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Dick and Drack do the Bells

Tim Willoughby
Aspen Times Weekly
Dick and Drack Volk atop the Maroon Bells in 1956.
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The Volk family pioneered second-home ownership, a classification not used in mid-century Aspen.

Volks have trekked over the mountains from Denver since 1945. Russell Volk became a legendary athlete at the Colorado School of Mines in the days when that school was in the same conference as Colorado University. He later founded Plains Exploration Company, pioneering oil and gas fields. Alice Volk, as small as her husband was large, toured as a ballerina with Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame dancer Portia Mansfield before her marriage to “Rut.” After the family’s first trip to Aspen, Alice, concerned about a polio epidemic in Denver, announced her desire for her four children to spend summers protected in small-town Aspen. After catching fish in the Roaring Fork, Russell concurred.

The Volks purchased six lots in Oklahoma Flats for back taxes that included two aging houses. They roughed it for a few years without indoor plumbing while gradually upgrading and enlarging their houses. They settled on the one with stream frontage as the family home away from home.



The two oldest children, Dick and Drack, spent several summers remodeling one of the houses. When not wielding hammers, they behaved as typical male teenagers; risk-taking was routine. In the 1950s the quickest route to Aspen from Denver was over the graveled and narrow Independence Pass road. They timed the weekly trip and kept records. Once a solid record had been set, the boys sought new challenges, such as driving the trip steering only with knees.

Summer Sundays meant fishing trips to Maroon Lake. It was a special place for exploring and angling, and pointy peaks invited the boys to their summits. By the time Dick and Drack were in their early twenties they found themselves overwhelmed by the urge to climb. Drack took a climbing class at CU, where he learned the basics. Both had scaled the Flatirons as teens. Drack, who always pushed the limits, was exploring old mines near Boulder when a pipe handhold broke loose. He fell down a mine shaft, breaking an arm. Fortunately he landed in water where he managed to stay afloat until he was rescued.




In May 1956, when plenty of snow still clung to the peaks, the brothers decided to do the Bells. Drack had recently returned from a tour in the Army and Dick had just completed an academic year at the Colorado School of Mines. Their mother, nicknamed Napoleon by her children, ruled over the family with a powerful voice and uncompromising grit. Knowing she would raise a fuss, Dick and Drack just told her they were going fishing.

Neither of them had climbed a peak before; this was going to be their first fourteener. With crampons, ice axes and rope they made their way straight up the snowfield to the top. After summiting two of the peaks, they started their descent. Their discussion about which end of the ice ax should be used to slow their speed while glissading preceded their trip down, and continues to this day. Neither end slowed their speed adequately as they made frantic attempts to stop. Drack’s canvas ax strap broke; he lost use of his ax. Roped together, they flew down the ice sheet.

Dick and Drack estimate that they slid a thousand vertical feet before miraculously coming to a stop, a football field’s length from a cliff face. Had they tumbled over, we likely would not know this story. The Bells adventure became a family legend. Maroon Lake remains their favored destination.