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ASPEN – Circa 1978, Waddill Catchings III, a frugal, understated mountain gentleman and Harvard graduate who had lived in the Little Annie basin since the early 1950s, and who had initially assembled 880 acres of mining claims there for a new ski area, showed up dressed head-to-toe in his 50s-vintage togs for a skiing summit on the basin’s western-facing slopes, to pass the torch to the new owner and next-gen enthusiast of the project, longtime Aspenite David Farny.

Known by all then as “Waddy,” the grand old caretaker of Little Annie basin southwest of the summit of Aspen Mountain, he wore baggy black ski pants, a faded anorak pullover and bat-wing goggles. Coupled with his wooden skis and poles with oversized leather baskets, “his gear was not part of a retro costume, but simply what he had,” reflected former Basalt city manager Bill Kane, who was there and worked then as a planner with Farny.

Bear in mind that the assembled group of next-phase think-tankers — who in 1978 had a flitting view of what was modern — respected the fact that Waddy had hiked and skinned up everywhere on seal skins and skied every nook of Little Annie basin and the east-facing side of Aspen Mountain. He knew the subtleties of the temperature patterns, changing snow and wind deposit locations like an Eskimo.

After moving out of his miner’s cabin in town in the early 1950s, about where today’s Meat and Cheese stands along East Hopkins Avenue (for you contemporary-challenged, opposite what was formerly La Cocina), Waddy moved up to Little Annie basin where he cut and delivered firewood. There, during those anything-goes times when overdone was a term applied to diner food, he set to work exploring and conceptualizing a new ski area three times the size of Aspen Mountain.

Pass the torch

Ski area map from Fritz Benedict’s and Waddy Cashings’ 1963 Little Annie ski area master plan. Blue represents open skiing; white, trail skiing; green, tree areas; orange, un-skiable terrain; yellow, existing area (Aspen Mountain); segmented red, “aerial bus” gondola; solid red, lifts. Credit: Glen Horn

To this end, in 1963, he and Fritz Benedict — the renowned 10th Mountain Division veteran and Frank-Lloyd-Wright-style Aspen architect who endured 113 straight days of combat in winter conditions in Italy during World War II — put together the Little Annie Development Corporation.

The actual rolled-up plan drawn by Benedict was discovered in the basement of Waddy’s old house in lower Little Annie basin by local planner and friend of the late Catchings, Glen Horn, who now owns the house. The architectural drawings, which detail terrain, snow exposure and slope degrees, ski lifts and developable lots, shed new light on Waddy’s one-time dream to build a Little Annie ski area and independent Tyrolean-style village there.

Though big development was not such a trigger phrase in the 1960s, his dream gradually lost traction. But Waddy was pleased to share his intimate knowledge of the basin and pass on his ski dream to Farny, whose community standing and talented family contributed much to Aspen in the 1960s and 1970s.

Yet Farny, in an almost Tesla-style gamble, risked everything and swung for the fences at every obstacle thrown his way, only to become — much to his and his family’s surprise — a lightning rod for the angry opposition in what was Aspen’s first major development battle that nearly split the freewheeling town in two, leaving many on both sides with the taste of bitterness.

Two grand plans

View of Dave Farny’s iteration of the Little Annie ski area showing route of the dog-leg gondola starting next to Ute Cemetery, four chairlifts on the east side of Richmond Hill and one chairlift on the west side in Annie basin. Circa 1981. Credit: Aspen Historical Society

A 1994 recollected summation by former U.S. Forest Service district ranger Paul Hauk, who was pivotal in approving a number of Colorado ski areas during the 1950s and 1960s, says both Catchings’ and Farny’s attempts to build a Little Annie ski area met preliminary approval. But in both cases, myriad details needed to be ironed out, not the least of which was financing.

The major difference between the two plans was that Catchings’ proposed access would come up from Castle Creek on the western flank of Aspen Mountain, with an access parking lot at the base of Lime Creek, while Farny’s access rose from the Difficult Creek side east of Aspen Mountain, right out of town on Ute Avenue from a big gap between the Gant and Ute Cemetery. Both proffered innovative new gondola designs.

Hauk wrote that Catchings envisioned a 25-passenger “aerial bus” similar to one in Custer, S.D., to transport skiers and residents in and out of his self-contained village. Farny, in a more modern take, conceived of a “3.6-mile-long ‘dog-leg’ gondola” that angled up the Difficult Creek drainage to the top of Richmond Hill.

Early basin skiing

Some of the first skiers in Little Annie basin, in 1920. That’s Mt. Hayden in the background. Credit: Aspen Historical Society
Mining cabins and operations in Little Annie basin, circa 1915. Credit: Aspen Historical Society.
Little Annie basin in 1910, showing the Little Annie mine and cabins in what is popularly known today as the “Village of the Dans.” Credit: Aspen Historical Society.

Sorting out the changing ownership of land parcels, mining claims, U.S. Forest Service terrain and squatters in the greater Little Annie area dating back is akin to monkeying with a Rubik’s cube. Yet there were roughly three historical snapshots of sizable control with a skiing interest, not including the swashbuckling mining era of the 1880s and 1890s when local Scandinavian miners got first tracks.

