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Willoughby: Person-to-person, Aspen built its customer base of skiers

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies

Skiers of the 1930s, a rarity, sought any possible place to enjoy the sport. Outdoor adventures on skis with a little downhill to enliven the day satisfied most participants. Like many new activities, skiing attracted young men and women.

Skiers learned about sites through subscriptions to skiing journals and Ski magazine, first published in 1936. The initial locations clustered around cities of the east coast. But soon new opportunities arose. Emerging ski resorts — small towns with acreage, where skiers could tour and try out a few hills — enticed ski clubs and noted skiers through reports in the journals.

Early efforts of Aspen’s Highland Bavarian operation spread the word that their offerings deserved a train trip to Colorado. To ensure the word would spread, they personally invited notable skiers to Aspen. One important success: the visit of Otto Schniebs, the ski coach at Dartmouth. In addition to coaching experienced skiers, he instructed hundreds of the new generation. He turned these newcomers into confident skiers, eager to test their skills on challenging slopes.

The Highland Bavarian worked both coasts, including Hollywood stars. The first successful western operation, Sun Valley, had already brought skiing chic to Hollywood.

Landing star skiers in Aspen, however, counted as only the first step. Once they disembarked from the train, local infrastructure provided a memorable stay through personal interactions. Tom Flynn, one of three Highland partners and a former Aspenite, oversaw the task. Someone met guests at the station, and taxied them to the Highland Bavarian Lodge at the confluence of Castle Creek and Conundrum.

Three opportunities prevailed. Bill Tagert, former owner of the ranch that the partners bought for the lodge, would drive visitors by horse drawn sled to Ashcroft. From there they could climb and descend surrounding peaks. The partners had decided to build their lifts from Ashcroft to the top of the ridge to the north of Electric Peak. They wanted their guests to experience these slopes, which they thought rivaled any in Europe, and ranked far superior to others in America.

The second opportunity allowed guests to ski Little Annie Basin. Highland Bavarian cleared slopes at the bottom of the basin, near the lodge of brush, at a perfect pitch for beginners. More advanced skiers could climb through a section of trees into the basin and make their way as high up the basin as they wished. Some reached the top of Richmond Hill and took a long run back to the lodge.

The option most like riding a lift to the top of the mountain involved the Midnight Mine. A few years earlier the Midnight had increased production and added a second shift. With more employees and more ore to haul down Queens Gulch, it had improved the road. Before then, workers had relied on horse-drawn sleds. But at the time, a four-wheel-drive truck with a large bed accommodated plenty of skiers.

The truck delivered guests to the Midnight mill/camp, a short climb to the top of Little Annie Basin. In addition, the Aspen Ski Club had created its own operation on Aspen Mountain. After a climb to the top of the mountain, skiers could head to town via Roch Run.

In 1940, Fred and Frank Willoughby, my father and uncle, purchased a small bulldozer that could pull a sled full of skiers. On weekends they ferried them from the Midnight to the top of the mountain/basin.

Targeted guests and those who came on their own received a warm Aspen welcome. Person-to-person, Aspen’s reputation grew as the friendliest place to go with the most incredible slopes and snow.

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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