Willoughby: Aspen’s Lift One — Longest and fastest … except for its construction
Legends & Legacies
A significant milestone is celebrated this month. Depending on if you are counting ski season years or calendar years, and whether you are looking at the local’s opening December ceremony or the public January one, Lift One opened 75 years ago. It was the first Aspen Skiing Co. chairlift, but the first lift and skiing on Aspen Mountain is celebrating 84 years.
My father, Fred T. Willoughby, was the foreman for much of the lift construction and was named superintendent of operations for the first year. He was on loan from the Midnight Mine. It made sense because he was the foreman at the Midnight, the Midnight’s road was the access road for the project, it owned a much-needed bulldozer that Father was the master of, and it had a rock crusher necessary for building the tower foundations.
Most important were his fellow Midnight miners who at the mine installed high-voltage electricity, built and operated an underground incline cable tram that connected the 10th level of the mine to the 17th level, and built and fashioned all kinds of projects.
Father’s first project was to create all the roads to the planned towers. Then with the Ed Tekoucick, Tony Kralich and Bill Jordan they extended the Midnight’s 13,000-volt power line to the Sundeck and on down to where the top of the Number One lift would be.
Then construction of the actual lift began. First, using the rock crusher, they crushed rock at each tower location, mixed cement and built the tower foundations. The lift was designed by Bob Heron who designed 120 ski lifts and was inducted into the Colorado Ski Hall of Fame. Heron assigned engineer Fred Loesch to oversee the construction.
Friedl Pfeifer, who formed the Aspen Skiing Co., recruited Percy Rideout and John Litchfield, two ski instructors from his former ski school in Sun Valley, for his Aspen ski school that opened the previous year using the Aspen Ski Club operation. Rideout and Litchfield, with a year of experience on the mountain, were put in charge of trail cutting.
The whole operation was done with as low a budget as possible. This was a new industry, not one banks would be lending money to. To save money for Lift Two, Father, and his dozer, salvaged the mining Park Tram cable, one of the most expensive components of a lift. The Aspen Ski Club had once thought of using it for their own dream of a lift to the top of Roch Run.
The lift towers were fabricated by American Steel and Wire and were shipped in sections. They were late arriving, in late October. Father, Ed Tekoucick, Tony Capperrella and Bob Zick began assembling them. The first few went up easily, then, as you might expect, an early winter struck. Progress slowed dealing with snow and cold. The final step was to install the cable and insert the chairs. They finished Lift One just before Christmas.
Aspen boasted the longest chairlift at 7,900 feet and another 5,400 feet long. Number One was also, at the time, the world’s fastest. Chairs were spaced 125 feet apart so the lift could operate at that speed giving skiers time to push their way up to the loading spot before a chair came whipping through. The total vertical, 3,260, was also record breaking.
In addition to the towers being late, the motor for Lift One did not arrive until summer. Both lifts were to be electric with a gasoline motor backup. They had to operate Lift One the first year using the backup. That meant Father had to drive up to the MIdnight each morning and ski over to the top of Lift One and start the cranky gas motor. He worked every day that season.
The other temporary fix was not anticipated. The Sundeck was designed with a roof that they thought, with a fireplace below, would melt snow to produce water for its operation. That did not work because the snow blew off the roof, so water was hauled daily from the Midnight to the Sundeck using a Midnight bulldozer.
It took Father most of that first season to work out all the design flaws, equipment and parts failures, and other new-industry challenges mostly done behind the scenes while skiers enjoyed the newest and best ski facility in the country.
Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching at Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at email@example.com.
U.S. Ski & Snowboard on Tuesday announced the final U.S. World Cup schedule, a lineup that includes the Aspen World Cup from March 3 to 5 on Aspen Mountain. Those races will include a men’s super-G and two men’s downhills.