Snowmass: 40 and counting
December 14, 2007
In the late 1950s, Bill Janss was searching for the next great place to ski. When he spied the mountains above Brush Creek over the wing of his airplane, an idea was born.
On Dec. 16, 1967, after nine months of chaotic construction, Snowmass-at-Aspen opened with five chairlifts accessing 3,000 acres of wide-open ski terrain. A lift ticket cost $6.50.
Forty years later, one man’s dream is not just the mountain of bricks and lumber that make up the town of Snowmass Village, but one of the most popular ski resorts in North America.
Today, a lift ticket costs $86 and the ski area sees more than 750,000 skier visits annually. It’s the largest and most lucrative of the Aspen Skiing Co.’s four mountains, ranking fifth in a Ski magazine rating of North America.
Skico has poured some $65 million into on-mountain improvements in recent years, and the area is getting a new million-square-foot Base Village.
And while the years of rampant development may not align with Janss’ original vision, the ski area that he carved from raw forest and historic ranch land has proved a resounding, if imperfect, success.
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A poster-sized photo of Bill Janss hangs on the wall in a side bedroom of Mary Janss’ home in Aspen’s West End. In it her father, Bill Janss, has just hopped up, grinning, from a face-plant in fresh powder.
“Snowmass was one of his favorite places,” Janss said.
Bill Janss skied up until his death in 1996. A graduate of Stanford and a one-time member of the U.S. Olympic alpine ski team, Janss first came to Aspen on a three-month honeymoon in 1940 and fell in love with the area.
It was his passion for skiing and love of the mountains as much as his business sense ” he was a successful developer in California ” that inspired Janss to begin acquiring historic ranches in the Brush Creek Valley starting in the late 1950s.
Some ranchers, like Sam Stapleton of “Sam’s Knob” fame, held out, but in the end, Janss was able to acquire most of the ranches, including the Hoaglund Ranch land that would become the base of the ski area.
Working with his brother, Ed, and friends like Kingsbury “Pitch” Pitcher and a crew of energetic, young businessmen, Janss wanted to create a series of European-style villages connected by trails ” a place where people could leave their vehicles and enjoy ski-in, ski-out convenience in an intimate village setting.
“His dream was to make it like Zermatt with a train and no cars,” Mary Janss said.
She attended European boarding schools while her father toured the fabled ski towns of the Alps ” Kitzbühel, Zermatt, Garmisch ” searching for ideas for an idyllic ski village in the U.S.
“He loved to envision and go after the design of something new,” Mary Janss said. “He loved the concept of having wide-open spaces for people to float through.”
After acquiring the lands on the mountain and the ranches throughout the valley in the early and mid-1960s, Janss coupled with then-Aspen Ski Corporation president D.R.C. Brown to bring Snowmass to life. Janss would run the town side and the Ski Corp., which had run snowcat skiing there since the early 1960s, would run the slopes.
The name Snowmass comes from the 14,092-foot peak of the same name that sits several miles away ” a more catchy term than Mount Baldy or Brush Creek, which made up the actual ski area terrain. (Longtime locals still bristle at the addition of Snowmass Village and Snowmass ski area to a valley where the giant peak, an alpine lake, a creek and even a ranching-oriented part of the valley already bore the Snowmass name.)
“It was Bill Janss’ dream,” said John McBride, a member of the first design team who would go on to develop the Aspen Airport Business Center. Working with architect Fritz Benedict, the group tried to breathe life into Janss’ vision.
Benedict shared Janss’ notion of an intimate village and set up the small town in tiers, with lift terminals situated below the condominium units to provide ski-in, ski-out access, McBride said.
“We were all so young. He gave us a great opportunity,” McBride said.
By December 1967, Snowmass was home to a few hotels, restaurants and the Snowmelt Road, where heated coils beneath the pavement allowed vehicles to drive the steep stretch in winter snow.
Ten years later, Snowmass Village incorporated as a town.
“No one knew whether Snowmass would be successful,” said Dick Moebius, a partner in the original Silvertree hotel.
But ever since the 1967 opening, Snowmass has boomed, becoming one of the premier family-focused ski resorts in the country, Moebius said.
“We had tons of people here,” Moebius said of opening day. “We knew the place was going to go.”
Moebius remembers Stein Eriksen and his gang of ski instructors jumping on skis through a hoop set up on Fanny Hill. “It was kind of enchanting,” Moebius said of those early days on the village mall.
“Chaos. Complete chaos,” McBride said of opening day. “I remember one shop girl punching some lady right in the nose.”
The customer just pushed the wrong button on a tired and overworked clerk, McBride said. He was in charge of the commercial square on the mall ” something he likened to “asking people to move their businesses to an empty meadow” ” and he said the whole operation was a “delightful comedy.”
Chuck Vidal came to Snowmass from California as a representative of the Janss Corporation in 1965.
“It was hellbent. We were just a bunch of young Turks out there spending money and making it happen ” and not a lot of restraints,” Vidal said. “It’s the kind of thing that doesn’t happen today.”
Aspen was more “provincial” at the time, Vidal said, and locals believed “Snowmass was somewhere near Utah.”
