Willoughby: Aspen’s long, snowy slopes open the path to a new industry
Legends & Legacies
The photo with this column reminds me of where people skied during the first years of the sport in Aspen. The picture features an Aspen Ski Club excursion of the late 1930s, before the club cut runs on Aspen Mountain.
One popular trip involved climbing to the top of what they called “Ski Hayden,” a bump on the ridge between Electric and Hayden peaks. Carving different routes added variety downhill. But this photo shows the spring shortcut uphill. A hard snow near the Conundrum Valley split would facilitate the climb straight up the Castle Creek Valley slope.
Skiers would drive to the Midnight Mine turnoff on Castle Creek Road, where the snow plows stopped. From there, they would ski on packed snow to the Highland Bavarian lodge. A path of packed snow continued from the lodge up the valley, at least to the river crossing where the climb began. Long, open slopes along a mostly treeless route rewarded the skiers’ efforts.
The Highland Bavarian partners sited the lodge based on plans for their ski area to exploit the open slopes of Little Annie Basin. They opened the lodge with minimal tree clearing, a short cut through the woods between the bottom of the basin and the open area above the lodge. Today’s Castle Creek Road cuts through that same section. Beginners skied the lower area close to the lodge, where Aspen’s first ski race occurred.
André Roch, snow expert and consultant to the Highland Bavarian partners, approved the nearby open slopes. They signified money saved because cutting trees from runs cut profits. He favored Ski Hayden as the top. From there, treeless runs to Ashcroft and the lower Castle Creek Valley offered a variety of choices. These long runs resembled those of European ski areas of the time.
Roch guided club skiers along the best routes up and down Ski Hayden. Roch taught ski club members along another open slope, in the area above the schools on Maroon Creek Road.
Roch broke the pattern when he advised the club to cut Roch run on Aspen Mountain. At the time, no run in America featured a pitch and vertical drop like that. Although they aimed to host ski races on the challenging run, the treeless bottom of the mountain afforded good intermediate and beginner skiing.
Minimal tree cutting remained customary, even when Aspen Skiing Co. opened in 1946 with lifts to the top of Aspen Mountain. Tourtolotte Park stood largely free of trees. Neither the development of Spar Gulch nor today’s Copper Bowl called for much tree removal.
Early skiers preferred the light of day rather than shaded forest. Their long skis and loose bindings did not enable them to thread a path through the trees. Fortunately, Aspen provided countless slopes with good snow and perfect pitch for an emerging industry.
Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at email@example.com.
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