Fresh from the alpine skiing World Cup Finals in Meribel, France, Aspen Skiing Co. officials have plenty to chew on in terms of what it takes to put on such a major event.
When Aspen was awarded the World Cup Finals for March 2017 — an event that encompasses nine races in five days and crowns the overall season champions — it was a bit of a surprise. Previously, only Vail had succeeded in a bid to bring the event to North American snow. But, with some questions about the adequacy of Aspen’s venue and infrastructure, Skico is under pressure to commit to improvements in the Lift 1A/Shadow Mountain area by the time the FIS (International Ski Federation) meets to finalize its calendar in early June.
Although there are concerns about the surrounding neighborhood, such as the boarded up Skier’s Chalet restaurant building and the empty lots in the area, Lift 1A is at the center of the venue controversy, according to newspaper reports. Technically called the Shadow Mountain Chair, the fixed-grip, safety-bar-less Lift 1A, built in 1971, was shut down for over two weeks this winter while a replacement for a broken gear tooth was found. FIS officials have given the Skico a firm “requirement to upgrade the 1A lift,” an Aspen Daily News article quoted FIS spokesperson Jenny Wiedeke as saying. Wiedeke added that “if the technical requirements are not fulfilled, then an alternative solution will be found.”
But John Rigney, Skico’s vice president of sales and events, is confident that Aspen is not in danger of losing the 2017 event. Rigney has been quoted in The Aspen Times as saying that the FIS awarded Aspen the event with full knowledge of its existing infrastructure, and that it would not replace the little-used chairlift without broader plans to further develop and revitalize the neighborhood.
“We’re still hosting the event in 2017. Nothing’s changed there,” Rigney told us via e-mail. He added that the Skico team that attended the Meribel events — including Skico CEO Mike Kaplan and chief of race Jim Hancock — took the opportunity to meet with as many FIS officials as possible to discuss the Aspen event and “get an insider’s vantage point” on what they could learn from the 2015 finals.
In Meribel, lift access to the slalom and giant slalom courses for the national teams and World Cup staff appeared to be via a platter pull, and an adjacent fixed-grip quad seemed to be the way for spectators to get to the upper parts of the course. When asked what the problem was with Lift 1A in light of that information, Rigney responded, “That is an excellent question.” He did go on to add, however, that while 1A might be adequate to handle the 2017 races, Aspen Mountain is much busier in March than during the annual women’s World Cup races over Thanksgiving weekend. Add to that the multiple races and race crews daily, and “the FIS’s long-term goal [in Aspen] is to see an entire base race arena experience on par with other classic World Cup sites,” said Rigney.
But some would argue that it’s Aspen’s rich alpine skiing history that makes it one of the few North American venues to continue to host World Cup races. Since the 1950 World Alpine Championships put Aspen on the alpine skiing map, Aspen Mountain has offered “one of the best race venues in the world” at its western portal, according to Rigney.
The eclectic, historic structures on that side of town are part of the story, too. The Swiss-style Skier’s Chalet, built in 1965, is slated to become a ski museum under current land-use approvals for the timeshare Lift One Lodge, and the restaurant is supposed to become affordable housing for lodge employees. Powder Magazine featured the Skier’s Chalet in a nostalgic story about ski bumming in its November 2014 issue. And the old Lift One terminal is on the National Register of Historic Places, so it’s protected in perpetuity.
Lift 1A, the skiing it accesses, and the surrounding area clearly have a distinct charm and a whole different feel than Aspen Mountain’s main portal at the Silver Queen Gondola. With this in mind, we are republishing, below, a piece that first appeared in the Holiday 2014/15 edition of Aspen Sojourner magazine, called “West Side Classic,” along with photos from the Aspen Historical Society of the area.
Please let us know what you think of the Lift 1A venue controversy. Add your comments below.
West Side Classic
Laps on the gondola deliver a great day, but there’s something deeper that comes with skiing Aspen’s throwback side.
There’s no lift maze at the base of Lift 1A, just a single turnstile two ski lengths from the loading area. No one mans the tiny, lonely ticket office shack; a sign in the single window says to ask a lift operator for assistance. In fact, there’s not much going on at this western portal of Aspen Mountain. Below the bullwheel of the fixed-grip double chair sits a ramshackle, red wooden building that houses ski patrol, and across Aspen Street, the Shadow Mountain condominiums nestled into the hillside are the only tourist accommodations in the immediate neighborhood. (For now.) There’s no place to eat here.
Aspen’s tourism boosters consider the Lift 1A base a travesty of unrealized potential. I love it. Skiing down this side of the mountain, no buildings loom up to create shadows or block views. Lift lines are nonexistent (save on big powder days), and parking is still free in a row of two-hour spaces on Aspen Street. There’s a spot at the top of Norway where I like to pause, usually in total solitude, to look out over town. The feeling of old Aspen is palpable here—no clutter of base development, no buzz of traffic, and the density of downtown just far enough away. Snow blankets a large empty lot that is slated to soon become luxury townhomes. And it’s comforting to know that below the Swiss-style Skier’s Chalet (a former ski lodge that has been fittingly housing local ski bums lately), the remnants of historic Lift One—Aspen Mountain’s original chairlift that opened in 1947—will always be there, as it’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
And the skiing! Some of Aspen’s best lines can be found here: riding the wave on Super 8, the swooping double fall line of Corkscrew, the selection of perfect pitches on Norway, to name a few. When the bumps are rock hard up high, the snow stays softer longer down here. Cruisers remain in ideal shape all season long thanks to the copious snowmaking and five-star grooming given to the Thanksgiving weekend World Cup racecourses. And although it’s an old fixed-grip double (with some of the chairs missing the padding), 1A—officially the Shadow Mountain Lift, but nobody calls it that—is only a seven-minute ride, allowing for quick laps or easy access to the Ruthie’s chair and the Dumps.
The 1A side is where it all started for Ajax, and while it’s no longer the main artery, it remains, for some, the heart and soul of this mountain.
— By Catherine Lutz