Richard Compton remembered for his adventures, environmental work
Former Aspenite’s greatest legacy was grunt work to protect Thompson Divide
Former Aspen environmental activist and avid mountain adventurer Richard Compton died at his home in Massachusetts earlier this month at age 70.
Compton was part of the Aspen area’s small, tightknit backcountry skiing community starting in the late 1970s. He was also an early enthusiast of mountain biking who wrote Aspen’s first trail guidebook in 1986.
Compton also helped form a grassroots effort in 1987 to protest Aspen Skiing Co.’s lift ticket and season pass pricing policies. He and former Aspenite Richard Roth created a group called Aspenites for Restoring our Community, or ARC, that gathered 2,700 signatures asking Skico to reconsider its pricing direction and offer season passes with no validation fee. The uproar came after Skico raised the single-day ticket price to the then-outrageous level of $35.
But Compton’s greatest legacy was putting in the grunt work necessary to protect the unique landscape of the Thompson Divide area southwest of Carbondale and other unspoiled public lands in the region.
“He was a very early adopter of GIS technology and applying it to conservation work,” said Sloan Shoemaker, a former executive director of Wilderness Workshop.
Shoemaker and Compton were among the first full-time staff members of the homegrown environmental group in the late 1990s.
Shoemaker said Compton would create maps that would show roadless areas and then would visit the terrain on foot to “ground truth” that they possessed qualities worthy of wilderness designation or other conservation protections. His early work provided the basis for Wilderness Workshop and other conservation groups’ largely successful fight to protect the Thompson Divide.
“He called it the forgotten wilderness,” Shoemaker said. “That effort really stands on his shoulders because of his early work.”
Compton’s GIS mapping also established information on wildlife use patterns that is being used for planning of a possible crossing of Interstate 70 near Copper Mountain resort, according to Shoemaker.
Compton was far from an armchair adventurer. He explored the Elk Mountains surrounding Aspen by skis in winter and mountain bike by summer.
Lou Dawson, an iconic mountaineer from Carbondale, met Compton in the summer of 1967 when they attended a mountain sports-oriented boys camp called “The Ashcrofters” in upper Castle Creek Valley. They backpacked, rock climbed on Independence Pass and undertook other adventures at the camp directed by Dave Farney.
“He was talented athletically,” Dawson said. Both men would go on to teach at the National Outdoor Leadership School a few years after meeting.
They remained friends and Dawson helped Compton get established in Aspen shortly after Compton graduated from Harvard University in 1972. Dawson recalled that Compton first tried to make a living as a writer in New York City after college, then decided to move west.
Dawson invited him to swing by Aspen and met him for a beer at the Hotel Jerome, then provided him a place to stay at an old mining building that was converted into an artist colony and eventually taken over by ski bums.
“The first place he stayed was on the floor of the Durant barn,” Dawson recalled.
It was an era dominated by “the old Aspen feel,” Dawson recalled. “The counter-culture was strong. The possibilities were endless.”
Compton aimed to make a living as a writer, but took on a variety of jobs to make ends meet.
“He was like everybody else in town. He was skiing in the winters and rock climbing in the summers,” Dawson said.
Compton worked construction, painted houses, was a waiter at the Mother Lode restaurant, guided for Dick Jackson and was a ski instructor. He was part of a crew that undertook epic winter outings, often organized by Dawson.
One such adventure was the Elk Mountain Traverse in March 1981. Six young men departed from the base of Mount Sopris with the goal of reaching the ghost town of Ashcroft two weeks later. They had cached food along the route the prior fall.
“The route was as hard as Lou could make it, west to east down the full length of the Elk Range, skirting four fourteen thousand foot peaks, climbing and skiing two more — during the first two weeks of March, the snowiest time of the year,” Compton wrote in an article about the experience. He later picked up the story by saying, “In two solitary weeks we would never be more than a day’s ski from Aspen or one of its outlying settlements, striving only to experience the mountains as nakedly as our physical continuance and this confined wilderness would allow.”
Dawson called the endeavor “incredibly bold and stupid wrapped into one thing.” He had tried a similar trip the winter before with one friend, but had to abort.
“The (1981) trip was a little better. It was still a bust,” he said with a laugh.
Storms dumped copious amounts of snow and prevented them from completing the full route, but they always remembered the epic outing.
Dawson got a wild hair a year later and recruited Compton and Aspenite Ned Ryerson to accompany him on a spur-of-the-moment adventure at Thanksgiving: “Let’s just go sleep on the top of Mount Elbert.”
They skinned up a north route, relatively safe from avalanches. Dawson hauled up a turkey and they dined in a snow cave, washing it down with plenty of hot buttered rum.
They paid the price for imbibing and sleeping at 14,400. Dawson said it was fortunate they didn’t suffer from pulmonary edema.
“We were just animals then,” he said.
Compton shared his love of the backcountry with numerous friends, in outings both in summer and winter. His longtime friend Ryerson posted a comment Dec. 26 on Compton’s Facebook page that said, “RIP in my good friend. You were a great adventurer and never lead me too far astray. Sort of.”
Ryerson told The Aspen Times on Tuesday that one early spring in the early 1980s, Compton was determined to try another variation of the Elk Mountain Traverse. They departed from Snowmass Village, skinned up to Snowmass Lake and wrapped behind the Maroon Bells. They didn’t complete the planned route but nevertheless, had a great adventure. Ryerson said he knew he was in over his head as he listened to nearby avalanches, trekked for long hours over difficult terrain, dealt with wet leather boots and resorted to sending backpacks down couloirs to make sure snow conditions were safe enough to ski.
He found comfort in the fact he was with Compton.
“Who better to be with than somebody who thought of everything,” he said. “He was one of my mentors for backcountry skiing, as he was for several people in town.”
Ryerson said he has many fond memories of his longtime friend.
“He did have sort of an elfish grin and pleasure in what he was doing,” Ryerson said. “He was fun to be around.”
Ryerson said there are currently no plans for a local memorial, though it’s a safe bet that something will be held outdoors at the appropriate time. He last saw Compton about a year or so when he visited the Roaring Fork Valley.
“I put him up on the couch since we didn’t have a floor to offer him,” Ryerson joked.
Shoemaker also has found memories of his former colleague.
“He was a lovely person,” he said. “He was a combination of head in the stars and feet on the ground.”
The family’s obituary didn’t list a cause of death. It asked that donations in Richard’s memory be given to Wilderness Workshop.
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Environmental leaders in Aspen are relieved and re-energized with Joe Biden’s election as president. The Trump administration had them on their heels for four years.