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|March 19-25, 2009
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Ruthie’s at Aspen Mountain adds soul to skiing
by Bill McKeown
Bored with the mega-resort ski “experience” — the lift-line shuffle, the pasteurized runs, the zombielike iPod users?
You need a shot of soul in your skiing.
Let’s take a run on Aspen Mountain, specifically the west, or “Ruthie’s” side, arguably the most soulful, flowing — and certainly the most historic — network of runs in Colorado.
First, a little geography to get your bearings. Aspen Mountain has two distinct sides joined by a saddle, with the higher 11,212-foot Bell Mountain to the east, now served by a swanky gondola leaving from the heart of Aspen. The Bell side is equally entertaining, because Aspen Mountain is like a sheet of paper folded vertically half a dozen times and then pulled apart. This geologic origami has created sharp ridges, sinuous gullies — some mild, some wild — and short, steep side hills between them.
The ski area is relatively small, just 673 acres, compared with Vail’s 5,289. But none of Colorado’s mega resorts, including nearby Snowmass, offers terrain this consistently challenging. On a good day anywhere on Aspen Mountain, it is a dance with gravity.
But the soul train really leaves from Lift 1A, or Shadow Mountain, a funky two-seat chairlift at the end of a short residential street on the west side of Aspen. A few remnants of Aspen’s first chairlift — a Lilliputian one-seater installed in 1946 and billed then as the world’s longest chairlift — have been preserved.
As you ascend at a stately pace, you’ll gaze down on terrain once negotiated by Aspen’s first lift — an eight-person “boat tow” that was pulled up the lower mountain by mining hoists powered by a truck engine. The price when it began running in 1937? Ten cents a ride.
Cresting the first steep rise, you’ll hop off the lift and bear skier’s right to Ruthie’s Chairlift, which climbs through a band of aspens to deposit you on a small knoll at the top of a ridge that falls off steep and wicked beyond the ropes. On the forbidden side lies a panorama of peaks, including the strange, unsettling Maroon Bells.
Turn. Face Aspen. It’s time for a run down Ruthie’s, cut in late 1946 by America’s first ski racing champion, Dick Durrance, who managed the tiny ski area in its first years and who would go on to become a legend in the ski world. Off the steep knoll, Ruthie’s rides the spine of the mountain. It’s wide, rolling, with playful fall lines. It was named after Ruth Brown, the wife of a longtime, early ski-area manager. Ruth, a pilot during World War II, is still alive, in her 90s, one of a number of strong, adventurous Aspen women who made their impact on skiing in America.
To skier’s right high on Ruthie’s is the steeper, usually ungroomed Roch Run. It was cut by volunteers in 1937, the first slope on the mountain and accessed then by a long hike up the mountain. It was named after the famed Swiss mountaineer and avalanche expert Andre Roch, who surveyed the mountain for the first runs. His eye for terrain would shape the mountain’s rough-and-ready reputation for seven generations.
Aspen’s first downhill race was held on the freshly cut run that first year, with racers dropping onto the lower mountain via the
infamous Corkscrew run — yes, the steep, twisting gully skis exactly like it sounds. Early winners of the race included Stein Erickson and Steamboat’s Buddy Werner.
If you’re feeling like Erickson, cut skier’s right off Roch and access an eastern-facing hillside of steep, double-black runs dotted with aspen that funnel into Spar Gulch, which neatly bisects Aspen Mountain.
If you’ve opted to stay on always groomed Ruthie’s, the pitch steepens over a face, revealing a large bowllike gully, ending at Ruthie’s Chair. Quaint west-side Aspen lies below. The slope is usually softened by the sun. The teacup terrain begs for huge edge angle. Let ’em roll.
Or, if you can resist the siren song of Ruthie’s, bear skier’s left onto Summer Road. As you reach an island of trees to skier’s right, look for Aspen’s “newest” run, a steep tree chute cut by 23-year ski instructor Tim Mooney, who climbed up with a chain saw one summer and thinned out some mostly dead trees — illegally. He was promptly fired, and the locals took to calling the short tree run down to Ruthie’s chair — never marked by the ski company — “Dark Side of the Mooney.” That name has evolved simply into “Pink Slip.” Ironically, the ski company eventually trimmed even more trees, creating some really nice but short glade skiing.
If you opt to stay on Summer Road for a few more yards, the earth will fall away from you, dropping you onto the pucker-steep face of Aztec, often icy from shade. Hesitate, lean into the hill or wuss out and bad things will happen. It is that steep.
Until the men’s World Cup downhill was moved to Beaver Creek in the late 1990s, generations of legendary skiers such as Peter Mueller, Pirmin Zubriggen and Marc Girardelli tested their mettle on huge flights off Aztec, capped by a femur-snapping airplane turn on a lower part of the run called Spring Pitch and finally a compression drop onto lower Summer Road. More than a few racers — and recreational skiers — have ended in the netting stretched across the face of a gully at the bottom.
Drop straight over the road by the net, and you’ll enter un-groomed Corkscrew Gulley or, to skier’s right, the open face of Corkscrew. Take either. Both will kick your butt. If you bear left off Spring Pitch and onto lower Summer Road, you’ll waltz down rollicking, twisting Strawpile, and east and west 5th Avenue or, to skier’s left, double black diamond Norway, where Italian race stud Alberto Tomba once cut massive arcs in icy GS courses and where legendary technical Swedish racer Ingmar Stenmark won his 86th and
final World Cup race.
Legs burning, breath ragged, ears ringing, stupid grin on your face, make one last big turn down to the Shadow Mountain lift shack. A plastic jug of water is usually on the bench. Help yourself. You deserve it. You’ve just flowed down one of America’s best mountains like a raindrop off a rock. You’ve carved where legends once carved. You’ve taken in the silence with, perhaps, a hundred other hep cats. You’ve found the soul of skiing in Colorado.
Sources: Historian Tom Egan, Aspen Historical Society; Aspen Times archives.
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