Vagneur: Forever lured by the songs of the Siren of Aspen Mountain
Thanksgiving used to be the biggest event of the year — not holiday, but event — because that’s when Aspen Mountain opened for the season. It didn’t always open then, but almost always.
Weeks were spent in preparation, sanding and waxing the bottoms of our skis, screwing in new edges where needed, and each of us doing our own particular snow dance. If we had enough pre-Thanksgiving snow, we packed and skied the alley behind Elisha’s house on Main Street, skied the hill behind the Hotel Jerome or the hill behind the Red Brick School, all in preparation for that great opening day
There was no snowmaking, other than what seemed to be a direct line the Aspen Ski Corp. management had with the snow gods, a line that didn’t guarantee excellent conditions, but usually brought down enough snow to make opening feasible. No matter the thrill or how deep our unrestrained exuberance at being on the mountain, reality might creep in when we would sometimes see those carefully tuned skis turn into major repairs by the end of the weekend.
There were no high-tech grooming machines to roll out nice corduroy for our return to the mountain — we skied what was naturally there and loved every minute of it. Early season rocks were a particular problem, and with a reasonable sense of fairness, we took turns being in front, sharing the load of “rock spotter.” Of course, unlike kids of today, we seldom skied in the same track, so it didn’t matter who led — we still hit our share of unseen, solid protrusions lying silently under the snow.
The other day, riding up No. 7 (“the couch”), my mentor from the ski patrol days, Erik Peltonen, remarked that it sure was nice to get some solitude, to take a slow ride and absorb the majesty of the outdoors and sublime quiet in this early quest for getting back into another season. Sometimes we forget that we’re in the middle of the forest, admittedly on terrain that has been whacked by man, but still in the middle of the forest. Snow-covered pines, the scent of evergreen and the ability to search several horizons for landmarks remembered from years of experience is a part of each day that is memorable. High-speed quads somehow lessen that experience, but don’t get me wrong — we love those high-speed lifts, too.
“You’re only as good as your last run,” is certainly true, but riding up a slow-moving lift after an excellent run makes you “great” for a little while longer, before the next trail down has a chance to put you back in your place.
We lived with solitude back in the day, riding the old Lifts One and Two, single-chair rides up the hill with the “buckets” spaced far enough apart to make conversation difficult — impossible on a windy day. Canvas covers lined with wool were attached to the chairs, and it wasn’t uncommon to flip the cover over your head and sit back for a short nap, or an uninterrupted chance to think about a million things that were important to young boys and girls.
Top-to-bottom runs weren’t uncommon in those days: Lifts One, Two and Three (Ajax Express) comprised the entire fleet of chairlifts back then, and we were mostly after two things: speed and air. If we didn’t spend all day on Ruthie’s, we spent it tucking an ungroomed Spar. My buddy Terry Morse broke his leg purposely going for glory off a road in Schuss Gulley toward the bottom of the 1950 FIS Championships, the same road that took out more than a few FIS racers. My left leg met its torturous deformation on a fall in Spar narrows during a tuck that started just below No. 3 and was apparently intended to test the toughness of bear-trap bindings. We were 9 years old.
The other day I uncovered a photo of a young kid, standing proudly in front of the Woody Creek ranch house on Christmas Day skis that looked to be about twice as long as he was tall, with a huge, mostly toothless grin upon his very young face and a coon skin cap balanced on his head.
The photographer, likely my mother, might have wondered where skiing would take her young son, a journey that none of us could have foreseen. It’s 65 years later and I’m still skiing Aspen Mountain with a big grin, only now with most of my own teeth.
Like Odysseus in Homer’s “Odyssey,” we are forever lured by the songs of the Siren of Aspen Mountain, enticing us with irresistibly sweet refrains, time and time again, to seek her favor, season after season.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at email@example.com.
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