The first Little Annie ski area, started by the Highland Bavarian Corporation, offered 50-cent sleigh rides into the undeveloped basin from Aspen’s first ski lodge, the Highland Bavarian, at the intersection of Castle and Conundrum creeks below the west side of Aspen Mountain.

The corporation’s early design opened for business in December of 1936 and survived for a few years before the war put a damper on skiing development. They aimed to promote Aspen’s first ski area across from their lodge in Little Annie basin. For $7 a night at the lodge, skiers could climb up to the Annie ridge from the lower drop-off of the sleigh for a full run down.

The varied slopes in the basin led into a funneled run through gladed trees down to the lodge, past the Highland Tunnel — an on-and-off silver mining operation just across and uphill of the lodge. The more daring might venture over the top of Richmond Hill and ski down the mine-littered front of Aspen Mountain into town.

But developing skiing in Little Annie for HBC proved short-lived after Andre Roch and Dr. Gunther Langes, two renowned alpinists and ski experts recruited by the corporation, journeyed from Europe to assess the skiing potential there. Along with Olympic gold medalist and 1930s “jetsetter” Billy Fiske, a principal visionary in HBC, Roch and Langes set their sights on nearby Mount Hayden (see related story from Aspen Journalism, “Big mountain ski dream”) as the next international ski area. This ski dream, too, fizzled.

While the skiing right across from the lodge in Little Annie had its merits, Roch and Langes said the predominantly western exposure of the terrain delivered poor snow conditions. That exposure received too much sun, producing variable conditions, and would continue to be a concern in the two major iterations of the Little Annie ski area projects yet to come.

John “Johnny” Litchfield, WWII 10 Mountain Div. vet, owner and namer of the “Red Onion,” gets big air in 1946 off a miner’s cabin in Little Annie basin followed by Jean Litchfield. Credit: Aspen Historical Society, Litchfield Collection
Jean Litchfield ripping Little Annie basin, 1946. Credit: Aspen Historical Society, Litchfield Collection
Ski tour at Little Annie Basin, 1947-48. Left to right: Lenny Woods (Aspen Mountain Patrol Director), Andy Ransom, unknown, Chuck Webb, Dottie Lunkin. Credit: Aspen Historical Society
Delbert Bowles, in dog sled, and Art Bowles, driving, at the Sundeck on Aspen Mountain, circa 1957. Both dog sled rides and snow cat ski tours were offered in the Little Annie area at the time. Credit: Aspen Historical Society.

The next wave

Before visions of an entire ski area there, terrain in Little Annie and on the Difficult side was listed on trail signs at the top and bottom of Aspen Mountain as ski runs in 1950, though neither was maintained or patrolled.

The Feb. 20, 1958, Aspen Times advertised ski tours by the Aspen Ski Club in Little Annie basin, “conducted by experts.” Trips left the Sundeck at 11 a.m. some weekends, offering visitors “their choice of either Little Annie or Hurricane.” Tickets could be purchased at Ski Club headquarters in town for 50 cents for members and $1 for non-members. Dog sled tours were also available.

In the early 1960s before Catchings and Benedict completed their 1963 ski-area master plan that charted six chairlifts along with the aerial bus, they offered snow cat tours and a warming hut serving lunches on a deck with views of Mount Hayden. For this purpose their crew converted the Little Annie cabin that still stands on the left just as one arrives uphill into the open Annie basin, in a cluster of dwellings now known popularly as “the Village of the Dans.”

Up to this point Catchings and Benedict, supported by partners Robert Craig and Dick Wright, had been moving conceptualized lift placements, restaurant and hotel locations, building lots and new roads around in their heads like chess pieces. To chum up investors they needed regular ski tours.

Little Annie Powder Tours ad in The Aspen Times, 1963.
Skiers enjoy lunch on the Little Annie cabin and restaurant deck, headquarters for Waddy Catchings’ powder tours and for his anticipated Little Annie ski area. March 22, 1963. Credit: Aspen Historical Society.

Little Annie Corporation

The Oct. 26, 1962, Times announced the formation of the Little Annie Development Corporation with Waddill Catchings as president. Still, Waddy lived modestly and avoided trappings, as was the flannel-shirted norm during Aspen’s “good old days” when everyone lived in town in smaller houses during the tight-community zeitgeist. Few knew that Waddy was from New York and that his father worked for Goldman Sachs.

Waddy purchased a new 10-passenger Thiokol Trackmaster to transport his paying guests by reservation either from the Sundeck or from a pickup point on Castle Creek Road. They also cut a trail on the shoulder of Hurricane Ridge, just south of Little Annie on an exposure where the powder snow lasted longer, the Times’ article reported.

A field phone on a post at a pickup point near the Sundeck provided a 1960s-era telecommunications link to the lower warming hut, where “hutmaster Bob Sullivan — chief cook, bottle washer and radio operator — is in contact via shortwave radio, using call letters KCT719, with the mobile Trackmaster,” the Times wrote.

