Aspen 1969

A week after surviving my first visit to Mad River Glen in January of 1969 I was off for my first skiing trip to the western United States. There were four of us on the trip: Clint Demeritt , Mike Weisel, Mike’s girlfriend Pat, and myself. Clint was a fellow IBMer while both Mike and Pat were still UNH undergrads so the timing of our trip was to coincide with their semester break. Yes, semester breaks were a lot later in those days! By the way, Mike and Pat were married after graduation and now live in Underhill.

Our destination was Aspen, Colorado. Aspen in the 1960s was the dream destination for those of us in the Northeast. Ski movies and magazines had filled our heads with images of powder and sunshine, most of which centered on Aspen. That was because most of the other western areas were still young, at least as far as being a destination resort. Vail, for example, opened in 1962 and by 1969 only had a small number of places to stay or eat. Aspen was an established town since the 1870s and skiing started there in the 1940s. Famous skiers came to Aspen and famous celebrities also became regular visitors.

We flew out of Boston since the Burlington airport didn’t have major airline connections in those days. As I recall most flights out of Burlington were on Slow-Hawk, uh…, I meant Mohawk airlines. It took two hops to fly from Burlington to Poughkeepsie, New York, a popular IBM route.

Our first surprise when we landed in Denver was no snow and temperatures were in the 60s. Of course everyone knows now that Denver weather has little to do with the mountains, but they didn’t tell us that in the movies and magazines. Indeed, once we climbed into the mountains on Route 6 snow was evident.

Loveland Pass Summit

Loveland Pass Summit

That brings us to Loveland Pass. Route 6 winds its way up over the Continental Divide at an elevation of 11,990 feet. The road was packed snow and the guardrails were non-existent! I’ve written about the Loveland Pass experience in past RetroSki columns, but it was a “white knuckle” rite of passage for eastern skiers heading to Aspen or Vail. Thankfully the weather was good for our first time.

Of course since 1973 skiers are spared that experience thanks to the Eisenhower and Johnson tunnels that bypass the last 1000 feet of elevation. The tunnels have created a new hazard – traffic! In early January this year I drove west on I-70 at the end of what must have been a beautiful weekend ski day. Traffic in the eastbound lanes was stop-and-go as skiers headed back to Denver. On the Summit County side of the tunnel there was a multi-lane, six mile backup waiting to get through the tunnel!

Back to 1969: In Aspen we stayed at the Little Red Ski Hostel. As the name implies, we stayed in dorm-like facilities, but the price was right. Plus it was located in walking distance of everything – lifts, restaurants, and bars! It is now a luxury ski house called the Little Red Ski Haus and was on the market in 2017 for $11.8 million!

As for the skiing, there were four mountains that comprised Aspen just like today. The original mountain, Ajax, that rises right out of the town, plus Buttermilk, Aspen Highlands, and Snowmass which was only two years old in 1969. However Ajax will always be the one I remember from that first visit.

Aspen Lift 1

Aspen Lift 1 – Single Chairlift built in 1946

From that first ride up Lift 1, the single chair built in 1946 that went on and on and on up the mountain. It was 8000 feet in length and the mountain just kept unfolding beneath you as you rode up. And when it finally ended, there was another lift above that! Welcome to western skiing.

Then there were the trails. One that we had heard of was Ruthie’s Run which was named after the wife of D. R. C. Brown, long-time head of the Aspen Skiing Company. Ruth Brown invested $5000 in the company in 1950 that helped allow the area to host the first major international alpine ski championship in North America. To reward her (plus to give her an easier way down the mountain) Ruthie’s Run was named after her.

I probably should have worded last week’s trivia question as “What ski area has the ‘original’ Ruthie’s Run?” Chuck Perkins shared that there’s a ski shop in Lake Placid with that name. Norma Stancliffe just finished skiing Ruthie’s at Smuggs (named for Ruth Brewster) when she submitted her answer. However Ron Waxman, Russ Hausman, and Lyndall Heyer named Aspen as the home of the original Ruthie’s Run.

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Trivia 2019 Week 10

What ski area has Ruthie’s Run?

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Mad River Glen 1969

Mad River Glen is celebrating its 70th anniversary this season! Its official opening was December 11, 1948, but due to low early snowfall, skiing didn’t start until January, 1949. So even back then it was “Ski it if you can!”

