Snowmass through the years: Locals Doug Mackenzie and Gwyn Knowlton look back at 50 years
The Aspen Times
Snowmass’ 50TH anniversary weekend EVENTS
Friday, Dec. 15
11 a.m. to 4 p.m.: Apres Ski Party at Base Village featuring live music from DJ GeoDecibel. Face painting and balloon animals in the “kids zone.”
5 to 9 p.m.: Retro Party at Elk Camp Restaurant, retro ski fashion encouraged while feasting on 50 years of the finest mountain cuisine.
9 p.m.: Fireworks over Fanny Hill
Saturday, Dec. 16:
10 a.m.: Banana Days kicks off
12 to 4 p.m.: Apres at Base Village featuring live music from DJ Benny. Face painting and balloon animals in the “kids zone.”
5:30: Golden gala at The Viceroy
SUNDAY, DEC. 17:
11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.: Cabin Jump and Rail Jam. Community picnic at the Spider Sabich Picnic and Race Area
Note: Some events are free and others require a ticket. For more information on Snowmass’ 50th anniversary events, visit gosnowmass.com.
As members of the original “Snowmass-at-Aspen” crew will tell you, developing Colorado’s second-largest ski area didn’t happen overnight.
Myriad factors have been at play for 50 years whilst envisioning, building and establishing what is considered today a world-class ski resort.
But at the heart of Snowmass’ evolution over five decades are the characters who made it happen (a few of whom still are making it happen).
As a tribute to Snowmass’ 50th anniversary this weekend, The Aspen Times interviewed two key players who helped shape the ski area’s identity: Doug Mackenzie and Gwyn Knowlton.
Mackenzie first came to Snowmass after graduating college in May 1964 but was immediately drafted. Three years later, he returned to the valley and joined Aspen Skiing Co. prior to Snowmass’ grand opening in December 1967. Mackenzie worked at Buttermilk as a ski instructor until transferring to Snowmass in 1972.
Though he did not know it at the time, he would never leave. Mackenzie rose through the ranks at Snowmass until he was promoted in 1993 to ski area manager, his position until “semi-retiring” in 2007. Mackenzie says he can’t stay away from Snowmass or Skico, where he still works part time.
“I haven’t skied every place, but I’ve been around a bit,” he said recently. “I never regretted making this valley my home. It’s a great place to live and a great place to play.”
Knowlton and her ex-husband, George Gordon, also moved to Snowmass straight out of college in 1971. After successfully operating restaurants at Aspen Highlands, the two opened Gywn’s High Alpine mid-mountain at Snowmass in 1979. Today, in true mom-and-pop shop fashion, Knowlton, George, and their daughter, Whitney, run the business together.
Now its 38th year, Gwyn’s holds a piece of Snowmass history.
As Snowmass celebrates 50, Mackenzie and Knowlton took a moment to reminisce on the years leading up to this occasion and reveal their hopes for the resort’s next half-century.
ATW: What was Snowmass, both the ski area and the village, like when you first arrived?
GK: The village still was just a lot of local people who we got to know that loved the mountain and absolutely loved skiing. (The ski area) was still small but big enough that it was an exciting mountain to ski, even back in those days. And it was just a very small, close-knit community, to say the least. You knew everybody. You go to the post office, and you knew every single soul. So it was really wonderful in that way.
DM: It was a lot different and it wasn’t much of village at the time. There were a few lodges, El Dorado and Mountain Chalet, but it was a lot smaller than it is now, that’s for sure.
ATW: Having spent nearly four and five decades skiing, working and playing on the hill at Snowmass, what has it been like to watch the resort evolve over the years?
GK: It’s grown; our business has grown dramatically. We started (Gwyn’s) High Alpine with 120 seats in 1979. … The following summer, we developed it into 550 seats. So that was kind of the beginning, and at the same time, Snowmass every year would grow and the ski company would open up more runs, put in new chairs, and so it definitely evolved to what is a pretty spectacular amount of acreage now and offerings.
DM: When we started there, it wasn’t a town. It was Snowmass-at-Aspen, just a couple of real estate developments.
ATW: What is a favorite memory from the early days?
DM: I worked for the ski school and Stein (Eriksen) was working as director of skiing at Snowmass and he had a whole bunch of Norwegian instructors who he brought with him from Sugarbush. And I can remember — we did a lot of classes and I had an adult class, they were pretty good skiers, it was February (1968), a really nice day with great snow — taking eight or nine people who were skiing down, and I heard this skier come up behind me real fast, and I turn around, and there’s Stein. He had one of his Norwegian sweaters on, no hat on, of course, not a hair out of place. He looked like he just stepped off a cover of Ski Magazine. And I turn — and our uniforms looked like a garbage bag with a white stripe across it — and here’s Stein. He skied up and he shook my hand, and he said, “Doug, this is a fine group of skiers you have here.” And I said, “Yeah, let me introduce them.” So I introduced him — like he needed an introduction — and I named everybody. He could not have been more gracious. He said, “Do you mind if I ski with you?” And I said, “Sure, as a matter of fact, why don’t you lead us down?”
