Aspen Skiing Company History
Aspen, Colorado 81612
Telephone: (970) 925-1220
Fax: (970) 920-0771
Incorporated: 1946 as Aspen Skiing Corporation
Sales: $78 million
SIC: 7011 Hotels & Motels; 7999 Amusement & Recreation, Not Elsewhere Classified
Founded in 1946, Aspen Skiing Company is headquartered in Aspen, Colorado, a small town in the Roaring Fork Valley of the Rocky Mountains. The company owns four ski resorts; Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk Mountain, and Snowmass, all of which are located within a short distance of its headquarters. These four resorts, together referred to as "Aspen," form one of the world's most famous and popular ski areas. In 1978 the company was purchased by Twentieth Century Fox and subsequently underwent several changes in ownership, eventually coming under the control of the Crown family of Chicago.
Skiing became common in and around Aspen long before the mountains were developed as ski resorts. As early as 1879, when mining prospectors founded the town of Aspen, people were using skis for both transportation and recreation. Two of the original settlers were Swedish, and it was they who introduced "snowshoes," or skis, which were essential during that first winter, when 52 feet of snow fell in the valley of the Roaring Fork River. Bolstered by silver mining in the surrounding mountains, the town's population grew rapidly, from 300 in 1880 to 8,808 in 1890. This would be a golden era for Aspen.
Then, in 1893, when the population hit 12,000, came the great silver panic, which forced Congress to drop silver as a monetary standard. Silver's value plummeted. Aspen, once predicted to reach a population of 100,000, instead suffered an exodus of miners. By 1917 the town had only 700 people; some were still mining for silver, lead, and zinc, while others were ranchers and potato farmers. During these "quiet years," as they came to be known, people still skied, but more often for recreation, as other means of transportation were taking over. Skiing was most popular among kids, some of whom made their own skis from wood stolen out of old, abandoned houses.
The foundations for the Aspen Skiing Company were laid in the 1930s, when interest in the sport was growing in the United States, despite the Great Depression. The Winter Olympics were held in Lake Placid, New York, in 1932, and in 1936 a group of investors opened Sun Valley, a ski resort in Idaho, with surprising success. Also important were the increasing availability of manufactured skis, the development of safer bindings, and the immigration of noted European skiers, some of whom were escaping Hitler's new Germany.
The first attempt at developing a resort at Aspen came in 1936, when three men (T.J. Flynn, Ted Ryan, and Billy Fiske) formed the Highland Bavarian Corporation. Flynn, the only local of the three businessmen, remembered Scandinavian miners racing down the mountains for recreation. After announcing their resort plans to the Aspen Lions Club, the town enthusiastically backed the project. Although only a lodge had been constructed, the resort opened in December 1936. The lift, not built until the next year, would be called the "boat tow." It was made of an old car motor, two mine hoists, and two ten-person sleds. The resort's first slope, called Roch Run (after the Swiss mountaineer Andre Roch, who carried out many of the corporation's early goals, including surveying the mountain), was cut for free by the Aspen Ski Club, which Roch helped found. Aggressive advertising through brochures, films, and ski races brought attention to Aspen, and the Federal Government, through the Works Project Administration, helped construct a new warming hut, jumping hill, and clubhouse.
World War II interrupted the resort's development (Fiske himself died in the war), though the boat tow continued to be run, servicing local skiers as well as members of the famous Tenth Mountain Division (the U.S. military's ski soldiers, who were being trained at nearby Camp Hale, later called Ski Cooper). The Tenth Mountain Division would eventually fight in Italy. Among the Tenth Mountain soldiers who skied at Aspen were Friedl Pfeifer, Johnny Litchfield, and Percy Rideout. After the war, many Tenth Mountain veterans returned to Colorado with the hope of opening their own resorts. Pfeifer, originally from Austria, moved to Aspen, and he was struck by its potential: "The sight was a match for anything in the Alps. I envisioned the runs cut naturally with the contours of the mountain, blending with the meadows, gorges, and glades. There would be terrain for any level skier."
Meanwhile, Walter Paepcke, a wealthy Chicago businessman, and his wife, Elizabeth, also had plans for Aspen, though for them the town had the potential to become a new cultural center. The Paepckes owned a home in Colorado, and in 1938 Elizabeth visited Aspen, where she skied and was awestruck by the scenery. Walter, who was not a skier, would later write: "Aspen had everything ... it had fishing, climbing, skiing. Aspen had so much to add to leisure, to the renewal of the inner spirit. It was the perfect setting for music, art, education ... all the things that make life worth living."
