The Red Onion

If you used to spend your winter vacations at ski areas rather than tropical destinations, you may be a RetroSkier! And I don’t mean just long weekends. I mean if you only got two weeks of vacation a year and you’d use at least one week of it for a “ski trip!”

Little Red Ski Haus in AspenMy first ski trip was to Aspen in February 1969. There were four of us on the trip: myself, fellow IBMer Clint Demeritt, fraternity brother Mike Weisel, and Mike’s girlfriend Pat Wigg (who is now his wife). We stayed at the Little Red Ski Hostel which in those days was a dorm style inn with separate bunk rooms for men and women. Actually I think the women’s accommodations were in smaller rooms with only 3-4 to a room, but the men’s was an actual bunk room.

To show how Aspen has changed since those days, today it is a luxury ski house called the Little Red Ski Haus that went on the market this year for $11.8 million dollars.

In the men’s dorm we met Fritz, a Dartmouth grad who was working in Des Moines, Iowa, as a grain futures trader. Fritz knew his way around Aspen both on the hill and in the town so he was a big help to us newbies.

As it turned out, in the women’s rooms there were five stewardesses. And in those days they were stewardesses and not flight attendants, if you know what I mean (wink, wink.) Anyway, one night Fritz returned from dinner and said he was going to the Red Onion with the stewardesses. Since he was outnumbered, Fritz asked if any of us wanted to join him. I volunteered.

Red Onion The Red Onion can trace its beginning back to 1892, long before anybody was skiing at Aspen. That was during the silver boom and Aspen was a mining town. The bar was initially called “New Brick Saloon” since it was new and yes, made of brick. However locals nicknamed it the Red Onion.

Fast forward to 1947 when the silver mines were gone, but Aspen had started to be a skiing destination. A 10th Mountain Division veteran, Johnny Litchfield, bought and remodeled the bar. He also changed the name to be officially the Red Onion.

Red Onion in 1962

As its popularity grew, the bar would expand to become a restaurant and nightclub. In the 1950s and 60s it attracted name performers such as Billy Holiday and Louis Armstrong. The apres-ski atmosphere at the Onion set the standard for Aspen right into the 1980s. Financial difficulties would affect the overall business although the bar area remained a popular place. Finally in 2007 the Red Onion closed and a gasp could be heard from RetroSkiers everywhere. But in 2010 the Red Onion was resurrected under new ownership and is again the popular apres-ski and nightspot that it once was.

Gil LeBlanc was the first to identify Aspen as the home of the legendary Red Onion. He says he went there several times during the 1970s and 80s.

Bud Kassel also identified the Red Onion as a downtown Aspen landmark. Bud says, “When I first visited, in perhaps 1960, it was the favorite apres-ski water hole for real skiers, as opposed to the Hotel Jerome for the martini drinking types.”

I also heard from Peter Lawlor who first visited the Red Onion in 1967 when he “was only middle-aged.” By the way, Peter began skiing at Stowe in 1943! He’s currently rehabbing from a medical procedure so we wish him a speedy recovery so he can return to the slopes.

Meanwhile back to the stewardesses. You didn’t think I was just going to leave you hanging, did you?

When Fritz and I and the stewardesses arrived at the Red Onion we somehow got great seats in the “Beer Gulch” area near the front window, probably thanks to our stewardess companions, and began drinking Coors drafts. I mention Coors because at that time it wasn’t available in the east. That made Coors an exotic treat whenever easterners traveled to Colorado. And that night the Coors was going down easy, too easy! Sometime during the evening I remembered that alcohol affects you more at altitude, but I wasn’t feeling any effects.

With the beer and the good company I lost track of time so I’m not sure when we decided to leave the Red Onion, but it was late! Stepping outside into the cold, crisp Colorado air seemed to trigger the alcohol’s effect. It hit all of us – me, the stewardesses, and particularly Fritz. He fell down on the sidewalk and couldn’t get up. One of the stewardesses and I were trying to remember how to do some kind of a carry, but it was way beyond our coordination at that point. Somehow we were able to get Fritz on his feet and took turns supporting him on the walk back to the Little Red Ski Hostel. Once back at the hostel I wrestled Fritz into his bunk, thankfully it was a bottom bunk!

Fritz immediately fell asleep, but I had to share my drinking prowess with Mike and Clint who were soundly sleeping. I shook them awake saying something like “guess how many beers I had!” They weren’t that interested, but one of them asked “How many?” I didn’t know! They didn’t find that amusing.

As soon as I got into my top bunk, the room started to spin and I ended up in the john throwing up. This happened a couple of times before the room stopped spinning and I was finally able to get to sleep.

The next morning Mike and Clint got even by shaking me awake for breakfast. They had this funny smirk on their faces. I told them I’d better skip breakfast, but I’d be ready to go skiing when they got back. And I was!

It probably wasn’t my best day of skiing, but I survived and I felt better as the day progressed. Fritz never made it out to ski that day. I learned later that the stewardesses finally made an appearance around lunch time, but only two of them ever made it to the ski slopes.

So to summarize what I learned from my first visit to the Red Onion.

  1. I learned that Coors beer was very easy to drink.
  2. I learned that drinking alcohol at an elevation of 8000 feet affects you more than at sea level.
  3. I learned it’s difficult to carry a six foot, 200 pound man with only stewardesses to help.
  4. I learned that stewardesses like partying more than skiing.
  5. I learned that I could not ski hard AND party hard.
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