1950s skiing: rocks, moguls and other hazards
December 16, 2010
Old-timers wax nostalgic for 1950s Aspen, but not when the subject of skiing is discussed. They no longer wax wood skis every day and would not consider, even for a second, giving up high-speed quads that shorten lines and speed the trip up the slopes. Nor would they relinquish snowmaking, which guarantees opening dates and covers lower-elevation rocks, nor trail grooming methods that smooth out the rough edges of slopes.
Mining overlapped the start of skiing. Mining equipment was removed and salvaged beginning in the 1930s, but tunnel and shaft entrances, roads, and even a few buildings remained. The most notable was the Veteran Mine ore bin that skiers saw when returning to Lift One after descending Spar Gulch. What you didn’t see, unless you wandered up the mountain in the summer, were the mineshaft openings that were sparsely covered with aspen trees laid side by side closely enough to hold snow. You could slide through the gaping holes if you stood on top, instead of skiing over them.
Before snow making, early-season skiing could become a slalom around rocks and brush. The Ski Company spent summers smoothing the slopes. They cut brush and removed the larger rocks. After tons of hay were spread over the lower elevations, grass took hold. In low-snow years, hay actually substituted for snow, especially at the bottom of Little Nell. Skiers could walk over the hay for the last few hundred feet to the lift without damaging their skis, but skiing onto the hay was a mistake. Your skis abruptly stopped but your body, attached to the bear trap bindings (so-named because they did not release), continued in motion.
Ski repair shops made a fortune replacing ski edges. Edges were secured to wood skis by screws that were spaced every couple of inches. Encounters with rocks separated the edges from the skis. Wherever access roads crossed the runs, a line of rocks stood ready to claim a few edges. In the 1950s, skiers used different methods to negotiate this challenge. Some believed it was best to use speed, scraping over the rocks with such force that momentum won, combined with pre-jumping the line of rocks, which put air between ski and rock. The alternate approach was to come to a full stop at road intersections, turning your skis parallel to the line of rocks, then step over the crossing.
Snowcats for grooming were few and primitive. Heavy and more like bulldozers, they churned through the snow down to the dirt on any slope steep enough to be called anything but a beginner slope.
Slopes were not “groomed.” Instead, a base was created in the early season by “people packing.” The Ski Company traded lift tickets for a few hours of treading the snow on skis. For important races, where the base had to be harder, volunteers stomped down the snow in their work boots. In the days before grooming, powder-skiing skills were not considered a fine-tuned technique for special days, but basic to survival.
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Mastering moguls was necessary, even for beginners. Without today’s constant grooming, skiing in the 1950s required everyone to negotiate moguls, nasty mounds of snow. The steeper the slope, the bigger the mogul, presenting a constant challenge in the pre short-ski sport. The Ski Company plowed moguls on the gentler slopes after snow depth grew sufficient for snowcats. Sometimes, mountain managers resorted to hand-shoveling pesky moguls in critical locations.
There were no warm gondolas to propel skiers to the top of Aspen Mountain through inclement weather. Lift One ran at a very fast rate, making it a challenge to quickly ski into a position to be loaded. The non-detachable chair scooped you into the air with such force that if you did not position squarely into the chair you would be bumped into a heap yards ahead of the loading spot. In spite of its fast speed, the ride up number one to Midway was long enough that the Ski Company worried about skiers getting too cold along the way. They added canvas covers to each chair to break the wind and protect skiers from falling snow and frostbite. Veterans of 1950s skiing brag about how daunting the sport was, a challenge equaled only by the skills of toughest athletes. They readily admit, however, that modern skiing is a more enjoyable sport.