Tuesday, December 20, 2011



In November of 1972 I went to work as a ski lift operator on Aspen Mountain.  At that time they needed a small crew to ski from the top of the mountain every morning to start the lower lifts.  Four to five of us lived in the Bunkhouse at the top of Aspen Mountain at an elevation of 11, 212 feet.  I did this for four years.
In the summer of 1974 I worked on my bachelor’s degree in journalism at CSU.   I wrote a magazine article that my professor thought I should publish in the Denver Post’s Empire Magazine.  I never did submit it.  After 40 years I’m publishing it on my blog as a narrative.  First the article and then…what really happened.
Some of the characters are dead.  I don’t know what happened to the others except from occasional gossip.  I’ve decided to use real names as this is not fiction.  To keep it as comfortable as I can for those involved in this drama, I’m only using first names and nick names.
There was a lot of drug use and I don’t mean to imply that anyone mentioned in this narrative, including myself, still indulges in illegal drugs.  For those of us who have lived this long, we had to give that shit up a long time ago.  I haven't been able to locate any photographs from my first year on the mountain, but should I run across them, I'll publish a few here.
No. 2 lift


               When most people are preparing for the Thanksgiving holidays I pack my clothes and other personal belongings, load them into a snowcat and head for what will be my home for the next five months. ..the top of Aspen Mountain.
                Upon applying for work as a ski lift operator for the Aspen Skiing Corporation n the winter of 1972, I planned on living in Carbondale, commuting the treacherous highway that locals refer to as “Killer 82.”  It seemed o the only alternative other than submitting to Aspen’s exorbitant cost of living.  During the interview, the lift manager, Larry Edstrom, asked if I might like to live at the top of Aspen Mountain in the bunkhouse.  “What does that involve?”  I asked hesitantly.  Larry rattled off a list of duties and rules:  “You and your three bunkmates will be responsible for skiing down every morning and starting the middle lifts to bring the Ski Patrol and the other lift operators to the top of the mountain.  Then you will go to your assigned lift and work there for the remainder of the day.  At the end of the day you will return to the top of the mountain and you may do anything you wish except run the lifts for your own convenience ride the snowmobiles or entertain women.”   I tried to look benign.  “We have a six-day work week and you may spend two nights in town.”
                With all those restrictions upon my social life I couldn’t quite see the point.  “I can understand why you wouldn’t want us to run the lifts at night or go tearing up the slopes on a snowmobile, but why can’t we entertain women?”  Larry frowned.  “Its’ mainly for insurance reasons, but then it’s also a matter of PR.  Not everyone can handle a situation like this so we try to make it worth it by providing you with a free room and all the food you can eat.”  In a town like Aspen, where room and board can devour an entire paycheck, the relative isolation didn’t seem so bad after all.
                That night I packed all my belongings and said goodbye to my folks.  “Do they know you haven’t been on a pair of skis in six years?” my dad asked.  “I told them, but they said it wouldn’t matter since I’m to remain at the top and won’t be skiing down to start any lifts.”  My brother, the super-skier, looked at me and laughed.   “The most difficult mountain you’ve even been on is Buttermilk and you always skied the easiest trails.  Since Aspen Mountain doesn’t have any easy trails, how do you expect to make it down?’  “I’ll manage!”  I said defensively.  My sleep that night was interrupted by dreams of skiing off cliffs, broken bones, running into lift tower, trees, other skiers…I had my doubts that I could even remember how to snowplow!
                The next morning I loaded boxes of books and suitcases packed with too many clothes into a snowcat.  Don Smith, the lift supervisor, told me to get my skis on and we would head for the top.  Nervously, I tied the laces on my old leather ski boots and stepped into my bear-trap bindings which were attached a worn out pair of wooden skis.  A ski patrolman skated over gracefully and watched as I struggled with my bindings.  “Where did you get those?” he asked.  “They’re antiques!”  I looked down at his shiny plastic boots, space-age bindings, $200 skis and groaned.
