The magnetism of the Highlands | AspenTimes.com

The magnetism of the Highlands

Tony Vagneur
Aspen, CO Colorado

Aspen Highlands has an allure that just can’t be quenched, no matter the span of years or change in base area ambiance. My cousin, Don Stapleton, and I began skiing there the first year it opened (1958) and all things considered, we charted a good course for the years to come.

That first year set the tone for Highlands, at least in our minds, as many of the trails hadn’t been fully cleared of dead fall or stumps, and skiing the edges for a few powder turns could truly be hazardous to one’s health. Even then, there were little chutes through the trees that no one knew about. From day one, Highlands had that aura of danger, of incompleteness, of being just a little off the wall that it still has today with the Highland Bowl and Deep Temerity.

It was about personalities then, almost as much as it was about skiing. Later on, Stein Ericksen became the ski school guru for a time, and occasionally we followed him around the hill, taking pointers when offered and always striving to impress him when he was watching. Sometimes, he’d take us for a run off the Cloud Nine lift, just to tune us up, I guess, although he never said much. “Follow me,” was about the most of it. Somehow, ski pro Tony Woerndl became one of our mentors and always seemed to be there, never criticizing, always just encouraging us to hang it out a little further.

In high school, we were into apres-ski as much as the adults, although our interest was solidly in the music being played in the Rathskeller Lounge, upstairs from the main cafeteria. One winter, an accommodating trio let me have some serious time on the piano every week and I began to think I might want to be a musician. The drummer was a smallish guy whose mouth was always open, with big eyes behind coke-bottle glasses and who had an unfocused nervousness that only beating the drums could tame. An hour or so before the show one afternoon, he leaned on me hard to help him score some “horse” (heroin), as his regular supplier had skipped town. I wasn’t quite in tune with his plight and couldn’t have helped anyway, but in the nick of time, there he was, back behind his tympanic inspirations, hammering the hell out of ’em, pupils constricted as snake eyes, even behind his thick glasses.

The next year, management hired me to play the piano for the kid’s ski school at Highlands. I played for an hour at lunch and got a lift ticket and sandwich for my troubles. And I got to spend all the time I wanted with sexy Mitzi, the day school director, who seemed to like talking to me more than listening to my playing. Of course, I had a crush on her that wouldn’t quit, but as tangled as her love life got (she kept me up to date with a running commentary), she never quite got down to taking on a high school kid.

This past Tuesday, my buddy Bob Snyder (the big mogul champ) and I hiked the bowl for Erik Peltonen’s retirement party from the City of Aspen. Think about it ” over-zealous youngsters hyping the bowl as a young man’s game, and there we were, a group of well-seasoned, lifetime skiers who could kick butt on all but the best of the young turks. Well, maybe on all of them, at that. And, I have to say, the As – Bowl never skied any better for me than it did that day. Of course, and as Erik will tell you, Bob and I got there late due to circumstances beyond human comprehension and missed the potluck lunch and the patrol-sanctioned avalanche depth charges.

But, what the hell, we all skied the same mountain, just like we’ve been doing every year since it opened. We’ll be skiing it for a long time to come, too.


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