Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
December 3, 2011
Imagine walking up the steps to the gondola next Monday, only to find it closed with an unknown start-up date. “Not today, not tomorrow, we’ll try to get it fixed by the weekend.” It wouldn’t be a pretty sight, and the complaints would rock the rafters on an international scale.
Monday, Feb. 8, 1954, an even worse tragedy occurred. At the time, the entirety of Aspen Mountain was served by two chairlifts, Lifts One and Two. Lift One had blown a pinion drive gear and was inoperable. Getting up the mountain from the front, in the usual sense, was an impossibility, and tourists began clamoring for refunds on ski tickets and canceling hotel stays. The nearest replacement part was to be found in Bridgeport, Conn., its manufacture about 60 days out.
A solution was quickly arrived at which was, in hindsight, a great display of the Aspen spirit, that “messy vitality” we all claim to miss, a tendency to display excellence in the face of adversity with the same elan that allowed ski bums and residents alike to be poor without being fools while rich folks nibbled at the edges.
Red Rowland, mountain manager (it was superfluous in those days to call it Aspen Mountain, or even the ineffectual Ajax, for it was the only “mountain” in the Aspen Ski Corporation quiver) fired up a company Caterpillar and began clearing the Midnight Mine Road. After working all day and night, it was finally open for one-lane traffic by Tuesday morning.
Henry Stein, president of the Chamber of Commerce and Natalie Gignoux, well-known Wellesley graduate and owner of the Little Percent Taxi Company, tirelessly worked the phones and the streets, rounding up every available Jeep and four-wheel drive means of transportation in the area. By Tuesday morning, 40 or more suitable vehicles had been volunteered, with drivers begged and borrowed from all nooks and crannies.
David Stapleton and Tommy Doremus were dispatched from the 11-member elite ski patrol to become temporary drivers. Trucks, passenger cars and pickups hauled intrepid skiers up Castle Creek to the waiting phalanx of chained-up Jeeps, ready to haul skiers over the Midnight Mine Road in single-file fashion to the Sundeck. Once there, all turned around and waited until the last vehicle reached the top and then back down the mountain they convoyed, purred and bumped, single-file. Up to five trips might be made in a single day. Stapleton remembers that during “Operation Jeep Lift,” he made life-long friends with members of the Fresno Ski Club for saving their vacation with his speedy but skillful driving.
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By the time Red Rowland finished plowing the Midnight Mine Road, the pinion gear had been removed from the lift and he headed to Denver with the 700-pound cylinder in the back of his Jeep. Even as a temporary fix, it had to be welded and the breach machined, all exacting work, and by Friday afternoon, it was safely headed back to Aspen. Lift One re-opened on Sunday, the 14th.
Aspen Ski Corporation President William V. Hodges Jr. put out a request for financial donations, which, after the spirit of volunteerism that had persisted, went over like a lead balloon. In those early days, the Ski Corp. was ill-prepared for such catastrophic developments and it was, not only for the Ski Corp., but for Aspen itself, an emergency that came close to putting everyone out of business.
According to Henry Stein in his book, “Frontiers Past,” the entire cost of the foray was about $14,000, which included gas and oil, but also repairs to the tune of 240 tire chains, 20 radiators replaced, 40 new tires purchased and various other items.
With a neat portfolio of photographs from Loey Rinquist, effective pressure was put on the Kaiser Co., Jeep manufacturers, for a generous advertising donation. In the end, a few remaining hundred dollars bought beer for the volunteers who made it all work.
Aspen’s soul was on the line, but tremendous community cooperation and unselfish dedication by the people of Aspen saved it.
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