John Callahan’s adventurous spirit leads to Aspen Hall of Fame

John Callahan, left, and Jim Markalunas prepare for a backpacking trip from Aspen to Vail in August 1967.
Callahan family/courtesy photo |


What: Aspen Hall of Fame banquet

When: Saturday, cocktails 5 p.m., dinner 6 p.m.

Where: Hotel Jerome

Tickets: $150, call 970-948-8171

Inductees: John and Cynthia Callahan

Charlie and Fonda Paterson, Dick Merritt

The Aspen Hall of Fame has a laundry list of good reasons why John Callahan is being inducted Saturday, but one of his lesser-known feats might be one of his most interesting.

Callahan and his good friend Jim Markalunas backpacked from Aspen to Vail 50 years ago this summer — well ahead of the time when multi-night, backcountry travel by foot for recreation became en vogue.

They accomplished what was believed to be the first direct hike between the established mining town and fledgling ski resort. Callahan recalled that they left on a Sunday morning, right after mass at St. Mary Catholic Church.

They covered about 70 miles in five nights and six days, crossing four mountain ranges, following game trails and relying on Markalunas’ familiarity of the drainages. He was a native son and manager of the Aspen Water Plant.

It was an era before there were trails maintained by the U.S. Forest Service, at least along that route.

“Nobody had walked the damned thing,” Callahan said.

They didn’t encounter anyone else on the hike. “Not a soul,” Callahan said.

Markalunas said they felt they were the first to make the journey because Vail had only come into existence a few years before.

They started up Hunter Creek Valley, cut cross-country to Lenado and made their first camp on Porphyry Mountain, according to an Aug. 30, 1967, article in The Aspen Times. They made their way to Norrie, then into the North Fork of the Fryingpan River. They crossed the Continental Divide at Blodgett Creek and eventually made their way to Minturn before following Two Elks Creek to Vail’s back bowls.

Callahan said they found a locked ski patrol hut at the top of Vail Mountain. As an employee of the Aspen Skiing Co., he suspected the patrollers had hidden keys. They found one and slept indoors for a change.

The next day they walked down into Vail, where they were “enthusiastically welcomed,” according to the old article.

Callahan and his wife, Cynthia, will be inducted into the Aspen Hall of Fame during a banquet ceremony Saturday night along with Charlie and Fonda Paterson and Dick Merritt. This is the 30th anniversary of the Aspen institution.

Callahan was no spring chicken when he made the trek to Vail. He was 39 years old at the time, but was immersed in the outdoors. The Callahans moved to Aspen in 1965 from Los Angeles. John checked out Crested Butte, but decided on Aspen.

“I decided this had more promise,” he said.

He befriended parishioners at St. Mary’s, including Max Marolt. At Marolt’s suggestion, he said, they biked over Independence Pass, traveled to Buena Vista and continued on a multi-day cycling adventure one summer in the early 1970s. The details of the trip have faded for the 89-year-old Callahan, but the spirit of adventure remains vivid. He was intrigued by adventure since growing up poor and depending on books in the libraries in Boston and New York City, he said.

He said he initially didn’t like the idea of being inducted into the Aspen Hall of Fame.

“I didn’t do anything out of the ordinary,” he said. He eventually warmed to the idea after realizing that normal folks are as important to the history of Aspen as wealthy business magnates and movers and shakers in government.

“I represent a type of Aspenite that doesn’t fit in that group (of rich and powerful) but fits in the overall Aspen beauty,” Callahan said.

Following are biographies of the inductees, supplied by the Aspen Hall of Fame:

John and Cynthia Callahan

John and Cynthia Callahan moved to Aspen in 1965. After stints as a bartender and lodge front desk manager, John began his 20-year career with the Aspen Ski Corp. (now Aspen Skiing Co.) at Buttermilk as one of the first Spanish-speaking ski instructors and then moved to ski patroller, helping cut Racer’s Edge, Magic Carpet and Rabbit Run trails. He was a founding member of Aspen Savings and Loan. He spent 25 years with Mountain Rescue Aspen, serving as one of its original members. He helped build two of the Braun Huts, served on the board of the Aspen Ski Club in the early ’70s and was instrumental in the formation of the Nor-Am ski races. He helped found and was race director of the annual Aspen Mini Marathon, now the Golden Leaf Marathon.

Cynthia, who died in 2005, was an active volunteer with the Thrift Shop of Aspen, Aspen Historical Society, Pitkin County 4-H Club and St. Mary Catholic Church. She was involved with the Roaring Fork Kennel Club and was president of the Western Colorado Watercolor Society. Her art was featured in many local art shows. Over the years she worked for Aspen Skiing Co. and the Continental Inn.

Charlie and Fonda Paterson

Charlie and Fonda Paterson have been giving back to the Aspen community for decades. Charlie began his extraordinary service to the community when he arrived in 1949 from Austria. As an architectural apprentice to Frank Lloyd Wright, he designed and built one of the earliest ski lodges in Aspen, the Boomerang Lodge. His resume reads like the “true local” he is — ski packer, waiter, restaurant owner, ski instructor, lodge owner, architect and volunteer. He served on the board of the Aspen Chamber and Aspen Lodging Association and spent 40 years on the Board of Adjustments. He was hired by Friedl Pfeifer, worked for Fred Iselin and was influenced by Walter Paepcke and Fritz Benedict.

In addition to her role as lodge owner and manager, Fonda has been a chairwoman of the Aspen Community Church trustees and board member of the Aspen Valley Foundation and the Thrift Shop of Aspen. Both Charlie and Fonda have been on the board of the Aspen Music Festival and School for years.

Dick Merritt

Richard (Dick) Merritt is a retired Lieutenant Colonel who served in the U.S. Marine Corps and has been very active in all aspects of the military community in the Roaring Fork Valley. He is a veteran of the Vietnam War and has dedicated his life to helping other veterans afflicted with post-traumatic stress disorder by taking them on Huts for Vets backcountry trips. He also has participated in the winter sports clinic for disabled veterans and worked with the Aspen Institute and Colorado Mountain College to focus on veterans’ issues. He completed the We Honor Veterans Volunteer Training program by Hospice of the Valley and became instrumental in the Roaring Fork Veterans History Project that began in 2007 and memorializes the stories of local servicemen and women.