Looking back at Joe Biden’s visits to Aspen and Snowmass
Locals recall encounters with the new president during his five visits since 2011
“I’m not a bad skier,” Joe Biden told an informally assembled group of disabled veterans on Fanny Hill in Snowmass Village in March 2011. “I’m blowing down the hill, when one of your guys passed me! He said, ‘Hey, Mr. Vice President!'”
This moment, captured in video shot by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), shows Biden — sporting his trademark aviator sunglasses with jeans, a ballcap and a ski jacket — greeting veterans and instructors during the 25th annual National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic.
The vet who sped past the vice president in his sit-ski is among the many people with a story of encountering the future president in the Aspen area.
Biden’s time on the mountain with the vets in 2011 came during his first visit here as sitting vice president. Four more trips have followed for the 46th president of the United States, including family vacations, political events and policy talks at the Aspen Institute.
During that first visit, Biden spent a week in a private home in Snowmass Village with Dr. Jill Biden, children Beau, Hunter and Ashley and grandchildren.
During his week of skiing, the vice president ate a daily brown-bag lunch at a base area picnic table or on the deck at Elk Camp. He explained to an observer that he didn’t want to disrupt customers and businesses by dining in a restaurant, which would require a security sweep and closures. He also sought out small business owners on the Snowmass Village mall and attended services at a local church on Sunday morning.
Most memorably, Biden made that surprise visit to the veterans’ clinic, the annual Snowmass event co-presented by the VA and the nonprofit Disabled American Veterans hosting armed services vets for adaptive skiing and sports. Learning the clinic was happening after he had arrived, the vice president met with vets on the hill and the next day made an unannounced appearance to address the crowd of 400-plus veterans at its opening ceremony.
“You have no idea the inspiration you’ve provided for literally tens of thousands, millions of Americans who feel like they are down on their luck and ready to give up,” a teary-eyed Biden told the crowd. “They look at you. You give them new life. So don’t underestimate what you continue to do for our country.”
As Biden introduced his family, Beau, an Iraq war vet, received a whooping welcome from the crowd.
“I saw a great deal of compassion from this man while he was here,” valley resident Lara Xaiz wrote in an October 2020 Facebook post about observing Biden at the event. “It was obvious that he cares about our military, past and present, and that he cares about every day people.”
Biden would return two winters later for a Presidents’ Day weekend ski trip in February 2013. First Lady Michelle Obama skied that weekend in Aspen as well with the first daughters. In 2014 he made a quick visit to participate in the private Forstmann Little conference. His fourth and final visit as sitting vice president came in July 2016 when he sat for a public interview with Walter Isaacson in Greenwald Pavilion at the Aspen Ideas Festival.
Biden devoted most of that talk to his work on the “moonshot” to cure cancer. But he spent the first few moments on stage razzing friends in the audience, including former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who at the time was rumored to be a possible vice presidential pick for Donald Trump.
“He’s a damn Republican,” Biden said of Gingrich. “But I love him.”
Biden made one known trip here as a private citizen between leaving the vice presidency in 2017 and Wednesday’s inauguration. That August 2019 visit was centered around a fundraiser for Biden’s 2020 campaign hosted at the home of Jane and Marc Nathanson near the Northstar Nature Preserve. He devoted his remarks to the rise of white supremacy groups and racial division during the Trump years.
“I never thought I’d say this about a president, but he’s fomenting hatred, and he’s dividing us based on ethnicity, religion, color, background,” Biden told assembled supporters. “We can’t sustain ourselves that way. You can’t define what freedom in America is, based on any of those criteria.”
Carl Heck, the longtime Aspenite known for his concise and comedic letters to the editor, was conscripted unexpectedly and happily into Biden’s service as a driver in 2014.
Heck was operating a gallery in the Residences at the Little Nell at the time. He struck up a conversation with a customer, he recalled, who turned out to be an advance man for Biden’s security team and asked Heck if he’d be willing to drive members of the vice president’s team during an Aspen visit.v
“I have no idea how or why they selected me,” Heck recalled last week, noting he had volunteered for Democratic campaigns locally but never held a post in the party. (As it turns out, the Secret Service had gone to Pitkin County Democratic Party Chair Blanca O’Leary for the names of “dependable and safe” people who might drive in the vice president’s motorcade, she said. She recommended Heck.)
Heck would drive in the Biden motorcade on three visits and struck up an unexpected friendship with the future president.
Behind the wheel of an SUV in a 30-plus car motorcade from Aspen to Eagle County Airport, one of the wheels of Heck’s vehicle — carrying members of the National Security Agency team — blew out on Highway 82 near Carbondale.
“I found out that it’s better than having AAA to call the White House,” he said with a laugh. “We had help immediately.”
During the 2016 visit, Heck was in the midst of treatment for prostate cancer. Biden, who whose son Beau had died of cancer the year earlier and whose “moonshot” initiative had recently launched, had heard about Heck’s diagnosis.
“When I walked up to shake his hand, he wrapped his arms around me and started hugging me and talking to me about it,” Heck recalled. “He hugged me for so long that Secret Service actually walked over to see what the hell was going on. He was such a gentleman. It was inspiring.”
Three years later, when Biden was once again a private citizen, Biden asked Heck to drive him and Jill Biden during their stay. When Biden spotted Heck on the runway, Heck recalled, Biden bee-lined to him to celebrate Heck’s health.
“He was genuinely happy I’d beat it,” Heck recalled. “He didn’t treat me like he was the vice president. He treated me like I was a friend.”
