Ashcroft: ‘An American St. Moritz’? |

Ashcroft: ‘An American St. Moritz’?

Janet Urquhart
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Nearly a century of failed dreams lies behind one of Aspen’s greatest successes ” the unspoiled splendor of the upper Castle Creek Valley.

There, nordic skiers glide silently through the aspen groves, slicing across the lengthening shadows that stripe the expanse of white on a waning winter afternoon. Formidable peaks snag clouds far above Castle Creek, which gurgles forth unexpectedly from beneath its snowy mantle to encase boulders and branches in icy glass.

A handful of drunken log buildings ” all that remain of the once-bustling mining town of Ashcroft ” sag on either side of a street long since reclaimed by the meadow grasses that bide their time beneath the snow.

The ghost town is the most visible reminder of a vivid past in the valley that stretches south from Aspen, but it barely hints of the place that might have rivaled Aspen as a mining-mecca-turned-world-class-ski-resort. The serene valley could just as easily have been dotted with mega-mansions as the coyote and elk tracks that crisscross it today.

“We failed as a mining town, we failed as a downhill ski area, and we failed as a real estate development,” says Trevor Washko, a naturalist who leads Ashcroft tours for the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies.

His research into the lore of Ashcroft is ongoing; his passion for the place, unmistakable. He points to “our post office” among the silent ruins as though he once picked up his mail there.

Anointed “ghost mayor” of Ashcroft, Washko resides at nearby Toklat, where the Mace family has kept an eye on the valley since the late Stuart Mace scouted the site for a dog-sled operation in 1948. These days, Washko carries on Mace’s “Stuartship” of Ashcroft, conducting summer and winter tours of the upper valley for ACES.

On a daylong snowshoe trek, Washko offers more than a glimpse into the area’s natural beauty and insights into the plentiful signs of critters that call it home.

“I always get kind of bent out of shape when people come up and all they see is pretty scenery,” he admits. “There’s so much more than that.

“What really sets this place apart is the human history ” the human story,” Washko explains.

The upper valley’s original inhabitants, the Ute Indians, were supplanted by white prospectors who mined the surrounding mountains for silver and left Ashcroft with its most enduring link to its past ” the ghost town.

And like Aspen, Ashcroft was once the focus of ski resort entrepreneurs who sought an American equivalent to the fabled slopes of Europe. In fact, Ashcroft was once considered the superior resort locale to the rundown mining town of Aspen.

The rise and fall of a resort

Theodore “Ted” Ryan met William “Billy” Fiske in Europe, where the two men attended the 1936 Winter Olympics in Germany. Fiske had captained the victorious U.S. bobsled team in the 1932 Games; Ryan was a product of New York and Connecticut and apparently an avid skier. Both men wondered why ski slopes comparable to those in Europe couldn’t be found at home.

If they ever found something in the States that looked like Austria or Switzerland, they vowed to create “an American St. Moritz,” Ryan recounted in Lois Barr’s “Ashcroft Reborn.”

Fiske found what they were looking for in photographs handed to him by former Aspenite T.J. Flynn, who was trying to sell him a silver mine. Fiske wasn’t interested in silver, but the landscape captured in the photos intrigued him.

After Fiske and several companions explored Ashcroft and Aspen, he called Ryan in New York.

The formation of the Highland-Bavarian Corporation followed and, in October 1936, work on a lodge near the confluence of Castle and Conundrum creeks commenced. It is now a private residence.

The Highland-Bavarian Winter Sports Club was officially dedicated in December 1936, hosting skiing guests and potential investors in the corporation’s ambitious plans for a ski area. The corporation hired Swiss mountaineer Andre Roch and Italian skier Gunther Lange to scout out the surrounding terrain and advise Highland-Bavarian on laying out ski runs.

Roch was impressed by the slopes of Aspen Mountain above town, where Roch Run was later cut, and by the snow and terrain on South Hayden Peak above Ashcroft, which he dubbed Ski Hayden. The terrain immediately around the lodge, located nearly seven miles from Ashcroft, was not ideal in Roch’s view.

