Vagneur: Our Aspen family of skiers

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

The joys of life come our way when we least expect them, and sometimes in shots so small we have to relive the experience to make sure they were real.

Standing around at the top of the mountain a couple of weeks ago, after watching my daughter kill the big uphill race, a younger man approached me and pointed at my Aspen Mountain Ski Patrol pin, wanting affirmation that I was on the patrol. “No longer,” I replied, “I’m alumni.”

“My father was alumni, also,” he said, and fessed up, when asked, that his dad was Pete Seibert of Colorado skiing fame. Seibert’s, off the backside of Bell on Aspen Mountain, is a great black-diamond mogul run and one of the originals, named after a person instead of a mining claim. As we shook hands, I was humbled with the realization that two families, going back to the very beginning of skiing in Aspen, found each other through nothing more than a small ski pin on the front of my parka. And as you think about it, you realize it was Pete and Earl “Squirrel” Eaton, another Aspen patrol alumni, who in 1957 explored what is now Vail Mountain and decided it would make an excellent ski area.

Any given bucket on the gondola on any given day can be a glimpse into the convoluted world of anthropology, and never was there an exception this winter. Cellphones are the new opiate of the masses, stifling conversation with friends and strangers alike, even worse than those music-carrying earbuds that keep people looking straight ahead like cattle, showing blank, uncurious faces, totally unaware that we might be approaching the slaughterhouse.

The other day, I slipped into a gondola cabin occupied by three people, a young couple and an older man and was pleasantly surprised to be welcomed by all three. The older gentleman wondered why I might be interested in his accent after he’d already told me he was from Connecticut, but then he readily confessed to being from Iceland. “Where are you from?” he asked, not willing to let me get ahead of him in the conversation. “Mostly from here,” I replied, “but my roots are in northern Italy.”

Asking for my name, he then said, “Do you know why so many Italian immigrants are named Tony?” Well, yes of course, I knew the answer (but just for the record, when they leave Italy, officials stamp “To New York” on their foreheads). Now we were friends — two men with senses of humor and no pretensions about political correctness.

“Did you know Ulfar,” he asked. Sure, Ulfar Skaeringsson, longtime ski instructor and engineer of many Roch and World Cup races, recently deceased. An Icelandic man known for attention to detail and an affinity for getting people to work hard for him.

“Absolutely, I knew Ulfar, but to be honest, I think we spent more time drinking together than anything else,” was my reply. This year, Ulfar had a ski run named after him — look for it when you’re in the neighborhood of Corkscrew Gully. Or as Ulfar might have said, with his thick Icelandic accent, “Jesus Christ, you have to die to have something named after you?”

It was my turn now, and I posed the question, “How about Steinthor? Did you know Steinthor?”

“Oh sure,” he said, “Steinthor Jakobsson, member of the 1956 Iceland Olympic team, giant slalom specialist, who came to the U.S. shortly thereafter.” He also was a 30-year teaching pro for Aspen Skiing Co., who retired in ’94 and moved to a sailboat along the California/Mexico coast. If you wanted an opinion on something, and sometimes if you didn’t, Steinthor would give it to you, loudly and without doubt. We always joked around, calling him the “Icelandic cowboy” for his love of the West and ranching. In 1996, according to officials, Steinthor, all alone on his boat, tripped and hit his head, dying from the injury. So went the official story, but there’s some suspicion that perhaps that’s not really what happened. In the end, Skico opened the Snowmass lifts in June 1996 so friends and family could travel up the mountain for Steinthor’s memorial.

Skiing is about many things; speed, powder, finesse, good bumps, guts and fresh air, but in the end, it’s mostly about the people. The folks I’ve mentioned above are a vital part of the fabric that holds the Aspen family of skiers together.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at