In 1945, Paepcke began acquiring property in Aspen, much of which could be bought simply by paying past taxes. Though not particularly interested in mixing his cultural plans with skiing, he was aware that Tenth Mountain veterans, including Pfeifer, had moved to Aspen to develop a resort. Thus he decided to meet with Pfeifer in September 1945, but no agreements were made. Meanwhile, Pfeifer was making substantial plans. After talking with the Aspen Ski Club, he made arrangements to take over the mountain's boat tow, establish a downhill ski event (the Roch Cup), and start a ski school. The school, which he codirected with Litchfield and Rideout, opened on December 18, 1945.
Pfeifer had hoped to develop the resort with Harold Klock, a mining engineer. But they were unable to raise the funds, so in late 1945 Pfeifer and Walter Paepcke again met, this time to make a deal. In exchange for Paepcke's help in raising money ($300,000 was necessary to capitalize the new corporation and build a chair lift), Pfeifer agreed to let Paepcke run the new ski resort. On January 21, 1946, with a board of Paepcke, Pfeifer, Paul Nitze, George Berger, and Robert Collins, Aspen Skiing Corporation was incorporated. A separate Aspen Company was established by Paepcke to manage his real estate holdings.
Many barriers still had to be hurdled. Aspen Mountain, with Roch Run and the boat tow, was chosen for the site of the new resort, but there were hundreds of mining claims on the mountain that needed to be located and purchased. Because the land was part of the White River National Forest, new lifts and trails also had to be approved by the U.S. Forest Service, though in those days the service was interested in promoting ski resorts (later it would be concerned with the environmental impact of resorts). Aspen's fame would be helped greatly by the Paepckes, who were able to attract to the resort influential people (including Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson, who had the misfortune of being tipped off the boat tow into a gully).
Lift 1 and the Sundeck (a lodge on the mountain) were completed by the end of 1946, and the company held an official opening of the chair lift on January 11, 1947. Colorado Governor F. Lee Knaus attended the event, as did U.S. Senator Ed Johnson. The mayor's daughter started the lift, and 2,000 spectators watched a slalom and jumping demonstration by some of the country's best skiers. The lift ticket that season was $3.75 a day. The company, in its first year, also established a ski patrol, placed safety telephones and toboggans on the mountain, and held three races. The resort thus began with much fanfare and quickly gained notoriety, in part for the difficulty of the mountain's terrain. It was this difficulty, however, that would slow the resort's early growth, as families tended to be attracted to more gentle slopes.
Dick Durrance, a former ski racer who became general manager in 1947, soon oversaw an expansion of the resort's terrain. He organized the cutting of Ruthie's Run, a wider and easier slope than Roch Run; again this was done by volunteers. His biggest coup, however, was convincing European organizers to bring to Aspen the 1950 FIS Championships. This, the first world skiing championship held in the United States, required new trails, telephone lines, and timing equipment. The company would spend $72,000 to complete the preparations and provide accommodations for skiers. Held in February 1950, some 1,500 racers, spectators, coaches, and officials came to Aspen. Many stayed with local residents.
Meanwhile, Paepcke was beginning, as one local Aspenite wrote, "the process of grafting culture onto an old mining town." In 1947 he founded the Goethe Bicentennial Foundation to plan a celebration in Aspen of the writer's 200th birthday. Held in June and July 1949, it attracted such noted intellectuals and artists as Albert Schweitzer and Arthur Rubinstein. The success of the event would spawn other cultural organizations in Aspen, including the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies, the Aspen Music Festival and Music School, and the International Design Conference of Aspen. The mix of culture and skiing, for which Aspen would become famous, would later be attempted by numerous competing ski resorts.
Despite the difficult terrain of Aspen Mountain, the resort's popularity grew over the 1950s, bringing with it a new problem of overcrowding. Even the company admitted there had been years when the "waiting lines sometimes exceeded 60 minutes." Other sources reported lines lasting as much as two hours. In response, the company built Lift 3 in 1954 and Lift 4 in 1956, and it also began to improve its trails with basic snow grooming.
From the 1960s forward, Aspen Skiing Corporation continued to increase the number of trails and lifts and to construct new facilities. The company would also expand through the development of three new, adjacent resorts; Buttermilk, Aspen Highlands, and Snowmass. None of those resorts were initiated by the company, though it was at least peripherally involved in all three.
