Ask Aspen local Tony Vagneur what he remembers most about skiing in the old days, and he answers immediately: “the cold.”
Circa 1949, when Gore-Tex was a long way off, layering wool was the only way to attempt to ward off the frigid temperatures. Factor in an hour-long lift line and a 30-minute ride up what was then the world’s longest chairlift—with single seats—and idle time adds up to freezing digits.
“By the end of the day, my hands would be numb and as they warmed up the pain was a killer,” Vagneur, still active on the slopes at 71, recalls. “But that was part of the game. Skiing was so much fun. We didn’t care if we were cold.”
If there’s anywhere in America that showcases how skiing has evolved from its humble origins, it’s Aspen. In 1950, it was a sleepy ranching and mining town when it hosted the first worldwide skiing competition held in the United States. Today, the four resorts that make up Aspen-Snowmass have a combined 41 lifts serving 5,500 acres of terrain.
But there’s a lot more about skiing that has changed, in Aspen and across the world, than just the size of the resorts. Here, a look back at the olden (and some might say golden) days of skiing—and how things are different now, from incredible improvements in gear and technology to the not-so-incredible price hikes, and everything in between.
Snowmass celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2017 with $6.50 lift tickets, honoring the price from 1967. Resort officials were reportedly shocked when they sold some 12,000 of them by early November, and subsequent sales required a lodging purchase.
The popularity might be in part because lift tickets in peak season can top $150 here. Of course, nothing is as cheap as it was in 1967, but the cost to hit the slopes at big resorts has risen astronomically. Nowadays, a family ski trip can easily run into the thousands of dollars (though, by choosing more old-school resorts, you can help your budget a bit; more on that below).
In the old days, breaking an ankle or fracturing a leg was almost a rite of passage for skiers. That injury rate was due in part because of the gear: Skis were long, skinny, and fast, and didn’t release during a crash—which happened a lot, because they were not ideal for turning, especially in deep Colorado powder. Over the years, boots got stiffer, bindings safer, and skis shorter and wider.
At first, Vagneur and his old-timer friends considered these newfangled models skis to be cheating. “Then we skied on them and said, ‘Oh God, this is great.’”
But like many skiing innovations, there’s a downside to making it easier and more fun to ski powder. The hill gets tracked out quicker, including the trees, which used to be too dangerous for sloppy-turning skis.
“Because of these skis, everyone can ski powder pretty much, so all the good stuff gets used up in a hurry and people go looking for it out in the trees,” says Vagneur. “It’s pretty damn hard to find a stash. I’ve got one place up there nobody seems to be able to find and I’m not talking about it.”
In the old days—in this case, before everyone had a cell phone in their pocket and a GoPro on their helmet—skiing offered a way to disconnect. If someone needed to find you while you were on the slopes, too bad for them, but good for you—you were essentially off the grid until the lift lines closed.
These days, even when the weather is so cold fingers turn blue trying to activate an app, the lift ride has shifted from quiet introspection among the trees or chatting with your fellow rider to nonstop connectivity: taking pictures, uploading shots of that epic powder to Facebook or Instagram, trying to track down friends (or even checking work e-mail if you’re taking a “sick” day.)
Sure, there’s an upside to all this access: You can instantly get the snow report, check what others are posting about conditions, or upload a lift selfie or GoPro video of your powder run. But something is unquestionably missing—that feeling that it’s just you and the mountain. If you lost your friends, you knew you’d meet up again for après at the bar, where an in-person account of that epic line you hit beats an Instagram post any day.
As for another noteworthy technological innovation, the automatic pass scanner, you’re not likely to find many skiers or lift attendants pining for the old days of punching tickets.
In the old days, nobody dared to ski Highlands Bowl. “It was almost a sure bet you’d die if you went up there,” Vagneur says. “We had a lot more respect for avalanches in the old days.”
Today, it’s the crown jewel of extreme terrain of the Aspen Highlands resort, reached only by hiking, double-diamond terrain that has been called the most intense skiing in Colorado. There's a monument to three patrollers killed in a 1984 avalanche up there.
