Tony Vagneur: 1958 became year you had to think about where you skied
On Dec. 23, 2017, my friend David C. Wood (“Sanctuaries in the Snow”) posted a Facebook link to a Vogue magazine article by Virginia Van Zanten, in which I was quoted, verbatim, “And by the way, only newcomers and lightweights call Aspen Mountain ‘Ajax.’ … That’s a misnomer from the old days that refuses to die.”
That ignited a swarm of comments, over 150 so far and counting, mostly from “the old days” crowd, it would appear, and opened an inadvertent and unintended Pandora’s Box of disgruntled and ruffled feathers. Apparently, those who took great umbrage at my remark glossed over “the old days” part of the quote. And which, if I must say so myself, fairly well proved me to be correct.
According to fellow Aspen Mountain ski patroller and writer extraordinaire Tim Cooney in a 2015 column in The Aspen Times, “Some recollect that Aspen Mountain gained the nickname Ajax from 1950s and ’60s locals who were looking for their own niche among headstrong townies but that the handle never sat well with the Aspen natives, who preferred the original name. …
“These days, in the subtleties of local status, using ‘Ajax’ lumps folks in with newer Aspenites who quickly learn all the street names, while seasoned locals say ‘Aspen Mountain’ and don’t quite know the street names but rather identify locations by what used to be there.”
That’s not to say there is a definitive answer to necessarily anything on the subject, but as in religion, if one believes it, it’s probably true. Many of the commenters were clearly aggravated by my remark, but no one really offered proof of their angst, other than to say something like. “That’s the way it was when I lived there.” Or, “that’s what we always called it in the ’70s,” or “that’s what so-and-so called it.” You could almost hear the gnashing of teeth. Say Aspen Mountain or Ajax, most people know where you mean, most of the time.
In case you missed that Facebook thread, the comments were quite humorous and if you don’t do Facebook, don’t worry, I won’t mention it again.
Back in the early skiing days, before 1958, the name of the mountain didn’t really enter into any conversation about skiing. It was never, “Where are you skiing today?” because there was only one ski mountain with a lift. If the question was ever asked, and it’s doubtful it ever was, the answer would likely have been Aspen Mountain, or Ajax, or where the hell do you think, or more exemplary, rolled eyeballs.
Hanging around with guys like my great-uncle Tom Stapleton and Harry Holmes, old silver miners both, taught me to call it Aspen Mountain, for if they said Ajax, or Ajax Hill, it meant they were going to the area near the top of Buckhorn, where all the radio towers are now located.
By saying Aspen Mountain, it gave their radar a much larger berth and gave them more old tunnels to explore. Harry’s son, Russell, better known as Rasputin, knew every mining claim on Aspen Mountain and one never knew exactly where he might emerge from the depths.
If you thumb through old newspapers looking for Ajax Mountain, there are about 395 mentions of the name, probably 350 of them in advertisements placed in The Aspen Times by Paul and Hannah Wirth for the Sundeck. We can’t blame the Wirths for this riddle — they were just trying to make a buck and wanted people to know they were on top of a mountain, at the end of a ski lift.
Celebrities seldom cared what the mountain was called but were more interested in how long it takes to heal a broken leg as evidenced by the following from the Times: “Werner Kuster, co-owner of the Red Onion was bombing down Ajax Mountain in his usual fashion last Wednesday, fell and broke his fibula.” March 21, 1958. Knowing Kuster, he probably had a preferred name for the mountain after that, but one not usually approved for family newspapers.
Speaking of 1958, that’s the important milestone year in which Aspen Highlands and Buttermilk came on the scene. Then, when people asked where you were going skiing, you had to ponder for a moment. But it was not what you think — the local lexicon became either Buttermilk, Highlands or the Big Mountain. It’s pretty much been that way ever since, unless one prefers Aspen Mountain.
The only certainty that can be gleaned from any of this is that Ms. Virginia Van Zanten quoted me correctly. See you on the mountain.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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