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Tukey Koffend and the Editors | Photo: Aspen Historical Society and Durrance Collection | September 19, 2013
Do you remember your first time? The horror, the ecstasy, the face plants—and yes, we are referring to skiing. In the following pages, Tukey Koffend and the Editors have compiled the first-time memories from noted Aspenites.
It’s never as good as the first time, so the song goes. But in actuality, visitors’ first encounters with skiing in Aspen run the gamut from blissful to well, not so blissful. Herewith, some remembrances of initial close encounters with our slopes—verbal postcards, you could say—by some who visited and took away fond memories, and some who visited and never left.
Annie Denver describes her first time on Aspen Mountain as the worst experience of her life. It was the early ’70s; she was a young innocent from St. Peter, Minn., married to a certain folksinger. “I thought because I wasn’t a good skier I didn’t deserve good skis,” she says. “I went up the mountain with my then-husband and a bunch of his men friends and we all went down Ruthie’s. It was ungroomed—full of moguls. All the men skied off, and it took me an hour and a half to get to the bottom. Now I’m a pretty good skier; if I could learn to ski anyone can learn.”
The late former Wheeler Opera House director Bob Murray came to Aspen straight out of the army in 1957, and learned to ski the way many of us did, by the Evil Friends Method. On Thanksgiving Day Murray’s compadres outfitted him with skis and boots at The Thrift Shop, then took him up Aspen Mountain. His skis kept coming off in the deep powder, and while he floundered hip-deep, his friends helpfully shouted to him from the lift to catch up. “It was the most humiliating day of my life,” Murray recalls. “I don’t remember how I ever got down the hill.”
When town legends Fritz and Fabi Benedict lived at the Bowman Block on Cooper Street from
1952 to 1959, she would ride the chair up the mountain to have a noontime burger at the Sundeck. “When I skied down after lunch I never saw another soul,” she said. “Maybe a few camp robbers, but rarely any other skiers. I was all alone. It was marvelous.” Through no fault of her instructors, Fabi said, she never did become a good skier.
Ruth Whyte first skied here in 1952 while a student at the University of Colorado. She and a friend rented rooms from Guido Meyer next door to his restaurant (now the Hickory House). Ruth had skied a bit in Wisconsin, but like a lot of skiers new to Aspen she wasn’t prepared for ungroomed deep powder. “We struggled all day to get down Ruthie’s Run,” she said. When Ruth graduated with a degree in physical education she came here to teach at the elementary and high schools.
Successful local sign painter Gaard Moses almost never had a first time. Driving here from Syracuse, N.Y., in the 1950s, he made it to Carbondale and, spotting a peak in the distance, turned right and headed for what he thought was Aspen Mountain. Only when he arrived in Redstone did he learn that the mountain he had been zeroing in on was Mount Sopris.
Jim Crown, managing partner of Aspen Skiing Company, came with his family in 1972 as a young man. The Crowns had been skiing in Vail for five or six years, but they instantly transferred their affections to Aspen. The seven Crown children and 22 grandchildren all love skiing. It was the Crowns who were responsible for Michael Jordan’s visit to town in 1994 during his stint with the White Sox.
Although Robert Harth visited Aspen each year from 1953 through 1975, he always came in the summer with his father, Sidney, then concertmaster and conductor of the Aspen Music Festival. So Robert had never skied when he returned in 1985 to become president and CEO of Music Associates of Aspen, a post he held until leaving in 2001 for a post with Carnegie Hall. On his second day, after one lesson, he soloed down gentle West Buttermilk all by himself. “In those days,” Harth said, “Panda Peak looked to me like the Matterhorn.”
When sculptor Travis Fulton first skied in Aspen in 1963, he couldn’t afford a lift ticket. So with secondhand boots ($3), skis ($2), and poles ($1), he tromped up Little Nell with his how-to-ski book in hand. He’d skied a bit out east but wanted to improve his form. After studying the book’s directions for a proper snowplow, he tried one, then another, then trudged up the hill to do a stem turn. This methodical approach didn’t last long. An impatient friend, Class A racer John Sterling, appeared, “grabbed me by the scruff of the neck,” remembered Fulton, “tossed me onto the lift, and pushed me off at the top.” The outcome? “I did make it down.”
In 1950 Dr. Jack Frishman came from Southern California to ski in Aspen. His instructor, Sandy Sabatini, made his ski school class herringbone up Little Nell (which had no lift then), make two turns on the way down, climb up again and repeat the process over and over. Exhausted, Jack went to bed at 5 that evening and didn’t stir until 9 the next morning.
