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Aspen Mountain faithfuls define ‘The Soul of Ajax’

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado
Dunaway Collection/Aspen Historical Society
ALL |

ASPEN – Who better to define the “The Soul of Ajax,” aka Aspen Mountain, than some of its most faithful skiers?

The Aspen Historical Society’s Time Travel Tuesday series marks Celebrate History Month in March with weekly programs devoted to the four local ski areas. First up is Ajax and a panel of valley residents who are intimately acquainted with Aspen’s flagship mountain.

“There are other mountains?” quipped Tony Vagneur, an Aspen Times columnist and a veteran Ajax skier who has been tapped for Tuesday’s discussion at 5:30 p.m. at the Limelight Lodge in Aspen.

He’ll be joined by Brigitte Birrfelder, Jim Hancock, Val Edgington, Eric Peltonen and Gaard Moses to offer up the sorts of unexpected anecdotes that could come only from a group whose ranks include a local who first hit the slopes as a 4-year-old in 1950, a woman who spent her childhood winters living at the Sundeck and a 1970s hot-dogger.

The series will continue on subsequent Tuesdays in March, with a different local ski area in the spotlight each week.

“We’re looking at each mountain – trying to find out what the recipe is that makes each mountain so special,” said Nina Gabianelli, programs director for the historical society.

Vagneur should know what makes Ajax tick. He first remembers skiing the mountain as a tyke in 1950, when there were only Lift 1 and Lift 2 on the Ruthie’s side and a T-bar on Little Nell.

“By the time we were 6 or 7 years old, jeez, our parents just turned us loose on Aspen Mountain,” he said. “We could have died up there – nobody would notice.”

On Wednesday afternoons, Vagneur recalled, local schools let the entire student body out and kids could either go skiing or ice skating. Those nursing broken legs or some such injury were stuck with study hall.

There was always powder, even if it hadn’t snowed in a week, as there were so few skiers on the slopes back then.

“We had powder every Wednesday afternoon. It wasn’t an issue,” said Vagneur, who would later serve on the mountain’s Ski Patrol in the 1970s and is a ski ambassador these days.

Moses grew up skiing out East and spent a year in Grenoble, France before the 1968 Winter Olympics there. He returned to the States in ’68 and wound up in Aspen, working a series of different jobs before settling into a role as the town’s sign painter.

In those days, locals could help pack the slopes all morning in exchange for free skiing in the afternoon, he said.

Moses’ skiing, however, left Aspenites shaking their heads. He came back from Grenoble with a style he called “the new French way.” A companion told him: “You know, you can obviously ski, but we don’t know what you’re doing.”

When Frenchman Jean-Claude Killy won three gold medals at Grenoble, the technique caught on, Moses recalled.

The historical society describes Moses as “a hot-dogger before freestyle had a name,” and the center of attention at many a Ridge of Bell competition in the 1970s.

Among the other panelists, Birrfelder spent the winters of her young life at the Sundeck restaurant atop the mountain, where her father took over as caretaker in 1968.

“Having first tracks in powder on the way to school, it was awesome,” she told The Aspen Times in a 2004 interview. Birrfelder is now the owner of Bonnie’s restaurant on the mountain.

Panelist Hancock has been a ski instructor for 30 years and is Chief of Race for World Cup competitions on Aspen Mountain; Peltenon is a former ski patroller who still hits the slopes of Ajax more than 100 days a season; and Edgington, now a well-known face at Aspen Highlands, began her career at Aspen Mountain, where she was lift operations manager for 15 years.

The series continues March 13 with “The Soul of Buttermilk” at Bumps restaurant. Aspen Highlands is the focus March 20 in the Highlands ticket office. “The Soul of Snowmass” is March 27 at the Two Creeks base. All of the programs begin at 5:30 p.m. Admission is $8 at the door and free to historical society members (at the Lixiviator membership level and above).

janet@aspentimes.com


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