And it was easy to earn approvals from the Pitkin County Commissioners, Vidal said. No one showed up at public comment for approval of the new ski area: just Vidal and three longtime commissioners.
And though the design team was “short on experience,” Vidal said, they were given a lot of freedom and brought a lot of energy to what Vidal called a “myriad of negotiations” for everything from roads to water and sewer services.
Construction wasn’t easy, Vidal said.
“Hunting season came and everybody went hunting,” Vidal said.
Ski patrollers and ski instructors working summer jobs in construction dropped their tool bags once the flakes started flying.
“There really wasn’t a construction industry as there is here today,” Vidal said.
But nine months later and just days before opening, a heavy snow covered the stacks of wood and materials in what was more a “construction site” than a ski area, according to Vidal.
“It was close to miraculous what was accomplished there in an extremely short period of time,” said Rollie Herberg, project manager for the duration of the project.
Opening day came off without major glitches, and a group of journalists, including an NBC television crew, were on hand to document the opening.
John Cooley, an early marketing director with the project, said hiring Eriksen as ski school director “really put Snowmass on the map,” as did a Boston Herald article that referred to “the Beautiful People of Snowmass.” The resort took off from the start to become one of the largest ski areas in the U.S., posting its own record attendance of 884,066 skier visits in the 1997-98 season.
Janss wouldn’t be around to see his idea come to life, though. Under some financial strain, according to sources close to him, Janss sold his shares to the American Cement Company before the project was finished.
Janss went on to run the ski area in Sun Valley, Idaho, until the mid-1970s.
“It was a wonderful dream he had,” McBride said of Janss. “But what’s happening out there is far from his dream.”
Development since those early days has been somewhat piecemeal and unorganized, and Janss’ vision of multiple villages has been overtaken by golf courses, subdivisions and condominium complexes, but Snowmass Village is constantly reinventing itself.
Residents struggle to turn their resort into more of a true community, and town officials are busy crafting a comprehensive plan to take the town into the future.
In recent years Skico brought improvements including the Village Express chair and new Elk Camp Gondola. On Saturday, Dec. 15, the Treehouse Kids’ Adventure Center opened as one of the first pieces of the emerging Base Village, and the Skico held a fireworks show to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the ski area.
The town of Snowmass Village will observe the anniversary as well. Town officials recently commissioned Paul Andersen, an Aspen Times columnist and freelance writer, to write a commemorative book.
“Snowmass Village has a history?” a longtime Aspenite friend quipped when Andersen talked of the project recently.
It does, Andersen maintains. What struck him in researching the book were the stories of early ranchers and a time when the Brush Creek Valley was “pastoral and bucolic, quiet, simple, peaceful, hardworking.
“What I want to tell is the complete story,” Andersen said.
Ranch kids rode horses on Owl Creek Road to attend school in Aspen, and the Brush Creek valley was a thriving agricultural center from the 1880s to the 1960s, Andersen said.
“There’s just a beauty in the past,” Andersen said.
The rise of the Snowmass ski resort came as a result of “people looking for the next great place to ski,” Andersen said ” not developers seeking windfall profits.
And from those early ranchers to skiing and the new Base Village, “commercial practicality” has always been very important to the survival of Snowmass, Andersen said.
The book is part of a larger effort to commemorate the town, including a documentary film by local filmmaker Greg Poschman.
Skico officials are planning more 40th anniversary events in the spring.
1850s ” First non-natives arrive in the area.
1870s ” Hayden survey names big peaks in the area, including Snowmass Mountain.
Mid-1890s ” With silver mining gone bust, ranchers settle in the Brush Creek Valley. The Brush Creek Frontier School (later the Little Red Schoolhouse) is built.
1900 ” The Hoaglund Ranch (now the Anderson Ranch Arts Center) is built and ranching flourishes until the 1960s.
1958 ” Bill Janss buys the majority of the land at the base of what will become Snowmass. The Aspen Skiing Corporation begins offering snowcat powder tours on the Big Burn and Sam’s Knob.
1964 ” The U.S. Forest Service approves the Snowmass-at-Aspen Ski Area.
1966 ” Paul Soldner founds Anderson Ranch Arts Center.
1967 ” Snowmass-at-Aspen opens Dec. 16 with five chairlifts and 50 miles of trails. Lifts tickets are $6.50.
1972 ” The Snowmass Rodeo debuts.
1977 ” The town of Snowmass Village officially incorporates as a home rule town.
1978 ” Alpine Springs lift and High Alpine restaurant opens.
1982 ” The first Mardi Gras celebration at Snowmass Village.
1992 ” First free summer concert at Fanny Hill.
1995 ” Two Creeks base area opens.
1997 ” Snowmass celebrates 30 years of skiing. The Cirque lift opens, taking skiers to 12,510 feet.
2001 “The National Disabled Veterans Sports Clinic first comes to Aspen, the largest event of its kind.
2002 ” The Aspen Skiing Company announces partnership with Intrawest for the Base Village project.
2007 ” Snowmass opens its first gondola, from Fanny Hill to the base of Elk Camp. The Snowmass Recreation Center opens. Intrawest sells the Base Village commercial Development to Related Westpac. Crews break ground on a new town hall.