Locals’ experiences speak to Biden’s long-standing reputation for forging those kinds of personal relationships and for back-slapping bonhomie as well as the rare political gifts that led him to election as a U.S. Senator at age 29 and buoyed him through his long career (with the vets he cracked a joke about his “200 years in the U.S. Senate”) and his ascendance to the presidency at age 78.
“He is a warm, empathetic fellow,” O’Leary summed it up. “He shakes your hand with both hands and he knows what he is talking about.”
Howard Wallach also drove for Biden during the 2014 visit. Toward the end of that visit, Wallach recalled, Biden tapped Wallach for some local intel on the U.S. Senate race between Cory Gardner and Mark Udall.
“He put his arm around me and said, ‘I want to ask you what’s going on in this senate race,'” Wallach recalled. “‘Let’s take a walk.'”
Wallach, who in 2015 would succeed O’Leary as party chair, said Biden had a fluent understanding of the political dynamics and issues of Colorado down to the county level.
“It was great fun to talk retail politics with him,” Wallach said.
And five years later, when Biden and Wallach met again at the Nathansons’ party, he said, Biden remembered the conversation in detail. The experience made Wallach a stout defender of Biden whenever people cast doubt on his mental faculties during the 2020 campaign.
“The fact is his memory is extraordinary,” Wallach said.
Betty Wallach, who served as a delegate for Biden to the virtual 2020 Democratic National Convention, noted that Biden also threw locals some support during that campaign. When she put in a request for the candidate to appear at the county party’s annual fundraising dinner in September, she was surprised and honored when Biden did send a short video addressing local volunteers and party members.
Smaller interactions locally have made an impression as well. The ski blog Unofficial Networks last year published a story and video of Biden crossing the plaza at Two Creeks in Snowmass to say hello to a toddler and her father. Basalt’s Bernie Grauer, in a letter to the Aspen Times printed in November, recalled attempting to take a selfie with Biden in 2019: “I was fumbling around with my phone. Joe saw my difficulties and smiled at me and offered to take the phone and took the picture of us. Just that simple gesture of caring and warmth cemented my support for him, when his campaign still seemed like a long shot.”
Amid the cascading crises of the coronavirus pandemic, the recession, and the insurrection, locals Heck, O’Leary and Wallach all expressed relief to have Biden stepping into the White House. Heck said he hasn’t gotten to think about it much.
“Not with the ongoing bullshit since the election and contesting the election,” he said. “But slowly I’ve just been overwhelmed with joy and relief.”
President George H.W. Bush walking outside with Margaret Thatcher in Aspen on Aug. 3, 1990 (Aspen Historical Society, Mary Eshbaugh Hayes Collection)
U.S. Presidents, Vice Presidents, first families and Washington power players have been fixtures here since the founding of modern Aspen after World War II, when the roots of the Aspen Institute were planted along with the “Aspen Idea.” City father Walter Paepcke’s brother-in-law Paul Nitze, who shaped Cold War policy from the Truman to the Johnson administrations, was among the early regulars in Aspen.
But presidential visits go back to the years before Aspen’s rebirth as a ski resort. As sitting president, President Theodore Roosevelt came through town on a bear hunt in 1905 and earlier, as a vice presidential candidate, on a 1900 campaign swing with President William McKinley.
The most consequential presidential visit came in August 1990, when sitting President George H.W. Bush came to town for anniversary events at the Aspen Institute soon after Iraq invaded Kuwait. President Bush met with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at the Woody Creek home of Henry Catto, Jr. — then U.S. Ambassador to the U.K — to strategize their response and chart the course of the looming Gulf War.
Former First Lady Jackie Kennedy spent Christmas week here in 1964, the year after President Kennedy’s murder, with their children and extended family. The trip began the ongoing Kennedy family tradition of spending the holidays in Aspen.
In more recent history, First Lady Michelle Obama came to Aspen and skied Buttermilk with the first daughters over Presidents Day weekends from 2012 to 2014 (she also came as first lady for a July 2011 fundraiser; Barack Obama isn’t known to have visited since a 2005 Aspen Ideas Fest talk).
Michelle Obama, in her 2018 memoir “Becoming,” details how skiing was one of the few ways she could escape her role and blend in, a skill she honed incognito with the first daughters at Liberty Mountain in Pennsylvania.
“The most liberating activity of all turned out to be downhill skiing,” she wrote, “a sport with which I had little experience but that quickly became a passion. … Gliding down a ski slope, I was outdoors, in motion and unrecognized – all at once. For me, it was like flying.”
President Jimmy Carter was celebrated locally when he visited for a speech at American Renewable Energy Day in 2015 and for post-presidency vacations including one in summer 1982.
The Clintons made multiple trips to Aspen in the 1990s and since, but public events for the president and first lady, senator and secretary of state have been few in recent years. Bill Clinton last spoke at the Aspen Institute in 2011; Hillary Clinton in 2014.
President Trump didn’t visit here as president, but his Aspen exploits in his decades as a private citizen and celebrity are well-chronicled. Most notoriously, in December 1989, was the tabloid-ready confrontation at Bonnie’s Restaurant on Aspen Mountain between the future president, his then-wife, Ivana, and his mistress/future ex-wife, Marla Maples, both of whom he had brought to town during a vacation. Several of Trump’s children and grandchildren also vacationed in Aspen in March 2017.
Vice President Mike Pence drew controversy as well during a December 2017 vacation, when, in protest of Pence’s support for anti-gay policies, a neighbor of the home the Pence family stayed in on Owl Creek Road hung a banner that read “Make America Gay Again” and planted rainbow flags in the space between the two homes. Pence returned in 2019 for a Trump 2020 fundraiser at the Caribou Club in Aspen.