A-Basin at 70: Littlebird and a lifetime spent with The Legend
April 15, 2017
Leon Joseph Littlebird is a longtime local of Summit County, and 2016-17 makes 63 consecutive seasons that he's been skiing at Arapahoe Basin Ski Area. The 66-year-old full-time musician and Silverthorne resident learned to ski from an older brother and sister in 1953, at just 3 years old, and it's a habit he's not been able — nor ever wants — to quit.
The Summit Daily recently caught up with the 13-year ski instructor trainer at A-Basin to hear about what it really used to be like at The Legend all those years back, and what keeps Littlebird coming back.
Summit Daily News: So really, it's been 60-plus straight years that you've been coming to A-Basin?
Littlebird: This year is the 63rd. I don't know anyone else who's been there for 63 consecutive years. I've seen every change they've gone through. I was born in Denver, but we were up in the mountains every weekend. My family is originally from Silver Plume and I went to private school in Denver. But Summit County has always been my second home and my family had a home there since 1957.
SDN: What is it about the place, after all these years, that has you continuing to ski there?
Littlebird: It's just always felt like home to me. There's still this invisible barrier at the Black Mountain Express near the base of the lift, just before the maze, that when I walk through it, I'm 12 years old again. It's my favorite place to be. There's a sacredness to being right there on the Continental Divide, the energy is so different. On the A-Basin side, all the water that melts off goes into the Colorado River and then to the Grand Canyon. On the eastern side, it goes into the Mississippi River and then into the Gulf of Mexico. So you are right there, right at the dividing line. That's powerful, and even the ancestors knew that. It's always been kind of a sacred place, and what a great place to ski.
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SDN: What are some of your fondest memories of the ski area throughout that time?
Littlebird: I've had a lifetime of memories there, it's impossible to single anything out. Skiing on the 22nd of May four or five years ago when there was 22 inches of powder and nobody there, that stands out though. There were 18 inches overnight, and then it just kept snowing. We still had fresh tracks at 2 o'clock in the afternoon. Otherwise, some of my favorite moments there have been being asked to do blessings for different weddings, dedications and anniversaries — people asking me to come celebrate the sacred nature of the union of other people at A-Basin.
A-Basin is part of my family, and part of my home, and I'm very much connected to that mountain. In fact, I have explicit directions in my will to have my ashes spread on Black Mountain. It's so much home to me that that's where I'm going to spend eternity.
SDN: Through the years, what other involvement have you had with the 70-year-old ski area?
Littlebird: Something I'm really fond of at the Basin is that I was part of the team that created the current iteration of the ski school. The emphasis on kids is something I'm really proud of. The ski school didn't used to amount to much, and when Burt Skall, the ski school director then, took over, he had a vision. Thirteen years ago, we got to build the kids' ski school program from the ground up, and the adult program as well, and now they can compete with anybody. It's a first-rate ski school. We don't teach them how to turn, but how to have a great time on the snow. We're now able to share the whole passion for the sport.
SDN: How about some memories of the place from those early days?
Littlebird: My older brother and sister, who were teenagers when I was born, they were skiers and couldn't wait to take me to A-Basin. I can remember being 3 years old and being on hand-me-down skis that were way too big. The boots were way big, too, and they stuffed socks in to get my little feet in them.
It was $2.50 for a ticket, though I can't remember if that was for kids, or if that was when I got older and might have been in the '60s. I have the old tickets somewhere around here if I went digging for them for a few hours. If I recall correctly, kids skied for free, and I never bought a ticket or rode the lift anyway. There was no grooming in those days, and people would just hike up the mountain. They'd put tracks in the snow and just put me in the tracks and let me go. There was no snowmaking either — it was 100 percent natural snow.
Only people who have been going there as long as me would also remember the old, original lodge. It was this cool hotel, and had a Bavarian feel. Skiing was a much more romantic era back then. It had gingerbread handrails on it, because skiing was really a European-based sport back then, and the architecture was made to look like a chalet. Then the lodge burned down when I was 14 and the A-frame was put in as a temporary structure and only supposed to be there for two years. And yet, it's still there. Every other building is gone and has been replaced, but the A-frame is still there. The lodge was quite a beautiful building, and ironically enough, there are pictures of it in the A-Frame.
SDN: Finally, what do you think of some of the forthcoming changes, with expansion at the ski area, the lift updates and future full access to The Beavers?
Littlebird: I've been impressed by all the changes through the years. The Beavers, which I've skied, is another great addition, and continues in the same vein of the unique and amazing experience on snow the Basin has always had. Now there will be even more terrain and better lifts, and I'll be partaking in everything they do. They've got a great vision and the right people to get the job done, and to do it well.