Preliminary ideas called for a lift from the basin to the saddle between Little Annie and Hurricane, along with a lodge and restaurant at the upper end of the lift terminal. But this simple infrastructure would go on to be mapped out into a much larger complex, cobbling together over 1,000 acres of private holdings and leased properties.

Ski area lot-development and slope analysis from Fritz Benedict’s and Waddy Cashings’ recently discovered 1963 Little Annie ski area master plan. The many red blocked-out housing lots at 10,500 feet elevation that would have checkered the upper Little Annie basin. The plan included up to 160 developable lots. Credit: Glen Horn

The discovered blueprints

In an ambitious plan that would make the mouths of today’s developers water, Catchings and Benedict wanted to build Little Annie basin into a beehive of activity. They mapped out a destination village inspired by Lake Tahoe’s Sugar Bowl ski area, with up to 160 phased-in housing lots and a “spectacular hotel-restaurant site set in the bowl,” all serviced by a full variety of shops — including a general store — to make the complex independent of Aspen.

The only way in or out during the winter other than skiing was via the aerial-bus gondola. Full vehicular access on new neighborhood roads would be open during the summer. This early car-free-town-in-winter concept depended on the county plowing Castle Creek Road and a busing system to and from Aspen. In Benedict’s prologue to the Annie plan, he characterized the era: “The general market conditions in Aspen and vicinity are favorable toward considering expansion of ski area facilities and additional homesites.”

He outlined one-half and one-acre lots, with two-acre lots for summer cabins in the darker Midnight Mine area to be acquired in a future phase. The majority, however, would be clustered around the village in the Annie bowl, but some might be as high as 10,500 feet in elevation near the Annie/Richmond ridge. He compared this high-altitude livability to Leadville.

In winter, snowcats would be stationed for emergencies, along with jumbo four-wheel-drive vehicles. Public and private sleighs would ferry people throughout the village. The aerial bus, consisting of up to two heated, “self-powered 25-person cabins” capable of 15 mph along a monocable, would make stops along the route from the lower parking lot, through the residential development and into the base village, each stop within a three-block walking distance.

The clustering scheme would make utility installation economical. Water could be pumped uphill from the Midnight Mine northwest of the complex to large holding tanks on Richmond Hill to gravity-feed the whole operation below.

Ski area sun exposure analysis from Fritz Benedict’s and Waddy Cashings’ recently discovered 1963 Little Annie ski area master plan. Deep red, excellent exposure, NW to NE; orange, good exposure, NE to E and NW to W; yellow, fair exposure, E to SE and W to SW; brown, poor exposure, SE to SW. Credit: Glen Horn.

Lifts and ski terrain

Benedict’s drawings locate six chairlifts accessorizing the aerial bus — four on the western Annie side and two on the eastern side of Richmond Hill. They anticipated building the lift-1 aerial bus first along with lift-2 running from the village gondola terminus to the top of Richmond Hill, followed by lift-3 running 1,480 vertical feet deep into McFarlane’s gulch on the east side.

Phase two lined out four more chairlifts, including one originating near the lower Castle Creek parking lot that accessed 2,000 vertical feet of northwest-facing Hurricane Gulch just south of the village.

Three more lifts would triangulate to an apex on top of Richmond Hill less than a half-mile from Aspen Mountain’s sundeck. A short lift connected the basin village to this peak. The other two serviced Queens Gulch into the northwest-facing Midnight Mine area and today’s Harris’ Wall area on the Difficult Creek side. Thus, seven lifts in all.

However, an updated 1966 submission for a feasibility study found on shows a re-juggling of lift alignments, with three more lifts. The most notable change was a lift that serviced an eastside Highway 82 parking lot on the Jim Smith North Star Ranch — now the North Star Nature Preserve — thus offering a way up from both sides of Richmond Hill.

Benedict’s written narrative with the plan concludes that the major selling point for the Annie ski area is “wide-open skiing, coupled with a residential ski-through area located in the heart of the slopes with a village cluster of accommodations and shops.”

Illustration from 1966 Aspen Area Master Plan, showing all the ski lifts in Aspen area existing and projected. Credit: Glen Horn.
Waddy Catchings’ 1966 final Little Annie ski area map submitted to the USFS, showing three more lifts than his 1963 map, which included a short beginners’ lift in the gentle bottom of the Annie bowl. Note the chair lifts coming up from the Jim Smith North Star Ranch – today’s North Star Preserve – which shows a parking lot there. This later plan shows nines lifts total with access from both the east and west sides of Richmond Hill south of Aspen Mountain. Credit:
Waddy Catchings being interviewed by Bob Beattie on the deck of his off-the-grid house (second-built, upper Little Annie home), circa 1991. Credit: John Doyle.

Plan endorsed

In spite of access issues and the high cost of the development, former district ranger Hauk’s 1994 summation states that he “recommended approval and issuance of a permit after specified requirements were met.”

Adding fuel to approval, a 1966 Aspen Area General Plan chock full of perceptive future parking solutions, belonging to the Davis Horn local planning office, shows an area map of all ski lifts at Aspen’s then-existent ski areas. The plan also prominently included all nine ski lifts that mirrored Catching’s final 1966 submission.

