Aspen Skiing Co. Celebrates a Double Diamond Anniversary

Aspen celebrates 75 years of lift-served skiing and plans for a business rebound on the slopes

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times Weekly

The grand opening of Lift 1, on January 11, 1947. The three men in the photo are Walter Paepke, A.E. Robinson (the mayor), and Lee Knous, the governor of Colorado. Gov. Knous is making the address. (Aspen Historical Society)

A 75-year celebration is sometimes called a diamond anniversary. For Aspen, it’s only fitting that 2022 will be a double diamond anniversary.

Aspen Skiing Co. will celebrate the 75th anniversary of its founding and the dedication of Lift 1 on Jan. 11. Meanwhile, Aspen icon Klaus Obermeyer will celebrate the 75th anniversary of the skiwear company that bears his name (see related box at the end of this article).

“Time is a funny thing, it just keeps moving,” said Obermeyer, who turns 102 on Dec. 2. “You have a choice of liking it. You have the choice of not liking it, but we’re dancing with time.”

Comeback season

For Skico, the anniversary of its founding and chairlift-served skiing on Aspen Mountain will be a major focus of what company executives hope will be a bounce-back season. Business dropped dramatically last winter because of COVID-19 restrictions on travel. International business tanked, particularly in January when the usual surge of Aussie vacationers couldn’t appear.

Skico ended the year down 3.5% in skier visits cumulatively at Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands, Snowmass and Buttermilk compared to 2019-20, which itself was cut short in March by the pandemic. Skico President and CEO Mike Kaplan is optimistic this winter will be better.

Toasting 75

Details are still being worked out but Aspen Skiing Co. plans to host several events oriented around the 75th anniversary.

The biggest party will be on Jan. 11, 75 years to the date that Lift 1 was dedicated. This time the party will be at the base of Lift 1A.

For three nights, Jan. 9-11, Skico and Pop-Up Magazine will co-host mixed-media storytelling that emphasizes Aspen-Snowmass’ heritage, sustainability and inclusion in a “live magazine” format. The nighttime shows will be at the Wheeler Opera House.

To get into the festive mood, Skico started running historic photos with the 75th anniversary theme on Instagram starting on Oct. 28 (75 days before the 75th anniversary date). Check out #75yearsofaspensnowmass.

All season long, a special cocktail called the Aspen 75 will be available for $7.50 at all on-mountain restaurants and The Little Nell.

“Looking more closely at this year, it is our 75th anniversary. I think that is another tailwind for this year,” Kaplan told the Basalt Town Council in an informal chat Nov. 9. “It’s a huge deal. Something we really plan to celebrate.”

The milestone is a time to honor the past but also an opportunity look into the future and assess how to stay relevant for the next 75 years, he continued.

“That’s sort of a good kind of motto for how we’re looking at this year. We’re going to be looking back and looking ahead,” Kaplan said.

How it started

A focal point of the celebration will be a gathering at the base of Lift 1A on Jan. 11, 2022, 75 years after the dedication of the original Lift 1.

The opening ceremony for Lift 1 pm Jan. 11, 1947. (Aspen Historical Society)

Aspen Skiing Corp. was incorporated on Jan. 21, 1946, according to “Re-creation Through Recreation: Aspen Skiing From 1870 to 1970,” a deep dive into the town’s skiing history prepared by Anne Gilbert for the Aspen Historical Society in 1995.

Walter Paepcke lined up the investors in the corporation. Friedl Pfeifer provided the know-how in getting the ski area operating. Pfeifer, an expert skier originally from Austria and a veteran of the U.S. Army 10th Mountain Division, saw the potential of Aspen Mountain as a ski area during visits while training at Camp Hale. He returned to Aspen after World War II to pursue establishment of the ski area.