Roland Palmedo founded Mad River Glen. Of course Palmedo had been a key part of the development of skiing in Stowe, but he felt Stowe was heading in the wrong direction.  Palmedo was a serious skier who had “earned his turns” before there were lifts. Suddenly Stowe was attracting less serious skiers who wanted more lifts, easier trails, and more nightlife. Palmedo wrote “I can’t see that ski resorts need belly dancers, discotheques, and other side-show attractions.” Hmmm? Belly dancers in Stowe?

After World War II, Palmedo looked to start an area that would adhere to his ideals. He put this in a vision statement that Mad River still uses today!

…a ski area is not just a place of business, a mountain amusement park, as it were. Instead it is a winter community whose members, both skiers and area personnel, are dedicated to the enjoyment of the sport.”

Palmedo chose a place that was all on private land and he could control the development. The adjacent house lots were sold to people who shared Palmedo’s vision. The area even applied the “no frills” approach to naming its base lodge the Basebox!

MMSC Historian Mike Leach correctly answered last week’s trivia question. Mark Yakubosky also identified Mad River as the home of the Basebox.

My first visit to Mad River was in January of 1969 when the area was 20 years old. At that time it was just another ski area as far its facilities were concerned. It had a single chair, but so did several other areas in the Northeast including Stowe, of course. It had already added two double chairs which were competitive with other resorts. And of course in those days, nobody had snowmaking.

There were two aspects of that first visit to Mad River that make it stand out in my memory. First, I went with a good skier who was familiar with Mad River Glen. His family had been members of the Hartford Ski Club which had a place at Mad River so he had skied it as a kid. Second, I was a week away from my first western ski vacation!

For the early part of my first season in Vermont, I had been skiing with people who were not expert skiers. However I met an IBM engineer, Bob Smith, who was as into skiing as I was and we headed for Mad River Glen. Bob had been a college ski racer at Worcester Polytech Institute. So for the first time that season I was skiing with somebody better than I was and he knew the area. Trying to keep up with someone who skis faster is very tiring, particularly when they know where they are going and you don’t.

I remember on one cruising run Bob disappeared around a corner ahead of me and I followed at speed trying to keep him in sight. Suddenly the bottom just dropped out and I was airborne. I flailed arms and legs the whole time I was in the air and somehow didn’t fall, but it took a lot of energy.

At some point during that day a thought crossed my mind: what happens if I get hurt and can’t go on my western ski trip? As many of us know, worrying about injury affects your skiing and can lead to getting injured. Well, I survived the day, but didn’t get to truly appreciate Mad River Glen.

In subsequent years I did learn to appreciate Mad River. Fall Line remains one of my all-time favorite trails. The way it uses the terrain makes the trail ski longer than it really is. And of course, tree skiing was always a part of the Mad River experience. After a snowstorm I really felt that the woods got tracked out before the trails!

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Trivia 2019 Week 9

What ski area has the Basebox Lodge?

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Mount Marathon Race

There were several correct answers to last week’s trivia question on the first Stowe Derby. Certainly that was influenced by the fact the article about the Stowe Derby also in last week’s issue, contained the answer! Steve Edwards, Ed Gill, and Lyndall Heyer all correctly identified 1945 as the year of the first Derby.

Lyndall actually had the specific date, February 28, 1945! And she recounted the story of how it resulted from a challenge between Sepp Ruschp and Erling Strom. Sepp ran the alpine ski school at the mountain while Erling had a Nordic ski school he ran out of his home, the site of the former Cactus Café. So in some respects the original Derby was a challenge between the cross country skiers versus the alpine skiers. The course ran from the Octagon to the Akeley building.

Many traditions have started based on challenges or even bets on who could do something better than someone else. Here in Stowe there’s the “World’s Shortest Marathon” held on July 4th. As I understand it, that started as a bet on who could run from the Whip to the Three Green Doors the fastest!

There’s another Fourth of July tradition involving at least the word “Marathon” that has been around 110 years! No, it’s not in Stowe, but in Seward, Alaska.

Seward is located on the Kenai Peninsula at the end of Resurrection Bay. Seward’s official population is around 2,800 people. In the summers the population goes up thanks to the cruise ships that visit. However on the Fourth of July as many as 40,000 people crowd the streets! That’s because of the Mount Marathon Race.

On the Fourth of July in 1909, a bunch of the boys were whooping it up at the Malamute Café. Whoops, slipped into a little Robert Service there. But there was a group celebrating in a local Seward Bar and somebody offered $100 for anyone who could run to the top of Mount Marathon and back in under an hour! Actually it wasn’t called Mount Marathon back then. The name eventually came about due to the race that resulted from that bet.