If you didn’t like either of the two existing runs on Aspen Mountain, you could always create your own. That’s what Ruthie Brown (wife of former Aspen Ski Co President D.R.C. Brown) did. After the lift opened on Aspen Mountain in 1946, she went to George Berger, then head of the Ski Co, and said she would buy $5,000 worth of the company’s stock if he would lay out an easier trail than Roch Run and Silver Queen, both challenging. It’s a deal, Berger said, and Barney Mclean, Dick Durrance and Bob Perry cut the trail, still one of the mountain’s most popular. They named it—but of course—Ruthie’s Run.
Oscar-winning composer (for his “Milagro Beanfield War” soundtrack) Dave Grusin first came to Aspen with his father, Henri, for a Music Associates of Aspen music appreciation camp in the late 1940s. In 1951 he came from Littleton, Colo. to ski. ‘’I’ve never been a wonderful skier,” he said. “But I had a wonderful time.” In 1956 Dave sat in on the piano at the Golden Horn and also at Mario’s. He built a house on Red Mountain in 1979 but now lives in Santa Fe and Montana. Dave’s wife Nan, also a musician (she plays the viola), knew how to ski a little when she came here as a young girl in 1954, but Aspen Mountain’s rope row alarmed her; she had heard horror stories of girls getting their hair caught in the rope and being dragged through the wheel at the top. However, girl and hair made it through just fine.
Jean Kelly was one of many Omahans who came to Aspen to learn to ski in the late ’40s. She was in Percy Rideout’s beginners’ class. After several lessons (and little improvement) Jean’s birthday arrived. Percy offered to carry her skis for her that day. “But,” he said, “you must understand that it means something.” Yes, a courtship ensued. No, Jean never did become a very good skier.
David Koch first came here at Christmas in 1963, visiting from Wichita. He remembers Aspen as “a simple village.” (Isn’t it still?) The town was abuzz, he says, because of the visit of Jacqueline Kennedy and assorted other members of Camelot. Only 23 at the time, David hadn’t skied much. “My abilities were extremely limited,” he said. “Any difficult slope was terrifying. Since I thought of myself as rather impoverished, we did not have an instructor, which would have been far too expensive for us.” Over the years, as things turned out, Koch managed to scrape up a little spare change. The oil billionaire now owns Jacqueline Onassis’ former apartment on Fifth Avenue, as well as a house in the West End which he visits frequently with his wife, Julia.
Gretl Uhl, owner of Gretl’s on Aspen Mountain (oh, that apple strudel!) for 14 years, came here in 1951 from Garmisch-Partenkirchen with her husband, Sepp. He had gone to school with Dick Durrance, and they had seen Dick’s movies of the Fédération Internationale de Ski races here. Though Gretl had skied on the German team, she wasn’t prepared for the deep powder on Aspen Mountain. As she struggled down on borrowed skis, Fred Iselin passed her. “I thought you could ski,” he teased. “When my own skis came, I was OK,” she remembered. Sepp became a ski instructor right away, and Gretl did later. But her real love was her restaurant, a place where people lined up for jobs.
Cattle rancher and Airport Business Center developer John McBride’s first memory of Aspen Mountain is of digging play tunnels in the snow around 1947. He was nine. A few years later his father brought the family to visit, but only after thoroughly researching the Hotel Jerome, where they were to stay. No fire escapes! Back in Lake Forest, Ill., Mr. McBride made his family—John, his two sisters, and even his mother—practice climbing down a rope tied to an elm in their yard. When the McBrides checked into the Jerome, every one of them carried knotted ropes slung around their shoulders. Mr. McBride tied the ropes to the bed frames, ready for easy escape in the event of a fire.
Katie McBride, three-time winner of the 24 Hours of Aspen, made her first trip down the mountain under her own power in 1969, when she was three. Her equipment: plastic straps over rubbers. But she had made the trip down Ruthie’s many times before, strapped onto the back of her father, John, who played games on the slopes, looking for bunnies (snow and otherwise) and passing his love of skiing on to his daughter.
Ken Sontheim’s favorite first memories on Snowmass Mountain didn’t occur on skis. It was 1973, and he and friends Stark King, Pierre Pilloud, and Gary Alcoke took the name Fanny Hill to heart. At the end of the day they would ride cafeteria trays down from the Timbermill where they worked. And if they weren’t putting their fannies to the snow, they were streaking buck naked from the Silvertree down Fanny Hill. Sontheim recalls the crazier days “when slower lifts and cocktails at the Knob gave people more time to talk.”
On one of his first runs down Aspen Mountain, in the spring of 1965, local architect Harry Teague had to outrun an avalanche. He thought that was the toughest test he would face on the slopes until he met Dick Durrance. A racer at Dartmouth, Teague and a group of other hot Dartmouth and Williams skiers had the opportunity to be humbled by the former Olympian. “None of us had skied in snow deeper than our ankles,” Teague said. “That man just dusted us.”
