Aspen pioneer Roch dies at 96 | AspenTimes.com

Aspen pioneer Roch dies at 96

Brent Gardner-Smith
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Andre Roch, who laid out the first ski trail on Aspen Mountain, encouraged the formation of the Aspen Ski Club and envisioned a grand ski area on Mount Hayden, died Tuesday in Geneva at the age of 96.

Roch was truly a man of the mountains. He was a mountain guide who made first ascents on peaks in the Mount Blanc Massif, an expert on avalanches and snow safety, an author of over a dozen books on mountaineering and a pioneer of a now familiar route up Mount Everest.

Roch is also credited with first putting “the spark of skiing into the natives of Aspen.”

Born at the foot of the Alps in Geneva in 1906, Roch started climbing with his father, who was president of the local Swiss Alpine Club chapter. In 1927, Roch won both the downhill and the slalom races at the Student Olympics in Italy. In 1934, he was invited on an international expedition to the Karakom in what is now Pakistan to climb Hidden Peak, the 11th highest mountain in the world.

In 1936, he was was hired by Billy Fiske and Ted Ryan, the investors in the Highland-Bavarian Corp., to come survey the Aspen area for its skiing potential and to lay out ski trails on Mount Hayden.

“In a detailed report, Roch imagined a vast alpine complex that would include a Zermatt-style alpine village and a Swiss tram rising 4,000 vertical feet to the timberline bowls on Hayden Peak,” wrote Peter Shelton in the book, “Aspen Skiing, the First Fifty Years.”

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“He was convinced that Aspen Mountain, directly above the town of Aspen, could be superior to anything in the U.S. at that time, but that nearby Ashcroft, ‘once developed, would be a resort without any competition.'”

World War II put a stop to the plans for a ski area on Mount Hayden, but Roch’s other efforts during the winter of 1936-37 created a lasting legacy.

Roch had also been hired to give ski lessons that winter to guests of the Highland-Bavarian Lodge and to Aspen locals. Roch soon met Frank and Fred Willoughby, who had grown up skiing in the Little Annie Basin.

“The Willoughbys took hungrily to Roch’s instruction, and early in 1937 joined with him to form the Roaring Fork Winter Sports Club, later named the Aspen Ski Club,” Shelton wrote.

Today, the Ski Club is known as the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club.

Roch also convinced local skiers that they should cut a run on Aspen Mountain to draw attention to the skiing potential in Aspen. He laid out the narrow winding trail, and in the summer of 1937 local volunteers cut the trees and named it Roch Run.

The original Roch Run trail started at what would become known a few years later as “Midway,” where the top of the original Lift 1 stopped and where Lift 6 (FIS) now unloads today.

From there, the trail headed down what is now part of Ruthie’s Run and onto a section of the mountain that is still called Roch Run today.

Then, in what would become a visual signature of the nascent ski town of Aspen, Roch Run corkscrewed down the face of lower Aspen Mountain. Today, that section of the run is called Corkscrew.

The trail ended up being 6,600 feet long, about 50 feet wide, and dropped 2,550 vertical feet. And it helped put Aspen on the skiing map.

The Ski Club hosted the 1940 Rocky Mountain Championships and the 1941 National Championships on Roch Run.

In 1946, the first formal Roch Cup competition was held on Roch Run and won by Barney McLean. The Roch Cup is now one of the oldest racing trophies in the sport of skiing and is traditionally given to the man who wins either a World Cup downhill or a super-G race on Aspen Mountain.

“Andre Roch was a man of great vision,” said Pat O’Donnell, president and CEO of the Aspen Skiing Co. “His ability to convince the Ski Club in 1937 and its volunteers to cut the now famous Roch Run proved to be a turning point in Aspen’s history. All of us in the ski business respect Andre’s foresight and the legacy that the Roch Cup has provided to this community for so many decades.”

Roch would return to Aspen in 1949 to discuss the formation of avalanche research facilities in America. By that time, Roch was head of the Snow and Avalanche Research Institute in Davos, Switzerland, an organization he would serve for 30 years.

And Roch would keep the people of Aspen close to his heart.

On April 9, 1952, the 45-year-old Roch sent a letter to Fred and Frank Willoughby saying, “I am on the way to try to climb Mount Everest. Still 60 miles south from the big mountain, but we should be able to see it when the clouds go away … Please tell the people of Aspen where I am.”

Roch’s climb up Everest helped set the path for Sir Edmund Hillary to follow.

“Andre Roch helped unlock the door for the British ? in the guise of a New Zealander and a Sherpa ? to climb Mount Everest,” reported the Independent newspaper of London in its notice of Roch’s death on Wednesday. “Roch was the most experienced of four Swiss climbers who on 30 April 1952 forced a route up the Khumbu Icefall and into the Western Cwm [a Welsh word for ?valley? or ?cirque,? pronounced koom], the perilous gateway to Everest’s south side.

“Roch eventually reached the South Col (25,850 feet) and two of his companions, Raymond Lambert and Sherpa Tenzing, gained a record height of 28,210 feet on the ridge below Everest’s south summit. But exhaustion, altitude and storm wore the expedition down. As Roch observed: ‘Everest is very easy to climb, only just a little too high.’

“Hillary and Tenzing’s place in history and the newspaper headlines of Coronation Day were due in no small measure to the pioneering of Roch and compatriots,” the Independent wrote.

Roch would return to Aspen at least twice more, coming back in 1987 for the 50th anniversary of the Ski Club and in 1988 for the 40th anniversary of the Aspen Skiing Co.

In 1998, Robin Ferguson of Aspen, who first met Roch in 1973 when Roch picked him up hitchhiking near Chamonix, France, visited Roch in Geneva. The 91-year-old mountaineer’s health was failing, but his spirit was still strong.

Ferguson brought back a letter from Roch to his friends, which was published in The Aspen Times.

“I would like to thank all of those I have met in my life and who have received me so kindly during my travels,” Roch wrote. “I think always of my beautiful climbs and despite a few setbacks, I feel I have had much luck.”

[Brent Gardner-Smith’s e-mail address is bgs@aspentimes.com]