The mountain in question is visible from almost any location in town. It rises steeply to an elevation just over 3000 feet and since Seward is at sea level, the challenge was to go to up-and-down 3000 feet in under an hour. Al Taylor took up the bet and took off in his Sunday best clothes and leather boots. Taylor missed making it back in an hour by minutes, but was still in such a good mood that he bought drinks for everyone.

Over the years the race has grown in popularity to where today the number of entrants is limited to 800. Any previous winners and the top 225 finishers from the previous year can get a slot if they choose. The remaining slots are determined by lottery and ten slots are auctioned off the day before the race as a fundraiser for local charities. A slot can go for $3000!

The race is difficult to describe. Racers run about a half mile from the starting point in town and then the scramble begins – first through a treed forest, then into thick scrub brush, and finally above tree line where most of the race occurs. Racers use both hands and feet to get over ledges, loose shale slopes, and even snow. The trip down can best be described as an almost controlled fall. Injuries occur and most competitors wear the resulting blood and bruises as a medal of honor. There has been one apparent death in 2012. I say “apparent” because they never found the body despite searching for almost a week. Such is Alaska.

As far as doing it under an hour, the men’s record set in 2016 is 41 minutes 26 seconds while the women’s record was set in 2015 at 47 minutes and 48 seconds.

Why are we hearing about a crazy Alaskan Fourth of July race in a column about skiing? I heard someone ask. One of the most famous winners of the Marathon Mountain Race is Kikkan Randall, the most decorated United States woman in World Cup Nordic racing. This includes competing in five Olympics and winning a gold medal as part of the sprint team at the Pyeongchang Olympics in 2018.

Kikkan first raced Mount Marathon as a junior at the age of 10! She won the junior division for three consecutive years. Once she turned 18 she raced in the women’s division ten times finally winning in 2011 with a time of 52 minutes and 3 seconds. She was undoubtedly under a lot of family pressure since her mother, Debbie, won the race in 1975 and her aunt Betsy won three consecutive Mount Marathon races.

Kikkan was diagnosed with breast cancer in July of 2018. They caught it early so her prognosis is good. She is facing this challenge just as she did cross country skiing and the Mount Marathon Race. Her New Year’s update video reported that she’s about half way through radiation treatments and that she’s feeling good and recharged after the holidays. You can follow her progress at

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Trivia 2019 Week 8

When was the first Stowe Derby held?

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Remembering the T-Bar

The T-Bar was invented by Ernst Constam of Switzerland. Actually he invented the concept of an overhead circulating cable lift which started as a J-Bar. In Vermont we tend to give Fred Pabst of Bromley credit for inventing the J-Bar, but actually Pabst’s design was based on photos of Constam’s lift. By the late 1930s, Constam extended his concept to the T-Bar which could transport two skiers up the hill.

Brad and Janet Mead, founders of Pico, had seen T-Bars when they were in Europe. When they heard that Ernst Constam was interested in coming to the United States, they made sure Pico would have the first U.S. T-Bar. Constam himself oversaw the installation and it began operation in January 1941.  At the time it was the highest capacity lift in North America!

I also heard from regular contributor Gary Tomlinson who mentioned that the first surface lift in the United States was the rope tow on Gilbert’s Hill in Woodstock. By the way, Gary is at Fernie, British Columbia. He says the skiing is great there and the Epic Pass is good for 7 days at Fernie!

Most RetroSkiers began their skiing careers on some kind of surface lift. However now several generations of skiers have come along that never had the “pleasure” of riding an old-style surface lift. No, magic carpets don’t count!

So as a public service to those who never rode one, let me first show you how to use a rope tow.

Since our rope tow loads from the left, your right hand will be the lead hand so put both pole straps on your left hand.  Good! Now step up to the rope.

Let the rope slip through your right hand, but don’t….

Here, let me help you get your skis back on.  Yeah, don’t just grab the rope.  Let’s try again.

This time let the rope slip through your right hand and gradually tighten your grip much like using a clutch on a standard shift.

Here, let me help you get your skis back on.  Don’t drive standard shifts much down there in New Jersey, eh?  Let’s try again.

Once you’ve got the right hand grip and start moving with the rope, reach behind you with the left hand and grab the rope.

Here, let me help you get your skis back on.  Yeah, you can’t let go with the right hand, but look how far we got this time.  Let’s try again.

Good job!  Now stay in the track!

Here, let me help you get your skis back on.  You may want to tighten those bindings until we get this mastered!  Yeah, those ruts in the track do get very deep and bumpy!

