Andre Roch prefers Ashcroft – The Highland Bavarian (Part III)
Aspen Times Weekly
Andre Roch and Dr. Gunther Langes’ arrival to study snow conditions for the Highland Bavarian partners contributed energy and expertise to starting a ski area in Aspen and significantly altered the outcome. Their first few weeks, however, got off to an inauspicious start.
The first day, they were driven up Independence Pass to begin a ski trip to town through Hunter Creek. When they did not return that day, New Year’s Eve, brows furrowed but no search party was sent out, as they were experienced skiers. The two appeared New Year’s morning, ready to move on to the Highland Bavarian Lodge, from where they would examine the proposed slopes of Little Annie. December 1936 was a low-snow month, and Little Annie was not impressive.
January snowfall improved conditions, as Roch and Langes confined their study to the Little Annie basin and the Difficult Creek side of Richmond Hill. Because the sun exposure of Little Annie was not ideal, they preferred the Difficult side, which carried concerns about potential avalanche danger. When Langes left, Roch turned his attention to the inviting peaks and open slopes at the end of Castle Creek Valley.
Roch spent more than half a year exploring the valley’s potential. His eventual recommendations represented a complete departure from what the partners originally planned. The partners had wanted an American site equal to St. Moritz, and Roch proposed a village where Ashcroft is located, with ski runs from the top of Electric Peak. He believed the new location would rival anything in Europe.
Roch carefully evaluated wind conditions, sun exposure, avalanche hazards and snow depths before recommending his lift and run locations. Most of the runs were on open slopes, requiring little tree cutting. He believed the high elevations would offer unparalleled snow conditions and allow the operation to run into June every year.
Roch’s lower lift climbed from Ashcroft to the top of Monument Peak, providing 2,200 vertical feet of open skiing access to Pine Creek (his favorite) and the treeless gulches that empty into Ashcroft.
The views from the top of his proposed second lift are breathtaking. The Electric Peak location would have enabled skiers to ski over Cathedral Lake and down Pine Creek. They could traverse the ridge to Ski Hayden Peak (the high point between Hayden Peak and Electric Peak), then descend the American Lake basin, or ski down Sandy Creek or Sawyer’s Gulch, runs with a vertical fall exceeding 4,600 feet over three linear miles. His ultimate run challenged skiers to negotiate the Conundrum side, a 5,070-foot vertical drop over five miles. Roch proposed a bus system to return skiers to the lift in Ashcroft, as used by European ski areas.
With the beginnings of war in Europe, American skiers craved their own sites. The timing seemed perfect to build a new resort. The Highland Bavarian partners adopted Roch’s recommendations and immediately purchased the Ashcroft townsite from Jack Leahey, former miner and mayor.
A preliminary engineering plan and estimate by the American Steel and Wire Company for the lifts topped a million dollars; the partners began seeking capital. Tom Flynn arranged Federal Depression-era stimulus dollars from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation and he successfully lobbied the Colorado Legislature in 1941 to approve $650,000 in bonds for the construction of the two lifts. America’s greatest ski resort was close to construction.
When America entered the war, however, all efforts ceased. Ted Ryan, who had sustained a serious skiing injury, offered Ashcroft to the Tenth Mountain Division with a dollar-a-year lease. Some early 10th Mountain activities were headquartered there. Billy Fiske joined the Royal Air Force and was the first American pilot to lose his life when his plane was shot down. The aging Tom Flynn returned to his farm in California.
Fiske had been the most energetic partner. After the war and the subsequent death of Flynn in 1947, the project fell completely on Ryan’s shoulders.
The Aspen Ski Club, inspired and advised by Roch, had already opened skiing on Aspen Mountain. They hosted major races including the 1941 Alpine Championships, capitalizing on the promotional efforts of the Highland Bavarian partners. Ryan recognized that, while the Ashcroft proposal was superior, the momentum had shifted away from his enterprise.
The loan from the State of Colorado was still available after the war, but steel was not. Ryan put the Ashcroft-based project on hold. As late as the 1960s, he was still hoping to build his dream. Forest Service permits became harder to attain and the construction of Snowmass satiated the Aspen ski market. Ryan settled for a ski-touring operation.
Efforts to start ski areas were prevalent in the 1930s and ’40s; every western town with a mountain and a slope considered or attempted to enter the business. There would not have been an “Aspen” without early promotion by the Highland Bavarian partners and their gift to the community of Andre Roch. Those elements gave the town a defining head start on its rivals.
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