Little fanfare for 60th anniversary of Aspen Highlands and Buttermilk

Ski season is rapidly coming to an end with little fanfare over the 60th anniversary of Aspen Highlands and Buttermilk.

Aspen Skiing Co. doesn’t have dedicated birthday celebrations for the ski areas but both of them will host some raucous parties to end the season. Buttermilk will be the site of a new music festival called The Après on April 5 to 7. Umphrey’s McGee will play the outdoor festival at the Buttermilk base April 5 with The String Cheese Incident jamming April 6 and 7.

Aspen Highlands is still scheduled to host its closing party Sunday, April 14, even though its season has been extended for two additional weekends.

Both ski areas have carved out a distinctive niche since their beginning days. Aspen Highlands has evolved into an expert skiers’ paradise with Highland Bowl on every skier’s bucket list. It’s enjoying one of its best seasons since its heydays in the 1970s.

Buttermilk has vastly expanded its stature as a beginner’s mountain by becoming ground zero for the spectacle of the Winter X Games each January. And the Tiehack side of the ski area has become an uphilling mecca.

Entrepreneurs who saw and seized opportunities in the rapidly growing ski industry founded both ski areas independently for the 1958-59 season.

Friedl Pfeifer, who led efforts to establish skiing on Aspen Mountain, was concerned in the early 1950s that beginners and families with children were avoiding Aspen because the terrain was too tough. He liked the looks of a hill west of Aspen for teaching skiing so he bought 300 acres in 1953, according to “Re-creation Through Recreation: Aspen Skiing from 1870 to 1970,” a thorough report researched and written by Anne Gilbert for the Aspen Historical Society in 1995.

Aspen Skiing Corp. declined an invitation from Pfeifer to develop the new ski area, so he teamed with Art Pfister.

“Buttermilk ski area opened for business during the 1958-59 season, with a 4,000-foot Dopplemeyer T-bar that rose 720 vertical feet,” Gilbert wrote.

Buttermilk started slow. Pfeifer met students at Rubey Park in Aspen and bused them to Buttermilk for their lessons. He recruited additional investors after that initial season and pursued expansion in coming winter.

Buttermilk was a friendly competitor to Aspen Mountain, according to Gilbert. Pfister and other investors in Buttermilk also were on the board of directors for Aspen Skiing Corp.

“The two skiing corporations came ever closer together in the summer of 1963 when Friedl Pfeifer sold his interest in the Buttermilk Mountain Skiing Corp. and leased the ski area to the Aspen Skiing Corporation,” Gilbert wrote.

Aspen Highlands would remain independent for nearly another 30 years and maintain the maverick image of its founder, Whipple Van Ness Jones. Jones bought 156 acres of land at the base of what would become Aspen Highlands in the 1950s. He was encouraged by the U.S. Forest Service to consider developing a ski area so he approached Aspen skiing pioneers Dick Durrance, Fred Iselin and Pfeifer for an assessment. They gave positive reviews, Gilbert wrote in “Re-creation Through Recreation,” so Jones leased 4,000 acres from the Forest Service and hired Pete Seibert and Earl Eaton to help lay out trails and plan chairlifts. (The duo went on to found Vail in 1962.)

“Aspen Highlands opened for the 1958-59 season with two chairlifts, a T-bar and a short rope tow,” Gilbert wrote.

Former Olympic ski racer Stein Eriksen commanded immediate attention for the ski area as ski school director.

“During its first season Highlands had almost 30,000 skier visits compared to 93,000 on Aspen Mountain and 16,400 on Buttermilk,” Gilbert wrote.

Former Aspen Highlands ski instructor John Moore wrote a book last year called “A History of Aspen Highlands.” He credited Highlands’ rapid growth to Jones’ embrace of unusual marketing schemes and a genuine desire to let people have fun. The ski area hosted Skiing-in-Bikini contests, hot dog ski contests and other activities frowned upon at Aspen Mountain, according to Moore.

Eriksen attracted crowds by performing aerial somersaults on the slopes in the earlier days. Later, members of the ski patrol would wow crowds by jumping the Cloud Nine restaurant deck with a toboggan.

Jones also relished competing with the bigger skiing company in Aspen.

“From the very start, Whip was determined to find ways to be different in order to compete with the Ski Corp, including maintenance of low ticket and ski school prices,” Moore wrote in his book.

By 1978, Aspen Highlands logged nearly 321,000 skier days. But Jones also alienated many business associates and some of his workers over the years with a legendary tight handle on the purse strings.

“He’d pinch a quarter so hard that eagle would scream,” Mac Smith, the Aspen Highlands Ski Patrol director for 40 years and an employee at the ski area for 47 years, said recently.

He said he got along really well with Jones, in part because Smith was good at coming up with cheap solutions to problems.

Smith said Jones had a “real gusto for high-alpine terrain” that probably had been forgotten over all the decades. When he was exploring the idea of starting a ski area, Jones skinned up the terrain with his consultants to see it for himself.

Smith also credited Jones for keeping an open mind. Highlands embraced snowboarders a lot earlier than many ski areas.

Aspen Highlands experienced a long decline through the mid- and late-1980s when Jones became reluctant to make improvements and skier visits fell. Jones donated a portion of the ski area to his alma mater, Harvard University, in 1992. Developer Gerald Hines made arrangements to buy the ski operation and base area in 1993. He almost immediately folded Highlands into Aspen Skiing Co.’s operations for the 1993-94 season.

Smith said he feels that Highlands remains “distinctive within the stable” of Skico’s resorts. It has old-school wooden trail signs rather than the modern plastic ones used at the other three ski areas, for example. Sometimes the trail signs are intentionally a little obscure at Highlands. A skier must peer around trees limbs to see the sign.

“In the Lucky Find area, I want you to be lost,” Smith said. “The bumps don’t get as big.”

Highlands is getting both critical acclaim in places such as the Ski Magazine resort rankings, and popular acclaim. It’s on track for in the neighborhood of 215,000 skier visits this season, the best in many seasons. Smith finds the comeback gratifying.

“I really love this mountain,” he said. “I love it to death. I really do.”