Lodge guests were taken by horse and sleigh up to nearby Little Annie Basin on the back of Aspen Mountain. From there, they skied back to the lodge or skinned to the top of Richmond Ridge and skied down the front of Aspen Mountain, following its twisting mining roads or Roch Run, according to various accounts.

Roch concluded runs on Aspen Mountain could be superior to any other ski area developed in the States, but that a ski area in the mountains surrounding Ashcroft could best anything in Switzerland, according to excerpts from “Memories Worth Saving: The Story of Ashcroft, Colorado” by Charlene Knoll, who interviewed Ryan in 1975.

Plans evolved for a Swiss-style tram between Ashcroft and Ski Hayden and a hotel on the ridge below the peak. The four-mile tram would offer 4,000 feet of vertical drop and an eight-mile run back to Ashcroft. The Colorado Legislature created the Mount Hayden Tramway Commission to oversee its development at an estimated cost of $1.5 million.

Meanwhile, Highland-Bavarian had retained an architect to come up with plans for a village near what is now the ghost town. Western log-style buildings were discussed ” a departure from the Bavarian-style lodge at Conundrum.

In a report from Roch, donated to the Aspen Historical Society by Ryan, the mountaineer describes what was apparently his initial vision for lift-served skiing. He proposed a pair of chairlifts ” one rising from the valley to Monument Gulch and a second lift rising from the upper terminus of the Monument lift to the 13,600-foot summit of Electric Peak, just south of Ski Hayden. The upper lift, he conceded, couldn’t be run in bad weather or high winds.

The Electric Peak chair, Roch noted, “gives access to a run down Cathedral Lake area and to Pine Creek, which is magnificent.”

There was also the possibility of skiing into the Conundrum Valley, he said.

From Monument Station, the upper terminus of the lower lift, skiers would enjoy 2,200 feet of vertical drop, according to Roch, who outlined a plan for five ski runs on the lower slopes.

The longest of seven potential runs from the top of Electric Peak would provide a vertical drop of slightly more than 5,000 feet, he noted.

“The area of Ashcroft should be carefully planned in order that the runs would remain free from homes and hotels. The valley is long and broad, large enough to combine hotels, bungalows and parking places with the ski runs,” Roch concluded.

World War II, however, pulled Fiske away to serve with the Royal Air Force in September 1939. He was killed the following year. Ryan joined the Office of Strategic Services in Europe, offering the Highland-Bavarian Corporation’s assembled landholdings at Ashcroft for use by a detachment of the 10th Mountain Division. Troops were assigned there in 1942.

After the war, 10th Mountain veterans helped push Aspen Mountain’s rise to prominence as a ski area. Ryan reportedly invested in the new ski area and temporarily shelved plans for the ski resort at Ashcroft.

According to Washko, a photograph taken in the 1960s shows Ryan, Roch and D.R.C. Brown, then head of the Aspen Skiing Corp., surveying the terrain at Ashcroft.

“The war didn’t put an end to the downhill ski area dream up here,” Washko contends.

Nonetheless, Ryan switched gears and opened Ashcroft Ski Tours Unlimited, a nordic skiing complex, in 1971. Today, Ashcroft Ski Touring is operated by John Wilcox, who also runs the Pine Creek Cookhouse above Ashcroft. Designated trails lead skiers and snowshoers on a scenic tour of the valley, with the option to dine at the cookhouse. Or, diners can take a horse-drawn sleigh to the restaurant.

The expansion of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area, which now encompasses the area where Roch once hiked and skied “some of the deepest, lightest powder snow … known to the ski world” eliminates the potential for lift-served skiing there.

The acreage Ryan and the Highland-Bavarian Corp. amassed at Ashcroft was eventually deeded to the U.S. Forest Service in a series of land deals. One of the last pieces, 35 acres known as the “Ryan parcel,” was transferred into public ownership just a few years ago.

Ironically, had the fledgling ski company with the grandiose plans not cleared up the titles to hundreds of acres worth of old mining claims and brought Ashcroft under single ownership back in the 1930s, Washko suspects the valley would be a very different place today. The alluring spot would not have escaped the real estate development boom that reshaped Aspen.

“The buying of the property to create a world-class ski area really went a long way to saving the character of the upper valley,” he said.

Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is