen led to local watering holes like Litchfields Red Onion and the Hotel Jerome Bar. Thus started a long Aspen tradition of skiing to the bar to calm post-race jitters. The early slaloms were held on the downhills outrun (Magnifico Cut-Off, named for the cobbler-turned-first-Aspen-ski-shop-owner, Mike Magnifico) and inaugural Roch Cup honors went to McLean, a two-time national champion and three-time Olympian, and Barbara Kidder of Denver. Andrs downhill derbyThe races fourth running, in 1949, would be one for the ages. Andr Roch had returned from Switzerland for a visit, devilishly proposing an all-downhill format: three races over two days on three trails, two of which (designed by Dick Durrance and recently cut by club volunteers) had been skied but never raced. Chiefs of course would be local luminaries Fred Iselin, Dick Durrance and Friedl Pfeifer. The first racers, on Saturday, screamed down North American, a nearly three-mile-long trail created for Aspens upcoming 1950 FIS World Championships. No control gates were used, and racers negotiated a minefield of abandoned camps and tailing dumps that threw them in the air time and again. But there were no injuries, and the racers declared the course excellent for next seasons FIS. The next morning a last-minute decision limited the women to two races only, so the men alone took on Ruthies, a wider but unruly two-mile descent to the left of Roch. Many racers crashed repeatedly, but picked themselves up and continued on to keep their hopes for the combined title alive. The final race down Corkscrew that afternoon was eagerly watched by the whole town. The front of the Hotel Jerome was lined with cheering crowds, reported The Aspen Times, and from the roofs of homes, inns and shops, spectators sat in the sun and saw the show of a lifetime. More exciting than the war! said one spectator. The most exciting race Ive ever seen! said another. Fewer than half the entries would finish all three races.French Canadian Yves Latreille, representing Sun Valley, had the best combined time winning Ruthies and North American outright while conceding Corkscrew to 10th Mountain veteran Steve Knowlton and outskiing the likes of Jack Reddish, Alf Engen, Pete Seibert and Pierre Jalbert. Fellow Canadian Rhoda Wurtele Eaves was the fastest woman overall, winning both her races over second-place Katy Rodolph, as well as Andrea Mead, Jeannette Burr and Sally Neidlinger.The Ski Club, clearly relieved they hadnt killed anyone, would never revisit the format again.Fearless 50s After taking the year off for the 1950 FIS, the Roch returned as a giant slalom, a brand-new discipline introduced at the FIS, but returned to its roots in 1953 and for the next decade was run as a slalom, giant slalom and downhill combined. Stein Eriksen and Sally Neidlinger were the first three-way Roch champions and the last to negotiate the infamous Corkscrew, which was finally retired in favor of the more forgiving Ruthies Run. Ruthies was, and still is, considered among the toughest downhills in the world for its challenging mix of flats and steeps and notoriously off-camber terrain that increases in difficulty the farther down you go, just when legs and lungs gasp for nonexistent air. For years the Roch was the only national-caliber downhill with the most difficult skiing at the end.The slope was so challenging because of the terrain changes, says 1976 Olympic medalist Cindy Nelson, a 1981 Roch Cup winner. There was no steady pitch, and lots of blind corners and lips. You had to have a good tuck, you had to be strong, have a good mind. I dont care which era, that course took everything a downhiller should have. The champions tell the tale. Only a small minority of Roch winners werent previously or subsequently Olympic or FIS team members. In the 1950s alone, there was the golden Eriksen, Harriman Cup champ Hans Nogler, Olympic slalom champ Chick Igaya (with the downhill that year won by Dick Buek), multiple Olympic and FIS medalist Christian Pravda, and Hahnenkamm hero Buddy Werner. Dick Dorworth raced the Roch in 1957, and vividly remembers Toni Sailer, the triple Olympic gold medalist, winning the slalom that year by six seconds and being the only racer to break three minutes in the GS. Not entering the downhill, Sailer practically gifted the combined to Christian Pravda, but he left a huge impression. What Sailer was doing was magic. He was light years ahead of everyone. It was like nothing wed ever seen, says Dorworth.Two years later, it was 22-year-old Buddy Werner, just back from becoming the first American ever to win the Hahnenkamm downhill, who was on fire. The Roch did triple duty that year as a U.S. Nationals, 1960 Olympic qualifier and official event of the 1959 Colorado Centennial. Werner, arguably the best skier in the world, won the GS by five seconds, the slalom by three and the downhill by six, outclassing all rivals, according to The Aspen Times, to cop everything in sight thus winning the Roch Cup and all of the available National titles. Werner would win his second Roch Cup in 1961, again showcasing his seemingly limitless talent, this time by jumping the access mining road that traversed the downhills bumpy midsection. That was bold, says Dave Durrance. You had to convince yourself you could clear it because if you missed, with bear traps and longthongs, you didnt yard sale, you did the pretzel. Buddy took it high enough and just cleared the lip. Five other guys didnt. Aspenite and Michigan transplant Chuck Ferries, the next years Hahnenkamm slalom winner, won the 83-gate marathon slalom the longest ever set in the U.S. but Werner roasted the field in GS to take the combined. (Ferries would come back to win the Roch in 1963).The author the first American to win three medals at a World Championships (Schladming 1982) is a six-time U.S. National Champion and 1984 Olympic silver medalist. Today a writer and former TV expert analyst (NBC, CBS), she is the co-founder of Spirit of Hope (Humanitarian Olympians for Peace) and a five-time participant in the Roch Cup. I rarely made it to the finish line, she admits. I think it was the damned significance of the thing. It worked me over worse than any Olympics or FIS.
