Tony Vagneur: Finding your skiing skills at Hidden Valley
It’s hard to explain growing up with one of the greatest ski mountains in the world right outside the back door, but for a time, Aspen Mountain wasn’t always everything to me.
It started innocently enough, going to college and before long an older kid in one of my classes upon learning I was from Aspen mentioned that he was a ski instructor at a small area in the middle of Rocky Mountain National Park and invited me to come check it out.
At the time, I’m not sure I’d ever heard of Rocky Mountain National Park, couldn’t point out Long’s Peak if I had to, and certainly had never heard of Hidden Valley Ski Area. It was hidden, it was beautiful, and it kept me busy on weekends for most of three winters. And I made some good money.
For me, it began the winter of 1964-65 and I learned a lot about small ski areas. I had never used a rope tow, had never taught a ski class and was amazed at the number of adults who seriously wanted to learn how to ski. We were packed almost every weekend.
We did it the old-school way — pack up for a while, trying to get beginners used to the feel of skis under their legs and then we’d head for the rope tow to gain a little altitude. By the time we managed to get the whole class to the top of the rope tow in one piece, the morning was gone. Truthfully, a rope tow is the least user-friendly uphill device ever invented. It was brutal, but we actually taught some people how to have fun on skis.
The head duck, Don Leonard, ran the ski school with his wife, Ann. Don was a cattle rancher from around the Loveland-Greeley area, a hell of a skier, and we hit it off right away. It’s not often you find two skiing cowboys working together. My lifelong buddy, Doug Franklin, who was going to school at Regis, and I got hired on right away and the odyssey of the Hidden Valley adventure began.
For a couple of kids raised on Aspen Mountain, Hidden Valley was a different kind of experience — it was two mountains, but one, all at the same time. The lower mountain went up only so high, to about timberline, where there were mostly diverse beginner and intermediate runs.
The challenging skiing was on the upper mountain, accessed only by bus, which left the parking lot on a prearranged schedule, climbing up an otherwise closed Trail Ridge Road as far as Tombstone Ridge, where it disgorged its passengers to a waiting T-Bar to the top of the mountain at 11,500 feet. Stashed around, there were some humongous bumps, too big to be recognized by the unpracticed eye; there were some narrow tree trails and a few gnarly gullies that seldom got skied but could take your breath away.
The wind up there could be fierce and frequent, although the powder, when the gods delivered, was some of the finest anywhere. Most of the time, however, we skied on boilerplate, harder than anything I’d ever experienced. One spring break, after a steady winter of work at Hidden Valley, I returned to Aspen only to discover how much I had grown to like the hard, impenetrable snow of Hidden Valley.
In 1936, when Ted Ryan, T.J. Flynn and Billy Fiske were putting together their dream of a European-style ski area on Mount Hayden with Ashcroft as its base, the people around the area of Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park were making strides in creating the Hidden Valley ski resort. The area had been heavily logged since 1913, and with a little trimming and sawing here and there, some great runs were put together.
The 1930s brought a couple of T-Bars and two platter lifts to the area. The French International ski tryouts were held at Hidden Valley in 1936 (not exactly sure what those were — pretty sure it wasn’t Interski). A new, modern lodge was built in the ’60s, along with a 500-car parking lot. Business was booming.
Due to increased competition from the development of Interstate 70 corridor and other ski areas, Hidden Valley started a slow decline in business, until finally in 1991, it shut off the power for good. Characteristically, uphilling has taken off there as well as everywhere else, and some of the great skiing we found back in the ’60s still exists for those with the desire. It’s just not the same.
The one takeaway I got, other than some amazing, unshakeable memories, is that “If you can ski Hidden Valley, you can ski anywhere.” Ask anyone who remembers. I concur.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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