Spring skiing 1930s-style | AspenTimes.com

Spring skiing 1930s-style

Tim WilloughbyAspen Times Weekly
Willoughby collectionAspen Ski Club members pause for rest on a 1939 spring ski trip.

B.C., before chairlifts, skiing was most popular in the spring. Backcountry skiers will affirm that although stints in winter powder are great fun, peak ascents after the snow has settled in the spring, when you dont have to break trail, can be satisfying too. Even the less-accomplished Aspen Ski Club members scaled surrounding ski slopes in spring.Andr Roch, during his year in Aspen to survey and design a ski mountain for the Highland Bavarian Corporation, demonstrated his talent as a ski instructor. He charmed beginners into trying the sport and veterans, who were already comfortable on skis but could benefit from new turning techniques, took advantage of his free instruction. Roch, a climbing and avalanche expert, also led backcountry trips, teaching how to judge the safest routes. He even spirited several locals into joining him in the first winter ascent of Castle Peak.Roch, after examining all potential ski slopes and sites for a village, recommended that the Highland Bavarian build their resort at Ashcroft. After his departure, Ashcroft became the favored ski destination for Aspen Ski Club members and guests brought in by the Highland Bavarian Corporation, especially in the spring.A typical ski trip began before dawn with a drive to the snowplow terminus on Castle Creek Road which was, in early spring, the turn-off to the Midnight Mine. As the snow melted back, skiers could drive higher up the valley before beginning their trek to the top.Their goal was to reach the top of the ridge that separates Castle and Conundrum creeks. Often they summited at a peak they called Ski Hayden, a high spot between Hayden and Cathedral peaks. Sometimes they skied up the Castle Creek Valley to Pine Creek and climbed to Cathedral Lake (frozen at that time of year). Hardy ones would continue on the route of the Electric Pass trail to the summit.Some hiked, carrying skis, the shorter and more expedient, but steeper route, favored in late spring. By then, snow had left the lower elevations far up Sawyer Gulch. Still, you had to ski to the top.Those were the days of long wood skis with no steel edges. Rudimentary bindings allowed the heels to lift, as backcountry bindings do today, but they were looser during descent. Safety bindings had yet to be invented.An uphill traction device had been perfected. A narrow strip of animal skin was fastened with leather straps to each end of each ski. Short stiff hair slid in the direction of a forward moving ski, but gripped the snow sliding back, like fish scales do today. Snow fought back by sticking to the skins and building up weight, requiring that the skier stop occasionally to strip the excess snow.The club ethic supported getting everyone to the top, so the pace was slow enough for the less athletic. Even my overweight mother reached Aspens most panoramic peaks. The downhill trip could be, as my mother described, scarier than hell.Skiing in the 1930s was a one-run day, but what a run it was! The bowls and basins along the descent from Ski Hayden resemble the long European ski runs down glacial cirques and valleys.After an early morning rise, a trek up Castle Creek Valley followed by a steep 3,000-foot vertical climb to the ridge, and a tense ski down and return hike to the cars, all were physically exhausted. The five-day work week hadnt been won by unions yet, so club members had six days to rest up for the next trip.

Tim Willoughbys family story parallels Aspens. He began sharing folklore while a teacher for Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. He can be contacted at redmtn@schat.net.Yore Aspen is a regular feature of the Aspen Times Weekly.

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