The ‘Death Sled’ |

The ‘Death Sled’

Tony Vagneur

We’re off to an excellent start on winter, but there have been seasons in the past when a lack of snow caused life-altering changes and skiing was a far-off thought. Such was the winter of 1976-77, the year the ski lifts didn’t open until sometime in January (with one exception noted below), and there was general panic among many of the businesses in town.

After spending the fall on a horse farm in Maryland, I drove like a maniac to get back here by November 15, the day we were slated to start work on the Aspen Mountain Ski Patrol, and didn’t. Very little snow had fallen, but there was no reason to believe that the Mountain wouldn’t open pretty much on schedule. But it didn’t snow enough. We just figured Darcy Brown (the president of the Ski Corp.) had trouble getting in touch with whomever he talked to in such emergencies and we’d get a big dump any day, at least for Christmas. It didn’t happen.

Some adventurous people came to town anyway, ’cause what else were they gonna do for Christmas, and Buck Deane and I started a little sleigh ride/lunch business out of the T-Lazy 7 Ranch, where there was about a foot of snow. I’d load Buck and about 10 customers on a sleigh pulled by Pete and Pat, two huge Belgian geldings, and take them up the Maroon Creek Valley to a nice little lunch spot we had. Buck would play his guitar and sing while the coals heated, then cook the burgers, tell some good tales and at that point, I’d be back with another load of guests, taking the first group back to the parking lot. We could do that all day long.

One afternoon, Buck emerged from a closed-off horse stall with a still-unassembled, Norwegian sleigh given to him by Stein Eriksen, his old boss at the Aspen Highlands Ski School. It was unique in that it had a bench seat mounted horizontally between four separate runners, the seat surrounded by a roofless cage of light metal. It was not a toy and measured about eight feet long by four wide. We hauled it up a steep hill above the ranch, and before we’d finished the first run, realized the thing was barely navigable and had nicknamed it the “Death Sled.”

Nonetheless, speed was what we were looking for, so we took it down to the Highlands, which had its “Half-Inch” beginners lift open, just above the old bar and restaurant. The snow was packed and fast, and we began to grasp whatever skill was needed to operate the thing, which meant leaning left or right to imperceptibly turn. With no brake, we just bailed out of the metal cage and hit the snow, acting as ballast and being dragged to a slow stop.

Naturally, bored tourists from the apres-ski crowd witnessed this flourish of activity on an otherwise empty ski hill, and soon we not only had a good audience, but some of the braver guys took us up on an invitation to ride. We got more and more daring, the number of riders got bigger and bigger, and the laughs, coupled with the free-flowing beer, made for some hair-raising and death-defying rides.

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The last time up the hill, we managed to get 12 people into, onto and around our sleigh, and took off with naive optimism that we’d survive one more time. The next thing I knew, I was doing 360s down the run on my back and in the air, high above me, were several bodies attached to terror-stricken faces, all of us hoping it’d be over soon. When the dust (there was some) settled, one guy left in an ambulance and a couple of others required medical intervention in town. With heavy hearts, we retired the death sled, what was left of it. And plotted how to rebuild it better.