Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Terry Morse and I had a thing about Spar Gulch. If we couldn’t take it straight, we weren’t interested in skiing it. We rode the original Lift One single-chair almost exclusively, as we skied either the Ruthie’s side or Spar. Lift No.3 (Ajax Express) was in its first year of operation and Little Nell had a T-bar, both too mundane for big kids like us. Nine-year-olds.
In those days, almost anything relating to Spar was referred to as either above or below “the dam,” a large earthen mound across the gulch at the bottom of what is now the FIS (No. 6) lift. Today there’s still a moderately steep drop-off into Spar at that point, but it cannot compare in degree of steepness to what existed in the early days.
It started simply enough, letting our skis run until we figured out that we didn’t need to turn. That was from “below the dam.” I remember clearly the day we decided to try it from “above the dam,” which was far more exhilarating in the beginning, but had the same overall result.
Terry, a then-future Olympian, remarked that if one of us ever fell, we’d surely break a leg. Safety bindings were still in the experimental stage, and our bindings consisted of two metal plates on either side of our boots (toe irons), holding the toe firmly in place. Long thongs, originating at the heel, were wrapped around the boot, holding it irrevocably tight against the toe irons.
As our buddy Spook James remembers, we wrapped the long thongs as tightly as we could and in various configurations, mostly to counter the softness of our leather ski boots. In a big wreck, you might lose your hat, poles, goggles, or maybe even your head, but there was no way to escape the torque of the twisting and turning skis. You either survived or broke a leg.
Anyway, Terry and I were developing infamous reputations as the young daredevils who schussed Spar Gulch with regularity, and typically, we’d been warned off of it by Ski Corp. employees, worried about our safety.
Nationally-renowned jazz pianist Ed Dunklee and his wife, Betty, were staying at my grandmother’s house on Bleeker, so in exchange for some piano lessons, I became their on-mountain guide. I was a responsible pathfinder, no doubt, but this also represented a great opportunity for me to get back to taking Spar straight. No one could complain if I did it in the company of adults, now could they?
About the top of the dam, I ditched Ed and his wife and turned my skis loose. Next thing I knew, I was lying in a heap at the Spar Narrows, wondering what had happened. I couldn’t move my left leg, but was thinking that maybe if I could get it untwisted, everything’d be OK. For whatever reason, I also reckoned that if Terry had been along, I’d have never crashed.
The ride off the mountain, strapped to a ski patrolman’s back, is grist for another column, but once I was flopped down on the wooden “in-table” at the old Pitkin County Hospital, it took one glance for Dr. Baxter to pronounce my leg broken.
Ed, the piano player, stuck it out with me as they set the bones, giving me a bullet (glove) to bite on. I slept with a cardboard box over my leg for about a week to keep the weight of the covers off. It’s the kind of pain you don’t readily forget.
Morse was a good friend who didn’t say, “I told you so,” and my world suddenly became much smaller, but still crazy. Some of the innovations a kid on crutches can come up with are likely just as dangerous as tucking Spar.
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From behind the scenes, the sights and sounds of horse and cattle, and the raucous lifestyle of rodeo culture hasn’t changed all that much since the Snowmass Rodeo arena opened here in the summer of 1973.