Tony Vagneur: Aspen’s $100 million question |

Tony Vagneur: Aspen’s $100 million question

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

“I remember I was leaning against a boulder and thinking how neat it was to be out there all by ourselves. … I heard a cony bark a warning to the rest of his clan, telling them an outsider was present. That sound flushed a bevy of little birds that quickly reestablished themselves on some stubby, low-growing evergreen.” — from “The Bark of the Cony” by George Nash Smith (and kids), the down-to-earth tale of G. Nash and his four sons, climbing all 67 peaks over 14,000 feet in the contiguous 48 states

Many of you know Flint Smith, one of the Climbing Smiths, above, a longtime paramedic on the Aspen Mountain Ski Patrol, a red-headed stalwart of a man whom you want on your side when things go wrong. And as a friend when things are going well. He and Erik Peltonen, another patrolman, were the first Powder Eight competition champions, back in the 1980s. Out of 12 competitions, they won eight and placed second in four. An unassailable record.

This isn’t a book report, although you may believe I have misled you into thinking so, but rather an opportunity to say that in this book there are important grains of truth that many mountaineers either forget or aren’t aware of, but one in particular stood out: “Eye a destination or landmark to aim for, and another one past that, if possible. When you get there, select the next one. Periodically look back where you came from so the terrain will look familiar on the way down.” Mountain Rescue Aspen is called on too many times to help those who fail to take this advice.

If ever there was a metaphor for life as we live it, other than goal setting, that last sentence fairly well covers it: “Periodically look back where you came from.” Early in my life, that sentiment was passed on to me as my dad left me off alone somewhere on Larkspur Mountain with a tent, sleeping bag, some groceries and a couple of horses. “Pay attention” was his parting admonition.

Little did I realize such advice would eventually lead me to the Aspen Historical Society, keeper of Aspen’s glorious (and not so glorious) past. The old saying, “If you don’t know where you’ve been, you won’t know where you’re going,” rings true more times than we’d sometimes like to acknowledge.

Recently, there have been rumblings about today’s Aspen being similar to 19th century mining-town Aspen, what with the ostentatious architecture, poseurs roaming the streets and a huge influx of outside money. That’s a comparison relativity easy to make without too much imagination — the difficult part is trying to predict when the inevitable crash will come, and it will. There are only so many people in the world wealthy enough (and willing enough) to afford today’s real estate prices.

Aspen history would have you believe that after the silver crash of 1893, times were tough for those who chose to stay around, and to a large degree that was true, but the often-overlooked agricultural demographic was having some of its best years ever. Fortunately, the railroad hadn’t pulled up tracks and moved on, so farmers and ranchers in the valley could sell as much as they could produce, to all parts of the country.

As late as the 1960s, agriculture was still the main economic driver in Pitkin County, even with the popularity of skiing and summer cultural and recreational activities. That soon changed, overtaken by tourism. The Dallas Ski Club, the Fukawees (or however they spelled it on their caps — “Where the f— are we” ski club), other fun-loving groups, families and individuals brought both fun and angst to town.

An out-of-town man I have known since high school comes here for a month every winter although neither he nor his wife ski anymore. They’re younger than I am. He likes the fine dining; she likes the shopping. They’re not alone in that regard and unlike many, they’re not interested in buying property here — they have a ranch to run the rest of the year.

And if you haven’t noticed, a local house went on the market the other day for $100 million. Could this be the proverbial bark of the cony? If nothing else, it is a likely harbinger of the next big change on the horizon, and not on the upside.

Speaking of changes, as you prepare for the next outing or big adventure, remember what G. Nash Smith also said: “One of these times will be the last time …”

A cony is also called a pika. Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at

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