It’s been called a Swiss cheese mountain—that’s Aspen Mountain, and it’s filled with holes from a history of mining. Some caverns are ten stories high. Telling stories about them--and other tales of years gone by-- is all in a day’s work for History Coach Mike Monroney. He hosts ski tours for the Aspen Historical Society. Aspen Public Radio's Elise Thatcher clicked into her skis and joined the Aspen Mountain tour last week.
Below is a transcript of reporter Elise Thatcher’s story.
Mike Monroney: “Standing just below the top of Aspen Mountain. And I love to bring people just below the top here, and I actively ask them to engage their imaginations.”
Reporter: Mike Monroney clearly loves what he does. Sure, it’s great to ski as part of the work day... but the way his eyes light up about history is evident even through ski goggles. First, he delves into the early years of skiing on this mountain... like on the very first opening day, back in 1946.
Monroney: “So I always ask people to imagine that we’ve actually ridden up that lift on opening day. Ridden Lift 1 by ourselves, it was a single chair. You got off at the top of Ruthie’s, you got on Lift 2 and it brought you right up here, near where our present Sundeck here today. You’ve spent 45 minutes on the lift. In your wool ski clothing, your seven foot long wooden skis, your leather boots, your bear trap bindings, your long thong that you’ve used to strap and stiffen your boot to the ski. And as I’ve said you’ve had nobody to talk to for 45 minutes. So a very different experience from what we get today. Some people would have gotten off that Lift 2 after that 45 minutes, and totally been a popsicle. And in the original plans there was no provision for a warming hut at the top of the mountain. Friedl Pfeifer, who was one of the founding members of the Aspen Skiing Corporation, went to his other board members and said ‘Guys, we didn’t take something into account. We need more money from the board, we’ve got to come up with enough funds to build a warming hut, so people can get off, get warm, and enjoy their day or we’re never going to be successful.’ And, on the board were Walter Paepcke, the Chicago industrialist who later became responsible for the Aspen Institute…”
Reporter: And who may have proved essential to making sure Aspen skiers could warm their bones after those long lift rides. Because the early board members for Aspen Mountain were against forking out more cash.
Monroney: “And Walter Paepcke allegedly said, this elegant, extremely well educated, cultured successful businessmen, to the other members of the board: ‘Gentlemen, you’ve got one foot in the whorehouse, you might as well spend the night.’ And he got the money to build the first Sundeck.”
Reporter: That reference to the seedier side of Aspen’s mining roots crops up a few times during our tour. And when it comes to the big picture, Monroney is quick to point out Ute Indians lived here long before white folks settled. During a gondola ride, he explains how he ended up telling stories while shepherding guests down the mountain.
Monroney: “When I came to work for the Historical society in 2008, I’d already been an ambassador for several years on Aspen Highlands, and found that guests appreciated information about the area. It helped them feel more connected, more like they belonged in town. I proposed to both the Ski Company and to the Historical Society that we develop a ski history tour. Aspen Mountain is very, very unique. We have the mining infrastructure which was part of the mining economy in the late 19th century. We also have now sixty-seven years of skiing history. Actually more than that, but lift, chairlift skiing history now for sixty-seven years on Aspen Mountain.”
Reporter: That’s the gondola in the background, as it’s swinging in a gusty winter onslaught. It’s another testament to Monroney’s passion. Even in whiteout conditions, he’s happy to share the stories tucked away like ghosts around Ajax. And if Monroney hasn’t found anyone to join, you can find him on the gondola… ready to explain just how mining and skiing came together to form a ski town.
Editor’s note: Mike Monroney also does a short history minute here on Aspen Public Radio. That’s in the morning, on weekdays.