Tony Vagneur: Staying true to Aspen Mountain, honoring early the lifts
For some, the end of ski season brings a nostalgia, an unwillingness to let go, and you’ll see some of those folks skinning or hiking up, hitching a snowmobile ride to the top of Independence Pass, or even driving to Arapahoe Basin or Loveland for a few turns. It’s good to think seasonally, but try to tell that to someone with an obsession.
There are a few folks, and I’m one them, known as Aspen Mountain snobs, who seldom, if ever, ski any other mountain during the regular season. I’ve been trying to get to Snowmass for a couple of years, mostly to take a few runs with retiring mountain manager Steve Sewell, but never seem to get past the roundabout and Highland Bowl.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way — Aspen wasn’t the apple in any early ski pioneer’s eye — Mount Hayden was the chosen one, that peak up Castle Creek named after Ferdinand Hayden, early valley surveyor. If you’ve never skied Hayden, don’t worry about it — most people haven’t.
A triumvirate of men had 1930s visions of creating a world-class ski area with Hayden as its mountain and Ashcroft as its base village. How cool would that have been, we wonder? Even harder to get to than Aspen, but the old Blue Mirror Saloon would be rocking seven nights a week and the Bird House Hotel perennially overbooked, catering to the world’s finest skiers.
Europeans Andre Roch and Gerhard Langes surveyed out 15 runs on Mount Hayden, one of them six miles long. Try that on lunch break legs. The Aspen Historical Society has a photograph with these surveyed runs overlaid on it. Very impressive.
While all of this was going on, Roch began giving ski lessons to Aspen townsfolk, who desperately needed something to do in the winter. The boat tow was put together and the Aspen Winter Sports Club founded, later to become the Aspen Ski Club. Give an Aspenite a pair of skis and he won’t be hard to find in the winter.
World War II put an end to the dreams of the men trying to make Mount Hayden a premier ski resort and you might have thought the idea of skiing around here would have died, except that the U.S. Army chose Pando, over by Leadville, to locate its 10th Mountain Division, a training ground for elite mountain soldiers who skied.
Leadville, known for its red-light district and proclivity of the male citizenry to join in fisticuffs, was off-limits to the 10th Mountain boys, so Aspen, by default, became the go-to place for many furloughed soldiers to spend a few days.
It didn’t take long, like maybe one trip, for some of those men to gaze upon Aspen Mountain through the large windows of the Hotel Jerome bar and feel an urge to create a ski area there.
Friedl Pfeifer, a native Austrian and a corporal with the 10th, severely wounded in the Italian Appenines, was discharged early. With amazing ambition, he returned to Aspen and founded the Aspen Ski Corporation. But raising money was difficult on his own. Hearing of Walter Paepcke, up and coming cultural renaissance man with his sights on Aspen, Pfeifer pursued him with his plan for a ski area.
Paepcke was reluctant at first thinking, “How will ski bums fit into my vision of cultural harmony and unity?” However, the idea of making money during the winter months soon appealed to him and a deal was struck with Pfeifer, leaving Pfeifer with 25,000 shares of Aspen Ski Corp. stock and ownership of the ski school. Smartest man in town that day, probably. The Aspen Ski Corp. was formally registered with the state on January 21, 1946.
Paepcke, through his many business and family connections, quickly raised the necessary funds to put Pfeifer’s ideas into action. Lifts One and Two, both single-seaters from the bottom near Deane Street to the top at the Sundeck, made the Aspen Mountain ski area a reality. On Dec. 14, 1946, Aspen Mountain opened for business.
Fitted with wool-lined, canvas covers with an oval cut-out for vision, and articulating steel gates with footrests for safety, these two lifts together were billed as the world’s longest chairlift. In a world without snowcats and snowmobiles, they carried everything needing transport up and down the mountain. Restaurant supplies, skiers and toboggans to the top, trash and cautious skiers to the bottom. Labeled the “Tuna Trolley,” these two lifts were the workhorses of Aspen Ski Corp.
Just as the 1960s and ’70s hold irreplaceable memories for those who lived through them in Aspen, so have those two early chairlifts become icons of an age of skiing that can never be forgotten by those who rode them.
If you’re still looking for spring turns, watch out for rotten snow.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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