I’ll stop here, but getting off the rope tow also presented challenges!

So now let’s try your first T-bar ride.

This is much easier than a rope tow. The lift operator will hand you the bar, you position the cross bar just below your butt and let it pull you up the mountain.  Just remember that you don’t sit on the cross bar, you let it pull you!  So you’re ready, put your poles in your outside hand, step out, get the bar from the lift operator, ….. Great you’ve got it!

Here, let me help you get your skis back on.  I did mention about not sitting on the bar, didn’t I?  Let’s try again and this time I’ll ride up with you.

See that wasn’t bad.  You got it on the second try!  Yeah, I don’t know why they don’t have these on the beginner slopes either.

We’re getting near the top and I’ll get the bar.  That means you just ski away from the lift and I will take care of releasing the T-bar.  Here we are so get off.  Now….Now….NOW!

Once I get my skis back on I’ll help you with yours.

All right, you’re ready to try your first rope tow or T-Bar. Back in 1968 it was easy to still find surface lifts, but now there aren’t too many around. One place that still provides the retro experience that drew so many of us to skiing is Cochran’s! Watch the kids ride the T-Bar or rope tow and enjoy lap after lap of skiing. And now I’m old enough to ski there for free!

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Trivia 2019 Week 7

Where was the first T-Bar in the United States installed?

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Jay Peak 1969

The first time I skied Jay Peak was in January 1969. Someone at work had discovered that Jay offered discounts for groups of 10 or more. So we were able to gather a group of about 15 people who headed up to Jay on a Saturday in early January.

As I remember the discount was a dollar off the day ticket price. Now before you guffaw at that amount, let me review the economics of that era. Most ski areas in New England had day ticket prices between $6 and $8 (I think Jay was $8.). As a young professional I was making about $10,000 a year or roughly $200 a week so a weekend of skiing amounted to about 10% of my weekly take-home pay. According to, today’s engineers’ starting salaries are around $70,000, or seven times my starting salary in 1968. Day lift tickets have gone up by a factor of 16!

The exception to the $6-$8 lift ticket in 1968-69 was Stowe which was charging $10 a day. Who did they think they were! When we get to March I’ll be writing about my first time skiing Stowe. I had to be talked into skiing a place that charged $10 a day!

Back to Jay Peak: On that first visit I wasn’t too impressed with Jay, but that was because we started at the Tram area. A Tram is certainly a “featured” lift so it made sense to park there and start our day there. However trams aren’t the most efficient lift for uphill capacity. There was a long liftline that moved forward in bursts. Chair lift lines usually have a steady forward pace that gives you a sense of progress, but in tram lines you stand in one spot for long periods of time. When you did get to the top there seemed to be only two trail options. Granted those two options led to other trails, but still it seemed somehow limited. Also the only other obvious lifts from the Tram base didn’t go much of anywhere.

I wasn’t a student of ski area history back then or I would have known that the Tram was a relatively new addition to Jay Peak. It was built in the 1966-67 season thanks to a large investment by timber giant Weyerhaeuser Co. who eventually would take over the area. So I was there in only its second full season. Over the years since then, Jay has built-up the Tram base area and redesigned the lift structure to reduce the Tram effect.

Eventually I would learn what the locals still know: the Stateside area is the best place to use as your base of operation. In those days it put you closer to the Jet T-Bar which fed some of the more interesting trails. And no, they didn’t call it “Jet” as a tongue-in-cheek spoof. It was considered fast at the time it was installed. While the lines could get long for the T-Bar, you felt the wait was worth it. The Kitzbuhel trail is still one of my favorites anywhere.

I may have been disappointed by my initial skiing experience from the Jay Peak Tram, but I was very impressed with the après ski offerings in the Tram Haus! There was a German style beer hall complete with an oompah band. There was also a lounge that offered a quieter atmosphere better for conversation. And then in the basement was a full-blown discotheque complete with light show. I was going to say it was the kind of club you’d find in New York City, but Montreal would be a more accurate choice. English did not seem to be the prevailing language. However the volume of the music meant that verbal communication was limited anyway.

Other than ski areas where I’ve had a season pass (Stowe, Sugarbush), Jay Peak is probably my most visited Vermont area. Jay Peak was way ahead of its time in opening up their woods which made it a far more interesting place to ski. When the snow is good, the Valhalla glades are fantastic and only accessible from the Tram!

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Trivia 2019 Week 6

When did the first Jay Peak tram begin service?

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