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High Points: Reminiscing on Aspen, before gentrification and “gonzo”

Paul E. Anna
High Points
Skiers make their way down the Little Nell run on the lower slopes of Aspen Mountain in the early 1950s. A T-bar, which was located to the left, served the slope.
Dunaway Collection/Aspen Historical Society

Many of you have likely already read the rambling story in Outside Magazine by Roger Marolt, formerly a columnist for The Aspen Times, that laments the state of Aspen as it exists today. Marolt, who had the good fortune to be born here, passionately and poetically provides a history lesson and a homage to a place that has changed radically over the 60 years since his birth. And yes, it is depressing.  

I recently stumbled upon a story that ran 65 years ago this week in the Jan. 13, 1958, issue of Sports Illustrated magazine. Ironically, it is a perfect prelude to Marolt’s coda. Written by Mort Lund, the piece is titled “Sophistication and Snow,” and it served as an introduction to Aspen, the town, and Aspen, the resort, for the readers of SI — another institution that, lamentably, is not what it once was.

But, the Lund story can’t help but bring a smile to your face.



“Aspen is the City of Lights for American skiers” is the opening line and, from there, he paints a portrait of a place that offers such authentic ski-town perfection that it hardly seems real. Like Marolt, he delves into the history of Aspen and talks of its silver-town origins and the arrival of Walter Paepcke and Friedl Pfeifer. But, the difference is that Lund’s visit coincided with the birth of the ski town. And, he reveled in it.

“Aspen draws the country’s sophisticated skiers by the lodgeful. They come to enjoy the superb Alpine atmosphere, to ski the miles of trails and to join the round of after-ski dinners and parties for which Aspen is famous.” He takes readers on a virtual post-ski day walk around town, recommending the Skiers’ Chalet, the Little Nell Café (“get a bourbon toddy and a delicious bowl of oyster stew”), Guido’s Swiss Inn, and the “biggest bar in town”: The Hotel Jerome.




For the aforementioned “lodgeful,” Lund notes, “Getting a room or a bed in Aspen is only a question of price — the town holds 1,500 skiers, so there is plenty of room for everybody. Lodging fees begin at $2.50 for a dormitory bunk at the Roaring Fork and $3 for a bed at the Prince Albert Dormitory.” Nobody is booking dorm rooms in the Aspen of today.

The SI story also offered up a who’s-who of the characters of the time, including “Ski instructor Ralph Jackson, a youthful 44, is self-proclaimed ‘King of the Ski Bums,’ and waitress Dianne Merrill of Portland, Ore., (who) is typical of the pretty ex-collegians who spend winter in Aspen. A regular job waiting on tables at Golden Horn restaurant gave Dianne free time to ski all morning, enjoy parties with Aspen’s younger crowd after work.” And, a ski report for the week in a separate section said: “Aspen Colo.: Snow conditions excellent. Slim hipped girl skiers wearing red-and-blue striped Bogners.” What’s not to like?

The layout in the issue features a hand-drawn line map of the trails on Aspen Mountain and the five lifts that were in service at that time. Lund found it necessary to describe some of the aspects that make skiing Aspen unique.

“A word should be said here about the moguls, Aspen variety,” he wrote. “They are not to be confused with the Eastern kind, which usually grow in well-separated groups of twos and threes. Aspen’s are bunched like waves in a choppy sea. The efficient ski school run by Co-Directors Friedl Pfeifer and Fred Iselin teaches skiers how to handle them in controlled runs, but moguls can be murder at high speed.” A challenge issued to all who longed to ski the West.

Lund’s story was from a very different time. There was no Buttermilk or Aspen Highlands — both would open later that year in 1958. Gonzo was not even a word, wealth was on a different scale, and there was a sense that things might stay the way they were, forever.

Obviously, change is the only constant. But, it is nice to reminisce occasionally.

If you want to see and read Mort Lund’s piece in its original form, go to: https://vault.si.com/vault/1958/01/13/sophistication-and-snow

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