But the LADC was unable to interest enough major investors, wrote Hauk, or obtain adequate financing between 1967 and 1971, when they “finally called it quits and the case was closed by the Forest Service in October, 1972.”

Dave Farney, in Little Annie basin, 1978. Credit: Aspen Historical Society, Aspen Times Collection.
Dave Farny, in Fruita, 2019. Credit: Tim Cooney

Enter Dave Farny

While recently sitting on the back deck of his ranch-style house in Fruita, gazing at the buttes on the horizon, Farny said, “I felt that by reimagining the Little Annie ski area we could keep the many little lodges going in Aspen and slow sprawling growth by invigorating the town itself with a new pedestrian-served ski area right from town. People wouldn’t have to travel two hours from Aspen to the top of Snowmass for wide-open, intermediate skiing.”

Farny had taken a break from burning the water ditches behind his house. Now in his eighties, he reflected on the early days, when “Aspen was a little gem populated by 10th Mountain Division vets and sincere, interesting people who cared for one another.” He wanted to show that he could build a good ski area not based on real estate sales, but designed to deliver great terrain.

So in 1974, Farny, an Aspen ski instructor, laundromat owner and operator of a mountaineering school in Ashcroft, jumped into his dream.

“For $400,000,” he said, “I bought out Waddy’s 880 acres of assembled mining claims.”

From there, he put together Forest Service leases and negotiated with adjoining land owners to combine what he estimates was 1,500 acres for the project.

In 1975, Farny presented his proposal to the Forest Service, along with a preliminary development plan prepared by Sno-Engineering planners, with access from the Smith North Star Ranch via chairlift. Though Farny’s final plan moved the base to its in-town location on Ute Avenue, he said he had a handshake deal with Smith to put a lift on his property at a later date after the town gondola was built.

This led to more meetings, studies, pro-and-con controversies, etc., involving all segments of the Aspen and Pitkin County population, which sparked a special county vote Nov. 7, 1979. Growth-conscious voters approved the project only in concept by a tally of 2,188 to 1,460, according to a February 1979 Ski Magazine article. This allowed Farny to move to site-specific review.

Amidst the hullabaloo that factionalized the town, in August of 1981 the White River National Forest approved a special-use permit for the proposed development, based upon Farny’s book-thick environmental impact statement, now on file at the Aspen Historical Society. Next, the rubber had to meet the road.

A contentious public hearing on the Little Annie proposal was held in the district courtroom and attended by 90 people in 1981. Connie Harvey is giving her opinion to county officials, including Pitkin County Commissioners Bob Child, center, with back turned, and Tom Blake, right center. Glen Horn, then a county planner, is on left, in white shirt. Credit: Aspen Historical Society, Aspen Times Collection.

Heated times

Since the 1960s, a growing bloc of Aspen-area residents have tried to hold back free-for-all development, as shape-shifting vested interests — often from out of town — profited while trumpeting economic viability.

These factions wrestled fiercely in the 1980s and a sleepier Aspen accelerated, igniting the downvalley diaspora of in-town locals who couldn’t afford housing. At the same time, many threw up their hands, cashed in their houses and fled, considering the issue of community versus commodity.

At the same time, a heated dispute over local skiing rights dovetailed with the tensions in 1976 when the Aspen Skiing Corporation suspended the season ski pass for Aspen Mountain, because, company officials maintained, rowdy locals were driving away ticket-buying tourists. This prompted appeals to the Forest Service and even a phoned-in bomb threat —a bluff that DRC Brown, SkiCorp president, called, spinning the lifts anyway.

As a result, duct-taped locals flocked to the cheaper, then-separate Aspen Highlands pass. Full SkiCorp passes were valid only on Buttermilk and Snowmass. In 1980 local pass holders could again ski Aspen Mountain, with a surcharge sticker for an extra $10 each day on top of the $300 cost of the pass. The surcharge and pass costs ratcheted up yearly until 1991, when a full three-mountain pass was reinstated at $1,600 a pop, which in 2019 dollars comes to $3,004.

Thus, a large part of the Little Annie appeal came with Farny’s promise to bring back an affordable ski pass for locals, resulting in an odd splintering between local skiers and the anti-development crowd, who were normally in the same boat. In this environment, Farny, a skier at heart, pushed to overcome many obstacles, hoping to open for the 1983-84 season.

David Farney’s proposed base area on Ute Avenue. Note the 69 employee housing units and parking to the right of the terminal and an employee parking lot across the street for 67 cars where Ajax Park now stands. Circa 1981.

Same terrain, different lifts

The real doozy of Farny’s plan was the prototype gondola to be built by the edgy Italian firm Nuovo Agudio. The six-passenger cabins, of what was touted to be the most advanced and fastest ski lift in the world, were to be fashioned in a “Maserati style,” said former planner Bill Kane. A subsequent preliminary plat and unit submission to the county shows that the projected base area complex on Ute Avenue would include 69 employee housing units on site.

