Before politics, Udall tasted life as an Aspen ski bum |

Before politics, Udall tasted life as an Aspen ski bum

Mark Udall was selected by seniors at Aspen High School to deliver Saturday’s commencement speech because of his experiences as a member of Congress.

He could also give them an education on living the life of a backcountry ski bum in Aspen in the early 1970s.

Udall packed more outdoor adventures into three years of living “off and on” in Aspen than many people do in decades here.

“I was like many Aspenites – you worked hard, you played intensely and you tried to save a little money,” said Udall.

Playing intensely is the key phrase. Udall said he made wintertime ascents of all the 14,000-foot peaks surrounding Aspen. He lived in the old Elk Mountain Lodge in the Castle Creek Valley and got to know all the backcountry ski routes intimately.

He and his friends rarely visited the four ski areas because of the price, but they made exceptions for powder days. “We could always scare up $10 or whatever it was to go up Aspen Mountain,” he said.

He first visited Aspen after driving 36 hours straight with friends for spring break in 1972 while attending Williams College in Massachusetts. He and two friends returned “to make their fortune” after graduatio and started off by crashing for a few weeks on a friend’s floor.

Udall said he worked a variety of jobs to survive – he painted houses, delivered pizzas and even worked in an Aspen Skiing Co. daycare center in Snowmass Village. Nevertheless, he said he ended up living out of his car or camping more often than not.

All the while, he was building skills necessary to get accepted for a job with Colorado Outward Bound. He rubbed shoulders with some of the great climbers in the area, including Michael Kennedy and Lou Dawson. His interest in climbing and trekking eventually led him to nine Himalayan expeditions and trips to South America.

“There was the Aspen tradition,” he said.

Looking back on it now, Udall, 52, said while recounting all the adventures, it doesn’t seem possible he spent only parts of 1972 through ’74 in Aspen. He packed a lot into that time – “which is what I will encourage these students to do,” he said. “If you look for adventure, it’s anywhere and everywhere.”

Kids growing up in the Aspen area and other Colorado towns are especially lucky to live where they can get daily sources of inspiration from connections with nature, he said. That’s why it is so important to him to work to protect the environment.

Udall, a Democrat from Boulder, is considered one of the most environmentally friendly legislators in the country. He entered politics after a 20-year career with Colorado Outward Bound, including several as its executive director. He served one term in the Colorado House of Representatives before winning a tight battle for a U.S. House seat in 1998. He easily won re-election in 2000 and 2002 and is widely considered to be unbeatable.

Udall unexpectedly became the representative of Aspen and all of Pitkin County earlier this month when Republicans in the Colorado Legislature undertook a controversial redistricting. It removed Pitkin County from the 3rd Congressional District, represented by Republican Scott McInnis, and placed it in Udall’s 2nd district.

Udall was selected to present the commencement speech even before the redistricting move was made, according to Aspen High School teacher Linda Lafferty, who is also a senior class co-sponsor.

“The seniors picked him as the speaker, which I think is indicative of this class’s commitment to the environment and serious issues in the world around them,” she said.

Aspen High School’s graduation ceremony is Saturday, May 24, at 2 p.m. at the Aspen Music Tent.

Udall promised two things that politicians rarely promise regarding speeches. First, he said, it won’t be political. And second, it won’t be long.

[Scott Condon’s e-mail address is]

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