                Don and I positioned ourselves on the ramp of the Little Nell lift and I watched as our chair came rushing toward us from the bullwheel.  “Poles on the outside, look to the inside!” Don snapped.  I was in the process of removing my poles straps from my wrists when I felt the chair knock my knees out from under me.  Luckily I didn’t fall, but I dropped my poles.  A patrolman behind us picked them up.
                After reaching the top of the little Nell lift we skied the short distance to the bottom of the Bell Mountain lift.  As we rode the lift in silence I looked down on the infamous Ridge of Bell where many exciting hot dog races have been held.  Everywhere I looked were moguls the size of Volkswagens!  I looked about frantically from my high perch and couldn’t see a gentle slope in sight.  A pang of anxiety hit and I knew I would be stuck forever on the top of Aspen Mountain.
                We unloaded at the top of the Bell Mountain lift and I tried to follow Don through an easy area known as Deer Park.  I fell and he was out of sight before I could get back into my bindings.  I followed his tracks through a frightening half-inch of powder, snowplowing to the bottom of #3 lift which would take up to the top.  Don was waiting impatiently and talking to the lift operator.  “It’s about time,” he said.  The ramp was icy and I skied into the lift operator, knocking him over.  “This is Byron, one of your bunkmates,” Don informed me.  “Nice to meet you,” I said, still struggling to get up.  Byron looked at my equipment and laughed.   “Where did you get those, turkey?  They’re antiques!”  I could tell this was going to be fun.
                As Don and I neared the top of the #3 lift I asked, “What’s a turkey?”  “A turkey is a novice that shouldn’t’ even be on this mountain, but we frown on our employees using the term.”  Don pointed to a modern house sitting in a treeless expanse of snow.  A lift shack was attached to the side of it.  “There’s your new home and the lift you’ll be running.”  The view was magnificent!  Peaks of thirteen and fourteen thousand feet were visible in a 360 degree view.  “Sorry the bunkhouse doesn’t have a view of town,” he said.  Who needs it, I thought.
                Once inside the bunkhouse Don told me to look around.  I hadn’t anticipated such a modern house.  The kitchen was enormous and the shelves were packed with food.  I peeked inside the refrigerator which was stuffed with milk, pop, vegetables and cheese.  The freezer compartment was empty except for about six inches of frost.  Don led me to the dining room window and pointed to a large wooden box outside.  I opened it and found it to be full of frozen meat.  “This is the shady side of the house and you’ll rarely find the temperature above freezing,” Don explained.
                The bathroom window overlooked a deep canyon to the west and I could barely make out skiers at the Aspen Highlands Ski Area.  I put my hands over a hot air vent in the floor and warmed them.  “It used to be a rough life up here,” Don said.  “The bunkhouse was just a one-room cabin.  Then they expanded and installed central heating.  The new addition has electric heat.”  I was pleasantly impressed with my new home.  “Where are the laundry facilities?” I asked.  Don grinned.   “You have to ski to town with your dirty laundry and do it on your day off.”  I felt helpless.  “I’ll be lucky to get down this mountain with my ski poles much less a bag of laundry!”  Don seemed unconcerned.  “We’ve got a washer and dryer in the budget for next year.”  He opened a closet door and pointed to a washboard.  “It wouldn’t be the first time it’s been used.”
                In a corner of the living room, my belongings were piled neatly.  “Where are the bunk beds?”  Don pointed down a hall.  “Your room is at the end on the right.  Until last year there were only two bedrooms, but we added three more when we built the addition.”  This was better than I thought.  A room of my own!  I grabbed a couple of suitcases and stepped into my room.  In disbelief my eyes searched the four white walls for a window.  “Two of the new rooms don’t have windows,” Don yelled from the kitchen.  It looked like a monk’s cell.
                The rest of the day I was shown the ins and outs of running a ski lift and in no time at all I was on my own.  At the end of the day the rest of my bunkmates, Byron, Steve, Andy and Rabbi returned to the top and we got acquainted.  By five o’clock the last two ski patrolmen left for “super-clear”…one last sweep to make sure all the tourists were safely off for the day.  We were all alone on the top of Aspen Mountain.  I sat down at the kitchen table and found myself short of breath.  “What’s the elevation up here?” I asked.  Steve helped himself to one of my cigarettes.  “Only 11,212 feet.  We really shouldn’t smoke.”  I agreed and lit a cigarette out of a six-year habit.  It made me dizzy in short order.

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