Peter Shelton

Aspen Is Telluride on Steroids

Posted in Ski history, Watch columns by pshelton on November 16, 2012

Well, the KOTO Ski Swap worked its weather magic again.

For more years than logic should allow, the annual Telluride toy exchange brought favor from the snow gods. It’s not exactly like clockwork, but more often than not, sale day dawns gray and spitting, or already white and cold. Ullr is pleased, apparently.

I didn’t make it to the event this year; I went instead to Telluride’s big sister town, Aspen. They have a sale in early November, too, the Four-Mountain Sports Blowout Sale. I’ve had great luck there in the past scoring demo skis that are good as new and a fraction the price.

The storm that brought snow to Telluride had already begun. There was a little slush on McClure Pass as I crested, a couple of cotton-ball inches in the aspen forest there. But down in the valley of the Roaring Fork, snow came only in brief, circumscribed squalls, like traveling shower stalls. For the most part the day was crisp and blue, with clouds snagged on the peaks as if awaiting permission to descend. Winter in the wings.

The crowd standing around waiting for the doors to open chattered with a kind of ebullience that either blew in with the brilliant day or with the election results. I was still riding a high three days after the fact, and maybe these folks were, too. Pitkin County, of which Aspen is the county seat, is one the three most reliably blue counties in Colorado, along with Boulder and San Miguel. Or maybe it was just the excitement of the season around the corner and the prospect of seriously cheap goods. The crowd grew, and grew happier and louder.

Aspen is like Telluride on steroids. And testosterone. And EPO. It is pumped up five times Telluride’s size. And it sits at the head of a valley with three or four other towns that are seriously bigger than Telluride.

I remember when I moved to Telluride, in 1976, people were always saying, “Not Aspen. No! Telluride must never become another Aspen!”

Well, that was wasted worry. Telluride couldn’t become Aspen if it wanted to. Geography is destiny, and Aspen’s landscape is like a book opened to the middle, where Telluride echoes between the walls of its slot canyon. For the 30 miles between Aspen and Carbondale, and another 13 miles from there down to Glenwood Springs, Roaring Fork denizens (upwards of 25,000 of them) drive a four-lane highway to work, past expansive horse farms and hay pastures, golf courses and, yes, bazillion-dollar homes, while the big mountains hover a discreet distance away. There is room for scores, no hundreds, no thousands of bazillion-dollar homes, all with realtor views, in the laid-back hills.

Aspen also had a unique post-mining history, not to be repeated. Almost a ghost town in 1939, it was “discovered” by the physically and intellectually brave art patron, Elizabeth “Pussy” Paepcke, of Chicago. Immediately after the war, she dragged her industrialist (Container Corporation of America) art-patron husband, Walter, out to Colorado, where the two of them, with a little help from their friends, created a “new Chautauqua,” an Athens of the West.

Their friends included Pussy’s brother, Cold War architect Paul Nitze, “Great Books” philosopher Mortimer Adler, Bauhaus architect Herbert Bayer, and Robert Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago. Together they started the Aspen Institute, the Aspen Music Festival and the Aspen Skiing Corporation. All before 1949. In that year they invited the world to the middle of nowhere, Colorado, USA, for a 200-year celebration of the birth of the German poet, Goethe. And the world came.

In 1950 Aspen hosted the FIS World Alpine Ski Championships, the first time it had ever been contested outside Europe.

So Aspen had a head start on Telluride. It also struggled to understand a drug and hedonism invasion in the 1960s, and the invasion of big money and bigger celebrity in the 1970s and 80s. The displays of wealth sickened Pussy Paepcke. She told a reporter that Aspen “had become a town of glitz and glamour . . . a nut without a kernel.” It broke her heart.

I’m sure that’s what Telluride’s 1970s New Wave meant by not becoming another Aspen. Of course, Telluride now has its share of over-the-top mansions. It has oversized egos and intellectual and artistic voyagers, too. And drugs. All on a smaller scale than Big Sis, who pioneered the route.

Aspen’s Faustian bargain is not all bad. There is soul still in the nooks and crannies. And I scored a pristine pair of carving skis at the Blowout Sale. Because Aspenites insist on the latest and greatest, a lot of great gear gets recycled in a hurry. These two-year-old Volkls don’t have a scratch on ‘em. Perfect edges. Original base grind. Pennies on the dollar.

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