An ironman retires from Aspen Mountain Ski Patrol
December 6, 2011
ASPEN – An ironman of the Aspen Mountain Ski Patrol has called it quits.
Nearly every winter morning since 1968-69 – excluding two seasons affected by the aftermath of a strike – Gene Clausen has pulled on the distinctive uniform of the ski patrol and hit the slopes of Aspen Mountain. That’s 42 seasons at Ajax, and 45 overall with his three seasons of service in the Buttermilk Ski Patrol starting in 1963.
Clausen, 71, is a humble guy and doesn’t make a big deal out of his longevity. Guys like Howie Mayer and Don Hillmuth probably served longer, and Buttermilk Patrol Director Robin Perry will have served longer by the time he retires, Clausen said.
But Clausen is one of the lucky few among the early generations of ski bums who were pulled in by Aspen’s gravitational pull and found a way to make a career out of a love of skiing.
He was a California kid who ended up in Alta, Utah, for the winter of 1959-60, working a variety of jobs and learning on the fly to be a good skier. “So many people there said, ‘Ah, you’ve got to go to Aspen,'” Clausen said.
His chance came just a year later. His summer party crew at Laguna Beach, Calif., included a guy who lived in Aspen. The fellow invited Clausen to come and bunk with him in an apartment above the famed Golden Horn restaurant and bar for the 1960-61 season. They got booted from the apartment to make way for the head bartender, but Clausen rented a four-bedroom house with some other guys and found a new home in the Rocky Mountains.
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Clausen washed dishes at the Golden Horn but couldn’t make enough money, so he got a job teaching in Stein Eriksen’s ski school at Aspen Highlands.
Aspen in the early 1960s was, indeed, Shangri-La for a young ski bum.
“It was in so many ways,” Clausen said. “It was still a very small town. Within the first two weeks, it seemed like I knew more people than I know now.”
The downtown post office was a social hub. You couldn’t help but run into a bunch of people you knew, and you would get introduced to those you didn’t know. “You got to know a lot of people in a hurry,” Clausen said.
After a couple of seasons, Clausen got drafted into the Army. He tried college a couple of years later when he was discharged, but Aspen reeled him back.
“When I got out of the Army, I just didn’t want to deal with people in a teaching job,” Clausen said. So his career path turned toward the patrol. He got a job with the Buttermilk Ski Patrol and stayed there for 1965-66, ’66-67 and ’67-68.
He made some contacts and was able to transfer over to Aspen Mountain in 1968. Patrol work was different then. While it was a six-days-per-week grind at that time, the patrollers had much longer leashes.
“You’d go up in the morning and do whatever you had to do,” Clausen said. That included a lot of packing snow in the era before snowcats prowled. But there was also a lot of card playing and coffee drinking. “You weren’t required check in. There were no radios. You’d just go out and ski,” he said.
A patrolman by the name of John Zurflue took Clausen under his wing. Zurflue had been in town since the mid-1950s and knew everyone. He was frequently aware of a wine party down in town and would bring Clausen along. Toward mid-afternoon, they would head back up the mountain and sometimes hit the Sundeck for a Colorado or St. Louie Shake, a cleverly disguised Coors or Budweiser in a cup.
Clausen said the Aspen Mountain Ski Patrol, throughout the years, has never been a particularly hard club to crack for a rookie. The veterans might “test” newcomers, but they are generally a welcoming bunch, he said.
Clausen recalled that when he transferred to Aspen, a patrol supervisor by the name of Bud Law challenged patrollers to ski a particularly difficult line during a powder morning. “He said, ‘OK, anybody who can ski this, go ahead. You don’t have to pack,'” Clausen said. Clausen was the only one who took him up on the offer. “After that I was accepted a lot more, but I was still tested,” he said.
Clausen gained a couple of nicknames over the years – Geno, for obvious reasons, and GAC, for his initials.
Strange as it may seem now, there weren’t a lot of powder skiers in 1968, not even in Aspen. “It was still a period of time up there where you could ski the Back of Bell a week, two weeks after a storm and, if you didn’t have real hot weather, you’d still be getting face shots,” Clausen said. He had Head skis back then, none shorter than 210 centimeters.
On the work front, relations between the ski patrol and the Aspen Skiing Corp., as it was then known, were growing increasingly sour. Wages and job descriptions were two big issues. The Ski Corp., under DRC Brown at that time, wanted to integrate the patrol into the chairlift crews; the proud patrolmen resisted.
The patrol prepared to strike early in winter of 1972-73, but they were beat to the punch by management. The patrol was locked out and replacement workers, derisively called scabs, were brought in. There was a heavy potential for trouble. A power pole near Kleenex Corner was blown up, crippling the on-mountain communication system. Bogus accidents were reported to the patrol to send scabs on a goose chase. Strikers and scabs traded barbs and sometimes punches at the base.
The dispute was eventually settled, with a union formed by the patrol. The settlement agreement called for the fired patrol workers to be offered positions when they became available.
“As scabs quit, they were obligated to hire us back on a seniority basis,” Clausen said.
For him, that meant almost a two-year hiatus from the job he loved. He and his wife, Rita, scraped by. Clausen has always worked construction during summers and he relied on that for the winters he was off the patrol. He never had any doubt he would accept an offer to rejoin the patrol. The job changed significantly after the strike and lockout.
“Because you were making demands on the company, you had to show you were actually working throughout the day,” Clausen said. “There would be more time out on the hill.”
For Clausen, that’s translated into a lot of time on the hill – 36 seasons after getting called back. The evolution of the equipment allowed him to take the rigors of working on the mountain so many days. “If not for new skis, it would have been a huge battle,” he said.
He’s been caught in three avalanches over the years, two of them what he considered close calls. He was skiing Silver Queen Ridge once when snow let loose and he was buried in a sitting position, uncertain which direction was up. He was able to free an arm and space around his face, then call his patrol partner.
Clausen said he hasn’t missed heading up the mountain so far this season. He suspects that will change as the snow falls and the conditions improve.
The part of the job he always cherished was heading up the mountain at sunrise and watching one of the most beautiful places on Earth wake up.
“Going up in the morning was the easiest,” Clausen said. “Almost to a person, it’s the favorite time for the patrol.”
Clausen will be no stranger on the slopes. He received a lifetime ski pass from Skico.