Willoughby: COLD, cold and mittens | AspenTimes.com

Willoughby: COLD, cold and mittens

Modern advances in winter clothing have kept kids in Aspen warmer over the years, but it didn’t used to be like that, Tim Willoughby writes this week in “Legends & Legacies.”

When it is 17 degrees on Aspen Mountain and you are breaking a sweat on a steep run, you don’t feel cold. But walking on a street downtown in the daytime at that temperature while hearing it is 72 in Los Angeles, you suddenly feel cold. There is cold and there is COLD.

It is no secret that Colorado’s micro-climates favor Aspen. I remember years ago when the nightly news announced the state low. Aspen never garnered the award, but Frazier frequently earned the honors. Compare Aspen’s winter temperatures with other resorts like Steamboat, and Aspen is almost always warmer.

Cold, however, is partly in your head and it is regionally associated. One of my more memorable lift-riding conversations illustrates the point. I was in the upper portion of the old No. 2 lift, the area on the edge of the trees, always the coldest point. I was freezing, wishing the lift could go faster so I could get off and go warm my body beside the Sundeck fireplace.

My lift partner, a stranger, was not looking like he was cold at all, even though he was not dressed differently. I announced I was cold and he replied something like this: “Think this is cold — to me this is a balmy day, cold is skiing in Vermont.” After that I never had a desire to ski in Vermont.

Cold is different by age; children get colder faster. My tolerance for cold was likely average for an Aspen kid; I could only stand being out on a really cold day for a short time, even if I was having a blast on my skis. Cold is also a function of body parts — noses, heads and fingers are the first to succumb to the challenge.

Jeanne Willoughby dressed for the cold in her hand-knitted hat, sweater and mittens at the Little Nell T-bar in the mid-1950s.
Willoughby Collection

Kids, at least me, are not too adept at adapting through clothing choices. Mothers come to the rescue. In the 1950s Aspen fingers, hands and heads were kept warm with wool, especially in my family that had two knitters. I was never an indoor child, and I went out nearly every day and in any condition. I loved snow.

The shortcoming of knitted wool mittens in snow is that snow melts, turning the mittens into a wet mush. I would often go through more than one pair a day exchanging a dry pair while leaving the wet ones on the radiator to dry.

There was a breakthrough sometime in those childhood years when ski gloves became popular and were made to fit children. The popular version was a leather version meant to cover your wool mittens. For smaller kids like me, they covered your hands and your arm nearly to your elbow. There was one major problem: Most of us could not put them on without help. You could get one on but could not manipulate the gloved hand well enough to put the second one on. Once on, however, gripping ski poles was no problem and you could also snap your bear-trap bindings when you put your skis on.

Clothing for children improved over the years, with the primary change being down jackets, enough to turn a small child into a large, rounded, insulated, indistinguishable (when googles are on) skier. Children did not change; they still had a shorter cold tolerance.

When I taught at Aspen Country Day School, we had twice-weekly afternoon skiing. For years I organized it, assigning teachers to groups of skiers. Teachers loved the program. Who wouldn’t enjoy two afternoons a week on the slopes? But with one exception — no one wanted to take the kindergarteners who were just learning to ski. So, I assigned myself.

It was comical. Mothers sent their youngest with the thickest coats and pants, warm wool hats and goggles. Gloves, not the kind with individual fingers, but the ones where fingers helped each other stay warm by being together, completed the garb. Like the gloves I labored with as a kid, it was hard for the knife-grinders to unbuckle ski boots, zip their coats or deal with bindings with their gloves on.

Their tolerance for cold was short and they got tired easily, so a short break inside was necessary. Unzipping around eight coats took time. After a cup of hot chocolate, the coats had to go back on with my help. After everyone was assembled and ready to face the cold again we would begin to shuffle (best description of knife-grinders walking in ski boots) toward the slopes when, invariably, someone would complain, “I have to go to the bathroom.”

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at redmtn2@comcast.net.


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