Willoughby: My own personal ski area
In my early childhood I lived in the Cowenhoven Building and spent many hours skiing Little Nell. At that time there were empty lots behind the building so I put my skis on in the backyard and skied over to the base. The only challenge was that sometimes the snow melted on the only pavement along the way, the highway, Cooper Street, and I would have to take off my skis, or slog across oblivious to what it did to the bottoms of my wood skis.
At that time there was no kindergarten so my school was on Little Nell. My aunt, Doris Willoughby, taught me how to ski. More accurately, she accompanied me until she felt I could manage on my own. At that young age instruction in the art of turning was not necessary, but riding the T-bar lift was difficult. She put me between her legs at first, then tried side-by-side, but her waist and mine were at very different heights so the two-person “t” in t-bar did not match. Most likely that is why she just graduated me to managing on my own.
Being so tiny there was a different lift technique. Instead of having the bar behind me I, without ski poles, was fed the bar in front of me and I clung to it, with all my might. Besides being small I was light as a feather, at least compared to the recoiling power of the t-bar. It would lift me off the ground for a few feet. If I managed that, and often didn’t in the beginning, I would land and be towed up Little Nell as far as my strength and endurance could manage. It was quite some time before I could last all the way to the top of the lift.
The lift operators were friends of my parents and knew me. I was on my own with my parents knowing if there was a problem they would be called. There were few skiers on Little Nell then. It was still the beginners area for the mountain. Better skiers started their day using Lift One. To me it was like having my own ski area, no lift line and few skiers to compete for space.
Maybe it was those first days of starting up the slope lifted in the air by the lift that formed my idea of one of skiing’s greatest feelings, air. Moguls were not menacing monsters, small kids swirl through them easily, but for me they were opportunities to get launched into the air. I would haul a shovel over from home and build my own ski jumps near the bottom of the mountain and eventually graduated to using an official ski jump on the west side of Little Nell.
Eventually it was time to tackle the rest of the mountain. For that I was ‘led’ by my older sister. It was one thing to ski alone on Little Nell and to manage the t-bar, but to ride Lift One was a different order of magnitude. It was a single chairlift, you were on your own, no one could help you, no older person could accompany you to assuage your fears.
I do not remember being afraid, but rather excited that I could ski where my sister skied. However, waiting for my turn in line it was clear that getting on the lift was challenging. Lift One was, when it was built, the longest chairlift in the world, and the fastest. To allow for that speed chairs were spaced far apart so a skier had time to ski into position to board. Beginners would signal the lift operators to slow it down. I as not a beginner, or it didn’t occur to anyone that I might have a problem. But, being tiny, and because that lift operator was also a family friend, the operator knowing my bottom was much lower than the chair, lifted me into the chair.
As an impatient tot on the longest lift in the world, the ride seemed endless. At the same time it was exciting, a whole different perspective of Aspen Mountain. There was just one more challenge, getting off. To my surprise it was easy. Then the whole process was repeated on Lift Two.
I have no memory after that, but I am fairly certain that it wasn’t long before I was allowed to ski the whole mountain without my aunt, uncle, or sister. What a childhood, a pair of warm mittens, skis that in those days had bear trap bindings that did not come off, bamboo poles to push me up to the lift boarding spot, and the best mountain in the world to explore.
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 email@example.com.
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The steep Jail Trail that leads into downtown Aspen is getting a better grade to address safety concerns and make it easier for people to use.