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Skiing put Aspen on the map. But bad behavior keeps the town in the news.
In one of the best known and most scandalous ski towns in the world, it’s inevitable that some of the headlines spill over onto the slopes. But scandals were a regular feature of Aspen’s existence from its start in the 1880s as one of the richest and wildest silver mining camps in the West. The most notorious early stories often concerned money, sex, drug abuse and murder, which is still the case today.
Wyatt Earp, for instance, helped make an arrest in Aspen in 1884. That same year, Earp’s buddy Doc Holliday used a pistol in a poker-game shooting elsewhere in the valley, when both men, inconveniently, were wanted in other states for murder. As in every other mining town, Aspen’s population supported thriving cathouses and opium dens.
An early skiing-specific scandal involved uber alpinist Fritz Stammberger who lived in Aspen during the 1960s and 70s when he was a founder of Climbing magazine and became one of the leading ski mountaineers of the time. He once chained himself to a tree in town in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent the property owner from cutting it down to build what is now the Miner’s Building hardware store. In the mountains he attracted attention for using no supplemental oxygen and could often be seen skinning to the top of Aspen Mountain with his mouth duct-taped in order to acclimate for the 8,000-meter mountains of Asia.
Based out of Aspen, Stammberger became a flamboyant figure locally, but also in climbing’s elite global community. He survived a controversial disaster that claimed the lives of the rest of his 1964 expedition on 27,725-foot Cho Oyu, on the China-Nepal border, where he successfully solo summited and skied down from 24,000 feet to try to get help.
The most scandalous insinuations about him came when he disappeared on a solo skiing and climbing expedition to Tirich Mir in Pakistan in 1975. He spent the night with John McMurtry’s family in Denver on his way to begin that fateful trip, and McMurtry says, “I remember asking him where he was going. He would only say it was top-secret.” Rumors circulated that he may have been spying in the tense region where Russia, China, Afghanistan and Pakistan all shared borders. Multiple efforts to find some trace of him failed. In 1994 Stammberger’s widow, former Price is Right model Janice Pennington, wrote a book called Husband, Lover, Spy, where she said he had been recruited by the CIA and either killed in jihad fighting or imprisoned by the Soviets.
During World Cup and IPSRA ski races in Aspen in the 1970s, several visiting racers and officials got in trouble. Brothers Terry and Tyler Palmer once drove a loaner Jeep up the Little Nell ski run and halfway up Spar Gulch in the middle of the night before getting it stuck. At least they had permission to use the vehicle. Austrian ski stars Hermann Maier and Andreas Schiffer got arrested for stealing a bicycle from a house where they spent the night partying. Their excuse: They needed it to get back to their hotel so they wouldn’t miss their flight out that morning. If they had been a little more ambitious they could have matched World Cup journalist (and Skiing History contributor) Patrick Lang, who was once arrested in Aspen for stealing a car. It was all a misunderstanding. Sort of.
Those hijinks paled alongside the 1976 shooting death of American ski-racing superstar Spider Sabich by his lover, the singer/actress Claudine Longet. Longtime Denver journalist and ski writer Charlie Meyers wrote an excellent story about it for Skiing Heritage (now Skiing History) in 2006.
I had access to some of Spider’s close friends, including Bob Beattie, and have been able to report details that Charlie and others couldn’t. Among them are allegations that Claudine actually stole the pistol she shot Spider with from the house of Spider’s brother Steve, two weeks before the shooting. This potential evidence might have turned the manslaughter conviction into something much different.
The .22 caliber Luger replica was said to have belonged to Spider’s dad, Vlad Sabich Sr., and passed to Steve when the father died.
But Pinkie, as Steve’s friends called him, had been convicted of a felony marijuana charge in 1971, and wasn’t allowed to own any guns. Testimony ultimately declared that the gun passed to Spider’s possession after Pinkie’s conviction. There was also supposedly a substantial payment to Pinkie from entertainer Andy Williams, Longet’s former husband, presumably to keep him from revealing any theft of his gun.
Pinkie never clarified the issue, and died of cancer in 2004. Longet got off with a one-month jail sentence and then married her local attorney (who was married when he went to work for her). To this day, the tragic farce is a black mark on Aspen’s legal system.
That legal system dropped the ball again a year later, when, in June 1977, convicted serial killer Ted Bundy escaped from Aspen’s Pitkin County Courthouse. Bundy was an avid skier and stalked some of his victims at resorts in Utah and Colorado. He was on trial in Aspen for the 1975 Snowmass murder of a visiting nurse from Michigan, Caryn Campbell, whom he had lured into helping him by faking a ski injury.
Recaptured, in December he broke out of the Glenwood Springs jail and committed several more murders in Florida. Bundy was caught in February 1978 and finally executed in 1989.
Donald Trump was making bad relationship news long before he became President of the United States. Several different versions of his 1990 Christmas holidays imbroglio in Aspen made the next day’s front pages in tabloids from Hong Kong to the New York Post. What was known for sure was that both Ivana Trump and Marla Maples were in town with him, and only Ivana was married to him. The rest of the details varied considerably.
Most witnesses (undoubtedly more than there actually were) claim Ivana went off on Marla at Bonnie’s restaurant on Aspen Mountain, called her “Moolah” Maple in her wicked Czech accent and demanded, “You bitch, leave my husband alone!”
Afterward Ivana, who is a former ski instructor, reportedly skied backwards down the slope in front of the Donald, hurling invectives and the occasional snowball at him. It eventually turned into his costliest ski trip ever, reportedly in the neighborhood of $50 million all told for the subsequent divorce. It was rumored that Trump liked to brag, “It was the biggest divorce ever!”
The death of Michael Kennedy while skiing on Aspen Mountain during the Christmas holidays of 1991 was considered scandalous by some, inasmuch as the family was playing football on skis, something they had previously been asked by ski patrol not to do. So the Kennedys had waited for their game until the sweep of the mountain, when there were fewer other people on the slopes.
But it wasn’t other people who were in danger when Michael, having just caught a pass while skiing, pulled it down and then hit a tree head-on. And at that time no one wore helmets. The Aspen Mountain ski patrol cut the tree down the next day to avoid the potential for morbid shrines.
The terrible accident immediately created gossip, including speculation that alcohol or drugs were involved, but toxicology reports said no. And people talked about other Kennedy family excesses (destroying rental houses, illegally trying to buy prescription drugs, heavy partying, etc.) in a town they’d been visiting since the 1960s. However, many who live in Aspen where death in the mountains isn’t a rarity, saw it not as a scandal but simply and sadly what can happen, especially in a large, adventurous and willful family.
A 1993 fiasco made some non-celebrities temporarily famous when five skiers from Denver became lost and stranded on a backcountry hut trip during a brutal February blizzard that had been widely forecast. They were discovered alive after four days of intensive and dangerous searching and quickly went from being semi-heroic survivors to fools in way over their heads. They had gone into the mountains in spite of warnings and put dozens of other lives at risk looking for them. Sports Illustrated magazine gave it four pages. The so-called leader of the group was Ken Torp, and for years afterward any dumbass move in the backcountry was called “Torping.”
Aspen has had no shortage of controversies over the years. Locals have quarreled over aggressive ticket pricing, unionization of the ski patrol, underground ski school instructors and terrain expansion, among other issues.
History suggests that it won’t be long before another major scandal puts Aspen in the news again.
This piece contains excerpts from the book Scandal Aspen. Jay Cowan has written about skiing for five decades from his home near Aspen (and now in Montana) and has received multiple writing awards, as well as inclusion in The Best American Travel Writing. His many books include Hunter S. Thompson and Scandal Aspen, his latest.
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