Friedl Pfeiffer’s first ski school instructors assembled on Dec. 12, 1946. (Aspen Historical Society)

The Ski Corp. scrapped together $300,000 to capitalize the company and build Lift 1 and Lift 2, according to Gilbert’s research. The two lifts, when combined, were the longest in the world at that time. The original Lift 1 went to Midway, close to where the upper terminal of the current FIS chairlift is located. From there, Lift 2 took skiers to the mountaintop and Sundeck.

“I think the lift dedication was a wonderful prize for Friedl Pfeifer, who was building the Aspen Skiing Corp.,” Obermeyer said. “His dream of making Aspen Mountain a ski mountain fulfilled itself.”

The two chairlifts unofficially started spinning Dec. 14, 1946, though the dedication was planned a month later.

A special ski train ventured up to Aspen from Denver, carrying the governor, one of Colorado’s U.S. senators and a contingent of journalists. There was a torchlight parade, skiing demonstrations, skijoring with cowboys on horseback pulling skiers down city streets and snacks at the mountaintop Sundeck, according to various accounts. The party attracted an estimated 2,000 people — way more than the few hotels could accommodate in what was barely more than a ghost town at the time.

Is it really 75?

The anniversary needs some caveats. It definitely wasn’t the anniversary of skiing on Aspen Mountain.

“In our minds, skiing started here in the winter of 1936-37,” said Anna Scott, archivist with the Aspen Historical Society. “That’s when the Highland Bavarian Lodge happened (up Castle Creek Valley). The first runs (on Aspen Mountain) were cut in the summer of ’37 for the winter of ’37-38. There was skiing already happening. They had a big winter sports carnival in the winter of ’37.”

A large crowd gathered for the Winter Sports Carnival on Feb. 27, 1937 at the Highland Bavarian Lodge in Castle Creek Valley. The lodge, the birthplace of skiing in the Aspen area, opened in December 1936. (Aspen Historical Society)

Aspen Mountain hosted the Southern Rocky Mountain Championship ski races in 1938 and they returned in 1939 and 1941, according to “Re-creation Through Recreation.” So the area was already on the radar of dedicated skiers.

In addition, the ski area had crude, early lifts.

“There was a boat tow and there was a rope tow on Aspen Mountain prior to Lift 1,” Scott said. The boat tow was added for winter 1937-38. It might not have been a lift by today’s standards, but it was a means for getting people up the hill.

“It doesn’t mark the beginning of skiing here,” Scott said of winter of 1946-47. “It marks the beginning of the Aspen Skiing Co.”

However, the additions of the chairlifts did transform the mountain. Instead of getting towed partially up the slopes or catching a ride up Midnight Mine Road in the truck of miners, then using climbing skins to reach the summit, skiers could ride a chairlift. Instead of one glorious run down after a time-consuming trip up, they could make laps.

“It definitely changed the dynamic of skiing on Aspen Mountain,” Scott said. “It made it so people could get multiple runs in. That’s really the catalyst for changing skiing in this area.”

While it transformed skiing for Aspen, it didn’t exactly attract hordes to the slopes. Obermeyer wasn’t in Aspen yet at the time of the Lift 1 dedication. Pfeifer, a friend from St. Anton, Austria, invited Obermeyer to come teach skiing and he arrived in fall 1947. He was one of just seven instructors in the Aspen Mountain Ski School in 1947-48.

Obermeyer recalled taking a train to Glenwood Springs, then riding in a taxi up the “rough road” to Aspen.

“Aspen was a ghost town,” he said. “So I thought, ‘Oh my God, that’s going to take some work to make that a ski resort.”

But he instantly recognized the potential of the mountain after skinning up the slopes a ways the morning after his arrival and skiing powder.

Klaus Obermeyer skiing Aspen Mountain in 1948. (Courtesy Obermeyer)

“That was sensational. That was fantastic,” he said. “I thought, ‘With snow like this, I’ll spend the rest of my life here’ — and I did.”

Promotion, Promotion, Promotion

Paepcke and the major investors in the Aspen Skiing Corp. recruited Dick Durrance to make the company profitable. He said in the book, “Dick Durrance: The Man on the Medal” that the Ski Corp. grossed only $32,000 its first winter.

