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Resorts: What Might Have Been
Before Aspen, Ashcroft and Mount Hayden promised a cable car, ‘immense schusses,’ a village for 2,000. Then World War II intervened.
Photo above: A map drawn by Roch of his vision for a ski resort in the greater Aspen area. Courtesy Aspen Historical Society.
It is difficult now to realize that Aspen’s skiing development did not start in town but out on Castle Creek, where the Highland Bavarian Lodge housing two European guides was to offer ski touring for wealthy clients.
What a curious tale. During the summer of 1936, one-time Aspen resident Tom Flynn was peddling mining claims and happened on Billy Fiske at a party in Pasadena, California. Fiske came from a wealthy Chicago banking family. He was a sometime dilettante Hollywood film maker, flyer, member of the gold-winning Olympic bobsled team in 1928, and captain of the sled that was victorious four years later at the Lake Placid Games.
Fiske was as well-known on the Cresta run in Switzerland as he was in England’s society circles. Flynn showed him photographs of the mining claims but it was the area as a possible ski region that attracted Fiske, just as those photos had impressed Ted Ryan, New York banker, heir to the Anaconda Copper fortune and brother of Mont Tremblant developer Joe Ryan.
Fiske, Ryan, and Flynn bought land on Castle Creek, started construction of the Highland Bavarian Lodge, hired Swiss skier, mountaineer and already avalanche expert, André Roch, along with Gunther Langes, a south Tyrolian who had organized the world’s first giant slalom, on Italy’s Marmolata in 1935. The two made the trans-Atlantic crossing and arrived in Aspen in December 1936.
We know much of this from the article Roch wrote for the Swiss ski journal Der Schneehase. From this article and from Ted Ryan’s papers, deposited with the Aspen Historical Society, “what might have been” can be pieced together. For admirers of “what if” history, it makes for a fascinating study.
Roch and Langes believed they were being hired to scout out land in Colorado where a major ski resort might be financed, much the way Count Felix Schaffgotsch had done a year earlier for Union Pacific Railroad’s chairman Averell Harriman, which led to Sun Valley, America’s first purpose-built winter ski resort.
However, when the two arrived in Aspen they discovered “with some unease” that they were not to explore the Rocky Mountains, since Fiske and Ryan had already chosen the location. Their remit was “simply to verify its excellence, to check on terrain and climate,” all to ensure that the location was suitable for “the launching of a big winter sports resort.” However charming the lodge might be, Roch was immediately critical of the setting of the Highland Bavarian Lodge at the juncture of Castle Creek and Conundrum, about five miles from Aspen.
In a steep-sided, avalanche-prone valley, with wind-battered snowfields far above the tree line, this was not the St. Moritz of America. Worst of all, wealthy guests from Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Chicago had already been booked into the Lodge and expected to revel in pristine snowfields, guided by experienced Europeans…and it was a snow poor December.
The Lodge was not even finished, so Roch and Langes bedded down in Aspen’s Jerome Hotel and took clients up towards what is now Little Annie. Fiske and Ryan saw the town of Aspen, with its road connections to Glenwood Springs and over Independence Pass, and its railroad, as the hub of skiing. Before Roch left in June 1937, he had marked out a trail for the newly-formed ski club to cut. This became known as the Roch Run.
But 12 miles out of Aspen, farther on up the Castle Creek valley, lay Ashcroft, population one, remnant of a mining outpost. Now, said Roch, there was a real possibility as it sat in a natural bowl surrounded by 12,000-foot peaks. With plenty of options for ski runs on east and north-facing slopes, it would be “a resort without competition.”
Roch climbed from Ashcroft towards Hayden Peak on January 15, 1937. He turned back before reaching the top but had seen enough of the Conundrum valley and had admired the surrounding peaks: Pyramid, Snowmass, Castle, Cathedral and most spectacularly, the Maroon Bells.
That spring Roch, Langes and Fiske climbed Hayden. Soon after, renowned Eastern skiers like Otto Schniebs came out to be amazed by the spectacular West. And from Denver came ski manufacturer Thor Groswold and skiing man-about-town Frank Ashley. Other areas were explored, too.
The conclusion was inescapable: Fiske and Ryan had untouched resort territory. The road into Ashcroft would need rebuilding and in some places re-routing to avoid avalanches. Hotels were planned to hold 2,000 skiers. That figure was gauged to make a cable car up Mount Hayden economically feasible. The accompanying map indicates the lifts with the mid station marked leading to a second lift to reach a hotel at the top, some 3,000 feet above the valley floor.
Beginners were not forgotten, with the more gentle ski fields near the road, and two jumps were planned. Roch added comments, underscoring the importance of slopes on the north and eastern sides; south- and west-facing slopes had too much sun, too little snow and the western side was subject to winds. The first of two connecting chairs was proposed from Ashcroft to Monument. The second chair was to reach the summit of Electric Peak, providing a 2,000-foot-plus vertical.
This was vital because it would give access to Hayden’s ridge and thus to Cathedral Lake and on down to Pine, Sandy and Sawyer creeks. From there, transportation would be needed to get back to Ashcroft. Altitude was the drawback. Topping out at 13,600 feet, bad weather would shut the lift complex down. Even so “this splendid ski-area would not be developed into its proper capacity without it.” Descents from the top could be compared to the Parsenn. With “immense Schusses,” Roch skied down to Ashcroft in twenty minutes. He was ecstatic. And the valley below was long and broad, large enough “to combine hotels, bungalows and parking places.” A Swiss village was envisioned.
In Denver, the Colorado legislature voted a $650,000 bond for the lifts. Ashcroft was going to be the “Williamsburg of the Old West,” enthused architect Ellery Husted. Ted Ryan was all enthusiasm, too. As he recalled for the documentary Legends of American Skiing: “We had an area bigger than Zermatt.” “We were all set to go, and then ‘bang’ World War II came and Billy Fiske was shot down during the Battle of Britain.” Fiske, flying a Hurricane for 601 Squadron, was badly wounded when his plane was hit. He managed to fly his machine home, but died in hospital two days later. His death and the war ended what might have been the Mount Hayden development.
Maybe it is not all bad; backcountry skiers certainly like the way it has all turned out. The Ashcroft Touring Center became the first self-sustaining cross-country center in the U.S. in 1971, and its Pine Creek Cookhouse provides a uniquely memorable dining experience. And, as patrons will attest, the views are “unreal.”
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