Buttermilk was founded by Pfeifer, who during the 1950s ran the ski school at not only Aspen Mountain but also Sun Valley. The terrain at Aspen Mountain was particularly difficult for Pfeifer's students. In 1953, therefore, Pfeifer purchased about 300 acres at the bottom of a nearby mountain that was better suited for beginning and intermediate trails. He had hoped that Aspen Skiing Corporation would lease his land and help develop the resort, but it refused, claiming its hands were full running its own resort. Pfeifer then turned to Art Pfister, who owned land adjacent to Pfeifer's, and the two men began a new corporation to develop what became known as Buttermilk Mountain.
Pfeifer and Pfister agreed to share expenses for a restaurant at the base and a T-bar lift. Pfeifer sold his shares in Aspen Skiing Corporation to raise money. Opened for the 1958--59 ski season, Buttermilk began slowly, though by 1962 it had installed two chair lifts and a top-of-the-mountain restaurant, funded by Robert O. Anderson, president of Atlantic Richfield Oil Company, who had become a partner in Buttermilk with Pfeifer and Pfister. Although Buttermilk and Aspen Mountain were located close to each other, there was little competition between the two resorts, in part because Anderson and Pfister were also on the board of Aspen Skiing Corporation. In fact, Aspen Skiing Corporation handled Buttermilk's marketing and ticket sales, and in 1963 it purchased Buttermilk Mountain.
Aspen Highlands opened the same season as Buttermilk. It was the project of Whipple ("Whip") Van Ness Jones, a graduate of Harvard Business School. He attended the Goethe Foundation's celebration in Aspen in 1949 and in 1950 purchased a house from Paepcke's son-in-law. Several years later he bought land at the base of what became Aspen Highlands (close to both Aspen Mountain and Buttermilk), where he planned to live and raise horses. In 1957, though, three neighbors (Had Deane, Dick Wright, and Pat Henry) approached Jones and asked if he would invest in a new ski resort at nearby Sievers Mountain.
The project ultimately failed to materialize when the local forest ranger, Paul Hauk, determined that the site was unsuitable for skiing. So the partners looked to the mountain just behind Jones's property. Jones, Hauk, Durrance, Pfeifer, and Fred Iselin explored this new site. On April 16, 1958, Jones took a 30-year lease on 4,200 acres of National Forest land, which would be the terrain of the resort. Once again Aspen Skiing Company refused to get involved, but Jones had the resources to develop it himself. He hired Pete Seibert, a Tenth Mountain veteran and the future founder of Vail Mountain, as the mountain manager; Earl Eaton, the former head of Aspen Mountain's ski patrol, to organize the new resort's ski patrol; and Stein Erikson, a famous Norwegian ski racer, to help lay out trails and head the ski school. Erikson's fame would prove to be a draw for skiers. In 1958, its first season, Aspen Highlands registered some 30,000 "skier visits," compared with Aspen Mountain's 93,000 and Buttermilk's 16,400. It offered a lower-priced lift ticket than Aspen Mountain, and it had more snowfall and a better view. Aspen Highlands would not be purchased by Aspen Skiing Corporation until December 1993.
The popularity of all three resorts continued to grow in the 1960s, in part because of broader developments in the ski industry. The 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, California, brought greater visibility to skiing in the United States. Furthermore, improved equipment, such as Head metal skis, was making the sport easier and safer. Airlines, seeing skiing as a source for greater travel, began promoting the sport. Legal changes made ownership of ski condominiums more practical. Even stretch pants contributed, as they made skiing appear more fashionable. By 1965--66 ski visits had jumped to 174,000 at Aspen Mountain, 87,500 at Buttermilk, and 68,000 at Aspen Highlands. Three years later, in 1968--69, skier visits at Aspen Highlands more than doubled to 145,000.
Aspen's fourth mountain, Snowmass, opened in December 1967, though under much different circumstances. The resort was the idea of William Janss, a former Olympic skier whose family owned a business in California specializing in real estate, construction, and cattle. By 1961 Janss had purchased seven ranches in the Bush Creek Valley, below Baldy and Burnt mountains, totaling some 3,400 acres, and that year he announced his intention of developing a new resort. Unlike the previous three resorts, Snowmass would be planned and developed with "heavyweight corporate proficiency," as Skiing magazine observed. Experimental trails were cut as early as 1961, and the following year the trails were skied by people carried up the mountain on "snowcats"; these skiers provided feedback that was used in cutting other trails.
