Aspen Journalism

Other than a juicy scandal, nothing excites Aspenites more than new ski terrain. Such a treat is in store for the 2020-21 season on Aspen Mountain, should Aspen Skiing Co.’s plans come to fruition, with the new expansion and lift into the east facing Pandora’s side beyond Walsh’s Gulch out to Harris’s Wall. That snow-loading lee side of Aspen Mountain has an interesting history.

Ski goddess disappeared

Walsh's 1979

An Aspen Mountain ski patroller rips the powder in Walsh’s, circa 1979. Note the dark debris from a previously thrown hand charge and the slide it produced on the right.

On the cold night of Dec. 8, 1972, after a big powder day, Aspen Mountain ski patrollers were celebrating the good life at the Red Onion bar, when word came round that the talented and universally-admired local ski goddess Meta Burden had not returned home that night. Adding to the intrigue, she and the late Tim Howe, a seasoned, consummate princeling of the patrol in his prime, were having an affair.

Howe and Burden had been skiing that day, his day off, back when the patrol worked six days a week. With a December base nearing 40 inches, the new storm had left a lot of weight on top of a ground layer of faceted snow with poor adhesion, known as depth hoar.

That afternoon, Burden, a one-time racer who skied on 207 Dynamic VR17s — the black and gold cultish French racing boards ski-bums worshiped — had an argument with Howe outside the Sundeck. She wanted to ski Kristi. Howe said no, the snowpack there was too dangerous. They had words and she skied off alone for a defiant white-room run there.

By 7 p.m. the patrol was riding up top in the back of a Tucker Sno-cat from the base of the brand new Lift 1A. Howe had already snowmobiled up to look for her. Her tell-tale tracks led into Kristi, where, according to the American Avalanche Association’s “Snowy Torrents 1972-1979,” a 24-inch soft-slab had run 600 feet over Loushin’s Road (today’s Lud’s Lane) below.

At the time, the runs we know today as Kristi, Hyrup’s and Walsh’s were closed areas not subject to avalanche control, poached through pinball-like entrances of thick woods. While the snow-loaded Kristi had not slid that year, Walsh’s had the day before during the big two-day cycle.

At 10:30 pm, with snow still falling, while probing by lantern light, patrol found Burden under four feet of snow some 200 feet below the road. Resuscitation proved fruitless. Former patroller Ed Cross recollects the victim was frozen solid and CPR was challenging. He looked up at Howe, who shook his head to say no more.

Wild unknown

Jodar

Bruce “Pooh” Jodar, left, for whom the Pooh Chutes in Pandora’s were named, and Tim Howe, who named the Pandora’s zone east of the ski area, sit in a historical seat from a one-time Aspen Airways plane, in front of the top ski patrol headquarters on Aspen Mountain, 1979.

In the late 1970s Tim “El Avalanchero” Howe became “supervisor of avalanche control” for Aspen Mountain, and he named the one-time-secret patrol ski stash just south of Kristi and Walsh’s “Pandora’s Box,” based on a concern over what would happen if the general public ever ventured into the steep, timbered terrain that ends with no obvious runout to the valley floor or return to the ski area.

Since then, that frontier along the east flank of Aspen Mountain and Richmond Hill, stretching out past McFarlane’s Bowl above Difficult Creek, has been pushed by out-of-bounds skiers and caught more than a few in the wrong place at the wrong time. Before Walsh’s, Hyrup’s and Kristi became part of Aspen Mountain’s open terrain in 1984, the steep gullies of Pandora’s, out to Powerline and beyond — known as the “Far East”— held a high degree of the wild unknown.

With avalanche dangers having always been a consideration along that steep ridge, some argue that the concept of understanding risk has diminished with the advent of high-tech beacons, airbags, cellphone dependence and avalanche classes for dilettante experts. That said, without frontiers, error and sacrifice, new ski-area terrain would never be tamed.

King of the forest

Howe

Aspen Mountain ski patrollers Tim Howe, Howie Mayer and Steve “Bones” Stratford ready charges at the top of Walsh’s in 1980.

But way before skiing, miners along the east side tried to tap into the porpoising silver vein that ran out Richmond Hill past the Sundeck. The Grand Duke, Hudson, Champion and Legal Tender claims matrix under Kristi, Hyrup’s and Walsh’s, according to Aspen Skiing Co. documents.

An 1891 U.S. Geological topographical map shows the Dutchman Tunnel to be in the woods on a land-bench overlooking today’s Pandora’s, where relics are still scattered in front of the collapsed mine. The April 9, 1892, Rocky Mountain Sun wrote that Christopher Strassheim, a grocer from Chicago and owner of the Dutchman, tried a side-line strategy into Richmond Hill.

The same topo map locates Strassheim’s Little Robert hole on the summer “Nature Trail” along the east rim next to the logs of a one-time cabin, where today’s powder hounds traverse south of Powerline in winter. Strassheim’s plan, said the Sun, after floating a $2 million capitalization and forming Colorado and Illinois Mining, was to tunnel west into his Little Robert, lime and quartzite claims along Richmond Hill.

The Aspen Evening Chronicle reported on July 1, 1893, that while on a mountain lion hunt southwest of Richmond Hill with a pack of dogs, Strassheim and a visiting “young German capitalist” cornered a “king of the forest” on a cliff. The capitalist’s shot wounded the lion, which jumped into the pack of dogs below, and “Things were terribly mixed ... the howls of the dogs, the angry roar of the wounded beast.” The capitalist fired again and “the brute fell over dead.”

Strassheim’s work in the Dutchman stopped in 1893 when the tunnel hit solid granite and silver prices crashed, the Aspen Democrat noted on July 11, 1907, after Strassheim tried to reopen the tunnel. But his speculation fueled optimism for a second mining boom.

“Ere long our idle mines will become hives of industry,” the Democrat said, but big-time mining never came back, and Aspen slipped into its “Quiet Years” until skiing mushroomed after World War II.

Working by torchlight

The earliest ski-related avalanche documented on the east side of Aspen Mountain occurred on Feb. 14, 1948, on a lower, steeper face on the “Difficult Trail.” In those days, Aspen Mountain skiing maps and signs outside the Sundeck showed Little Annie and Difficult as ski runs, in an era when non-pampered trails and personal responsibility were accepted norms.

The Denver Post reported on Feb. 16 that “Alexander McFaddon, a businessman from Tennessee, died beneath an avalanche above Difficult Creek.” He and his cousin Alexander Cushing, along with ski patrolman Morris Shepard and Aspen Ski School director Percy Rideout, a 10th Mountain vet of the pivotal World War II battle of Riva Ridge, “left the Sundeck at 2 p.m. to explore the Difficult Trail, seldom used this time of year.”

The exact location is hard to discern. “They skied across the open upper slope and into the smaller of two basins above Difficult Creek” when Shepard, skiing last, saw the basin crack loose. Cushing and Rideout were caught and half-buried, but the brunt of the “300-yard” slide engulfed McFaddon, “who tried desperately to out-ski the torrent.” Shepard “sent out an SOS from a ranch phone” below.

Led by Friedl Pfeifer, Dick Durrance, and Fred Iselin, 30 Ski Corporation personnel responded, while others rode the lifts up by 8 p.m. The rescue party swelled to “almost 100 men,” who skied to the scene with flashlights. Working by torchlight and bonfires, they dug through the “ice-hard tumble of snow,” estimated to be 20 feet deep. At 4:45 a.m. the next morning after “squaring an excavated shaft” they found “the crushed body of McFadden…eight feet below the surface.” Pfeifer said he’d never seen a community turn out in an emergency as Aspen did.

Some today speculate that with time, “McFaddon” may have morphed into “McFarlane’s” Bowl, since the Post account describes two basins (similar to McFarlane) above Difficult, where the tragedy may have occurred. But historical evidence of a one-time sawmill in the area suggests otherwise.

McFarlane’s Gulch

Diagram

A map of the proposed expanded ski terrain in the Pandora’s zone of Aspen Mountain. Trail placement and glading as shown are not final.

In 1882, the Aug. 12 Sun reported that Aspen pioneer Andy McFarlane moved his steam-powered sawmill from Ashcroft to “the Roaring Fork River above Ute City.” Called the “Blandy Mill,” the Sun wrote on Nov. 28, 1885, that “McFarland builds sawmill and road up Difficult Creek,” while the April 16, 1887 Aspen Times locates the mill uphill on “the northeast slope of Aspen Mountain.”

This would be on the lower bench southeast of today’s Pandora’s, now called “Sawmill Park,” where rusted boilers and old stacked logs can be found. A defined logging road reinforced by a stone retaining wall beyond Powerline still angles up to the top of Aspen Mountain from there.

Blurbs in around-town columns in the Sun and Times in the 1880s further mention McFarlane’s mill, and that the trail up from Difficult Campground to Richmond Hill was McFarlane’s lower logging road. The many old stumps in the area suggest that “McFarlane’s Gulch” and upper Difficult area supplied wood for the mill.

McFarlane also operated a mill up Hunter Creek and supplied Aspen with its building wood in the 1880s, said his April 29,1895, Times obituary. Appointed by Governor Pitkin in 1881, he was the first sheriff of Pitkin County, the obituary said.

He died at age 44 after falling into a shaft while not using a candle in the Della S., next door to the Smuggler Mine. “The remains were accompanied to the Rio Grande train depot by seventy-five Masons,” and his cousin DRC Brown senior and family accompanied his body to Denver.

McFarlane was also a celebrated wrestler and “nozzleman” for the Cowenhoven firefighting team, said the Times and Sun. After returning from a mining stint in southern Colorado, McFarlane was quoted in the Chronicle on Sept. 3, 1890: “If a man thinks Aspen is dull he has only to make a trip outside, and he is quickly cured of any hallucination that may have possessed his brain.”

A heart injection

Howe toboggan

Commemorative Aspen Mountain toboggan for the late ski patrolman Tim “El Avalanchero” Howe, painted by the author.

Next in the timeline of avalanches on the east side and possibly the most ominous of the early days of out-of-bounds skiing in Aspen, occurred on February 3, 1959, in Walsh’s Gulch. Gary McGivern, a 21-year-old Seattle ski racer who was training in Aspen for the winter, took a boneheaded chance on a sunny powder day.

Two days later the Times reported that McGivern, Jochem Freund and two visiting Seattle skiers, a Mr. and Mrs. Richard Walker, cut through the woods to the top of Walsh’s from One and Two Leaf at 2 p.m. Part of the gulch slid earlier, leaving an unslid powder portion. The chary skiing party turned back, but McGivern abruptly “turned and left us,” said Mrs. Walker. His last words were “I’m going down here.”

As McGivern skied, the others watched a crack “three-foot deep” open above him. They yelled to him as the shear moved. He looked up at them just as the vortex overtook him.

“We were horror-bound…and lost sight of him in the cloud of snow,” said Mrs. Walker, who then hiked 40 minutes up for help, “while Richard and Jochem probed with their skis and dug with their hands.” Mrs. Walker encountered ski instructor Sepp Kessler, who alerted the ski patrol.

Somehow the two diggers found McGivern head down in eight feet of snow, before a party of 20 rescuers arrived and dug him out at 3:45 p.m. Two doctors came up from their offices in town. One, “a heart specialist, gave [McGivern] a heart injection.” Bonfires lit the trail in and lights illuminated the scene while the doctors’ resuscitation efforts continued until 7 p.m.

In the early 1970s a skull and crossbones sign — said to be put there by Tim Howe — greeted interlopers at the opening from the woods into Walsh’s that read: “Abandon hope all ye that enter here. RIP Gary McGivern, February 3, 1959.”

To this day no one knows how Walsh’s got its name, but the late, notorious Jim Blanning, known for his horse trading of local mining claims, once recounted that an old miner Tom Walsh had a claim there.

Kristi, Hyrup’s named

For whatever reason, perhaps memory of the McGivern incident, records don’t show any avalanche deaths on the east side during the 1960s. However, one notable non-skiing event resulted in the naming of Kristi and Hyrup’s gullies west of Walsh’s.

The Times reported on Feb. 19, 1960, that “John Hyrup narrowly escaped death” when an avalanche buried his bulldozer while plowing Loushin’s Road where it comes out of Walsh’s. Local raconteurs say he was driving a Kristi cat while hauling water to the Sundeck from Loushin’s pond farther out the road. In any case, Hyrup struggled for over an hour to dig himself out of the cat, before walking up to the Sundeck. Thus Kristi and Hyrup’s were named because the event happened below those gullies.

Only head exposed

1976.024.0134_Signpost on Aspen Mountain, 1950-

A sign at the top of Aspen Mountain in 1950 shows Little Annie and Difficult as ski trails. The Silver Queen trail began at the top of the mountain then. The sign says “All skiers must check with ski patrol at Sundeck before going down Annie Basin or Difficult Creek. They will be closed by 12:00 each day.” The first version of the Sundeck, known as the Octagon, is partially visible behind the sign.

“Snowy Torrents” reported several other significant avalanches on Aspen’s east side in the 1970s, as the surge of ski bums pushed into the side-country. During that era of daring ignorance few carried shovels, probes or beacons. Wiser adventurers detached their safety straps, thinking separation from their skis in a slide provided a chance of “swimming” to the surface. Others tied lengthy strips of surveyors tape to their binding heels or attached long “avi cords” made of bright twine to themselves so they might be found at the other end.

One such example occurred on March 6, 1971. After winds drifted 13 inches of new snow onto a sun crust, backcountry guru Mike “Pokie” Pokress and two others skied Kristi. Pokress skied to Loushin’s Road, but his partners pulled to the side above as another random poacher entered the top and set off a 600-foot slide that swept Pokress off the road. By chance, two patrolmen entered the top and witnessed the tumble that left only Pokress’s head exposed. They uncovered him and he skied away.

Largest avalanche

Ten days later on March 16, 1971, in one of the largest slides in Aspen’s ski history, Deep Powder Tours guide Tom Simpson died farther out along the ridge in McFarlane Bowl. After splintering alone from his ski group for a welfare check on some ski tracks there, a 4.5-foot fracture slabbed to the ground out of the dual-gulched, 70-acre McFarlane’s (also known then as “Independence Bowl”), snatching Simpson from his viewing point on the south rim. The 1,700-foot double-gulch avalanche stacked a 20-foot-deep toe into the gully below.

Simpson was not wearing a “Skadi” beacon, which was relatively new technology. A ski patrol detail began probing by 4:30 p.m., but the hardness, depth of debris and nasty weather halted efforts at 8 p.m. For five days following, the patrol and Mountain Rescue mobilized probe lines of some 100 volunteers daily. Avalanche dogs flown in from Montana found only rescuers’ scents on the trampled scene, with Simpson’s odor too deep to detect.

Simpson’s body was found June 1, 1971, about 1,500 feet down the slide path, after being exposed by scavenging critters. The depth of burial was estimated to have been 18 feet. Simpson has the further distinction of being the last to be buried in Ute Cemetery. His gravestone is on the north-facing hill there.

Knife-edge gully

Besides the prior Burden and Simpson fatalities, a third avalanche death on the east side occurred on Dec. 28, 1974, after fresh snow added a soft-slab layer on top of a shallow pack on a depth-hoar base.

At 10 a.m., 52-year-old Mort Berland and his friend Wilfred Snyder, regular backside skiers, traversed out Richmond Hill south of McFarlane’s to ski an upper face down to Difficult Creek. Where the slope narrowed into a knife-edge gully in lower McFarlane Creek, they were both caught. Snyder held onto a tree and Berland was swept down.

Snyder located Berland using his beacon. Without a shovel and probe, he dug with his hands and a ski for an hour before skiing out and alerting the ski patrol. Coincidently, five ski patrolmen were training near McFarlane’s and received word of the slide. They located Berland, and with other arriving patrollers dug him out. Past patroller Ed Cross said they dug out a ten-foot ditch and found Berland in the wall of one side.

Cross, a longtime local and poet, added, “I’ve known more people who’ve died in avalanches in Aspen than any other way, even cancer.”

Pandora’s Box named

In the late 1970s, a handful of ski patrollers began exploring east of Walsh’s. They were some of the first to ski the woodsy chutes known then as the “Finger Chutes,” which later became the “Pooh Chutes,” after one-time patroller Bruce “Pooh” Jodar.

Jodar, a rookie and follower of supervisor Tim Howe, investigated the chutes with patrolman Howie Mayer in Mayer’s self-built biplane, “Starduster 99er.” On days off Mayer liked to swoop his plane down the barrel of Spar Gulch with a white scarf trailing from his neck. After he and Jodar scouted the chutes, Mayer dubbed them the “Pooh Chutes,” because he and Jodar skied them. The irony was that Jodar didn’t like his nickname, which his visiting sister leaked to the patrol at a keg party.

For a couple of years the Pooh Chutes and Powerline were stashes not even all patrollers knew about. Howe told his clique not to divulge the super-secret stash or the public would overrun the place and it would become “a real Pandora’s Box.” Thus, Howe named Pandora’s and it stuck.

To review, according to ancient Greek poet Hesiod, Pandora, meaning “all giving,” was the first woman. After Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to mankind, Zeus charged Hephaestus, the god of fire who was married to Aphrodite the goddess of love, to fashion a woman as punishment to mortals. That woman, Pandora, came with a box that contained plague, poverty, misery and death. Pandora’s curiosity caused her to open the box, thus releasing the ills on mankind, but she slammed the lid shut just in time to keep hope inside.

Harris’s Wall named

Probeline

Probeline searchers looking for Tom Simpson’s body following the March 16, 1971 avalanche in McFarlane’s Bowl, also known then as Independence Bowl. The fracture lines are visible at the top of both gulches that make up the bowl. Simpson was caught in the draw on the left.

Another renaming of a Far East stash, known in the 1960s and early 1970s as “Loushin’s Wall,” has a story behind its new moniker as well. Accessed off Richmond Hill, the risky 400-foot powder steep still delivers, but the thrill requires a wicked traverse back through fallen timber to Walsh’s.

One day circa midwinter 1975, five ski rubes ignored that risk-reward ratio. Without any safety equipment, the group — a mix of the ski-gangs “Acme” and “Almaden” — skied down to the top of Loushin’s Wall. Two skied first and stood to watch the others above. Acme leader and surviving pedigree of today’s “Dogs Of Aspen Mountain” ski gang, Dan Harris, pushed off next.

As the two standing below (including yours truly) watched Harris’s first few turns, the whole wall cracked loose. Harris said that he remembers most the “locomotive power of the moving snow on his skis.” Within moments the slab churned into a swirling plume that swallowed up Harris. The two below hightailed it backward just in time to avoid the oncoming debris.

Turning to look up, there was Harris between pine trees, hung-up and dangling upside down by his safety strap, still attached to one ski. After a wee-hours celebration of survival at the infamous Pub bar below the Wheeler, word got around, and Harris’s Wall got its name.

Watch that traverse

Local attorney John LaSalle remembers passing by the skull and crossbones sign at the top of Walsh’s on Jan. 14, 1979, and diving into “almost two feet of fresh powder.” Exuberant, he and four other Walsh’s skiers were struck by an avalanche coming out of Kristi as they hiked up Loushin’s Road.

The January 15 Aspen Daily News “City Desk” reported that locals David Zamansky, Dean Fillis, Mark Peterson and LaSalle were swept off the road some 200 feet down. Zamansky was buried except for an arm sticking out. “Just as breathing was getting difficult,” Peterson pulled him out. Nearby, LaSalle was slammed against a tree but managed to “dog paddle” to where only Fillis’s finger was sticking out. LaSalle cleared the snow from Fillis’s face “just as [Fillis] was passing out.”

The ski patrol responded and transported them to the top patrol headquarters in a snow cat for assessment and debriefing. LaSalle said he remembers “Patrol Director Robin Perry made a point of taking me into the bathroom to look in the mirror…my face was bloody and dead-white with shock…and I was so glad to be alive.”

Moot decisions

charges

Supervisor of “avalanche control” Tim Howe on Aspen Mountain as he exits the bomb cache in 1980 with a handful of charges slated for what today is called “avalanche mitigation.”

Though underground word of slides along the east side that spare banditos are somewhat routine these days, three more avalanche fatalities occurred there between 1996 and 2008, as reported by patrol accounts, the Times and Daily News. By chance, the 1980s were merciful along that side.

On Jan. 23, 1996, during the era of the “Powder to the People” movement, which argued the right to snowmobile access the same powder runs as the SkiCo’s leased cat-access terrain, David Koztoski, 38, snowmobiled with a companion out to McFarlane’s Bowl. Though equipped with beacons, probes, and shovels, their powder plan was to take turns driving while the other skied.

This seesaw strategy flouted logic, resulting in Koztoski getting buried in McFarlane’s while skiing alone. After he didn’t show up at their pickup rendezvous near the bottom, his partner drove up to look for him. Koztoski’s body was recovered the next day 900 feet down the bowl.

On March 14, 2002, a confident 39-year-old athletic woman and 747 pilot for United Airlines, Dana Spencer, decided to follow powder tracks through the backcountry gate out to Pandora’s into terrain she’d never skied before. Her ski partner balked and Spencer pushed off alone without a beacon.

Ski patrol got the missing-person call after 4 p.m. A search party of four left in fading light, finding a lone track off Loushin’s Road below Pandora’s that led down to Strawberry Creek, a terrain-trap gully southeast of Walsh’s drainage. Shallow probing located Spencer. Death was apparent and Mountain Rescue recovered the body the next day.

Sacred ground

But one powder shot deep-left below Powerline is sacred ground to the Aspen Mountain Patrol. On Dec. 14, 2008, after 10 inches of new snow, Cory “Cory-Bob” Brettmann, a just-retired ski patroller then, skied a favorite powder slot alone late in the day.

The patrol had been at an early Christmas party and the Brettmann family had not shown up; his wife reported him missing. By 8 p.m. patrol had mobilized to the top ski patrol headquarters. After searching likely powder haunts by headlamp, patrollers found a single set of tracks that ended at a three-foot crown face off the Powerline. The slide had run 300 feet down into the trees, where Brettmann was found. Comprehensive advanced life support efforts in communication with the hospital were unsuccessful.

Ten patrollers transported the deceased — a man of great size and beloved stature — out of the tricky terrain on a backcountry toboggan that was too short for all 6 feet, 7 inches of him. They loaded him onto a snowcat for the trip down. Once at the bottom of Lift 1A, the ski patrol, humbled, gathered round him to pay their respects, before the ambulance took him away.

Hope delivers

Cory

Commemorative Aspen Mountain toboggan for the late Aspen Mountain ski patrolman Cory “Cory-Bob” Brettmann, painted by the author.

While acknowledging the numerous local ski mountaineers over the years who have died for powder in the Aspen area, skiers today might learn from the mistakes of those who explored the east-side ridge of Aspen Mountain before them.

Out beyond the Pooh Chutes and Powerline are Rock Gully and then Harris’s Wall, which marks the eastern boundary of the planned 2020 expansion, which is in the final stages of review by the White River National Forest. Harris’s is slated to be phased in after some half-dozen new trails and assorted glades overlap the former chutes. With that, the new ski frontier will lie at the edge of McFarlane’s and banditos will continue to risk their lives pushing still farther south into tricky territory.

A natural plateau 400 vertical feet below Loushin’s Road will be the base of the new 1,000-foot quad lift, domesticating an area where the patrol has rescued countless boarders and skiers since Walsh’s opened. The top of the lift will land south and uphill of the Sundeck. Kristi, Hyrup’s, and Walsh’s will be extended down to the lift base, while an intermediate run will meander from North Star down to the base of the lift.

But right in the middle of the new ski terrain, Aspen skiing history will have another eponymous marker. That fateful powder line in the woods will become a new wider ski trail, called “Cory’s.”

Tim Cooney is an Aspen-based freelance writer, a former Aspen Mountain ski patroller and a current summer ranger there. He writes about Aspen history for Aspen Journalism, a nonprofit organization that supports in-depth reporting in the public interest, in collaboration with the Aspen Daily News. More at aspenjournalism.org.