By Dan Rabin
Dan Rabin is a Boulder-based freelance writer and author of the upcoming guidebook, Colorado Breweries, scheduled for release in May 2014.
The Aspen-area resort of Snowmass ranks among my favorite Colorado ski destinations for a variety of reasons. The mountain is huge, yet easily navigated. The lifts are fast. Snowmass has an enormous diversity of intermediate and advanced terrain. The Secret Shrines of Aspen/Snowmass are an amusing diversion (read about them here-part 1 & here-part 2). Easily-accessed slopeside accommodations are plentiful. A free shuttle bus runs throughout Snowmass and to downtown Aspen, so there’s no need to drive anywhere. The New Belgium Ranger Station, a ski-in ski-out beer bar in the Snowmass Village Mall, carries a great selection of beers from Colorado’s largest craft brewery.
One of the resort’s lesser-known offerings are the weekly on-mountain history tours held in conjunction with the Aspen Historical Society. The tours are offered at Snowmass every Tuesday throughout ski season (and at nearby Aspen Highlands and Aspen Mountain on other days). On a February visit to the Aspen/Snowmass area, I took in a free, 75-minute tour.
I arrived at the top of the Village Express lift at the assigned time and joined a group of eight other skiers for the late morning tour. We met our guide, Alexander Hunter, who began by explaining that we’d be traveling on blue runs, suitable for intermediate skiers. We were also assured that there would be no quiz following the tour.
Hunter, I learned, had worked for an Aspen sportswear manufacturer for 17 years before getting laid off during the economic downturn a few years ago. His association with the Aspen Historical Society began while he researched a novel he was writing based largely in Aspen in the 1940s. Eventually, he joined the staff of the Historical Society as a tour guide leading museum tours, historic Aspen walking tours, motor coach tours, and in winter, the on-mountain history tours.
With Hunter in the lead, we made our way down the trail, stopping every few minutes at different vantage points. At each stop, our guide shared a chapter of local history from different eras. At one stop, we learned how the Snowmass resort came into being, and how the Aspen Skiing Company provided access to the mountain prior to lifts being installed.
At a stop overlooking the Big Burn section of Snowmass, we learned how that area got its name and what it had to do with the often contentious relationship between the early white settlers and the nomadic Ute Indians.
A bit further down the trail, overlooking the valley below, we learned how the US government’s monetary policy of the late 1800’s had a devastating effect on Aspen’s once-thriving economy. The dialogue included several engaging stories of two prominent female residents who had a major impact on the Aspen area. One, an amateur musician, had a unique association with the late John Denver, one of Aspen’s best-known citizens.
Midway through the tour, while on a chairlift with Hunter and several members of the tour, our guide shared stories involving Hollywood movers and shakers. In its first few decades as a ski retreat, Hunter explained, Aspen was a place celebrities could come to relax out of the limelight. One of Hollywood’s most famous actors was a frequent Aspen visitor. During his ski outings, he would take occasional shifts as a liftee (lift operator), remaining completely anonymous to the skiers on the lift. Hunter told us of other well-known Aspen visitors and residents who, over the years, have engaged in a variety of scandalous behavior ranging from highly-visible love spats to public intoxication to alleged murder.
The tour’s “grand finale” was a fascinating account of how Snowmass’s growing need for water led to an extraordinary 2010 discovery that has generated huge excitement in the scientific community. When the tour was officially over, I took in a little extracurricular schooling. I followed Hunter down to the base village on what he said was his favorite Snowmass trail. It’s now among my favorites, too.
The free Snowmass History Tours meet every Tuesday at 11am and 1pm at the top of the Village Express lift. The Aspen Highlands History Tours meet on Monday at 11am and 1pm from the Guest Services Cabin near the Exhibition Lift. The Aspen Mountian History Tours meet on Friday at 11am and 1pm from the Guest Services Cabin near the Silver Queen Gondola. No reservations are necessary.