Wider skis and adrenaline junkies chasing more extreme terrain have led many resorts to allow access to this sort of avalanche-prone terrain above timberline, the slide risk mitigated by modern avalanche control techniques.
You won’t find many skiers who lament the opening of more terrain, but Vagneur does believe it has changed the culture of skiing as the race to fresh pow becomes ever-more intense. “A lot of it is just competition—who gets the first tracks, who does the first 100,000 vertical feet,” he says. “To me, who cares? You just go up there and have fun.”
Just as depicted in the classic ski film Aspen Extreme, every winter a new cycle of would-be ski bums arrives in town. The cars have changed—now it's more likely to be a Subaru stuffed with worldly possessions instead of an old Ford van—but Vagneur still sees the same types year after year: the guy with a PhD washing dishes in a restaurant by night, trust-funders living in a fantasy world, A-listers who come to Aspen to see and be seen.
(One thing he hasn’t seen much of over the years, however: clothing-optional skiing. Vagneur recalls one spring day when an attractive woman decided to ski topless, to his and his friends’ delight. With the proliferation of cell phones, stunts like this are much less common.)
The days are gone when they all knew each other or recognized each other at the bar from riding the lift together. The resorts are too big; the population too transient. And fast-moving lifts mean a conversation that might have taken 20 minutes is over in five—and that’s if you even manage to chat with someone who’s tapping away at their phone the whole way up.
But the more things change, one thing has remained for Vagneur: a love of skiing, of being out in the mountains, in the snow and crisp air, surrounded by amazing views. “When I was a kid, I’d go out there with my buddies and we skied most days in the winter,” he says. “We [still] laugh a lot and have a good time. We find runs we like. We’re in our 70s and still ski bumps.”
5 Spots Where You Can Get a Throwback Experience on the Slopes
Craving an old-school ski experience? Here are five ski resorts and towns where you can travel back in time for a nostalgic day on the slopes.
A true Colorado “locals” hill just down the road from the mega-resorts of Keystone and Breckenridge, A-Basin has free parking a short walk from the lifts, affordable tickets, and a fun, festive atmosphere. They also have the longest ski season in North America, usually from October to June (and sometimes July!)
Bridger Bowl, Montana
If you live in Bozeman and see the blue light atop the Baxter Hotel flashing, it might be time to take a “sick” day—because that means this nearby ski area has fresh snow. Locals are the bulk of those on the slopes, since most visitors opt for snazzier resorts in the northern Rockies, like Jackson Hole. But that’s all the more reason to book a trip, since Bozeman is mostly a summer tourist town and rooms are cheaper in winter.
Mad River Glen, Vermont
“Ski it if you can” is the well-known slogan for this rustic ski area, which has the gnarliest terrain in New England. It’s also skier-owned, which means you don’t buy a pass but a share in ownership that gives you a voice in how the area is managed. It also has one of only two still-operating single-seat chair lifts in the United States.
Homewood Mountain Resort, Lake Tahoe, California
You don’t have to drop a fortune to ski California’s crown jewel at this family-friendly resort at the west shore of Lake Tahoe. Enjoy jaw-dropping views like other Tahoe resorts—the lifts begin almost at the shores of the lake—without the steep prices of other areas. So many modern ski resorts focus on real estate as much as the skiing, but you won’t find a slopeside condo here—just lots of wide runs, a laid-back vibe, and excellent skiing.
Wolf Creek Ski Area, Colorado
You won’t find many ski areas whose owner is up the ridges with a snorkel, dropping avalanche bombs. This southern Colorado resort is known for its rustic vibe and deep powder, and with 450 inches a year, they claim to have the most snow in Colorado—130 inches more than Snowmass, for a lift ticket ($70) that’s less than half the price. Lines are unusual, and powder lingers for days for those willing to hike a bit.
Written by Scott Rappold for RootsRated.