Back in January of this year I received a YouTube notification about a video of a 1963 performance by the Chad Mitchell Trio singing “Super Skier!”
At one point in the song the lyrics include “folks up on Little Nell looked up scared as Hell and said ‘it’s a bird, no, it’s a plane … it’s Super Skier!’”
So where is Little Nell? Long-time friend Pat Ostrowski had the answer that it’s in Aspen at the base of Ajax (now often referred to as Aspen Mountain.) He says that when he was there in the 1980s it was a modest place, but the addition of the Silver Queen Gondola “changed the neighborhood!”
Gretchen Rous Besser provided more of the local history of the name. “Little Nell was apparently a ‘lady of the night’ for whose charms a local silver miner named his claim, which stood slightly uphill of the present-day five-star, four-season inn that bears her eponymous name.”
It was great to hear from Gretchen and while she doesn’t ski anymore, she is a true Retro-Skier!
And speaking of Retro-Skiers, Chuck Perkins also identified Aspen as the site of Little Nell.
This season marks the 75th anniversary of lift-served skiing in Aspen. However much like Stowe the history of skiing in the Aspen area goes back long before there were lifts. In fact according to one account, B. Clark Wheeler “skied” into the area from Leadville in the winter of 1880 to perform the first survey and named the town Aspen!
Norwegian silver miners settled in the area and brought their skis with them. They would work the mines on the slopes of the mountain and then ski down at the end of the day.
In the 1930s some of the first ski trails were laid out by Andre Roch and cut by volunteers. (Aspen still hosts the Roch Cup named for Andre Roch.) The locals also rigged a primitive lift called the Boat Tow using old mining hoists. The wooden “boat” could hold 6 skiers and was dragged up the mountain using the hoists.
However the anniversary celebrated this year marks the installation of the famous Lift 1 for the 1946-47 season. Lift 1 was a single chair, an 8000 foot long single chair, that took you three quarters of the way up Ajax mountain. At that time it was the longest chairlift in the world, a title it took away from Stowe’s 6000 foot single chair. I feel fortunate to have ridden Lift 1 in both 1969 and 1970 before it was replaced. It was an amazing introduction to the western skiing experience. In contrast to today’s world of high speed quads, six packs, and eight packs, the 20 minute solitary ride built an anticipation that defies description.
The 1946 project was the beginning of the Aspen Ski Corporation. Key players included Friedl Pfeifer who had been head of the successful Sun Valley ski school before WWII. In the War Friedl was in the 10th Mountain Division and discovered Aspen during training at nearby Camp Hale. Financial backing was provided by Chicago industrialist Walter Paepcke. The corporation leased the land from D.R.C. (Darcy) Brown who owned the mining claims on Ajax. Brown would eventually become the president of the corporation, a post he would hold for 22 years.
For the 1947-48 season the Little Nell slope was cleared and a T-Bar installed. A sort of base lodge for that slope included a bar and sun deck which likewise was called Little Nell. By the time I visited Aspen, Little Nell was a popular après ski spot and nightclub. I remember seeing a good band there named Plain Brown Wrapper.
Aspen became a mecca for American skiers, particularly eastern skiers. The idea of powdery skiing under sunny skies was irresistible. And Aspen delivered! As its popularity increased, Aspen added more facilities. Buttermilk ski area and Aspen Highlands were added in 1958. Snowmass at Aspen opened in 1967. Snowmass is now the largest of the Aspen ski areas with over 3000 acres of skiable terrain.
Aspen also became irresistible to celebrities and all that comes with them! In 1988 the Little Nell bar and après ski deck were torn down and the Little Nell Hotel was built. Gretchen Besser has tactfully described the hotel earlier in this column. It is the favorite place for the Kardashians to stay when they visit Aspen.
I’ll end by quoting more lyrics from “Super Skier.”
“For all you sundeck Charlies there’s still hope! Buy the fastest clothes you can, then talk skiing like a man … but don’t let people catch you on the slope!”