Vagneur: Waiting, waiting on the Aspen ski season to arrive |

Vagneur: Waiting, waiting on the Aspen ski season to arrive

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

The other day, I got a message from a good friend of mine, which read in part: “You reminded me that soon I’ll be trading my summer shirts for sweaters, my gin and tonic for mulled wine and my mtn bike for my skis. Though I turned 69 the other day, I get a child-like excitement thinking about the approach of a new ski season.”

Bill, I’m older than you, and I still get that same child-like excitement this time of year. 

The late days of October were often special — a high-school football game on Saturday and then a quick drive up Independence Pass on Sunday to almost the top, where Heart Attack Hill awaited us on the right. Everyone is surely familiar with that short run — not exactly great skiing (depending on the day), but the hike up is enough to get your arteries pumping, and the few turns on the way down provide an opportunity to test your gear and call up latent coordination on skis, dormant through the long, hot summer.

My lifelong friend, Doug Franklin, and I were in college on the Eastern Slope in the 1960s when the clarion call of winter could be felt in the air. While I was up north at UNC, Doug, who attended Regis University, had a finger on the pulse of Denver action and got me in more than a little trouble from time to time. We taught skiing at Hidden Valley on winter weekends. 

It was he who came up with the idea that we should make a trip to St. Mary’s Glacier for some preseason turns.

Excellent idea — another adventure, and life was good. The hike up to the glacier no longer registers, but, when we got there, we found a few people with the same frame of mind.

We got up high, following the remaining snow after summer, and I quickly wrapped into my long thongs and triumphantly poled off, fully expecting to show those Eastern Slope folks how it was done.

Caught edges and embarrassment go together rather well, and, after gaining a good amount of speed, I put on a full display of both. Sliding through cold, wet slush, so disgusted, not even trying to self-arrest, I eventually ended up in a rock-pile at the bottom of the chute.

It hurt, but I wasn’t, and Doug wanted to know how I’d managed such a display. “Don’t even talk to me,” I said.

In the fall of 1976, I’d been working at Buckingham Farm on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, helping break yearling race horses, cleaning stalls, riding hunters over the wonderful, colorful trails alongside the banks of the Chester River and spending Sunday afternoons with my wife, Caroline, at our favorite tavern, eating soft shell crabs and drinking National Bohemian beer.

It was early November and suddenly, my inner alarm startled me. Within a week, I was headed back to Colorado — ski season was fast approaching. My good friend Buck Deane was in Nashville, so I stopped off there for a few days and then hit the asphalt for the long drive home.

Arriving in Denver, it snowed about 8 inches overnight, and I thought, “Wow, skiing is gonna be good this winter.” Filled with excitement, my drive to Aspen was cathartic to my homesickness.

Once settled in at home, I headed to the ski patrol after-hours office, the Red Onion, to get the skinny on upcoming preseason packing and other trail work. I was stoked.

The first guy I ran into was Bud “Bear” Law, the ski patrol chief, who — after a “Where the hell you been?” — immediately informed me that, at least for the moment, early season work had been postponed due to a lack of snow. “You’ve gotta be kidding me,” I replied, although it was useless to argue. Settle down for the wait. Do a snow dance. Drink a lot of beer.

Aspen Mountain finally opened for business sometime in January of 1977. In the meantime, Buck resurrected the “Death Sled,” a gift from Stein Eriksen, which we were lucky didn’t kill us. We also did horse-drawn lunch sleigh rides up Maroon Creek for the tourists who did arrive hungry for something to do, and, generally speaking, we had a pretty good time. Barely enough snow for the sleighs. There was a certain quiet about it all.

So far, this ski season is looking good. If you’ve been around a while, you know there are no guarantees, and one-day-at-a-time is the best philosophy, at least as far as weather goes.

In the meantime, the proverbial Indian summer may prove to be memorable.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments