Editor’s note: Aspen Highlands is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, and to commemorate that milestone, Highlands Patrol Director Mac Smith penned the following essay. Smith, who started skiing at Highlands as a youngster in 1960, will share his memories of his ski area throughout the winter in these pages.
But first, a few historical tidbits to set the scene:
Aspen Highlands opened on Saturday, Dec. 20, 1958. The winter got off to a slow start in terms of snow — Highlands was supposed to open on Thanksgiving but the snow didn’t come until later in December.
Highlands was founded by the late Whip Jones and was not owned by Aspen Skiing Co., which was then called Aspen Skiing Corp.
Daily lift tickets were $4, a three-day ticket was $10 and a one-week ticket was $20.
Highlands also offered a resident season pass that first year for $55 and a husband and wife resident pass for $100. Residents had to live in Pitkin County, but also eligible were “landowners in Pitkin County, who are members of the Aspen Ski Club.”
The Buttermilk Mountain Ski Area also opened in December 1958, although the official opening celebration was held on Jan. 11, 1959, 12 years to the day that Aspen Mountain opened.
Also on Highlands opening day, television first came to Aspen — CBS was brought in from a Grand Junction TV station. Also in 1958, the first telephone prefix was introduced to Aspen as “WALnut-XXXX” (925), and Aspen Airways was founded to bring regular air service from Denver.
Aspen Highlands and Buttermilk open this year on Dec. 13.
I love this mountain. It has been the only constant in my life. My parents really only affected my life for 18 years, my relationships a little more than a decade, and my sons, 26 and 30 years and counting. But this mountain has been a factor for 48 years — 37 of them professionally.
I feel that Highlands has been a friend, mentor, shrink, hideout and inspirer, but mostly has been my lover. I’ve talked about Highlands in terms of statistical facts, dreams for the future, and the respect that is demanded by its steep slopes. But all of that is small talk. This is love.
I was eight and she was two when we first met. The fireworks didn’t go off right away, but hey, I was eight.
Years later, foregoing basketball for ski racing my freshman year, the attraction became intriguing. Not being fast enough to be on Andy Mill’s radar or on the good ski coaches’ short list, the game of choice was chasing friends through the trees and finding powder stashes purely by accident. This soft side of the young Miss Highlands was like stealing kisses when you’re young, when it feels good but you’re not at all sure what to do next. Like most girls, she was growing up faster than I.
My 16 years seemed younger than her 10 and my senior year I lost all perspective gazing at the long legs of Steeplechase. Skiing the 3,000 vertical feet down to the road felt like a tongue skid up a 36-inch inseam. Skiing off the east side on powder days was better than sex. It was less scary but more dangerous, as we were oblivious to the avalanche potential.
I now feel that she loved us as well, for I cannot explain the absence of avalanches. We skied the avy paths on most weekends through my junior and senior years of high school and my first year of college. The law of averages says we should have encountered numerous slides and been swept away time and time again.
We were so enamored by her. And like lovers, we could not get enough. We thought of her every minute, all our conversations were about her, all our money was spent either in transportation to her or on her.
I even grew to love her cold side, as long as the kiss of the sun was present. I love still-frost crystals suspended in air, so light they are in no hurry to find the snow. I love my skis — they are fast, exact, floating in the deep, the true soul of my wings. I love the building of energy as the flexing arc finds its max and then the release of that energy catapulting me airwards and weightless to change direction and load that love of energy again and again. Skis are truly my wings but my mountain is my sky.
I have been in her arms for 40-plus years now and the love has always been reciprocal. I’ve been the steward of the mountain and a servant of the community. The runs that are cut to improve the experience, from beginner to extreme, have grown this lover to her full blossom.
She is 50 this year but she has the face and figure of 25. How can that be? I’m 56 and have the face and figure of a man that age.
In the coming months I hope to enlighten all to the history of this magnificent mountain. And while turning 50 is probably only a milestone in human terms, the love of my life will surely outlast all of us.