An Aspen Mountain lift ticket (tow ticket?) for the 1950 FIS races. Credit: Aspen Historical Society
The men’s FIS downhill twists between mine dumps and pops over a road cut below Schuss Gully next to the Veteran’s Mine ore bin before crossing the finish. The other races finished to the right of the bin down FIS run. In the early 1890s the Veteran Tunnel near the bin, which reached deep into Aspen Mountain and connected to many other mines, served as a shared ore-transit exit. Ore from contracting mines was collected in the bin and sent east via an ore bucket track to meet the Midland Railway at the base of Little Nell. Credit: Aspen Historical Society
A racer approaches the finish line (most likely the GS) for the 1950 FIS World Championships at the top of Mill Street, where condominiums now stand. All races finished here, except the men’s downhill which finished below Schuss Gulley road, to the left unseen. The original Lift 1, the original 55-meter Willoughby ski jump and Enterprise Mine building are visible. Note the Bermuda and Turkish flags. Credit: Tim Cooney collection
Photo of course guide shows men’s downhill finish on the east side of the Veteran’s Mine ore bin. Credit: Aspen Historical Society
Evidenced by the light snow cover, lack of skiers, and the early-season contours of the terrain, this 1950 photo of Aspen Mountain was probably taken before the mountain opened for the ski season. Lower Niagara that dropped into the flats at the bottom of today’s Lift 5, which was part of the men’s downhill, is clear on the left. In the middle is the original Lift- One lift line to the left of Corkscrew, when it was corkscrew shaped. On the right, where the women’s downhill came down today’s Spring Pitch and across Magnifico to finish on the west side of the Veteran’s Mine ore bin (visible at top of Mill Street), the rolling nature of the un-bulldozed mine dumps are apparent. Credit: Aspen Historical Society, Henry Collection

ASPEN – During practice before the 1950 men’s Fédération Internationale de Ski (FIS) downhill on Aspen Mountain, aspiring ski patrolman Howie Mayer and another were shoveling snow on the slim, high-speed traverse that led to the lip of Niagara near the bottom of the course. One racer would later describe that fast-approaching abyss as “like looking out of a window of a sky scraper.”

When the two workers peered over the precipice, they saw a man with no hat or goggles walking straight up what was then called Niagara Falls. He had his skis over his shoulder, poles in hand, and a cigarette in his mouth. As the fireplug figure approached at a good clip, they soon realized he was the legendary 1948 Olympian Zeno Colò from Italy, the same man who held the world speed record of 98.7 mph on skis set the year before on the Little Matterhorn in the Alps.

Bronzed, hawk-nosed and balding, the 30-year-old Lauberhorn and Kandahar downhill winner said “ciao,” climbed above them, flicked his cigarette into the snow, put his skis on, and motioned with both hands as if parting curtains to get out of his way. He then practice-popped the takeoff, landing far down the face of Niagara, as told by the late Mayer in one of his many recollections before he retired in 2002 after 47 years of ski patrolling.

During the rollout of the FIS, which marked the point in Aspen’s history when a holdout generation of silver-mining sentimentalists saw their dream of reopening the mines eclipsed by ski tourism, nothing was more emblematic of that change than the impression Aspen’s brand-new men’s downhill course made on the Europeans, the assured magistrates of skiing from across the big pond.

In an era when nature still marked the currents of time, local trail cutters during the summer of 1949 recalled the task of cutting the new downhill course and clearing the giant slalom and slalom terrain as “beginning when does still had fawns at their sides and ending when the bucks had shed their velvet.” For you city slickers and Google dependents, that means spring through fall.

Under Aspen Ski Corporation general manager Dick Durrance, who convinced an economically floundering post-war Europe to bring the FIS World Championship to American soil for the first time, a crew of Aspen volunteers undertook the project.

Durrance, a 1936 Olympian who honed his racing skills in Garmisch as a junior racer in the early 1930s and brought the new parallel turn to the United States—which he dubbed the “Dipsy Doodle,” a popular dance of the 1940s (hence the Aspen Mountain trail)—was determined to show the Europeans a downhill course the likes of which they’d never seen.

