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Climbing prodigies

Tim Willoughby
Aspen times Weekly
Willoughby collectionThe Park Tram base terminal, left, became the Tippler Inn. The tower at right was, for a time, Aspen's tallest structure.
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There were no trees to climb in my back yard, but the telephone pole in the alley piqued my interest. Today, buildings line that alley: Little Annie’s on Hyman Avenue, and the Cooper Street complex on the other side. As an 8-year-old, all I saw was a leafless tree with metal branches spaced like a ladder. If I could reach the first one, about 10 feet up, it would be an easy climb to the top. Anyone driving on Cooper or Hyman could see me. Law enforcement spotted me by the time I was 15 feet up.

I anticipated a fatherly reprimand. Instead, my father told me his own story of childhood climbing, one hard to top.

Aspen experienced a mining resurgence in 1922. The price of silver reached a post-1893 high of $1.35 per ounce. A new tram was under construction designed by the same American Steel and Wire Company that designed Aspen’s first ski lift. The new Park Tunnel Tram would connect mines at the top of Keno Gulch to the bottom terminal near the end of Galena Street. The railroad loading area and two concentrating plants that mixed ore for shipment to smelters were located nearby.

The Compromise Tram at the end of Hunter Street was still in operation. It transported mine dump material to mills where new methods of extraction profitably processed silver that had been wasted a decade before. Youth that were brave enough to climb the lower tram tower would jump into the moving buckets and ride up Aspen Mountain. They jumped off into another tower before reaching the top of the tram, because their courage would not withstand the physical retribution administered by the operator if he caught them playing on his tram.

Seeking riskier challenges, my father, 14 at the time, dared a friend to climb the new Park Tram tower. For the two decades of its existence, the tower was Aspen’s tallest structure at about 100 feet in height. A ladder extended to the top, where two cables swooped up the mountain as far as you could see in one span. Most of the construction had been completed, but it was not yet running. One cable over an inch in diameter was a non-moving cable that supported the descending loaded buckets. A second smaller, moving cable pulled the empty buckets back to the top.

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Enjoying the view from their high perch was still not adequately challenging, so my father impressed his accomplice by tightrope-walking 50 feet out on the lower cable. Doing so presented no great feat, considering his gymnastic skills, as long as he held the upper cable tightly.

As my father began his return walk, he noticed they had drawn attention: “You kids get down from there!” Father felt incensed when he recognized the man below, Rip Carteen, the city dogcatcher.

“You coming up to get us?” Father rudely replied, knowing there was no way Carteen was about to climb that tower. “If you say ‘please,’ we’ll come down.”

“Please come down,” he said, and that ended the confrontation. The mayor had spotted them and sent Carteen to deal with the miscreants. The punishment, at least in Father’s memory, was the humiliation of being apprehended by a dogcatcher.


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