Legends & Legacies: Lift 3 — 50 years of service
Legends & Legacies
The location and speed of lifts and lift lines dictate the way skiers use the mountain. It is interesting that there is a similarity between today and when the Aspen Skiing Co. opened its first two lifts. The Silver Queen Gondola entices skiers to ski top-to-bottom runs. The first two lifts, by necessity, did the same.
The bottom of Lift 2 was at the top of the FIS (Midway), accessible to someone skiing from the top of the mountain down only by taking a road from Tourtolotte Park and climbing the last section of it to Midway. There were few runs. The most common way down was through Tourtolotte Park, on down Spar Gulch, and then taking the Magnifico Cut Off back to the bottom of Lift 1.
The lack of options challenged beginners so they stayed on the T-Bar on Little Nell. While the skiing business was expanding with new beginner skiers, most were intermediate or expert. In addition to the skiing ability limitation, there was also the problem of ski conditions in the beginning of the season with not enough snow on the bottom of the mountain. However, the growth in the number of beginners prompted the Skico to seek a solution.
The solution was obvious: A lift was needed to serve the upper portion of the mountain with its bottom approachable from the FIS and all of the runs funneling into the upper portion of Spar Gulch.
The Skico lost money in its first few years. The financial condition improved by 1953 when a new lift was being considered, but the company was still stuck in its founding limitation, that it would serve few skiers. The lift capacity was designed with that in mind. Additional investment was not high on the list. Another limitation in the early years was that the lodge capacity in town was also limited, but by 1953 additional lodges opened.
The 1953 ski season pushed the issue because for the first time there were long lines, especially on Lift 1. The Skico asked engineers to see if more chairs could be added to increase the capacity, then at 275 skiers an hour.
The Skico decided in 1954 to build an inexpensive lift for the upper mountain called a platter-pull, not a chairlift. The community had been pushing the company to expand lift capacity and cut more beginner-intermediate runs for a couple of years, but there was little response from the Skico. There were few locals on the board and its meetings were held in Denver.
The Aspen Chamber of Commerce organized its members to ask for a better solution. A committee led by Henry Stein arranged to attend a board meeting. They pushed for a chairlift. The estimate for a chairlift was $100,000 ($820,000 in today’s dollars). The chamber offered to fund 25% of the cost, providing a loan to the Skico for 10 years with a 4% interest rate. The Skico agreed to the deal.
The chamber raised the money in less than a month with locals signing up for as little as $100. It would be a local effort including the workers. Heron Engineering, which designed the first two lifts, was engaged and work began as soon as the snow melted. It would be a double chairlift 4,800 feet long with a vertical rise of 1,140 feet. The lift line was laid out and was the same as the Ajax Express that replaced it. The capacity was 500 skiers an hour, about one-fifth of the current Ajax capacity. Construction went fast with no delays and the lift was ready for the ski season, opening with a dedication Dec. 19, 1954.
I was an early rider on the lift, but with an inauspicious introduction. My uncle, Frank Willoughby, was my guide. There was a line and I watched the loading; you had to move in quickly. I was small for my age and was the shortest person in line. I skied into place with my uncle; the chair picked me up but I was barely on the chair. It swung and threw my off into deep powder. The lift operator rescued me and placed me on another chair and that began my years of pleasurable skiing on the top of the mountain.
It is worth noting the longevity of #3. It ran for nearly a half a century before being replaced by the Ajax Express in 2003.
Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at email@example.com.