To pull this off, Durrance reached out to the town and the state, enlisting Adolph Coors III to raise a budget of $72,000 ($725,000 today) to kick off Colorado’s notoriety as a world destination for the sport of skiing. The Aspen Chamber of Commerce raffled off a new Jeep to raise money and the state funded snowplowing the two-lane Highway 82 for the races.

With nearly 1,500 people coming to town and the Jerome being the only hotel, the FIS housing office headquartered at The Bookshop maxed out, and visitors walked door to door looking for rooms. European mining families housed their countrymen and fed them ethnic dishes, in the halcyon days when Aspenites lived unencumbered in a small American town that the Oct. 14, 1950, Saturday Evening Post characterized after the races as “a place where there is hillbilly music and gay square dancing on Saturday nights.”

But that innocence was already under siege by Walter Paepcke’s Aspen Company, which had bought up property and built the first tented amphitheater for the Goethe festival of 1949. Devotees of days gone by resented his upscaling designs along with the highbrow influx, and the Feb. 12-19 World Championship FIS ski events only threw another log on the fire.

Yet a majority of townspeople wanted Aspen to succeed in any way it could. After town coffers saw $125,000 in revenue from the Goethe festival—even though nobody could pronounce it—the FIS races seemed like a great idea.

FIS opening ceremonies in Wagner Park, showing the U.S. team on the left and the Swiss team on the right. The one-time Mother Lode restaurant and bar (1967 through early 2000s), currently the Aspen Times building, is visible in the middle background; above the doors reads “Grains, Coal.” Behind that is the Hotel Jerome. To the right is the Wheeler Opera House. Credit: Durrance family

Get ’er done

Word of the scary new men’s downhill spread. Twelve long-distance operators from Denver worked a manual telephone switchboard set up at the Isis theater to handle the largest working press ever gathered in Colorado, some “77 newspapermen, cameramen, magazine writers, photographers, and radiomen,” said the Denver Post on Feb. 11.

The races would negotiate slag heaps, mine dumps, and zig-zagging road cuts left by Aspen’s 19th-century silver miners. The men’s downhill course began above the top of today’s Lift 6, headed down FIS into Spar Gulch, over Niagara, and into Schuss Gully to the top of Mill Street where all the races ended.

The Aspen Times printed a call in July for extra help: “Every man, woman, and child who is willing to contribute meet at the foot of the big jump. Those who have axes, hatchets, timber saws, and brush cutters, bring them.” (The original 55-meter Willoughby Jump was west of today’s FIS Slalom Hill and east of today’s Lift 1A.)

The Midnight Mining Company and the Aspen Mining Company, two of Aspen’s remaining silver mining groups, lent a compressor, 
drilling equipment, and dynamiting advice to the trail crew led by Aspen Mountain patrol director Don Morgan. As well as cutting the men’s downhill course, they cleaned up the dumps and ramshackle mining structures west of the current Compromise Mine building at the bottom of the “Elevator Shaft” on the Silver Queen, specifically for the men’s and women’s giant slalom.

The women’s downhill, which was originally slated to run down Silver Queen — as mapped in the pre-printed 1950 FIS program and the Jan. 8, 1950, Sunday Empire Magazine in the Denver Post — was moved to Ruthie’s Run. Starting in Zaugg Park on Ruthie’s, it connected to Roch Run and continued into today’s East Fifth Avenue, before traversing across Magnifico and turning left down to the Mill Street finish.

Telephone linemen installed a phone system on both downhill courses. Swiss timekeepers set up a $20,000 Longines system of linked stopwatches triggered by a light-beam start. Officials erected two observation stations along the men’s course so that racers would not be out of sight for less than a few seconds, an eternity in downhill racing.

FIS racer Tina Mulej of Yugoslavia, who finished 29th in the GS, 26th in SL, and 23rd in DH, climbs up alongside his communist guard for the post-race jumping exhibition on the original 55-meter Willoughby jump. Credit: Aspen Historical Society

Slat riding invaders

Many racers showed up early. Among them was a two-man delegation of Yugoslavs with a communist guard. But the Yugoslavs were not the only communists in Aspen for the races. The Feb. 14, 1950, Post headlined “Reds Attend Meet,” after a Russian delegation of FIS apparatchiks came to observe for future participation, claiming to have 900,000 skiers in the Soviet Union.

