Willoughby: Ski area André Roch designed, a war casualty | AspenTimes.com

Willoughby: Ski area André Roch designed, a war casualty

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
Ski area proposed by Andre Roch in 1938.
Andre Roche image/Willoughby Collection

Tom Flynn, whose family owned and operated a mine in Little Annie Basin, convinced Ted Ryan and Billy Fiske — who wanted to find a location in America similar to the ski areas they had skied in Europe — to have a look at Little Annie Basin.

They came in the summer of 1937, and Fred D. Willoughby, mayor of Aspen at the time and CEO of the Midnight Mine, took them up to the mine, and from there, they hiked to the top of the ridge above the basin. At that time, the Midnight either owned or had leases on all of the basin’s claims — including Flynn’s.

They were so impressed that they formed the Highland Bavarian company, bought property at the bottom of the basin on the Castle Creek Road, and began building their lodge and promoting Aspen. They were smart investors, so they hired André Roch, Swiss avalanche and skiing expert, to confirm their choice.

Roch arrived in the winter of 1937. He liked the basin, but he explored the whole valley and came up with a better choice. His proposal (pictured) had better snow, longer runs, and Ashcroft would be a better place for a base village. The Highland partners opened for skiing in the basin using their lodge, but they bought up land in Ashcroft and organized to secure financing. They lobbied and won a loan from the state of Colorado, but World War II ended their dream.

The illustration (pictured) was done by Roch. He was a photographer (later for the Swiss expedition to Everest that pioneered the way) and enjoyed painting. He lived with my parents during the summer of 1938 when he was working on his proposal. He painted many scenes using photos he took on ski trips he led the Aspen Ski Club on that used to grace the walls of my parents’ home.

If you are a backcountry skier, you likely have already skied some of the runs he proposed; if not, you will recognize what a wonderful area it would have been. The vertical drop from Electric Peak to Ashcroft is 4,100 feet. The run labeled 11 has a 5,070 drop. He estimated the run length of #11 as 28,800 feet, nearly 5 1/2 miles, and #6 as 21,300.

Roch envisioned two lifts, the one in red with a drop of 2,200 feet, and the other in green, would reach the elevation of 13, 600 feet. He noted that t-bar lifts could be added later. There would need to be bus service to pick up skiers skiing down to the valley below Ashcroft to take them back to the lift. Having the top lift go to Electric Peak would enable skiers to “have access to ski downhill without having to climb to a pass in front of Ski Hayden” to access Sandy Creek, Sawyer Creek, and Hayden Ridge. It also allowed for runs down into Conundrum.

Roch’s snow summary was that “the only slopes where skiing is possible are the ones exposed to the north and to the east. The south slopes have too much sun and no snow, and the west slopes are too wind-blown to hold snow.” The upper lift allowed skiers to descend into Cathedral Lake, a run he thought had the very best snow, or run #6 Pine Creek, which also had great snow. The lower lift could be run in most weather conditions. The upper would have wind problems and put skiers into more avalanche-prone areas. He suggested skiing could extend to June at the upper sections. He also noted “summer excursion to descend to Cathedral Lake or to American Lake for hiking or fishing” as an additional advantage of the proposal.

The Highland Bavarian partners were looking for European-like slopes. Little Annie Basin only required a cut through the forest at the bottom to get to their lodge. The Ashcroft proposal was similar. Roch noted that additional runs could be cut, especially along the lower lift. The variety along the long runs #5-11 would be fun skiing and, since they are in gulches, wind-protected.

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 redmtn2@comcast.net.