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Vagneur: It’s been all downhill

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

As the temperatures drop and sporadic dustings of snow hit the high peaks, thoughts begin to turn to the coming of winter and skiing. Two weeks ago, I couldn’t have cared less if winter ever got here — on Sunday I started looking forward to another ski season.

We all know the rudiments of how it got started: the dreams of Ted Ryan, Billy Fiske and Tom Flynn and the formation of the Highland Bavaria Co. in Castle Creek, off Mount Hayden; the beginnings of the Aspen Ski Club in 1936 as the Roaring Fork Winter Sports Club; Andre Roch designing the first run on Aspen Mountain; and the return of many of the 10th Mountain veterans to Aspen after the war because of their deep love for the mountains and skiing.

We know the story of how Friedl Pfeifer founded the Aspen Ski Corp., but due to a lack of fundraising success, gave control of the company to Walter Paepcke in exchange for 25,000 shares of Ski Corp. stock with Pfeifer maintaining control of the ski school. Pfeifer, Johnny Litchfield (later owner of the Red Onion) and Percy Rideout, all 10th Mountain vets, were the original three directors of the ski school.

The whole enterprise was a partnership of the most serendipitous kind — Paepcke had the fundraising ability, knew the right kind of investors and was yearning to develop Aspen into a year-round cultural mecca. Pfeifer, protege of Hannes Schneider in St. Anton, Austria, and a 10th Mountain veteran, had powerful ski connections and brought the kind of people to Aspen who helped get the resort off to a fast, and world-respected, start.

You realize, of course, when we talk about skiing in Aspen, we’re mostly talking about Aspen Mountain, not only because that was the only ski area in Aspen for many years but because the base of the mountain just happens to be within the town limits. There are three other great areas nearby, and although they’re outside town, they help make up Aspen’s “Power of Four,” as Skico refers to them.

Dick Durrance became the mountain manager in 1947, and before he was through, in addition to building the T-bar on Little Nell and expanding skiable terrain, he convinced the FIS to hold its 1950 world championships in Aspen, a first for European ski racing and for the United States. Durrance and his wife, Miggs, also made ski films, and who better to star in the early escapades of winter than Aspen?

Fast forward to the 1950s, because as I said earlier, we already know all that history, don’t we? If you missed the days of only two single-chair lifts on Aspen Mountain, Lift 1 and Lift 2, you also missed those very long lift lines that consumed a generous portion of the skiing day but inadvertently led to many new friendships. In an effort to keep people on top of the mountain and out of the lift line at the bottom, the Ski Corp. (prior to Marvin Davis, it was always called the Ski Corp., the “p” pronounced) built Lift 3 in 1954 from the top of Spar to the Sundeck. Today Lift 3 is generally called the Ajax Express, although most locals still use lift numbers rather than names.

In 1956, the Little Nell T-bar was replaced with Lift 4, clear to the top of Nell, and Lift 5, the Bell Mountain chair, was right behind. That meant we were talking about some serious skiing, although the lift lines didn’t seem to get any better, just more of them. Growth and popularity will do that to a ski area.

Unlike today’s sophisticated snowcats, the early ’50s saw Johnny Hyrup running his D-7 Cat down various runs, like Ruthie’s, flattening out the moguls, which in those days were huge. Corduroy was as yet unheard of, and ticket packers spent hours smoothing out the work done by Hyrup and his big, yellow machine.

By the ’60s, the die had been cast; big changes were happening all over town, and the heart of Aspen, with the exception of a few die-hards, gave up on the dream of a resurgent silver boom and settled in for a long siege in the tourist business.

It’s been a grand ride.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at ajv@sopris.net.


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