Roger Marolt: Catching butterflies on Ridge of Bell
You don’t need much imagination to realize the Silver Queen Gondola changed skiing on Aspen Mountain. What was once at least a 45-minute, elementally exposed, three-connection journey to the Sundeck, is now an enclosed non-stop 14-minute direct trip to the top. If you get a red cabin, you have your own music for ambiance.
The ski lines have changed, too. Skier-cuts traversing Bell Mountain, front and back, once treacherous, narrow paths requiring sleuthing to find after a snowfall, have been transformed into wide thoroughfares with passing lanes providing easy access to all that area has to offer.
Perhaps best of all, we can now get a full day of skiing in just a couple hours thanks to this skier rapid transit.
One thing lost, though, is fear of Ridge of Bell. I am nostalgic for what that used to be, yet still not sure whether I miss it. It provided a game day atmosphere for local skiing that amped up the younger version of me. I’m not confident my aging nervous system could handle the adrenaline surges that came with that anymore.
While Ruthie’s was perhaps the most popular run on Aspen Mountain, as it may still be, it was only a warm-up for expert skiers then. While all variety of skiers today love Ruthie’s for its daily manicured, wide-open cruising, in the pre-gondola era it was a notorious bump run. For the semi-adventurous intermediate skier, its gentle slope made for doable mogul bashing. For the expert it was a place to loosen the knees, break a sweat and bolster confidence before heading to the The Ridge of Bell Mountain.
It seems silly that anyone needed to get prepared before heading there, but it was critically important. The Ridge was not the run of the mill mogul challenge it seems today. It was like open-mic night for Aspen skiers, a showoff’s delight and peril. Stage fright is a funny thing. I don’t think anyone truly enjoys it, but it is addictive and continually drew the throngs to challenge themselves in front of a crowd on The Ridge. The notoriously huge moguls there didn’t form because most skiers shied from the challenge.
The Ridge was all about butterflies. The main way up the mountain was the low-flung Lift #5 slowly lumbering its way up the center of that run, usually every chair full. The Ridge was completely presented, top to bottom, for lift riders’ unobstructed viewing over what is a quarter mile of challenging skiing, but what felt like 10 for a skier navigating the parking lot for Volkswagen-size moguls on the steep slope in front of an audience. Three quarters of the way down, if your thighs weren’t burning and you weren’t hanging on for dear life, you might as well have ducked into the trees and quit, because you hadn’t gone hard enough to impress anyone.
Nobody skied The Ridge for pleasure. You went for the rush of the pressure. It was a show. With perhaps a couple hundred people spectating and critiquing from the lift, your trip through the moguls was a performance. The lift was high enough for good viewing for its riders and low enough so skiers could recognize “friends” and hear chirps.
“Break a leg” was interpreted warily. Ski gear was not as advanced then. Experts wrestled with pointy-tipped, narrow, 210-cm skis, with little sidecut. Crashes were common, especially in the bumps. A run down The Ridge produced adrenaline. Adrenaline coaxed speed. Speed caused spectacular blow-ups. Falling was bad enough. Caustic feedback from lift-riding onlookers as you adjusted goggles and brushed snow from your face was embarrassing. But, if you held a double-ejection yard sale, there was no hope for emotional recovery. The shame while canvasing the slope to retrieve ejected skis and other gear flung loose during a full-on egg-beater beneath a smothering blizzard of catcalls and laughter showered from the lift was a catastrophic blow to the most resilient ego.
Today, I might get little nervous with my ski tips hanging out over the top of S1 or the T-Chutes, surveying the steep and gnarly terrain below. But this trepidation is nothing compared to the butterflies stirred up heading over to be reviewed by the long lineup of Lift #5 critics. I remember even Franz Klammer getting sucked into its crap shoot for glory. He survived.
Roger Marolt remembers the ill-advised Bash for Cash mass start race down The Ridge. Never was there a ski event that so defied logic, common sense, and health insurance. Email at email@example.com.