A Sept. 20, 1981, Denver Post article describes the single-cable system on low-profile towers angling up the east-facing side of Aspen Mountain to Richmond Hill as being built in three sections, each powered by separate electric motors with a dramatic right turn on a 10,000-foot bench, before reaching the 11,300-foot summit. This costly dog-leg section (below Harris’ Wall) was designed to go around the Loushin family’s property rather than over it.

At $11 million ($32 million today), the gondola was the most expensive item in Farny’s budget, with an estimated $30 million ($87 million today) investment for the entire project, the Post wrote.

And of course evacuation of the great machine was a center-stage concern for every deliberative body that looked at the plans. Farny maintained that a close-to-ground contour made that challenge surmountable.

The 2,250 skiers-per-hour gondola would feed one chairlift in the Little Annie basin and four on the eastside of Richmond, serving an area from the southern edge of today’s Pandora’s expansion out past McFarlane’s. The gondola ride time would clock in at 28 minutes, stocking the 4,500-skier capacity of the total ski area.

Unlike Catching’s earlier proposal that was real-estate centric, Farny’s vision placed a 1,200-seat restaurant and lodge, facility shops and additional employee housing at the top of Richmond, without a real estate scheme in the plan.

Many said this was unrealistic, yet Farny believed building a new ski area in a time of projected rising Colorado skier traffic into the 1990s would work. He remained all-in and attempted to brainstorm every concern as it arose, even in the face of 18 percent interest rates during the “stagflation” era through the 1977-81 Carter presidency.

The major hurdle remained: financing. Could income from lift tickets turn a profit soon enough to recoup the $30 million investment? And with memories of the catastrophic 1976 failure of the Lionshead gondola at Vail and the shutting down for the 1979-80 season of the sole back-bowl lift there because of a frayed cable, prospective investors took pause.

The potential ski area that straddled the north-south Richmond Hill ridge with trails into four bowls on the east and two on the west rehashed an ongoing contention about how the sun exposure couldn’t keep snow. Farny countered that the rising and setting sun arcing over the area would offer better light, a longer day of skiing and great spring corn snow.

Also, the question of skier traffic demand remained in dispute. Skier use was increasing then at 8 percent statewide, but the Aspen area had stalled at less than 1 percent, according to the Denver Post. So how could the projected 4,500 skier-capacity-resort attract enough skiers by the time the lifts started turning?

Coupled with that, more car traffic in town and an overflow of skiers that might leak out onto upper Aspen Mountain without ski tickets raised concerns. The specter of overcrowding in the Spar and Copper runs on Aspen Mountain at the end of the day if Annie skiers chose that route down instead of riding the Annie gondola to the base troubled the Aspen Skiing Corporation.

Disposal of waste water from the summit facilities was another puzzle for Farny. Showing resolve, his team hatched an innovative but untested plan to build a system wherein “treated effluent would be sprayed on the slopes as man-made snow in the winter and irrigation water in summer,” the Post reported. Doubters had a field day with that.

As for the water supply, Farny said he brought a dowser to the top of Richmond Hill who used a forked stick to find water and then hand-held brass rods to find depth. The water witch predicted water 190 feet down. They drilled and hit a 50-gallon-per-minute well at 194 feet, Farny said, enough to fill a reservoir to supply the entire project.

All these obstacles needed to be specifically solved. So Farny, backed by his Little Annie Limited Partnership, which included such town notables as Bil Dunaway, Fritz Benedict, Charlie Patterson, Jim Otis and Jack Nicholson, set to task. Numerous enthusiastic local small investors anted up as well. At the same time, John Denver was a Little Annie booster but not an investor.

Realities strike home

With the Forest Service EIS approval in hand, Farny’s team worked with Pitkin County planning and zoning, which tabled any decisions until he came back with remedies to their concerns — of which the former is just a partial list — before county commissioners would even take up the proposal.

Farny recollected how when the 18 percent interest rates caused investors to balk, he turned to the Les Arcs skiing company in France for financing. They wanted to expand into a U.S. ski area in Aspen, he said. However, just-elected French socialist President Francois Mitterrand’s government instituted capital export controls, putting a halt to French money fleeing to other countries, only to be reversed a few years later — too late for Farny — after currency traders hammered the franc.

In the end, like Catchings’ dream, Farny fell short of financing and was unable to come back to P&Z with his completed punch list. He recounts how he went so far as to sell his West End family home to keep the project afloat while the stewing Les Arc financing remained in play, right up until the sudden financial snafu froze French capital.

Dinged by the town controversy and with so much skin in the game, Farny arrived at a financial cul-de-sac. In 1983 he and his family abruptly left Aspen and moved to the stunning Skyline Ranch in Telluride, a one-of-a-kind property he had bought in 1969 at a “great deal for only $10,000 down.” There he started a mountaineering school before he and his family converted the spread into a successful and well-known dude ranch.

Skiers in Little Annie Basin ski down to an Aspen Powder Tours snowcat, run by Aspen Skiing Co.. Credit: Scott Markewitz, courtesy Aspen Skiing Co.

