For longtime local and retired Aspen High School science teacher Mike Flynn, the defining characteristics of life in the valley — be they economic, recreational, physical, spiritual, or even political — are tied to geology.
So every Wednesday, Flynn leads a public “geology tour” on Aspen Mountain, where he points out and explains the area’s unique characteristics. For him there’s no better place than the Aspen area to see firsthand so many different geological phenomena, from ridges formed by glaciers running down the gut of Highland Bowl to volcanoes, in the form of Basalt Mountain and Grizzly Peak.
“There’s unique geology everywhere,” said Flynn, who taught at the school from 1968 through 2001, “but we have everything.”
Ever wonder where the Sawatch Mountains end and the Elk Mountains begin? According to Flynn, the boundary is a fault line running near Castle Creek. All that separates Ajax — the last hill of the Sawatch — from the other three ski areas is a mountain range and 35 million years. That is the approximate age difference between the Sawatches — which once stood 30,000 feet high — and the younger Elks, Flynn said.
One of the things that makes Aspen Mountain great is its W-like shape, with Shadow Mountain and the Ute Trail forming two sides and Bell Mountain creating a middle ridge — meaning there are multiple distinct, steep faces for skiing. And while it’s probably not the first thing on a skier’s mind when they come out of the bottom of The Dumps, cut across Spar Gulch and let momentum carry them up the side of Bell, that natural half-pipe is giving them a hands-on look at one of the reasons why the Aspen area in the late 1880s and early 1890s produced one-sixth of the nation’s silver.
The mountain, Flynn explains while standing near the Sunset run, is a syncline — its stratified rock is formed into a dip to create opposite walls facing each other. That makes it easier to access the minerals inside the mountain by digging horizontally, into the side, instead of down. Mine shafts stare at one another from across the flats near the bottom of Chair 3, hidden away in the trees.
They’re part of an overall effort to give customers more amenities with their lift passes, similar to the history tours, free yoga classes at the Sundeck and other perks you get for skiing here. He carries a backpack around during the tours, full of rocks, maps and other items that help with the show and tell. Typically, during the tours, which last up to two hours or longer, depending on the size of the group or interest level, there will be a stop at Bonnie’s, where Flynn will take out the “Power of Four” poster that the Aspen Skiing Co. produced a few years ago. It’s a stunning aerial shot that captures the whole upper valley, from the Difficult Creek drainage to Capitol Peak, and all four ski areas. Perhaps without knowing it, the company delivered a valuable geology-teaching tool with the promotional item. It helps him explain how layers of glaciers, coming and going over eons, have shaped the valley.
“If it wasn’t for the glaciers, we’d be Vail,” he said, noting how large glaciers are responsible for the stepped shelves of land coming down from Starwood and McLain Flats, to the valley floor. The steep indents in otherwise gradually sloped mountains, like the Cirque at Snowmass or the bowl at Highlands, are left by cirque glaciers, he said. Blockages such as hills guarding Hunter Creek canyon — which nearly allowed a private landowner to cut off public access to the national forest beyond — and Deer Hill, near the airport, are terminal moraines, or piles of debris left over from the end of a glacier.
Flynn’s tours leave at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Wednesdays from the guest services station at the top of Ajax. They are confined to blue runs, so they are compatible with intermediate skiers.