Willoughby: Pondering Pandora’s with historical context

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies

Aerial photo showing the small amount of developed skiing acreage in early days of Aspen Skiing Corporation. Willoughby collection/Courtesy Photo

The Pandora’s proposal goes back to the County Commissioners with skiers thinking about the acreage, an addition of 153 acres, the largest addition to Aspen Mountain’s existing 675 acres in its history. Some historical context should be applied. The total of new and existing terrain would still be smaller than previous proposals.

The first proposal was the original Highland Bavarian plan with the west side, Little Annie Basin as the ski area. The partners were enamored with it as the open basin reminded them of 1930s European areas. It had the right pitch, spectacular views and most important, all that was needed was a lift as they would not have to cut runs.

Most of the land, around 900 acres, was owned by the Midnight Mining Company. At the time the Forest Service was trying to facilitate the development of what then was a new industry, skiing, and so the small amount of additional land needed from the Forest Service would have been easy to attain.

The Highland Bavarian partners hired Swiss snow and skiing expert André Roch to advise them on their choice. Roch did an exhaustive search and recommended that it would be better (world class) to develop the area above Ashcroft with the ridge between Electric Peak and Hayden Peak being the top. In addition to the open basins and greater vertical drop, Roch said the snow would be better. He pointed out that Little Annie Basin did not have the best snow since it had the wrong sun exposure.

Still, since the partners had already bought land at the base of Little Annie and had begun construction of a lodge there, Roch did advise them that if they wanted to stick to their original plan they should consider the backside of Little Annie too as it had better snow while at the same time having open treeless areas where they would not have to cut runs. Being an avalanche expert, he did warn them that some of the steep pitches might be prone to avalanches.

It has also been forgotten that the Aspen Ski Club cutting of Roch Run (designed by him) and their subsequent development of that first Aspen Mountain ski area had two components. The first was that it was chosen for its racing potential, a way to advertise Aspen as skiers were tuned into races. Second, it was meant to develop the town as a ski resort while the partners developed the Ashcroft plan.

Little Annie was not forgotten with vast acreage in plain view from the top of the mountain. Waddill ‘Waddy’ Catchings, bought the Midnight surface rights in 1960 with the goal of developing a ski area. Catchings came to Aspen in the early 1950s working as a ski instructor in the winters and as the Music Festival’s property manager the rest of the year. He was also a longtime president of the Aspen Chamber of Commerce, an Aspen Ski Club director and was elected to Aspen’s City Council.

His first step was to orient skiers to the area running a ski touring operation, Little Annie Tours. He used a ten-passenger snow cat and built a warming hut-food outlet in the basin. You could be picked up at the Sundeck or at the bottom of the basin by arrangement.

Catchings recruited partners and they attempted to find major investors to add ski lifts, but were not successful. Their dream was turned over to another long-time Aspenite, Dave Farney, who proposed building a gondola (would have been the first) to take skiers from town to the top of the ridge above Little Annie. Many were thinking of combining Aspen Mountain’s operation with a Little Annie one, more than doubling the acreage.

There was one more idea to add acreage, but not a commercial one. Ski racers training on Aspen Mountain had difficulty preparing for downhill competition because runs would have to be closed for longer practice runs. So a racing tail was started on the east side of the mountain cutting a trail from the bottom up. Had it been completed powder hounds would have competed with racers for the steep snow-perfect slope.

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