Basin goes on

Though no Little Annie ski area ever got off the ground, district ranger Hauk characterized the high-use area in 1994 as a “battleground for two snowcat powder tour operations, snowmobilers and back country skiers, complicated by intermingled private land and mining claims.” Some say the situation is the same today.

Pete Stouffer, a resident of Little Annie and long-time caretaker of an off-the-grid house also once owned by Catchings, said “the place was a quiet, happy hippy village without any motorized equipment back in Waddy’s day”— though the era predated Stouffer.

Anecdotal legend holds that Ken Kesey’s famous Merry Pranksters, chronicled in Tom Wolfe’s book “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” drove the famous psychedelic “Further” bus up Little Annie road in the 1960s and spent a stretch of summer there.

These days, Stouffer said, the basin is noisy at all hours, with road traffic and constant ATVs, snowmobiles and now the new scourge — little brothers of the snowmobile, which are the motorcycle snow bikes with a rear-paddle tread and a ski in front that can go anywhere.

An Aspen Powder Tours snowcat and guests rendezvous for another run in the Difficult Creek drainage on the eastern side of Richmond Hill south of the Aspen Mountain sundeck, which, many years earlier, was part of both Catchings’ and Farny’s proposed Little Annie ski area. Credit: Scott Markewitz, courtesy, Aspen Skiing Co.

Under a new custodian

Today the majority land holder in Little Annie basin is John Miller, a former dairy products distributor from Indiana now in his eighties, whose Castle Creek investors group formed when Miller bought out Farny’s holdings in a bankruptcy auction in 1982. Miller recalled that the auction was actually held on the Pitkin County courthouse steps and that only one other bidder showed up.

Initially, Miller said, he thought he might back Farny’s efforts to build a ski area, but after Farny decamped, “I grew to appreciate the area as it was.” Miller built himself a packaged cabin, shipped over by boat from Finland. Along with the kit, a pair of Finns arrived and erected his 1,000-square-foot cabin to face Mount Hayden.

Miller has parceled out some property to longtime cabin dwellers in the basin and characterizes himself as a custodian of the property there. What his minority holding partners or his heirs may try to do in the future is unknown.

Whether Little Annie will remain a side-country recreation ground populated by low-key cabin dwellers and a few down-sized trophy homes or morph into the next Red Mountain, remains to be seen. But as of now, rural and remote zoning passed in 1994 restricts home sizes to 1,000 square feet and serves as an effective rural buffer between booming Aspen and an endangered way of life.

Tim Cooney is an Aspen-based freelance writer, a former Aspen Mountain ski patroller and a current summer ranger there. He writes about Aspen history for Aspen Journalism, a nonprofit organization that supports in-depth reporting in the public interest, in collaboration with the Aspen Daily News. The Aspen Daily News published this story on Sunday, April 28, 2019.

Source Article

Brigham Young University’s Aspen Grove has a new lodge to accommodate the mountain retreat’s many visitors.

Christened after the driving force behind Aspen Grove’s creation, the late Ray Beckham, the lodge can host more than 200 guests attending Aspen Grove’s many programs (family camp, marriage retreats, family getaways).

Beckham’s widow, Janette H. Beckham, cut the ceremonial blue ribbon to open the lodge on Friday, Feb. 2 and shared memories of the camp’s development and growth, including a “watermelon bust” to mark the opening of the camp’s swimming pool.

BYU’s Advancement Vice President Matthew O. Richardson also paid tribute to Beckham’s legacy. Focusing on Janette’s theme of memories, Richardson called Aspen Grove’s creators, donors and employees “Builders of memories ... they’re creating an environment where we can be inspired, aspire to more and be able to change for good. That’s what Aspen Grove should be.”

Aspen Grove — a history of preserving family memories

Ray Beckham, as part of the BYU Alumni Association, envisioned and created the original Aspen Grove facility. In its first season, 1963, eight families attended Aspen Grove. Today, the mountain retreat operates year-round and serves an average of 80 families each week and hosts over 20,000 guests each year.

The new, 22,000-square-foot, three-story lodge replaces some of the aging cabins at BYU’s Aspen Grove and includes a mix of room sizes and accommodations for families and guests. Regular rooms sleep up to seven people (in two-bedroom suites), and small rooms are designed for up to three people. Each floor boasts a common kitchen area with an adjacent gathering space with a fireplace. The new part of Beckham Lodge can accommodate up to 216 guests and will be used for families attending Aspen Grove’s signature programs (Family Camp, Marriage Getaway, Family Getaway), single families and large reunions, conferences, and holiday gatherings over Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Each year, more than 80 students help staff Aspen Grove. They use this work-study experience to enhance their education at BYU – and it also helps them pay their way through school. Hundreds of students have made Aspen Grove a part of their BYU experience. Rachel Hansen is one of them.

“I love the environment (at Aspen Grove), interacting with the full-time staff, summer staff, and guests,” she said. “I was trusted and given extra responsibilities to help me become a better leader.”

Emley Holcombe, another student team member at Aspen Grove, said, “I gained amazing skills that definitely have application for my education and my future.”

Looking ahead, the team at Aspen Grove plans to upgrade and update some of the historic cabins, grounds, and facilities to provide the best possible guest experience for everyone who comes to the mountain retreat.

