Willoughby: The looooong lift at Aspen Mountain | AspenTimes.com

Willoughby: The looooong lift at Aspen Mountain

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
Skiers funnel past the Skiers Chalet during a long wait for the original number one lift.
Willoughby collection |

Proponents and opponents of the Gorsuch Haus attempt to envision the future. They hold different views on how the proposed hotel would affect the area that surrounds Lift 1A. These disagreements trigger memories of the original Lift 1 at the former South Aspen Street base area.

Land rights figured into the decision to position Aspen’s first chairlift high up the mountain. And higher was better before the time of snowmaking machines. I remember many years when I plodded through straw, not snow, to board the lift. Although the lift did not extend into town, it ranked as the longest anywhere at the time it was built.

Contemporary skiers may wonder how visitors trudged from lodge to lift in the days before public transportation. It’s hard to imagine traipsing across town in today’s ski boots — heavy, rigid monsters. But the leather shoes we skied in long ago topped out below the ankle and eased the walk. And the distance was shorter because visitor housing centered below Lift 1, rather than near Little Nell.

When residents consider the Gorsuch Haus scheme, some question the narrow approach to the Lift 1A replacement. The approach to the original lift narrowed with few problems after construction of the Skier’s Chalet. But during the 1960s, skier visits increased logarithmically. The heightened demand lengthened lift lines, especially at Christmas. As skiers backed up the hill behind the low-capacity, single-chair lift, the narrow entry funneled them into an orderly line.

As with the proposed Gorsuch Haus, the Skiers Chalet offered hot food. The aroma of burgers tempted many a skier to abandon the lift, wolf down lunch and then line up for a shorter afternoon wait.

From bottom to top, Lift 1 reached 8,400 feet. A chair up to Midway moved more slowly than today’s high-speed detachable chairlifts. But its design brought more speed than later, double chairlifts of the late 1950s. The chairs, spaced far apart, enabled the lift to run faster because skiers had more time to slide into place onboard. Despite the space, skiers had to contend with fast-arriving chairs and inept beginners did not always synch with the rhythm. As a child I had to jump up to get my bottom onto the seat before the chair collided with my back.

The 2,200-foot drop offered everything except beginners’ slopes. Today we may laugh at the limit of 275 skiers per hour. But the capacity sufficed for more than a decade. Consider the T-bar lift on Little Nell, which did not connect at top drop-off with a chair to take you higher on the mountain. Lift 1, however, connected at Midway with number two, the only means to ride to the top of the mountain.

On a cold day, a skier could grow very cold while seated on a fast moving chair. It was a long ride — so long that skiers complained. In response, the Ski Corp. added a canvas enclosure to each chair. The lower portion of the canvas attached to the safety apparatus that swung into place after loading. Passengers closed the covering over their legs and mid-body. They made the effort to pull the contraption up around the upper body when the weather was horrid, or if they felt bored with the long ride and needed something to do. I remember you also could request a blanket from the lift operator.

For 15 years the elevation of the lift one base provided a panoramic, unobstructed view of town. Over time, the mountain center shifted to the gondola area, which now offers new views and visions of the future.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching for 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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