Aspen Skiing Corporation, through its Snowmass Skiing Corporation subsidiary, was contracted to build ski lifts and operate the ski area, while Janss Colorado Corporation was in charge of real estate (along with American Cement Corporation). Unlike Aspen Mountain, which began with an existing town at its base, Snowmass, which was about 13 miles from Aspen, had to create its own base village. In 1967 a Denver magazine reported that the resort had already constructed "five lodges, 120 condominium apartments, a dozen private residences; a conference center with a movie theater, outdoor ice rink and paddle tennis courts; four heated outdoor swimming pools, including one of Olympic size; 21 shops and boutiques; and six restaurants." The mountain itself had a restaurant, as well as five chair lifts. When it opened in December 1967, Snowmass had a village entirely focused on tourism.
In the 1970s and 1980s there were further changes in the ski industry. Most significant, skiers were beginning to shun small, basic ski areas for those that provided the largest number of trails, the most and fastest lifts, and the best facilities. Aspen Skiing Corporation, like other ski resort companies, would respond by providing additional services and constructing more luxurious accommodations. More trails were cut, slopes were groomed frequently for ease of skiing, and more lifts were built to reduce lift lines. The introduction of expensive high-speed quads (chair lifts carrying four people at speeds much faster than ordinary lifts) were increasingly installed at Aspen resorts and elsewhere. As Americans became more and more litigious, insurance costs for Aspen Skiing Corporation also rose. The ballooning cost of running a ski resort was reflected in the price of a lift ticket, which at Aspen Mountain jumped from $13.00 in the mid-1970s to $52.00 in 1995.
During this same period the company itself became a pawn in corporate deal making. In 1978 Twentieth Century Fox purchased Aspen Skiing Corporation, which became a subsidiary. Two years later, in June 1981, businessman Marvin Davis bought Twentieth Century Fox, and in the process he changed the status of Aspen Skiing Corporation from a public to a private company. He also changed its name to Aspen Skiing Company. This arrangement did not last long, as in September 1981 Aspen Skiing Company and other Twentieth Century Fox subsidiaries, including Pebble Beach, were transfered to a separate venture, 50 percent of which was acquired by Urban Investment and Development (a subsidiary itself of Aetna Life Insurance). The corporate shuffling continued in December 1983, when Urban Investment sold its 50 percent share to a management company headed by Davis, and then in July 1985, when Twentieth Century Fox sold its share to Bell Mountain Partnership, Ltd., owned by the Crown family of Chicago. Eight years later, in April 1993, Davis's management company sold its interest to the Crown family, which finally became the sole owner of Aspen Skiing Company.
In the 1990s Aspen Skiing Company's four resorts undoubtedly formed one of North America's premier ski areas, along with such "magaresorts" as Vail Mountain in Colorado and Whistler/Blackcomb in British Columbia. Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk, and Snowmass together had 4,225 acres of skiable terrain, 41 lifts, and 15 on-mountain restaurants. The town of Aspen, which served all four, had long become a culturally sophisticated center known for its numerous visiting celebrities. At the Sundeck on Aspen Mountain skiers were even provided with fax machines and access to electronic databases that reported stock prices and other information.
Going into the mid-1990s, Aspen Skiing Company was in a strong position to compete in the changing world of ski resorts, which were increasingly being purchased by large corporations. Its ownership of four resorts allowed it to consolidate functions, such as purchasing, public relations, and marketing, to save money. A single lift ticket gave access to all four resorts, which were advertised together as one ski area. Equally important, it had the advantage of owning a ski area, "Aspen," with universal name recognition among skiers. In the history of skiing, Aspen had become a legend. With its investments in new lifts and facilities and other improvements, Aspen Skiing Company was doing all it could to maintain the resort's envious blend of great skiing and cultural sophistication.
- Allen, James Sloan, The Romance of Commerce and Culture: Capitalism, Modernism, and the Chicago-Aspen Crusade for Cultural Reform, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1983.
- Barlow-Perez, Sally, A History of Aspen, Aspen, Colo.: Who Press, 1991.
- Carlson, Lee, "Resorts Enter New, Corporate Age," Skiing Trade News, November 1994, pp. 22--23.
- Dusenbery, Harris, Ski the High Trail: World War II Ski Troopers in the High Colorado Rockies, Portland, Ore.: Binford and Mort Publishing, 1991.
- Gilbert, Anne, Re-creation through Recreation: Aspen Skiing from 1870 to 1970, Aspen, Colo.: Aspen Historical Society, 1995.
- Gutner, Toddi, "Musical Chairlifts," Forbes, September 27, 1993, p. 20.
- Markels, Alex, "As Business Stagnates at Chic Ski Areas, the Gloves Come Off," Wall Street Journal, December 8, 1995, p. A1.
- Taylor, John N., "Aspen Adieu?," Forbes, February 15, 1993, p. 20.
Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 15. St. James Press, 1996.