For more information, or to check on available reservations, visit

Source Article

If Mac Smith ever decides to hang up his skis as Aspen Highlands Ski Patrol director, he will immediately have seat on the pantheon of Aspen ski industry greats.

Smith has racked up numerous accomplishments in his 40 years as patrol director but he will probably be celebrated for decades to come as the person who did the most to open Highland Bowl.

U.S. Forest Service officials were skeptical of allowing expanded skiing in the Bowl when Aspen Skiing Co. started an environmental impact study of the concept in 1997. Smith pleaded, cajoled and nagged federal officials to keep an open mind.

“I don’t want to take all the credit for it, but I was talking to all these guys a lot about it — ‘You have to give us the opportunity to do this. We’ll study it and get it done,’” he recalled during a conservation from the Highlands patrol hut at the top of the Loge Peak chairlift on a recent snowy Saturday.

The problem, as the Forest Service winter sports staff saw it, was the terrain didn’t provide lift-served skiing, one of the criteria for allowing use of national forest. To demonstrate that it was lift-served, Smith and his crew developed the first of the Y-Zones on the north end of the Bowl in winter 1997-98.

“We had this unbelievably gnarly catwalk that came out,” he recalled.

That narrow, spooky path connected to other catwalks until it linked to the Grand Traverse beneath Steeplechase and provided access back to the Loge Lift. Problem solved — the Bowl terrain linked to a lift.

“You could always tell a Highlands skier because they had a monster calf on that downhill ski (leg),” Smith said with a signature grin that punctuates at least half of his sentences.

He credits a lot of past and present colleagues with helping advance the development of the Bowl. Former Aspen Skiing Co. executive John Norton gave an under-the-table nod to pursue the idea. Former Aspen Highlands Mountain Manager Ron Chauner enthusiastically pitched expansion to Skico brass. Former Skico President and CEO Pat O’Donnell realized the appeal and unlocked the funds necessary to study the avalanche mitigation that was key in making the Bowl accessible to the public. And, of course, the Highlands ski patrollers and particularly snow safety staff figured out how to get the job done.

Twenty-two seasons after that initial work, the Bowl has made Aspen Highlands a bucket-list destination for truly passionate skiers and the bread and butter of many Roaring Fork Valley residents. Once it was fully developed, it attracted 800 to 1,000 skiers on a busy day. Now it lures twice that many, Smith said.

“I go up to the Bowl sometimes and just stand there and listen to the people yelling and screaming and having such a great time,” Smith said. “That’s the thing that drives all these (patrollers) to be able to put out the effort that needs to be done.”


Smith is adept at getting things done. He credits his upbringing. He’s as comfortable in cowboy boots and a cowboy hat as he is in ski boots and a ski helmet.

Smith spent his early years in upstate New York as part of a skiing family who made Mount Mansfield their ski area of choice.

“I’ve been skiing since I was 3,” he said.

His family moved to Ogden, Utah, when Mac was in elementary school and they started skiing Snow Basin. His dad had skied Aspen Highlands in 1958-59, its inaugural season, and developed an affinity for the Roaring Fork Valley. His parents bought what they named Gateway Ranch in Old Snowmass in 1960 and started a guest ranch. They were as out of place as the lead couple in the old TV show “Green Acres,” according to Smith.

“They didn’t know which end of a horse to ride,” he quipped.

They had a big red barn, which still exists today, and eight guest cabins. They offered pack trips into what is now the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. Mac was thrown immediately into the operation. Youth was no excuse. He recalls plucking ice balls off horses’ eyes on frigid winter mornings so they could feed. As early as 10 years of age, he was tasked with taking a couple of loaded packhorses alone to places such as Snowmass Lake to restock a camp.

He was always hanging around the wranglers, picking up their skills and their nasty habits, such as constantly pulling pranks on others.

“It was almost permission to be crazy,” he said.

He was a regular at Aspen Highlands during winters. He recalled as a 10- and 11-year-old “terrorizing” ski school classes just for the fun of it. Repeated misbehavior got him tossed from Highlands.

He began skiing Buttermilk after his mom started working in the kitchen of one of the restaurants there and his dad drove a bus. While it was a different ski area, it was the same problem. Young Mac was always in trouble with the ski patrol.

“I got caught blind jumping all the time by the patrol so I had to sit in the corner, like a dunce corner,” he said with a laugh. “An hour later, they’d say, ‘OK, go ski again.’”

And the scene would repeat itself. Eventually, he was only allowed on the slopes while with patrollers.

“That was really cool because I had a spotter for my jumping,” Smith said.

Since his mom reported for work before the area opened, Smith got to ride first lifts with patrollers. He would tag along while they attended to their early morning chores. The die was cast for his career.

“They became my mentors,” Smith said. “The wranglers were, then the ski patrollers kind of were. I think that’s where it really came from.”

Late in middle school he returned to Aspen Highlands and he skied there throughout high school, becoming a very good skier and learning all the nooks and crannies. They would gain access to the terrain that became the St. Moritz Trail, ski what is now Boomerang Woods and sneak back into the ski area on the established Boomerang Trail, keeping an eye out for the two patrollers stationed on the upper mountain at the time.


