For the love of mountains
When my 11-year-old son shook hands with Stein Eriksen two weeks ago, the debonair Norwegian skiing legend smiled handsomely. His hair was swept into a golden wave and his eyes sparkled behind rose-tinted glasses.”Do you ski?” asked Stein. My son said he did. “And you’re a good skier?” My son demurred and Stein patted him on the shoulder while confiding in me with an avuncular tone. “He’s a good boy.”Billy Kidd, the Olympian from Steamboat, also shook hands with Tait and asked if he was a skier. And it reminded me that these men are purists for the sport, that they made their marks on snow long before snowboards or X Games or shaped skis.”You can be in the Olympics,” enthused Kidd, grinning beneath his trademark cowboy hat, a squash blossom of feathers splayed across its crown. “If you ski these mountains well,” he said with a wave of his arm that took in the Elk Range, which spread out before us like a post card, “you will be good enough for the Olympics.”Tait met a gathering of mountaineers that day as impressive as in any issue of Ski Magazine or Outside: Bil Dunaway, Lou Dawson, Neil Beidleman and many others of perhaps less renown, but equal passion. There was one man missing – Dick Durrance, “the man on the medal,” whose memorial we were attending at the top of Aspen Mountain.DRC Brown was there with his wife, Ruth. “Tait,” I said, “this is DRC Brown, one of Aspen’s true pioneers.” The frail, thin man stooped down to shake hands with Tait, a glimmer of curiosity in his eyes and a smile on his face.It was Brown’s father, David, who drove into Aspen over Taylor Pass in a wagon drawn by mules in June 1880. There was no road then beyond the top of the pass, so Brown and his party roped their wagons down sheer bluffs into Ashcroft, taking two weeks to go 10 miles.Not a minute after we said hello to Brown, a shout of alarm went up from Darcy, his daughter. Her father had fallen on the steps and struggled to get to his feet. Concerned family members gathered around as he dusted himself off, politely declining assistance.”Get right back up on that horse!” called out Kenny Moore, who hobbled over showing signs of his own physical challenges. The Brave Comrade and longtime Aspen gadfly told me he has listed his home for sale and is seeking warmer climes and a lower elevation for him and his wife.When I told Kenny that I was sorry he was leaving Aspen, he quipped: “Better to leave this way than feet first.” There will be a deficit in the letters-to-the-editor column when “KCNB” departs the Roaring Fork Valley, whichever way he goes.And thus, the old guard moves on, the men and women who created skiing as a lifestyle, who built skiing as an industry, and who love it still today. This greatest generation of skiers whose black-and-white photographs adorn the Sundeck has the richness of memories for their solace.Stein Eriksen said Dick Durrance had planted a seed more than 50 years before, a seed from which skiing blossomed as a passion. It was Durrance who brought world-class competition to Aspen Mountain, making it a world-class ski area. “I love you, Dick,” Stein emoted.Many eyes felt the sting of tears. It wasn’t only for the loss of Durrance, who died in June at 89. It was the passage of time, the inexorable moving of history, all enriched by camaraderie and strong feelings of youth and athleticism.Bone sore and weary, the old pioneers moved slowly. They took in the view of Aspen Highlands, where clouds spread dappled shade over ski runs. Their eyes swept a familiar panorama of peaks with knowing love.”See that mountain?” I directed Tait’s eyes across the gulf of the Castle Creek Valley. “That’s Mount Hayden. That’s where we stood last Sunday.” Tait and I talked about our climb that day, and Tait’s eyes lit up with pride, burning with the same light that shines in all of us who know the love of mountains.Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays.
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The COVID-19 pandemic has caused untold amounts of suffering and disruption, and we’ll probably tell those stories for the rest of our lives.