The Little Nell T-bar |

The Little Nell T-bar

Tim Willoughby
Aspen Times Weekly
Willoughby CollectionFor a decade in the early days of skiing on Aspen Mountain, the Little Nell T-bar was the first lift experience for beginning skiers.

During its first year of operation, the Aspen Skiing Company transported all skiers to the top of Aspen Mountain on two long chairlifts; however, the descent challenged many. Beginners stayed at the bottom of the mountain, where they rode a short rope-tow that paralleled Lift One. After that first year the need for something in between was answered by grading the slopes of Little Nell and building a 1,900-foot-long Constam T-bar lift.

I spent many childhood hours on the Little Nell T-bar. I remember its three sections: the steep beginning, a flat middle and a steep last third. I was too small and too light to ride up with the “T” behind my bottom; instead I wrapped my arms and wool mitten-clad hands around the “T” and hung on for life. The lift operator would pull the spring-loaded “T” down to my level so I could grab on. The fast-moving cable would jerk me from my stationary starting point, then the spring-loading mechanism would pull me off the ground because I didn’t weigh enough to anchor it to the ground. If I survived the first grab (it often took several attempts, while those waiting in line either grew impatient or scared watching my mishaps), then I had to marshal enough strength and stamina to hold on all the way to the top. It took a long time before I made it to the top on my own. Often my aching muscles signaled that I had gone far enough, so I let go. Sometimes, when the track was rutted, I fell and forgot to let go. Lift operators didn’t stop the lift, but adults behind me would shout: “Let go!”

I do not remember learning how to ski as a child, I just skied. That was the easy part. I do recall the trials of mastering the T-bar.

My father headed the construction crew for the Little Nell project, in 1947. Ripley from New Castle, a contractor, transformed the brush and rock piles of Little Nell into a smooth slope. Frank Willoughby engineered the lift. Tony Kralich, Lowell Elisha, the Dolinsek brothers, the Klusmire brothers, Gene Mason and Red Rowland built the lift.

The towers for the Constam lift, with 550 skiers per hour capacity, were fashioned from wood timbers on the right side of Little Nell. A ski jump (smaller than the 55-meter jump constructed for major competitions in the middle of Aspen Mountain) was placed on the far right edge. The metal parts for the T-bar did not arrive until November, which forced the crew to finish the project in the cold of December.

The bottom terminal building included a storage area and a room for selling tickets. Built by miners, it was over-built for strength, like a mine building. The walls, made of four-by-twelve timbers, were attached to frames with thousands of bolts.

When a double-chair was built to replace the T-bar, my father told me, “they are not going to tear down the terminal. It would be too much work. We built it to last forever.” He was right. The terminal was used as a storage area until the North of Nell building displaced it a generation after it was built.

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