Willoughby: Mountains and molehills | AspenTimes.com

Willoughby: Mountains and molehills

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies

I toured the New England fall color recently and drove past what is billed as the largest ski hill in New Hampshire. The resort, Cannon Mountain, boasts a vertical drop of 2,330 feet. Not far from there is Tuckerman's Ravine, a slope that skiers considered the most challenging of all during the sport's early days. Imagine their heartbeats when they first saw Aspen.

A dozen or so years ago, I had a pleasant social evening with Andrea Mead Lawrence (1932 to 2009), the first American skier to win two gold medals in the same Olympics. As a former Aspen resident, she wanted to compare the city's development of skiing during the 1930s with her parent's experience as they started Pico Mountain in Vermont. When Lawrence learned to ski, Pico had offered the first T-bar lift in the U.S. But it provided an even shorter vertical drop than its current 1,967 feet.

At the young age of 17, Lawrence competed in Aspen's 1950 FIS races. She placed in the top 10. Her memory of the event focused on the face of Aspen Mountain, a stark contrast to Pico. She also remembered Italian Zino Colo, the men's winner, smoked heavily. So much for the athletic training of the time.

Like Lawrence, many of Aspen's first winter guests had learned to ski in New England. Racing centered at Dartmouth College. Otto Schneibs, the college coach and father of the American Ski School, taught thousands to ski, mostly at Lake Placid. Through the early days of American skiing he coached 16 American Olympians.

Schneibs came from Austria, as did most of the early ski instructors in America. He devoted nearly a third of his book "American Skiing," to his trip to Aspen in 1938. In it he called Colorado America's Switzerland.

Toward the end of his book Schneibs provides advice on how to cut ski trails. At the time, steep slopes were uncommon and cut trails were mostly for touring. "The planning of curves must be done with extreme care: a curve must be widened in such a manner as to allow the skier to approach it and come out of it at high speed."

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Roch Run, cut in the summer of 1937, was intended to be long and steep, a racing trail that would compete with European courses. The 1938 Rocky Mountain Skiing Association Championships, the first major race hosted by the Aspen Ski Club, attracted top racers to Aspen Mountain. At the time they used no gates and a skier could choose his or her own path down the mountain. Despite these two advantages, Roch Run beat the racers. All of them fell except Jarvis Schauffler from Sun Valley, who won.

The sheer scale and steepness of the mountain intimidated skiers new to the terrain and excited them at the same time. It was worth a long train trip across the country to ski in Aspen in those early years of American skiing.

I learned to ski on Aspen Mountain, skied almost daily at a young age because there was no kindergarten and I lived two blocks from Little Nell. I didn't ski anywhere else for years. I felt inspired to see my home mountain through Lawrence's eyes.

Tim Willoughby's family story parallels Aspen's. He began sharing folklore while teaching for Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at redmtn2@comcast.net.

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