Aspen’s first ski slope, the unofficial one |

Aspen’s first ski slope, the unofficial one

Tim Willoughby
Glen Beck learns to ski on homemade skis with the Aspen Ski Club near Aspen Highlands in 1937. (Willoughby Collection)

Adults take credit for everything, but kids know the real story. Historical accounts place Aspen’s first ski slope near the base of Aspen Highlands where Andre Roch taught Aspen Ski Club members the finer points of Arlberg turns, but generations of kids know the first slope was closer to the center of Aspen.

Before the Clark’s Market building was constructed, there was a short, steep slope behind the Hotel Jerome that ended in an empty lot. The area on the north side of the Jerome included the kitchen entrance, a loading dock, garbage cans and an employee parking lot. The smell of garbage did not discourage Aspen kids from snow sports.

Children in the early 1920s favored this slope because their homemade skis used leather straps for bindings that made turning difficult to impossible. The pitch was perfect for getting up to speed, and it was short enough that most skiers could make it to the bottom without falling. If you made it to the flat lot below, you could ride it out until you stopped or just sat down. The trip down was short, which meant the hike back up was also short. You could make many runs in an hour if you didn’t allow cold hands and wet clothes to dampen your snow spirit.

All of the children in my father’s family learned to ski on that slope. They used barrel staves for skis. My father fashioned his own skis by planing boards and steaming the ends to bend them into curved tips. His younger sister, Frances Herron, and her twin brother, Frank, got the hand-me-downs as my father continued making improvements.

Frances fell in love with skiing on that unofficial slope. It was also the location of her only skiing accident, which caused a broken arm. There was no ski patrol, just two brothers to haul her home and offer explanations. This was always an unsupervised playground, a delight to children and a worry for parents.

Perhaps for that reason, my generation was left to discover the slope without our parents telling us about it.

The backside of the Jerome was a shortcut to school for the children coming from the east end of town. It became an after-school routine to take a few runs down the slope, a boot trip. We all had the same green, five-buckle rubber galoshes, often hand-me-downs, with bottoms that had been worn down to a surface perfect for “boot skiing.” Each time it snowed we made new runs with lots of turns that simulated slalom.

On weekends, we brought our skis and sleds. Saucers were the rage, but a piece of cardboard worked too. Sledding was especially popular for the kids who didn’t ski. Skiing the slope was a short thrill that became more interesting when we built ski jumps at the bottom. Skiers and saucers competed for “most air” and there was always a gallery of onlookers at the top, awaiting the inevitable spills.

Aspen Mountain was “skiing,” but the unnamed slope behind the Jerome was “fun.”

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