Roger This: Roger Marolt |

Roger This: Roger Marolt

Roger Marolt
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado

Somebody the other day wondered who was the first person ever to ski Highland Bowl, and wouldn’t you know it, I knew it. It was George.

George is dead now, but you will be relieved to know that he did not die falling off a cliff or by getting buried in an avalanche. He died from the complications that accumulate in the bones and joints and vital organs over the span of a long life lived raising hell.

One thing for certain about George’s first journey up the Bowl was that he did not have a bowl of delicious hot soup and an ice-cold beer at the Merry-Go-Round restaurant afterwards. Neither did he use a Highland Ski Patrol strap to carry his skis. He didn’t ride in the snowcat across the ridge from Loge Peak. He didn’t even use the ski lifts. I suppose you could say he did it in the early season before any of those things were in operation.

Yes, he used fat sticks. They were long, too. They were handcrafted to his exact specifications. And, because he was who he was, he got them for nothing – just went into the oldest store in town and took them right off the floor. Nobody said a word as he walked out with his boards. Nobody was there.

Undoubtedly most of you have started putting the pieces together: He didn’t use the lifts to get up Highlands? He got his handcrafted skis for nothing? He’s already dead of old age? He didn’t stop for a beer after hiking the Bowl? All together it makes sense. He got the Bowl’s first tracks a long time ago.

Aspen Highlands became a ski area in 1958, so if you were thinking George skied the Bowl in the ’60s, ’70s, or ’80s you’re not being imaginative enough. How about the ’50s, then? You’re getting warmer. The ’40s? Warmer still. You’ve got to be kidding, the ’30s? Yup. It was in 1939, according to the best guesses of family members who are too old to care much or way too young to have been anywhere near that now famous ski terrain.

What we have to go on is a photo, and it is one of those great pictures defined by its ability to say way more than the standard thousand words. There’s George, standing at the bottom of the bowl, smile in front of him and tracks behind him, down what we call “Ozone” today. Of course he went all the way to the top. Of course this was his first time. Everyone takes a picture and heads all the way up their first time.

The glare off the snow makes it almost impossible to see the tracks, but you know they are there by the way George is positioned to the side of the photo, letting what is significant take the center. It makes sense to the proud skier in each of us. Now you can make them out.

He’s wearing nothing but a Chamonix shirt, which leads you to believe it’s warm up there that day. But, you know how it can be after hiking up that wind-scoured ridge and then dropping into the protected calm of the Bowl itself. That’s oftentimes where the sweat you expected during the arduous trek up to 12,391 feet and 8 inches above sea level finally appears. George probably has a jacket somewhere, laid on the ground out of the frame. You figure it must have been a heavy one that for the pre-dawn start from town. Did he dress in layers of canvas, cotton and wool?

What we don’t see in the picture are George’s skis and boots. He’s holding his bamboo poles, but apparently the skis, and most likely the boots, are still on his feet. Remember I told you that he took his skis right off the floor of some old shop? That’s what the early local skiers did. They went into abandoned buildings and ripped up the hardwood planking and took the boards home to make their skis out of.

First they cut them to length and carved a tip on them (incidentally, that’s the only carving they ever did on those skis that had no side cut and little flexibility). Then they soaked them in water. When the wood was pliable enough, they secured the planks in clamps while wrapping rope around the tips and pulling them back a little more each day until they dried; curved up in front. At least that’s how one old-timer, George’s brother-in-law who never skied a day in his life, told me how they did it. What else are you going to do if you can’t buy a pair at Gorsuch’s?

As for his boots, George was most likely wearing the same pair he wore around town; probably the only pair he owned because he was poor, like everyone else in town back then, although he likely wasn’t thinking much about it that day. To fix his boots to his skis, I bet he used leather along with rubber straps cut from old tires and tubes, as was trendy then.

My guess is that they had pockets full of venison jerky and bread for fuel. Maybe they carried water in tin canteens. And I say “they” because somebody had to have taken the picture of George. Some say it was Fritz Kaeser, the famous photographer and skier who hung around Aspen a little back then. Who knows? Anyway, I guess it could have been him that made the first tracks instead of George. But I doubt it. Polite visitors never take first tracks from locals, do they?

I made a few laps on the Bowl last Sunday. I caught the bus from town, boarded the lift, and rode in the cat. I wore synthetic fleece, and Gortex. My skis were freshly tuned and waxed. I had my boots dialed in perfectly. I even finished the day with a bowl of soup at the Merry-Go-Round.

Nonetheless, it was my great-uncle, George Tekoucich, who inspired me.