Perpetual trophy donated by Walter Paepcke1946: Barney McLean47 Pete Seibert48 Kalle Nergaard (Norway)49 Yves Latreille (Canada)51 Jack Nagel 52 Hans Nogler (Germany)53 Stein Eriksen (Norway)54 Chiharu Igaya (Japan)55 Emery Woodall56 Tom Corcoran57 Christian Pravda (Austria)58 Gardner Smith59 Bud Werner60 Tom Corcoran61 Bud Werner62 Bill Marolt63 Chuck Ferries64 Bill Kidd65 Bill Kidd66 Terje Overland (Norway)67 Jim Heuga68 Bill Kidd World Cup69 Peter Duncan (Canada)70 Scott Pyles 71 Bob Cochran72 Steve Lathrop73 Cary Adgate74 Gary Aiken (Canada)75 Keith Humphries (Canada)76 Peter Luscher (Switzerland) World Cup79 Mike Farny80 Scott Hoffman From 1981: Awarded to winner of Americas Downhill81 Harti Weirather (Austria)82 Peter Mueller (Switzerland)83 Todd Brooker (Canada)84 Bill Johnson 85 Peter Mueller86 Peter Mueller87 Pirmin Zubriggen (Switzerland)88 women-only race 89 Marc Girardelli (Luxembourg)91 Marc Girardelli (Luxembourg)92 Daniel Mahrer (Switzerland)93 AJ Kitt (Race stopped after first seed due to controversial hole on course. Cancelled)94 Cary Mullen (Canada)95 AJ Kitt (Race stopped after 30 runs due to snowstorm. FIS nullifies World Cup result. Kitt awarded Roch Cup and $30,000 prize money. Aspen refuses to hold World Cup races for two years.)98 Stefan Eberharter (Austria) (awarded for super G)
Bingham Cup donated by Mr. and Mrs. Bingham of Aspen1946: Barbara Kidder (Denver)47 Hope Humphreys48 Maude Banks49 Rhoda Eaves (Canada)51 Sally Neidlinger 52 Dorothy Helmkamp53 Sally Neidlinger54 Kathy Butterworth55 Babbette Haueisen56 Sally Deaver57 Noni Foley58 Beverly Anderson59 Linda Meyers60 Anne Heggetveit (Norway)61 Linda Meyers62 Sharon Pecjak63 Jean Saubert64 Wendy Allen65 Nancy Greene (Canada)66 Wendy Allen67 Sandra Shellworth68 Nancy Greene (Canada) World Cup69 Penny Northrup70 Ann Black71 Judy Crawford (Canada)72 Cecilia Teague73 Cecilia Teague74 Leith Lende75 Kathy Kreiner (Canada)76 Danielle Debernard (France) World Cup79 Maggie Crane80 Holly Flanders81 Cindy Nelson82 Maria Epple (Germany)88 Anita Wachter (Austria)00 Michaela Dorfmeister (Austria)02 Hilde Gerg (Germany)04 Janica Kostelic (Croatia) 05 Maria Jose Rienda-Contreras (Spain)06 Kathrin Zettel (Austria)