Tony Vagneur: Pull up a Couch and learn up on lift 7
The question came, as it usually does, pertaining to a far-off corner of long-forgotten history, but with a hangover that perplexes people today.
“Why aren’t the lifts numbered in the order they were built? You know Gent’s Ridge (No. 7) was built last, but it has a lower number than Ruthie’s (No. 8). It doesn’t make sense.”
So asked Sue Kern, widow of affable and never-forgotten Albie, a woman whose smiling, youthful appearance coupled with a professional skier’s svelte figure belies the fact that she could actually be old enough to put such a historical question together. I told her the abbreviated answer, but as she skied off, her parting comment was, “I don’t think you know.”
It goes back to 1962, further back than the collective memory of most of today’s Aspen kibitzers, and it is not an entirely simple answer. Also, it goes back to the days when lifts were listed by number, not cute, touristy names. Wait, it goes back to 1958.
Buttermilk (what does that have to do with Aspen Mountain, you ask?) opened in 1958. As would make sense, a cooperative was formed between the owners of Buttermilk (Friedl Pfeifer, R.O. Anderson, Billy Rubey) and the Aspen Ski Corp., which owned 20 percent of the Buttermilk coalition.
A propitious arrangement, it would seem, as the Ski Corp. could provide expertise in the realm of mountain hardware such as lifts, on-mountain communications, and other related items. In return, Buttermilk could provide the gentle, teaching and learning terrain that Aspen Ski School had been craving for years.
Lift tickets were transferable between both areas (Highlands was a world unto itself in those days) and it worked well until 1962 when, by mutual agreement, both sides decided that it would be better to cancel the contract between themselves and that each should become a totally separate entity. The Ski Corp. gave Pfeifer its 20 percent stake in Buttermilk in return for Pfeifer relinquishing all control and interest in Aspen Ski School.
By then, the Aspen Ski Corp. had come to rely on those gentle teaching slopes and faced a dilemma — could they recreate them? Not really, but what they did was install a short, 980-foot T-Bar at the top of Mill Street, on what was commonly known as Thunder Hill. This area is between the near-bottom of 1A and the top of Mill Street. Once upon a time, there was a rope tow there.
The area was bulldozed as to be so innocuous that there were joking arguments over whether it sloped to the north or to the south. Use of the T-Bar was free to rank beginners and the ski school; there was a per-ride charge for others. This was installed and ready for the 1962-63 season, sans Buttermilk. This short, insignificant T-Bar was Lift No. 7, Lift No. 6 (FIS) having been installed in 1959.
The world quickly moved on and in 1963, the Ski Corp. bought Buttermilk, making Lift No. 7 a vestigial appendage, so to speak. How long it remained may be questionable, but it certainly wasn’t needed after the 1962-63 season.
Still moving along, the Ski Corp. installed what is commonly referred to as the Ruthie’s lift, in 1963. It was christened Lift No. 8, as No. 7 had already been used on the T-Bar, thus leaving a gap in the numbering of the mountain lifts, to wit: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 8. It made perfect sense to those of us who had been here in the early ’60s, as No. 7 seemed relatively insignificant. Still, the numbering gap left a feeling of nostalgia for the old No. 7, and life (and skiing) sped along, as it always does.
In 1978, the Aspen Ski Corp. was sold to 20th Century Fox; Marvin Davis bought half of 20th Century and the Crown family the other half. The name was changed from Aspen Ski Corp. to Aspen Skiing Co.
Gent’s Ridge Lift, known colloquially to most locals as “The Couch,” was installed in 1985 without much fanfare. The crucial part of the story, however, is that the Gent’s Ridge lift was, at that time, christened No. 7, for a couple of reasons. Like an unused football jersey number, No. 7, sitting in the locker room without purpose, was needed to make the team complete. Or, it brought the historical numbering of lifts back into the real world. No. 7, lying in the wispy nebula of once-crucial but non-existent ski lifts, was reincarnated to the cheers of those of us who were proud to see it had found a way back to reality.
As you shiver through another long ride on the Gent’s Ridge chair, aka The Couch, give a tip of the helmet to No. 7, the original name for the lift, the number with a multi-layered story behind it.
Correction: My great-grandfather, Timothy C. Stapleton, was 60 years old when he died in Denver in 1903. Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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