Those Were the Days: Gretl’s, Ski Gangs and Jill Sheeley
For the Aspen Times Weekly
‘Those Were the Days: Memories of an Aspen Hippie Chick’
186 pages, paperback: $19.95
Jill Sheeley is the literary toast of Aspen this winter. The release party for the longtime local’s memoir, “Those Were the Days: Memories of an Aspen Hippie Chick,” drew an exuberant overflow crowd to the Mountain Chalet in December. With Sheeley hosting, signing books and sharing a slideshow, old-timers took the microphone to remember the time when Aspen was a ski bum Shangri-La, when Lenado was full of loggers and hippies and the Agate Lodge was ground zero of the Aspen counterculture.
The book recounts her time in Aspen, from her first visit as a high schooler in 1968, through the freewheeling hippie era, recounting her courtship with the late ski patroller and sailor Don Sheeley, powder days, wild nights and restaurant gigs.
Sheeley’s celebration of the 1970s has quickly joined the canon of Aspen nonfiction books alongside indispensable local titles like “The Quiet Years” and “Whiteout.” She has shared two of her favorite memories with the Aspen Times Weekly. — Andrew Travers
ON THE LINE AT GRETL’S
I was up at the Ruedi Reservoir in the late fall of 1972 to help Donnie put away all the city boats and gear. Charles “Lefty” Brinkman, the head of Aspen Highlands ski school, came up to me to explain that the lady who worked the private-lesson desk on the mountain had come back to town and would be taking back the job I’d held under Lefty. We drove back to Aspen and I faced the reality that I didn’t have a job. I could still be a ski instructor, but I had decided teaching skiing was not my thing.
But, per usual, within a few days something came through. I heard that Gretl Uhl, who ran the famous, quaint little restaurant at the base of Tourtelotte Park on Aspen Mountain, was looking for someone part-time during the lunch rush in exchange for a full ski pass. I went to her little Victorian house in the West End, sat down at her kitchen table covered with a Bavarian tablecloth and was served piping hot delicious apple strudel and strong, black coffee. We chatted for hours. It was the best interview I ever had.
Gretl moved to Aspen in 1953 and fulfilled her dream of owning an authentic European-style restaurant in the mountains. Her family owned and operated such a restaurant in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany (Aspen’s first Sister City). Gretl couldn’t believe skiers were happy with canned soups and packaged foods. She wanted to serve skiers the best food, everything fresh and homemade. It didn’t take long for skiers to realize where to eat on Aspen Mountain.
She developed her own recipe for apple strudel and it was a phenomenon. This delicious dessert was highly coveted. People loved it, they stood in long lines for it, they dreamt about it and they reserved it like a limited fine wine. Devotees from all around the country ordered it so they could savor it at home. This concoction of homemade pastry, wrapped around apples (peeled and cored by an antique hand-operated machine) had customers drooling. Many customers were truly addicted.
I was hired on the spot. Gretl relayed my job description: I would carefully and delicately cut the famous strudel and hide it for skiers who had reserved it. I’d add homemade whipped cream and later I’d call out grill orders. Sounded great to me. Plus, I could eat whatever was left in the strudel pan (well, everyone on the grill line split what was left). I would work the two-hour lunch rush, five days a week for my ski pass.
There is really nothing that compares to the smell of Gretl’s freshly baked strudel. Skiers would tell me they could smell it halfway up Ajax. Gretl worked hard every day of ski season. She would be up at the restaurant early, she’d work all day and always had a smile on her face. Gretl often wore her German dirndl to work and her hair was always perfect. She looked like she was going out for a fancy luncheon instead of running a busy restaurant. She was short and didn’t look athletic, but boy, could she ski. One afternoon when I worked late, she asked me to ski down the mountain with her.
Sure, I said, but I thought I’d have to wait every few seconds. She took off and I barely saw her until we reached the bottom of Little Nell. Unbeknownst to me she had been on the German National Team and totally surprised me that day.
I loved everyone I worked with: PJ, Sigrid Stapleton, Bryce Maple, Sally Mencimer, Barbara Guy, Rob Baxter, Nina, Leslie, Gus and Carol, Captain, Chris and Julie. Many of the crew worked my opposite shift: Peter, Jimmy, Russel, David, John, Tim, Owen and Kenny. How lucky we were to have worked at Gretl’s.
At the end of the day, no matter the weather conditions, Gretl would be one of the last skiers down, right before the patrol sweep. Little did anyone know, but in her backpack, she carried hundreds of dollars from the day’s cash register — this was before most people used credit cards. Luckily, she always made it to the bank safely.
