Paul Andersen: The Greatest Generation of Skiers
An impressive array of Aspen’s old guard gathered at the Sundeck on Aspen Mountain last Monday to celebrate the life of Margaret “Miggs” Durrance. This pioneer Aspen skier, wife, mother and celebrated photographer personified the Greatest Generation of Skiers.
The ceremony commenced after skiing legend Dick Durrance ? “The Man on the Medal” ? was led into the Sundeck by his two sons, Dick Jr. and Dave. Supported on both arms and leaning heavily on two canes, the hunched-over figure spoke to a long, active life.
“I was supposed to go first,” mused Dick Durrance, 88, to his friends and family of his wife’s passing at 85. “I’m older than she is; it was my turn. There isn’t a heck of a lot that I can say except that she was, undoubtedly, my best friend.”
The audience was filled with many of Miggs’ friends. Her nickname alone is sufficient to render recognition in Aspen where a collective sense of loss emanated as much from the passing of this special friend as from the passing of an era.
A black and white photograph of Miggs skiing in 1941 stood on an easel. In addition to a nicely executed turn (she was a student of Friedl Pfeifer), the photograph exuded a feeling of freedom and joy. A gallery of photos of similar vintage and style, many taken by Miggs, decorate the walls of the Sundeck.
The faces of the skiers in those photographs describe the collective love of a sport that helped guide Aspen’s renaissance in the late 1940s. In those days, Tyrolean hats, Norwegian sweaters and Swiss chalets became lasting icons of Aspen’s emerging prominence.
Tom Brokaw’s book, “The Greatest Generation,” celebrates the men and women who fought against fascism during World War II. It praises a defiant post-Depression spirit based on resilience, enterprise and vision. Today that spirit is revered as a secular religion in America, and it is reflected in Aspen’s ski history.
Ironically, it was the crucible of World War II that tempered ski dreams for Aspen that were, at their inception in the mid-1930s, far greater than what we see today in the four Aspen ski mountains. Andre Roch, who died less than a week before Miggs, set into motion a grandiose plan that perished at the start of the war.
Roch had surveyed the Elk Range in 1936, hiking and skiing many of the ridges and summits, from Mount Hayden to Taylor Peak. His vision for a European-style ski resort with a major base village at Ashcroft encompassed most of the Castle Creek drainage.
Roch thought big in those days and had it not been for World War II, Ashcroft may have become the brand name, with Aspen as an ancillary base village. It was only after the war that realists settled for Aspen Mountain as the seminal Aspen ski resort.
Today, the esteemed ranks of Aspen ski pioneers are dwindling. How fitting, then, to talk of resurrecting plans for an Aspen ski museum in their honor. In her will, Miggs asked that donations in her name be made to HeritageAspen. Perhaps those funds will furnish the momentum to establish a ski museum.
That will be up to Aspen’s new guard, the transition generation of my peer group that, growing up, marveled at the celebrity of Zeno Colo, Stein Eriksen, Andrea Mead, Fred Iselin, Friedl Pfeifer, Henri Oreiller, Georges Schneider, Klaus Obermeyer, Bil Dunaway … A long list of skiers lives in our collective memory as progenitors of skiing and of a way of life worth emulating.
Rather than a shrine, a ski museum would serve as a vital reminder of the roots of the sport ? the adventure, romance, magic and just plain fun of skiing. It would be steeped in lore and filled with the spirit of Miggs, Andre, Friedl, Fred, Gretl and many others who fill the pantheon of Aspen’s rich skiing culture.
As Miggs was warmly remembered last Monday, so was the past. People I spoke to mourned the passing of the old Aspen. Self-consciously, they described their own aging with hip replacements, knee surgeries and melancholy.
After the service, I watched one seasoned old skier, who has many fine turns in the Aspen high country to his credit, hobble slowly outside where a bright sun warmed the patio. Clouds filled the valley below and swirled among the peaks like waves in a vast ocean cresting on snowcapped islands.
This man distanced himself from the crowd and moved to the railing. He shaded his eyes from the sun and gazed across the void at the summits marking Highlands Ridge. He studied those mountains, his old friends, trying to catch a glimpse of his past.
[Paul Andersen wiped his eyes and skied a run for Miggs. His column appears on Mondays.]
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