Smith graduated from Basalt High School in 1971 and took a job at Merry-Go-Round restaurant at mid-mountain at Highlands for the 1972-73 season. He joined the ski patrol the following season.

He was promoted to co-assistant patrol director in 1974-75. In 1977-78, the patrol director wasn’t around much. Smith became de facto patrol director, though not in title. The next season he gained the title, as well.

Early on in his tenure with the patrol, he forged a relationship with Whipple Van Ness Jones, the founder and overlord of Aspen Highlands who has since died.

“My second year — this is where Temerity came from — I had the temerity to go into Whip’s office and say, ‘Hey, Whip, as a kid I used to ski down into Steeplechase and get back to Boomerang. A little goat trail was out there. We could open all of this without any new lifts.’”

It was a moment of truth.

“At that moment, I didn’t know if I was going to get fired or if he’d be OK with that,” Smith said. “It was a start of a relationship with Whip that I think was unique to anybody else at Highlands except maybe (longtime manager) Don Robinson.”

Jones let Smith regularly ski the Steeplechase terrain to figure out how to get skiers out of there. They created a frighteningly narrow catwalk called the Grand Traverse. It was initially so narrow a patrol toboggan would barely fit. But the Steeplechase terrain put Highlands on the map for steep terrain, much as the Bowl would rekindle 20 years later. When terrain was opened between Steeplechase and the Bowl, it was named Temerity in honor of Smith’s conversation so many years ago about terrain expansion.

Jones had a longstanding policy to shoo ski patrol members away after about three seasons. A 1960s effort to unionize left a bad taste in his mouth. He busted the effort and wanted quick turnover thereafter. That policy changed with Smith.

“I got to be really good friends with Whip,” Smith said. “I think he liked the entrepreneurship that I had. Maybe it’s because this became my mountain at that point and time. I called it that and I think he was good with it.”


Starting with Steeplechase and most recently with Highland Bowl, Smith and his team have pursued and accomplished impressive terrain expansions (see sidebar). The ski area was at 380 acres when Smith joined the patrol. It is listed at 1,040 acres now and skis even larger because of all the lines through trees.

But it’s not the terrain expansion that makes Smith most proud. It’s the culture he helped create. He takes pride in the accomplishments of the ski patrol and their close relations with the public.

Ski patrols regularly hold exchanges where a handful of members from one resort will go to a different resort for a few days. Aspen Highlands doesn’t have a lot of turnover with its patrol staff, but when there is an opening, it is typically filled quickly by a patroller from another ski area who liked what they saw at Highlands and wants to join.

“I’ll probably sound a little braggadocious,” Smith said. “I think we’re the most celebrated ski patrol among our communities. Even the Jackson Hole boys who were here for five days (earlier this month), they couldn’t believe all the thank-you’s we were getting from our guests. It’s so typical of every patrol that comes here because they get to see how tight we are with our community.”

Smith said he doesn’t have to be an overbearing manager, which is good because it’s not in his nature.

“I’m really under the philosophy that I hire the best people I can,” Smith said. “Give them the tools, time and training and stay the hell out of their way.”

Peer pressure within the patrol and the appreciation from the public usually provides the ski patrollers with all the motivation they need to perform well. The ski patrol has 40 members, with 26 working any given day. There are five snowcat drivers.

When the new patrol hut was built in the early 2000s, the initial plan was for it to be in a rather inaccessible perch that wouldn’t have been nearly as inviting for the public. Smith intervened and persuaded Skico brass to locate it at its current site just off skier’s right of the Loge lift’s upper terminal. It’s got a stunning view of Maroon Valley and the surrounding mountains that invite the public to soak it in. They are also welcome to venture inside where they are offered “guide-quality information” on what terrain is skiing best.

“I really felt like I built this building and this relationship with the community because it’s very easy for a ski patrol to slip into that stereotypical hardcore, don’t-penetrate-my-bubble (organization),” Smith said. “I’m very fearful it could morph back into that if I wasn’t there.”


At 66 years of age, he knows that retirement is in the not-too-distant future. He addresses it with one of the “cowboy-isms” that regularly emerges from his thinking.

“Somewhere down the line, the horse is going to be faster than you,” he said.

He swears retirement won’t be a problem. He has plenty of fences to mend and other tasks to tackle on his midvalley spread, where he lives off the grid with his wife.

On the other hand, he’s not looking to hightail it out of Aspen Highlands even after 47 total years at the ski area.

“I’d sure love to be at 50 (years of service),” he said. It wouldn’t necessarily have to be as patrol director, he volunteered.

Whenever the time comes, he hopes he is able to achieve one final goal. He wants to see Loge Bowl on the upper west side of the mountain opened and added to the expert skiing experience. A side benefit is the Loge terrain possesses a series of progressively higher cliffs that skiers can huck off. The patrol refers to them as Mac’s Air.

“I don’t have anything named after me after all these years,” Smith said with another laugh. “I’d like to get there.”

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