Spar for beginners
December 30, 2009
Skiing down Spar Gulch at the end of a crowded holiday afternoon, as speedy experts and slow beginners cross paths exiting the mountain, can be a harrowing experience. It does not compare, however, to the nightmare tentative skiers faced in 1946.
The Aspen Skiing Corporation was focused on the construction of the first two lifts for its opening in 1946. The company was inheriting established ski runs from the Aspen Ski Club, so the few required improvements included widening existing runs and cutting a few new ones at the top of the mountain. Aspen had built its reputation hosting races in the 1930s featuring Roch Run as its signature course. Beginners practiced their skiing at the bottom of the mountain, using a boat tow. The Aspen Ski Corporation provided lift access to the top of the mountain for those new to the sport, but return to the bottom presented a challenge. Skiers had to pick their way to the bottom of the mountain, or make a return trip down Lift One.
That first year, beginners skied the road that starts in the mid-section of Tourtelotte Park to Midway, the top of the original Lift One. From there they could ski Roch Run until it got too steep for them, then take cat walks down from there. Expert powder skiers ventured down Spar Gulch.
The summer after the opening year, the Skiing Corporation addressed the needs of beginners. Most skiers were new to the sport, so a mountain designed only for experts would not be profitable. They bulldozed the mine dumps of Tourtelotte Park near the top of the mountain, creating a smooth and wide bowl. That change upset my father because those dumps had formed his favorite slope in the 1920s, when he often skied to town from the Midnight Mine. In those days of untracked deep powder and long skis, the dumps allowed him to build speed and to turn without encountering trees.
Older runs were widened to what at the time was considered a broad 30 feet. New beginner runs were cut from the Sundeck to what would later become the bottom of Lift Three. Expert runs were added to take skiers down the back side of Bell and to Gentleman’s Ridge.
Most beginners felt intimidated at the prospect of riding to the top of such a high mountain, so Little Nell was cleared, creating a suitable novice run. The wide and relatively gentle slope became the primary instruction slope for beginners. A Constam T-bar lift was erected. That 400 vertical-foot lift could handle 550 skiers per hour.
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The final step in the expansion connected the vast upper Aspen Mountain bowl to the bottom of the mountain by way of Spar Gulch. The V-shaped Spar narrowed as a skier descended, and its rocky surface prevented transitions from one side of the gulch to the other. Skiers had to stay on either one side or the other as they descended. Bulldozers cut the brush and filled the bottom of the gulch, rounding the run into a wider, smoother U-shaped gully. Near the bottom of the gulch, skiers traversed on a road back to Magnifico Cutoff or all the way to Lift One, where the less-skilled gently returned to the bottom. Others could opt to descend the slopes of Little Nell.
The use of modern ski equipment, judicious grooming and years of improving ski runs in response to observation and feedback ameliorated beginners’ challenges. In 1946 you had to be really brave to tackle Aspen Mountain. Even the improvements of 1947 offered frightening skiing compared to current standards.