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Aspens first broken leg

Tim WilloughbyAspen Times Weekly

Aspen Ski Clubs boat tow took skiers only to the top of the beginners slope in 1939. If you wanted a longer, steeper trail, you would hitch an early-morning ride up the back side of Aspen Mountain with Midnight Mine employees commuting to work. After arriving at the mine in Queens Gulch, there was a short climb to the bottom of Buckhorn followed by a short downhill ski to Midway, the top of Roch Run. At the end of the day the Midnight crew stopped at the Hotel Jerome to verify with Lawrence Elisha, the proprietor, that all skiers were accounted for.On one such evening, only one of three skiers from Chicago returned. He reported that one of their party broke his leg and was being tended to at the Midway warming hut by the other skier.A storm approached, something that always seems to happen whenever there is a rescue. My father, Fred Willoughby, the Midnight Mine foreman who had hauled the skiers up the mountain that morning, rounded up three other volunteers to rescue the skier: Mike Magnifico, Aspens first ski store owner; Fred Cook, the district ranger; and a tall seasonal (name forgotten) ranger.The party rounded up drugs to address the victims pain, a quart of whiskey to arm the rescuers, a toboggan, and mining lamps to light their way. They drove a truck up the long hill to the Midnight mill in the worsening snowstorm.Arriving at the mine, they began their ascent in a wide uphill circle to the saddle above Tourtelotte Park. Progress was arduous through the fresh wet snow. Willoughby and Magnifico were on skis; the rangers wore snowshoes. Even with four men pulling, the drag of the toboggan, combined with the fatigue of the days labor, wore them out.Gravity won on a traverse across a steep slope. The tall ranger, inexperienced on snowshoes, began falling. This introduced a little humor to the journey, as there had been a continuous argument about which was better, snowshoes or skis.Once over the saddle, they descended old mine roads to Midway to arrive at the hut at 11 p.m. The warm comfort of the hut suggested that the group wait until daylight and better weather to begin the steep ski to town, but the victim was in great pain and demanded to be taken to a doctor immediately.The rescuers fastened his leg in splints and administered painkiller. They wrapped his 200-pound body in wool blankets and secured him to the toboggan. Around midnight, with skiers in front to break trail, followed by snowshoers in the rear to slow the sled on steep slopes, they groped their way down Roch Run.Given the short reach of the miners lamps in the blinding snowstorm and absence of tracks, the only way to navigate was by instinct. A wrong turn would send them down the steep, avalanche-prone slopes of Spar Gulch. Fortunately, miners have a special sense for knowing their way in the dark. Having crisscrossed the mountain for years, Willoughby had little trouble staying on the trail. The toboggan, with such a heavy load, kept knifing sideways. Every time, the tall ranger tumbled to the ground. After a number of falls, a decision was made to take the old wagon road down the mountain to avoid the steeper grade of Roch Run. It would be more work to drag the sled in the deep snow, but the tall ranger himself had almost become another candidate for rescue.At about two in the morning the storm stopped, revealing the lights of town. The party skied down the streets, stopping only when the tall ranger fell. After the skier was transferred to a truck and taken to the hospital, the quart of whiskey was passed around to celebrate, and the rescuers went home.With only a few hours of sleep, the rescuers were soon up, ready for another days work. Awaiting them at the Jerome was a new party of skiers eager to ski the fresh powder on Aspen Mountain.

Tim Willoughbys family story parallels Aspens. He began sharing folklore while a teacher for Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. He can be contacted at redmtn@schat.net.Yore Aspen is a regular feature of the Aspen Times Weekly.


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