Durrance focused in three areas — building more, gentler ski trails to appeal to a broader customer base, attracting prestigious ski races and promotion, promotion, promotion.

The infant resort managed to land the 1950 FIS Championships, a coup in the Europe-centric sport. Obermeyer recalled lots of snow fell before the races and there was perfect, bluebird weather during the event. Aspen made a splash on the international stage.

Scott said Aspen really hadn’t registered as a destination during the first three seasons of lift-served skiing.

“It’s really not until FIS in 1950 that that puts us on the map,” Scott said.

Nevertheless, she said, it was the capitalization of the corporation and the investment in the lifts and other amenities that laid the groundwork for success. Without that effort, Aspen never would have landed the FIS races.

“It was a start from practically zero and to what it turned out to be was beyond the dreams that we had of making a ski resort,” Obermeyer said.

Sport Obermeyer at 75

Klaus Obermeyer on Buttermilk Ski Area in December 2019 when a trail was named in his honor. (Aspen Times archive)

Friedl Pfeifer not only was the catalyst for the creation of Aspen Mountain ski area, he also inspired his good friend Klaus Obermeyer to dream big.

Pfeifer invited Obermeyer, who he knew from the St. Anton ski area in Austria, to come out West from New York City and teach skiing in fall 1947. Obermeyer was just one of seven ski instructors at Aspen Mountain the winter of 1947-48.

“Friedl was so good,” Obermeyer said. “He told me, ‘Klaus, now that I have you here, you’re a German engineer. I think when you’re not teaching you should be working on making skiing safer and more fun.’ So we started Sport Obermeyer. But I got so busy teaching that I worked at night usually.”

The cliché is that necessity is the mother of invention. That held true with Obermeyer’s efforts. He had to find a way to keep his ski school students happy and comfortable on the slopes or he wouldn’t make a living.

A passage on the Sport Obermeyer website recalls the founding of the company: “[A]s a ski instructor, Klaus couldn’t keep his students on the hill for even a full day. By the end of what should have been dreamy powder runs, his skiers’ woolen suits would become cold, dank and discouraging. Yet like every problem this young engineer had ever faced, he reveled in the possibility of a solve.

“Grabbing the down blanket his mom packed for him when he left for the States, Klaus craftily stitched together the world’s first down jacket, and Sport Obermeyer was a go,” the website narrative continued.

Soon after making the first parka, Obermeyer had 17 seamstresses working on jackets, he recalled in a recent interview with The Aspen Times. Before long the company was humming along so successfully that Obermeyer gave it his full attention and stopped teaching skiing.

Numerous innovations rolled out of Sport Obermeyer through the following years — game-changers like dual construction ski boots with a soft interior and rigid shell in 1947; mirrored sunglasses in 1960; and soft shell jackets in 1965, to name a few.

Klaus even has a fun story about early grooming, before there were sophisticated snowcats to undertake the immaculate work skiers and riders expect today.

Obemeyer said ski instructors were expected to help out with grooming on powder days in the early seasons of Aspen Mountain. They would head to the easier trails and clear the powder for the least experienced skiers.

“We went up, instead of ski poles, with a shovel in our hands at 8 in the morning,” he said. “The ski patrol and ski instructors went up and fixed the road, made it a little wider, side-slipped it a little, filling the holes where people had fallen. That was the first grooming, but it was grooming.”

He credits his company’s long-term success to always seeking innovations while on the slopes. The ski trails are the company’s laboratory, he is found of saying.

Sport Obermeyer is still family-owned and Klaus still regularly reports to his office, even though he will turn 102 years old on Dec. 2.

“So now we have 75 years, just like the Ski Company,” Obermeyer said. “It was the same timing.”

The pandemic is making a celebration of the founding the company a challenge.

“We will celebrate within the company and we will celebrate with our customers,” Obermeyer said. “We’ll send out a little film with our customers via the Internet.”