The year of 1958 was an exciting time in Aspen. According to the Aspen Daily News, it was when television came to town and Aspen got its first telephone prefix (925). Then, toward the end of that year, not one but two new ski areas opened, offering exciting alternatives to what was then the only lift-served game in town, Aspen Mountain.

From their beginnings, Buttermilk and Aspen Highlands had distinct personalities — much as they still do now — and presented the ski industry with new platforms for innovation.

Buttermilk for Beginners

Buttermilk was a smooth, mellow, sunny playground, ideal for beginners and a new haven for local kids, according to two of its earliest skiers.

Local ski legend Klaus Obermeyer — who at 99 years old still runs his eponymous ski clothing company, Sport Obermeyer — recalls standing on the outskirts of Aspen one January afternoon with friend Friedl Pfeifer. Looking up from Pfeifer’s land near the highway, they marveled at the amount of daylight on the smooth, meadowed slopes, largely devoid of rocks so they wouldn’t need much snow to form a skiable surface. Meanwhile, much of Aspen Mountain remained shaded on winter afternoons and had little terrain suited for beginning skiers.

Pfeifer, who had been instrumental in starting Aspen Mountain as well as Aspen’s first ski school, went on to develop Buttermilk as a ski area with neighboring landowner Art Pfister.

“Naturally, I was one of the first ones up,” says Obermeyer, who’s preferred place to ski to this day is Tiehack, on Buttermilk’s east side. “It was an ideal beginners’ area, not so steep that people got scared. Intermediates had a lot of fun there. And then the Tiehack side added some steep, beautiful terrain. In two hours, you can get many, many downhill miles.”
60th Anniversary of Aspen Highlands and Buttermilk
60th Anniversary of Aspen Highlands and Buttermilk

Aspen native Pam Moore had just turned 4 when Buttermilk opened, but she vividly remembers riding the bus from Aspen to Buttermilk by herself a few years later. While local parents worked, kids would spend hours skiing Buttermilk with friends or in ski school — it was a safe yet adventure-filled playground, offering more terrain to explore than Little Nell, the de-facto beginner and kids’ run at the bottom of Aspen Mountain.

“Those years were blissfully fun,” says Moore. “We’d get $2 for a lift ticket and 50 cents for lunch. We were always building forts in the trees, because we didn’t want to ski the whole time.”

Highlands the Renegade

60th Anniversary of Aspen Highlands and Buttermilk
60th Anniversary of Aspen Highlands and Buttermilk

Aspen Highlands, from the get-go, was the maverick mountain. Founded by businessman Whip Jones, who had bought ranchland at its future base when he retired to Aspen, “it had a reputation from the beginning that it was different from the other mountains,” recalls Highlands patrol director Mac Smith, who was 8 when he started skiing there. “The base area had some of the best bars, and it embraced the hot dog culture as well as different methods of teaching.”

With 12 lifts and a ski teaching method rooted in enjoyment of the sport rather than the more rigid Austrian theories of the day, Highlands attracted a lot of beginners in the early days, says Smith. Jones had a knack for drawing business, from beginners to those who’d flock to Highlands to watch Stein Eriksen do back flips or ski patrollers jump the Cloud Nine deck, to the hot doggers and spectators of the ’70s, ’80, and ’90s.

Smith recalls kids building ski jumps wherever and whenever they wanted and, working at the Merry-Go-Round in the early ’70s, watching the hot dog contests and realizing he could make more money winning one of them than in a week washing dishes.

“There weren’t many rules back then, at least not at Highlands,” he says. “If it wasn’t fun, we didn’t do it.”

Celebrate Local History

Local ski history is being celebrated in at least two ways this winter. In honor of Aspen Highlands’ and Buttermilk’s 60th, Aspen Snowmass lift tickets are just $60 through Dec. 21, when packaged with lodging and a minimum of 2 days of skiing through Stay Aspen Snowmass.

On Dec. 8, one week after Aspen Highlands opens early on Dec. 1, Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club presents the Bob Beattie Memorial Ski Race. This is a daylong celebration whose main event is a dual GS race among ski world legends, visible from the bottom of Aspen Highlands. It honors the late Bob Beattie, a US Ski Team coach, co-founder of the alpine skiing World Cup, World Pro Ski Tour founder, and ski racing commentator who lived in Aspen and was instrumental in developing local kids’ ski programs. Come enjoy Beattie’s favorite racing format and mix and mingle with ski legends!


About the Author

Catherine Lutz
Catherine Lutz

CATHERINE LUTZ

Catherine Lutz is an Aspen-based freelance writer and editor who helps craft stories and content for the Aspen Institute, Aspen Sojourner magazine, Powder magazine, and many others. An avid skier, paddleboarder, and mountain biker, she’s now vicariously experiencing a second childhood through her two young children in one of the best places on the planet to raise a family.

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