Willoughby: A gift that resurrects history and keeps it alive | AspenTimes.com

Willoughby: A gift that resurrects history and keeps it alive

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies

Aspen Ski Club climbs Mt. Hayden in 1936.

Doris and Frank Willoughby captured many of the photos that accompany my column. My aunt and uncle each had a good eye for composition, their skill enlarged by the quality to their camera, a Leica. The images they rendered in black and white illustrate the difference and sameness of our worlds.

I remember that camera from my childhood. My aunt and uncle carried it wherever they went. When not outside on a hike or picnic trip, the camera sat on a shelf right by the front door — ready to go.

This camera had a history that made it special to my family. A very early Leica I, the model came out in 1927. The serial number registered in the low hundreds. Leica, an early user of the 35mm format, perfected thin minimalist cameras. The Leitz-Elmar lenses of unparalleled quality well suited the parts, which resembled those of a Swiss watch, designed to last forever.

When not in use, the lens collapsed toward the body and this action made the camera slender. Even allowing for the thick leather cover, the entire instrument would fit inside a large pocket. This versatility paired perfectly with short excursions, and guaranteed its place on the most exhausting backpack trip.

My aunt and uncle had not purchased it themselves. Andre Roch presented it to them as a gift. The Highland Bavarian partners had hired Roch to evaluate Aspen for their intended ski operation. He arrived in 1936 and asked Willoughby for help. His request grew out of several connections. Tom Flynn, one of the partners, knew Fred Willoughby, my grandfather. They considered Little Annie Basin as the site for the ski operation, and that land belonged to the Midnight Mine, which Willoughby managed. Willoughby assigned his two sons, who skied and knew the Castle Creek Valley, to assist with the project.

Frank bonded with Roch immediately because they shared a passion: mountaineering in all its forms. The two men climbed up Aspen's mountains, including a winter ascent to the top of Castle Peak. Then they skied down every slope in the region that held potential for a commercial skiing operation.

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In addition to expertise with snow and avalanches, Roch's talents included photography. He had worked as photographer for the 1952 Swiss expedition that came close to being the first to conquer Everest.

During his sojourn in Aspen, Roch took many photographs with his Leica, including the one used with this article. My parents' home displayed his artistry, as did the homes of two sets of aunts and uncles. Roch used his photos as references for oil paintings. He lived with my parents during the summer before he left, and those paintings adorned our walls.

Roch gave my uncle Frank his camera as a parting gift, and fortunately Leica guaranteed the camera for life. Twenty years later, when my uncle sent it in for repair, the camera came back like new. During the 1960s, Roch sent my uncle another Leica. Like the first gift, the second one lacked a built-in light meter. But the newer, color-corrected, Leitz lens improved his photographs. Although the second gift represented a step up in the world of bare bones cameras, the first Leica remained my uncle's favorite.

My uncle took photos primarily of Aspen's backcountry, and used Kodak slide film. He rarely changed the camera settings. Nevertheless, a slow ASA film usually produced stellar results. When slides arrived from the processing lab, my uncle filtered them and culled the poor ones. He stored the better photos in metal slide file boxes, by the hundreds.

I remember sorting those images, seeking stories and signs of life. There must have been 50 shots of Maroon Bells. But those common tourist shots did not reveal much about our people, their joy and sorrow. My search paid off when I opened a trove of slides that captured and confirmed the celebration of Aspen's Winterskol.

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 redmtn2@comcast.net.