Faced with bad road conditions on his first trip to Aspen, Harry’s father, the celebrated designer Dorwin Teague, chartered a single-engine plane in Grand Junction and, after a very hairy landing, arrived here in one piece. Reaching the top of the mountain, he saw some ski patrolmen digging two shiny slot machines out of the snow. The day before, the sheriff had gotten word that the devices, illegal in Colorado, had been smuggled onto the mountain. Disguised as ordinary skiers, he and a deputy had set out to confiscate them. Halfway up the mountain, the lift operator recognized the lawmen, waited until they were high over Tourtelotte Park, stopped the lift, and warned the crew at the Sundeck. After the crew at the top buried the machines out of sight, the lift operator repaired the “malfunction.” Teague had arrived in time for the retrieval the next day.
First-time skiing for native Aspenite Albert Bishop in the ’40s meant carrying his skis up the slope from the top of Aspen Street, strapping them on with a single strap, and zooming straight down the hill. “We didn’t go very far up until the lift opened, and we could ride,” he said. “Then the whole town closed up on Wednesday afternoons—banks, stores, schools—and we’d all go skiing. I should have taken lessons; I fell an awful lot.” Albert and Henry Beck owned Beck and Bishop Grocery Store in the Wheeler Opera House for 23 years.
In 1969, former mayor and realtor Bill Stirling came to Aspen with his wife and friends from Fort Dix, N.J. The group drove straight through in a 1955 Nash Rambler and checked into the Alpina House. Every morning they walked along Durant Street, heading for Aspen Mountain. And every morning they found the sight of it so forbidding that they went to Buttermilk instead. Bill visited during three more winters, then moved here in 1972. Like many other ski bums, he tended bar at night and hammered nails during the summer. Always engaged in political issues, Bill was elected mayor in 1983 and served four terms.
Caribou founder Harley Baldwin first visited in 1966, when he was 19, and although he had skied the blue ice of Stowe, nothing had prepared him for a perfect powder day on Aspen Mountain. “I thought I’d died and gone to heaven,” he said. In 1968 he went to a ski convention in New York and asked if it was possible for a person to go to Aspen with no money and have any hope of success. “Nah,” he was told. “It’s all sold out.” Baldwin came anyway, started selling crêpes from the Popcorn Wagon, and went on to own half of Aspen: the historic Brand Building, Caribou Alley, the Caribou Club, Baldwin Gallery, Caribou Jewels and the Collins Block.
Actress and Starwood resident Jill St. John first came here in 1959. “To a first-time skier it was very intimidating,” she said. She remembers hundreds of dogs running around on the dirt streets. She liked Aspen and skiing enough to buy a house here, and moved to town permanently in 1972. Jill’s husband, Robert Wagner (they married in 1990), is a good skier, but said he is going to take a month off next winter and “fine-tune” his style. Having skied every run on Aspen Mountain, Jill said she doesn’t feel obligated to take on Elevator Shaft or bumps anymore.
Popular Aspen mayor from 1973 to 1979, Stacy Standley first came in 1963. Already a decent skier (he worked for the ski patrol at Hidden Valley, Ca.), he helped boot pack the slope at Highlands in exchange for a lift ticket. Stacy got a job tending bar at the Jerome, and his first lodgings included the bathhouse there. He also lived in Dr. “Bugsy” Barnard’s chicken coop and the Aspen Out (not the Aspen Inn) above the former Paragon.
Former mayor John Bennett was 7 when he came to Aspen with his parents in 1955. “I’ll never forget the days of terror in ski school on Little Nell,” he said. “We had to sidestep all the way up the hill and then ski down.” John’s wife, Janie, had never seen snow when she came to Aspen from Australia. After a spell in New York City, Janie came back here, met and married John, and was a director of Photographers/Aspen. Their daughter also skis.
After living and skiing here for more than 40 years, former ski instructor and realtor Jackie Wogan went snowboarding for the first time some time ago. Helpful friends told her to prepare for the three-day clinic by padding herself completely. This she did, ingeniously, with bubble wrap at elbows, knees, and fanny. “Every time I fell there were loud popping noises,” she laughed.
It was a small rodent, not the ski slopes, that brought Bob Lewis to Aspen Mountain. An Aspenite since 1951, Lewis came to study the reproductive cycle of the pika, a short-eared lagomorph related to the rabbit, for his master’s thesis in alpine ecology at CU Boulder. To trap the creatures in their colony below Midway, Lewis dug 10-foot-deep holes in the snow, then covered them with boughs to protect the deep traps from the next snow. He baited his traps with prunes. “They love prunes,” he said. Maybe so, but he never caught a single pika, and ended up changing his major to biology. He did have a good time skiing, though.