Willoughby: Lift 1A replacement? No controversy here | AspenTimes.com

Willoughby: Lift 1A replacement? No controversy here

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
The original Lift One of the 1950s provided the primary entry point to the mountain.
Willoughby collection

There is at least one person who would wonder why there would be any controversy over the replacement of Lift 1A, but he is no longer alive. While the current debate rages onward, my father Fred Willoughby must roll over in his grave.

No greater expert on the original Lift 1 has been born. The Midnight Mine loaned my father’s time to construct it. After he led crews to build it, he managed its operation during the first year.

Using the Midnight dozer, Willoughby built the access roads from Midnight to the top of the mountain and to all tower locations. He moved a Midnight rock crusher to the face of Aspen Mountain to complete the concrete mix for foundations of the towers. Adding to difficulties, the towers had been delivered well into the fall, when snow already covered the mountain. He led a crew to erect the towers, string the cable, and get both of the lifts running. The crew included mainly other Midnight employees who had worked for him in the mine, such as Tony Capparrella, Newt and Eldo Klusmire, Tony Kralich and Bob Zick.

Lift 1 was to be driven by an electric motor that did not arrive. The first year, an emergency back-up gas motor powered it. Willoughby would leave early in the morning to go to the mine, ski over the ridge to the top of the lift, and start the cantankerous motor to begin the day. The lifts needed many repairs and adjustments, particularly Lift 2. Willoughby worked every day that first operating season.

When the season ended, he wanted to get back to work at Midnight but felt he should complete the lift job. So he spent the summer making adjustments and repairs and painting the towers. In the fall, Willoughby led another crew to construct the T-bar on Little Nell.

Here is what Willoughby would say about today’s controversy. First he would point out that Lift 1 was located where it was because nearly a decade of Aspen skiing had passed with the mountain base in that location. The site had been selected originally for practical reasons: land ownership, snow conditions, access to town and allowing the most direct route to the top of Roch Run.

More than a decade later, another route to the top of the mountain opened with the construction of the Bell Mountain lift and Lift 3. Until then, Little Nell had been for beginners, accessed by the T-Bar. If you started your day there, you had to traverse the mountain from the top of the T-Bar to get to Lift 1.

I have a special memory of the construction of Lift 1A. My father’s lung disease from mining had forced us to move to low altitude in Oakland, California. He read The Aspen Times each week and followed everything that happened in his hometown. One day the paper had a photo of a helicopter as it removed one of the original Lift 1 towers. The story said all those towers had been removed in one day.

Although he felt pride in Lift 1, father marveled that in one day a helicopter crew could take down structures that had taken him and his crew months to erect. He told me he was sure they would not tear down the lower terminal of the T-Bar, too. He had built it with thick slabs of wood bolted together, and that made it indestructible, in his mind.

Father would remind residents of Aspen’s long history hosting races on the slopes above the Lift 1 base, before Lift 1 was built. That history began with regional races and culminated with the National Championships in 1941. Those pre-1946 races cemented Aspen’s name as a ski area, just as André Roch had predicted.

Father would welcome a new Lift One. And he would argue that the rightful base was the historic base, and should continue to include it.

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 redmtn2@comcast.net.