Watching Jeremie Oates make beautiful, sweeping turns down Aspen Mountain, one could be forgiven for not knowing this native son spent more than 20 years away from Aspen in the Army’s special forces.
On a recent morning gondola ride, Oates, 43, a fourth-generation Aspenite who was born at the old hospital and raised here in town, recalled skiing Slalom Hill with hundreds of other kids in the ski club. This was well before the new headquarters of the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club (AVSC) relocated to behind Aspen High School with its own chairlift.
The young racers would grab onto a rope tow — just a rope, no handles — and be dragged in varying degrees to the top of the hill, where they were deposited in a heap. The kids then raced down the hill on shoddy equipment, at a time when the theory of the day was “longer is better.”
Describing a 5-foot kid on 220-cm skis, Oates called it a “harrowing experience” that was a testament more to luck than to skill.
After spending his formative years ski racing, Oates eventually became burned out to the point where he couldn’t even look at skis. He moved on to college at the University of Colorado-Boulder, where he joined the ROTC. Ironically, this path would lead him into back to the mountains and skiing with the Green Berets, and ultimately to commanding the Army’s mountain warfare center in Fort Carson.
The mountain warfare center is the modern-day 10th Mountain Division, and the unit trains in the same geographical area as the famed World War II division, including the former Camp Hale area near Leadville.
“Shoot, move and communicate in a mountainous environment” are the goals of the center, according to Oates.
He relied on his skiing background, as well as skills he learned in the experiential education program as a student at the local Aspen schools, to help modernize the Army’s winter-training program.
Following the events of Sept. 11, 2001, Oates moved from a training role into operations, with tours in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. After 22 years in the service he retired as a lieutenant colonel and returned to Aspen in the fall of 2012. His first full ski season back he racked up 118 days on the mountain.
Oates dreamed as a kid of all the exotic ski destinations in Europe, and his military service ultimately gave him the opportunity to ski at many of them. Now that he is back home, Oates appreciates Aspen — his favorite mountain — all the more because the conditions are consistently better than those of the European resorts.
“It’s always gonna be good,” Oates said of skiing here.
Beyond the skiing, he also has come to recognize Aspen as one of the coolest places to live in the world, something he didn’t fully appreciate until he moved away and traveled abroad. Returning to his hometown, Oates hopes to give his children the same experience he had growing up, although that experience will inevitably be different.
As a kid, ski helmets were nonexistent, and to this day Oates still doesn’t wear one.
“Tradition for tradition’s sake,” he said.
In the same breath, Oates credited the Aspen Skiing Co. for how progressive it has become in nurturing the newest generation of skiers.
He remembers that, as a kid, inverted aerials on the mountain were strictly a no-no, and that the crusty old-school mountain manager would pull the pass of anyone caught doing them. But typically after a tongue lashing the manager would return the pass to the tearful kid and never tell their parents.
As the SkiCo has moved away from its conservative roots, Oates compared the past to today’s terrain parks, where he said you can “kill yourself a million different ways.”
One aspect of Aspen that has not changed for the better is what Oates called the “poor mountain ethics” of both locals and visitors alike, those who fail to understand what makes the town so special. He laments the loss of the “friendly, funky place” that Aspen was several decades ago.
For example, you sometimes stand a better chance of getting a response from a villager in Pakistan, as a foreign soldier, than you do of a returned greeting from a hiker on Smuggler Mountain, Oates said.
He also is quick to distinguish the word “local” as a state of mind and that it is not based on longevity in town. Oates observed that it is often the newcomers who are more involved in their community than someone driving around with a ZG license plate. For his part, Oates makes a point of greeting every lift operator by name along with his infectious smile.
It is with that same humble attitude that Oates offhandedly mentioned he was part of an expedition, along with his cousins the Marolts, who were the first North Americans to ski above 25,000 feet on Mount Everest.
These days he has come to terms with risk, much more so after a career in the Army, and limits his backcountry expeditions, although he still enjoys skiing on Independence Pass in the spring.
One of Oates’ favorite runs on Aspen Mountain is Lift Line to Norway, what he calls the “glory line,” where the whole town can watch a skier fly down the hill.
“If you stick it, you’re a hero; if you flail, you’re a zero,” he said.
Even though Oates has spent his entire life on skis, he still is always striving to improve his style on a mountain that he refers to as his religion.
“You’ll run out of talent before the mountain runs out of challenges for you,” he said with a grin.