Stone: A ski town, like skiing, is above all a matter of balance
December 12, 2015
It seems as if every time someone tries to solve Aspen's problems, the solution winds up being worse than the problems.
Generations of planners and politicians have dished up heaping helpings of hot razzle-dazzle and declared that they were here to save the day! They had the answer, and they were going to solve all the problems created by … the last bunch of hot razzle-dazzlers.
They've given us upzonings and downzonings and probably some inzonings and outzonings, too, along with community plans and planned communities, community communications and a few communicable diseases.
They all aim too high and swing too big. Everyone wants to hit a home run and winds up — kersplat! — like Casey at the bat. And there is no joy in Mudville.
Our most recent example was the well-meaning but ultimately misguided attempt to "save Aspen" by building "affordable lodging."
The town still has Base2 bruises from that pratfall.
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But now, I think we're seeing a new project that isn't trying to solve all of Aspen's problems and remake the entire town.
And by thinking more modestly, this project just might succeed more grandly.
I'm talking about the proposed Gorsuch Haus lodge at the base of Lift 1A.
This project is aimed at one very specific local problem.
In the simplest terms, the problem this new lodge is intended to solve is that the base area at 1A is a bit shabby, hard to get to and, as a result, woefully underused.
If I may hark back for a moment: Decades ago, the two base lifts on Aspen Mountain were the Little Nell lift and 1A.
Both had drawbacks.
Lift 1A required, as it still does, an annoying walk uphill or a drive on a narrow, icy road with no parking at the top.
Little Nell, on the other hand, was easier to get to, but the lift system from there on up was creaky at best: a short, slow ride up Little Nell; a long wait followed by a long, slow ride on Lift 5 (the Bell Mountain lift); and then, for most skiers, a short schuss followed by another long wait at Lift 3. Bottom to top, it took about 45 minutes, not counting the time waiting in lift lines.
The gondola, of course, changed all that — or, more accurately, changed half of that. Suddenly there was a fast ride right to the top of the mountain, usually with little or no lift line at the bottom.
And 1A immediately became a bit of a ghost lift, complete with a failed, shuttered restaurant at the top.
Except, of course, when World Cup comes to town and suddenly 1A is supposed to be a world-class festival site.
Gorsuch Haus is designed to be a first big step toward bringing that part of the mountain back to life — along with a nifty new, slightly realigned lift from Aspen Skiing Co.
The lodge project will include a vastly improved base area for the lift itself, plus a restaurant and bar with an outside deck, roughly paralleling what Ajax Tavern offers at the bottom of the gondola.
It will still require that uphill slog to the top of Aspen Street, which the developers will try to deal with by offering regular service by bus or trolley or something along those lines.
There's more — longtime, genuine locals as developers, lots of employee housing, parking — but I don't want to get sidetracked by the details.
The main point, for me, is that the project is intended to get Aspen Mountain back into balance, with two functioning base lifts. (And, yes, a proper "race arena" for the World Cup.)
Of course, to fully achieve that goal, things will have to go several big steps further: down to Dean Street and up (says me) to the top of Ruthie's Run.
Yes, I know — all us lazy, fat-ass skiers should be happy to hike up Aspen Street, but really, the lift should run right out of downtown.
Ski runs rising up out of town are one of the glories of Aspen. And the lifts should do the same.
Again, there are lots of details I don't want to get into, but cooperation from another set of developers with another planned project could — with help from the city — make it possible to bring the lift a long way toward town.
And up above, I just think the lift (a gondola, please) should run clear to the top of Ruthie's, giving skiers a clear shot to Lift 3 or the ability to immediately start skiing laps on Ruthie's Run to the Ruthie's Lift.
In short: revitalize Ruthie's Run, the Ruthie's Lift, Ruthie's Restaurant — and, in the process, just about half the mountain.
It can be done.
But to get back to my original point, this certainly is not a small project, but it is a project with admirably narrow focus: to start bringing the base of Aspen Mountain back into balance.
And by achieving that single goal, this project could achieve a lot more.
It could help bring Aspen back into balance.
Aspen — I've said it before, and I will cheerfully say it again — has been and needs to be at its heart a ski town.
Not a real estate investment with ski lifts.
Not a glitz factory with snow.
Not, as The New York Times put it earlier this year, "a metaphor for something that involved Prada."
A ski town — with, yes, a commitment to that pesky "Aspen Idea" of nourishing body, mind and spirit.
But, in the end, a ski town.
With a great ski mountain.
It's all just a matter of balance.
Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.