The quirky appeal of Aspen Highlands today is no fluke. Long before the mountain started appearing on “best of” lists for resorts with challenging runs, its irreverent nature was already well ingrained.
“Aspen Highlands has always been the maverick mountain,” says longtime ski instructor John Moore, whose self-published A History of the Aspen Highlands Ski Area (or, Where Have All the Characters Gone?) is slated for a January 2018 release.
Case in point: what is now the base area once housed a sheep operation run by a fellow who liked to do things his way. One day, as Moore recounts in the book, he managed to trap a coyote that had been threatening his herd. Instead of providing a merciful ending, the ornery shepherd lit the animal on fire. In a brilliant bit of karma, the flaming coyote ran under the nearby barn, burning it to the ground.
With similarly mixed results, that independent streak continued into the next era. Whip Jones opened the ski area in 1958, hoping to collaborate with the Aspen Skiing Company. His overtures rebuffed, Jones’s competitive drive kicked in, and Highlands became the underdog that would embrace everything Ajax snubbed.
The book conveys the creativity, nerve, and behind-the-scenes tenacity that established the easygoing, tolerant vibe that persists today. When Aspen Mountain’s manager cancelled hot-dog skiing contests in the 1970s after catching a whiff of pot in the crowd, Jones welcomed the competition to Highlands, along with the hippies and counterculturists who frequented the events. For a festive après-ski atmosphere, Jones lured guests to the base area with nightly jazz concerts, roast beef dinners, and free bus service back to hotels in Aspen. On the hill, cheeky upstarts like a young ski patroller named Mac Smith (now the patrol director) pushed to open new and challenging terrain.
In this first comprehensive book about the resort, Moore weaves together these stories and more, capturing the eccentric personalities, outsize dreams, and intrinsic magic of Highlands into an eminently readable tale of a ski area built by and for diehard characters. $30 at Carl’s Pharmacy.