And he skied us down Stein-style, he was going like 50 miles an hour, and we get down there and he thanked everybody for skiing with him. I’ll tell you what, (Stein) earned his money. Those people were so impressed. And they were impressed that Stein knew me! Well, I guess they overlooked the fact that I had a big name tag on the outside of my ski parka. There’s nobody in the ski industry who is as famous as Stein was in the 1960s and ’70s, and in the ’50s, actually. You did not have to be a skier to know who Stein was. Everybody knew who he was. He was on all the magazines, and it was quite a big deal. That’s why they brought him here, and he put Snowmass on the map from day one, because it was Stein. And wherever Stein went, a bunch of writers went and wrote up everything about him.
ATW: Gwyn’s is a Snowmass institution. As the ski resort celebrates 50 years, what does it mean to you and your family to be part of such a rich history?
GK: That makes me sound old (laughs). It was absolutely the best place to have two daughters grow up. They were on snowmobiles in the morning coming to the top of the mountain. They thought I was a horrible mother because we made them get up at 5 in the morning, ride up to the restaurant, then they’d turn around and have to go down and then catch a school bus and go to school, and I have to laugh now because our daughter, Whitney, now is having her son, James, do exactly the same thing. All of our guests have watched the girls, and now James, grow up in the restaurant and that’s kind of the feeling of making Gwyn’s High Alpine feel like something you can come back to, that it’s home in a lot of ways.
ATW: What do you think separates Snowmass from other ski towns or mountain resorts?
DM: The mountain itself has a little bit of everything, or maybe more accurately, a lot of everything. When I first got here, before they built Snowmass, a family coming to Aspen would go to Buttermilk and drop their kids off and then go and ski Aspen Mountain. Then they had to come down from Aspen Mountain early and go over to Buttermilk and pick their children up at 3:30 p.m. At Snowmass, the parents can be on the same mountain as their kids are in ski school, and that makes them feel more comfortable. … If you have children, the place to be (is) Snowmass. And it’s ski in, ski out. There are not many places where your condo is right on Fanny Hill and the kids can just go out and ski over to ski school. … I just think Snowmass is one of the best all-around ski areas. And it’s so, so large that you don’t get tired of it.
GK: What has been so wonderful is some of those guests we had at the very beginning are still dining with us. And now on Christmas morning, we’ll have four generations of a family who started coming here when we first opened the restaurant. That’s where Snowmass is very different than a lot of other ski resorts, there are just so many locals, or they think of themselves as locals or they might be also second-home owners, that keep on coming back year after year. This is kind of their family celebration. So yes, it’s changed, but some of it has stayed exactly the same. The feeling of being part of the Snowmass community is wonderful.
ATW: What are a few of your favorite Snowmass runs?
GK: If it’s a powder morning and I can sneak out, I love skiing the (Hanging Valley) Wall. Because even if you don’t hit it in the morning, a couple of days after a really good dump, you can still find untracked powder on the Wall. Then I just ski down and catch the Alpine Springs lift and I can be right back in the restaurant. I also do love the Campground side, Powderhorn, and my other (favorite) is morning corduroy on Sneaky’s. If you hit it first before it gets crowded, it’s beautiful. There’s a point on Sneaky’s about halfway down (that) I can remember skiing with (daughters) Whitney and Tracey, and Tracey looked over to what is Garrett’s Peak and she goes, “That’s where God lives.” I still think about that every time I ski down Sneaky’s.
DM: They used to be a lot bumpier than what are my favorite runs now. When Slot (off Sam’s Knob) is groomed, it is one of the best runs to just open up and go from top to bottom. That’s a big favorite. It’s a rare treat that you don’t find in many ski areas — a black run that is groomed. On sunny days when skiing with family and conditions are ideal, Bull Run is always nice to come down. And it’s great place to take people who have not been to Snowmass before.
ATW: As Snowmass looks to the next 50 years, what do you hope for the ski area’s future?
DM: We’re all concerned about escalating costs. I hope that it is never out of the reach financially of young families to come here, because (they are) the future. When you bring your children to a ski area, then they grow up and they bring their children to the ski area, … so I would hope that we would always be affordable for young families to bring their children and introduce them to skiing.
GK: I think that we don’t want to change so much that we become more like, say, Vail. That we want to keep our natural mountain character. And yes, we want to have all the wonderful amenities — beautiful lodges, restaurants — but we don’t want (them) to distract from the fact that it’s a valley that has so much nature. We want the focus to still be on skiing (and) being outdoors, whether it’s summer or winter. And so many of our guests are from the city, and I think (Snowmass) is just a wonderful respite from that. We don’t want to change that too much. We want to keep up but we want to maintain our unique character.
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