Skiing comes to Aspen: The Highland Bavarian Corporation (Part I) |

Skiing comes to Aspen: The Highland Bavarian Corporation (Part I)

Tim Willoughby
Aspen Times Weekly
Willoughby CollectionLeft to right are Fred Willoughby, Frank Ashley and Mayor Willoughby at the top of Little Annie basin on a 1936 excursion to establish skiing in Aspen.

The year 1936 was pivotal for the American ski industry. It was an Olympic year, in which the Games in Germany introduced alpine skiing as an event. Averell Harriman, in an effort to increase passenger travel on the Union Pacific, opened Sun Valley with the first chairlifts. The U.S. Forest Service, pressured to find uses for America’s forests that might create jobs during the throes of the Depression, latched onto the growing interest in skiing. 1936 also marked the beginning of Aspen’s ski destiny.

Tom Flynn attended a party in California, where Billy Fiske discussed his search for a suitable site in the Sierra to build a ski area similar to St. Moritz. Fiske doubted there was anywhere in America with the right combination of mountains, snow, ski terrain and views. Fiske was an international sportsman, winner of the bobsled event in both the 1928 (at the age of 16) and 1932 Olympics, who had skied throughout Europe.

Flynn grew up in Aspen, where his father operated the Top Lift Mine in the Little Annie basin. As an adult, Flynn invested in land development projects and farming in California. The elder Flynn, interested in a new industry, informed the others that his Aspen could rival St. Moritz, and agreed to an immediate trip to explore the potential.

Fiske then contacted two associates whom he had interested in a winter sports center: Ted Ryan, son of Thomas Fortune Ryan (the Warren Buffet of the 1920s) and Robert Rowan of the Los Angeles real estate family.

Flynn contacted F.D. Willoughby (my grandfather), Aspen’s mayor and an old acquaintance, to arrange a tour of the basin. Flynn brought with him Thor Groswold, the ski manufacturer, and Frank Ashley, another Denver businessman who had written an article that year about Colorado skiing for the American Ski Annual. Mayor Willoughby, interested in promoting anything that might boost Aspen’s economy, was also self-interested as CEO of the Midnight Mine, owner of a good portion of the basin.

The party, driven and guided by my father, went to the top of the basin where Groswold applauded the slopes for skiing. Flynn chose the highest point to erect a monument. All of the party signed a piece of paper, dedicating it as Flynn Peak, and proclaiming the beginning of what they optimistically believed was to become America’s greatest ski resort.

Fiske, an amateur aviator as well as a winter sportsman, flew in a private plane with Rowan to Colorado to accomplish their own examination. There were no airports in the area, so the party landed on the Glenwood golf course. When they departed, the power company had to take down lines so the plane could take off.

Fiske was immediately convinced of Little Annie’s potential. Like anyone who has ever looked down the basin and across the valley to Hayden Peak, Fiske found his St. Moritz in America. He proceeded to the Forest Service office to examine land titles and snow records.

Fiske returned before winter with Groswold and famous ski expert Otto Schniebs and toured the basin thoroughly with Frank Willoughby (my uncle) to check slope angles and terrain details. As soon as the snow fell, Fiske and Ryan visited again. My father hauled them up the basin using a tractor and sled so they could test snow depth and quality.

No time was wasted. Flynn, Fiske, Ryan and Rowan formed the Highland Bavarian Corporation, naming Flynn project manager; bought the Highland ranch on Castle Creek; and began construction of a lodge.

(Part II next week: The Highland Bavarian Lodge and early promotion)