I’ve done many sports in my life, but I have to say, skiing remains my favorite.
Every time I get out there on any mountain, within the first turn, I feel the joy and freedom skiing brings me. When I first started skiing Aspen Mountain regularly in 1972, all I ever heard about was the Bell Mountain Buck-Off (or known to many as the Rumble on the Ridge). It happened every year mid-April and gave the ski gangs a chance to strut their stuff. The first time I went I couldn’t believe how many people showed up to cheer on these daring groups of expert skiers. It was an Aspen happening and the Flyers (many people know them as the Flynn Flyers), the Bell Mountain Buckaroos and the Acme Racing Team did not disappoint.
That’s when the reality of ski gangs appeared in my consciousness. I loved the idea of skiing with a bunch of friends like the other ski gangs did. They pushed each other, and I was a fan. Our gang, the Powder Sluts, began when Mari Peyton, Polly Ross and Karen Kraft got together to ski on powder days, as other friends didn’t enjoy skiing in blizzards when conditions could be challenging. Once I learned to ski powder, I realized skiing in a whiteout was a bonus since it left most people in front of a fire drinking hot chocolate or something stronger.
One 8-inch powder day at Snowmass, Mari, Karen and Polly were skiing together and a random guy got on the double chairlift with Mari and said, “I’ve been following you gals. You’re just a bunch of powder sluts.” And the term stuck. Adding to that crew was Gail Check and Michaela Game. And with time, others joined in.
A year later on an epic powder day, I ran into the ladies at Snowmass after skiing with Donnie, and they asked me to join them. I was honored and we skied many “secret” spots where we had fresh tracks hours after the tourists skied the main runs. I was one of the Powder Sluts before the day was over!
This is how it worked for us: In the early morning, if there was more than 6 inches of powder, we’d all get on speed dial (yes, on land lines) and yell out, “powder alert.” We usually met at Snowmass Ski Area the second the lift started in order to get first tracks. There’s a transferable energy that happens when several people are whooping and hollering and enjoying the same rush of skiing fresh, untracked powder. Of course, I love to ski by myself but something magical happens in a group.
We were not sluts and were not promiscuous but we lived for powder (and still do). OK, if you want to know the acronym: SLUTS stands for “seeking light, untracked snow.”
We were so proud of our ski gang that we had ski suits with our gang name embroidered on the back and hats to identify us. I always loved when four or five of us flew into a lift line laughing and excited, and someone would comment on how cool it was that we loved to ski powder so much.
Another distant memory was of the slow chairlifts. Yes, the high-speed chairs have their benefits but many of us at the time of transition were saddened that we could no longer have a long conversation or get to know someone in the time it took to get to the top. Plus, the powder snow got skied out much faster. Mari was so upset she started making up a song to the tune of “Slow Hand” by the Pointer Sisters. We called it “Slow Lift.” Other Sluts added lines:
I want a mountain with a slow lift
Snow that’s soft and light with deep drifts
On a long slow ride with only you by my side
What secrets we do confide
As we let our legs rest
That’s when you first confessed
You like skiing with me the best
One year, we had a decorated float in the Wintersköl parade and belted out the song, waved a lot and threw out candy to the kids.
Of course, I remember how I struggled when I first began. And I know how hard it is to learn to flow effortlessly through powder snow. I have many girlfriends who come out to visit and will only ski on bluebird days with hard-packed snow. The minute it starts to snow over 4 inches, they tell me suddenly they don’t know how to ski anymore, and they don’t like to ski in a snowstorm. As I’ve said before, skiing powder takes a totally new skill set. I’ve always loved the quiet solitude of skiing in a quiet blizzard. You see by feeling the snow and staying close to the trees for some definition.
I vividly remember the day I “got it.” I had always tried to power my way through the snow. One day I simply quit fighting and the magic happened. I couldn’t teach this to anyone. I’m sure every skier has had that moment at one time or another when you just feel one with the mountain. It’s a very personal, spiritual feeling and it keeps you coming back over and over.
A few years back, the Aspen Historical Society had an event and invited all present and past ski gangs. We Powder Sluts showed up in full force, as did so many gangs that I never knew about.
In those days we didn’t have the “fat boys” or the wide skis that help to ski powder more easily. We were all strong skiers who had a huge passion for the fluff. We were known to take off work on a powder morning and work extra hours on the weekends. It was true — we couldn’t get enough.
“2023 predicted to be the Vintage of a Lifetime in Napa Valley,” proclaimed the headline this week in a press release sent out by the Napa Valley Vintners, the trade organization that represents the growers and producers in America’s most famed wine region. If there is anyone more optimistic than winemakers, it is the group that represents them.