Willoughby: Aspen insights from 86 years ago remain relevant today | SummitDaily.com

Willoughby: Aspen insights from 86 years ago remain relevant today

Aspen Times staff report

Aspen Ski Club members on Highland Bavarian slopes at bottom of Little Annie, during the 1930s.

Aspen's Pandora lift debate generates mountains of environmental data, such as where trees can be cut, or not cut. But an underlying question — whether the land would qualify as ski terrain — was resolved 86 years ago. We may face consequences predicted by previous generations' studies throughout the upcoming decades of our lives.

The Highland Bavarian partners brought Andre Roch and Dr. Gunther Langes to Aspen in 1932 to study snow and slopes for their prospective ski area. Anywhere they sited their project, spectacular snow and majestic mountains tilted the odds of success in their favor. On one hand, they showed some restraint and did not randomly assign the location. On the other hand, they did not think it through as thoroughly as one might expect. The partners' first choice: Little Annie Basin.

Tom Flynn, one of the partners, knew Little Annie from time spent there in his youth. His father owned and operated a mine on the edge of the basin. The partners came to see what he was talking about, climbed to the top of the ridge, and decided — without seeing snow — it was perfect. Ted Ryan and Billy Fiske, two of the partners, had skied in Europe. They recognized the basin's similar slopes, a bowl that opened to fantastic views of peaks. The pitch appeared perfect. At the time the Midnight Mine owned most of Little Annie Basin.

During the depths of the Depression, President Roosevelt searched for ways the government might spark the economy. The U.S. Forest Service made use of vast land holdings to encourage a new industry: skiing. Although the project ranked high in priority, the permit process complicated development. However, private landholders owned most of the prospective ski area at Little Annie, and the avoidance of permits added to the site's appeal. Fred D. Willoughby managed The Midnight at the time, and he also served as Aspen's mayor. Like Roosevelt, he sought any possible infusion into the economy, but on a local scale. He agreed with the idea of a lease immediately.

The partners bought land at the bottom of the hill and began construction of the Highland Bavarian Lodge. But being the prudent businessmen, they still wanted a second opinion. Hence the Roch and Langes visit.

The two consultants thoroughly evaluated Little Annie for skiing. And because the partners asked them to, they looked in other areas as well. They concluded that Little Annie was an OK site, but other locations looked even better — especially the slopes from Hayden Peak down to Ashcroft.

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They also evaluated the opposite side of the mountain from Little Annie, the area in the Pandora proposal. After they studied the snow during the winter season, they concluded that the west side, although at high elevation, got too much sun. The east side received greater snow depth and quality, what today we call "perfect powder conditions." The partners decided to develop Little Annie as a temporary site, but did not pursue the east side for two reasons. First, the Forest Service owned it. Second, Roch — an avalanche expert — warned of potential slides.

Despite whether the concerns of earlier Aspen generations were listed in the Pandora proposal, snow conditions have changed and will continue to do so. Roch would not have considered global warming, but because of it the two sides of the mountain may contrast even more today. The colder, high elevation of the Pandora area likely holds snow longer, potentially more so in another 80 years.

Roch enjoyed skiing the Pandora area, which may finally be absorbed by the Mountain operation. To drool over a colder prospect for high-elevation skiing, one that might withstand considerable climate change, read Roch's Mount Hayden proposal. Perhaps by 2090, skiers will rank runs on Pandora right up there with those of Hayden Peak.

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.