Head red V. Andreev, described as “short, cold-eyed, and far from handsome,” made comrades out of capitalists after breaking out his special Russian vodka and strong cigarettes in the Jerome bar. His mission, though, was to ensure that post-war Japan and Germany not be permitted to re-join the FIS and participate in Aspen, which they did not.

The Europeans — called “slat riding invaders” by the Post — especially liked Aspen’s cowboy mystique, populating the Ski and Spur bar where Curley Smith called the square dancing. Armory Hall (now City Hall) featured nightly John Jay ski movies, dancing, and Western entertainment hosted by 1939 World Champion All-around cowboy Ross Weeks.

But perhaps the entrant that best represented the spirit of the times was Harold Neider, Holland’s one man ski team. Called the Flying Dutchman, Neider, an aeronautical engineer based in California, bought a used plane for $200 and flew it to Aspen’s dirt-strip airport by following the highways, with his skis sticking straight up out of the cockpit. He went on to finish all three races, including second to last in the downhill, and said that “flying in the Rockies was tricky.”

The FIS slalom course down Slalom Hill to the top of Mill Street. Credit: Aspen Historical Society

Fickle weather

As is still the case with scheduled international ski races, officials and business people in town tightened their sphincters when the weather took a turn for the worse, in a time when snowmaking was akin to alchemy and grooming happened in the barber shop.

According to recollected accounts, six days before events were to begin temperatures approached 50 degrees Fahrenheit and rain pounded the slopes as high up as midway on Ruthie’s. But later that night the temperature dropped and the rain turned into snow, leaving some 20 inches of powder the next morning under blue skies.

In true Aspen style, Dick Durrance called off work and led a posse of racers and the willing on a wild morning of powder skiing. Among them were Europeans who had no idea how great Aspen snow could be. That afternoon the race crew of 30 who had shoveled and packed for over two months on the courses went back to work.

While December of that winter had yielded only 12.6 inches, January came through with 44.1 inches, and the new February snow rounded out Aspen Mountain’s top base to 64 inches, 54 midway, and 26 at the base. Cold nights, clear days, and warm afternoons followed during race week. Conditions were variously described as bumpy, icy, glazed, hard-packed, and soft.

Perhaps the modern Aspen axiom that says put on a World Cup downhill (FIS dates back to 1924, while “World Cup” FIS began in 1967) and it will snow, began with our first international ski race.

Jack “Red Dog” Reddish of the United States practices slalom for the FIS races. Credit: Aspen Historical Society, Henry Collection

Lions versus bucks

Because of World War II, an entire generation of great European racers had lost their best years. As a result, an eager spirit took hold for the elite of ski racing to show up in Aspen. This brought out the lions of Europe, who hadn’t convened since the 1948 Saint Moritz Olympics.

Among the 91 racers from 14 countries who came were such stalwarts as Zeno Colò of Italy, James Couttet of France, and Rudolph Rominger of Switzerland, who would take on a herd of young bucks that included Stein Eriksen of Norway and Christian Pravda of Austria. Pravda had carved his own wooden skis and scraped down the tops to soften them, while Eriksen’s father had made his skis back in Norway.

Another young Austrian, Walter Schuster, who had somehow just won the junior Austrian championship with one foot in a cast, suffered a double fracture of his right leg during training on the slick downhill. He was one of 13 racers injured during practice and the newspapers made regular headlines of the pre-carnage.

Local racing favorite Pete Seibert, a former Tenth Mountain ski trooper and ski patrolman who qualified for the U.S. team, chipped his ankle training in Sun Valley and couldn’t compete. Nevertheless, in addition to having a trail on Aspen Mountain named after him, he went on to found Vail.

In the women’s division, some of the hopefuls were Andrea Mead of the United States, Celina “The Tigress” Seghi of Italy, and Austria’s Dagmar Rom and Trude Jochem-Beiser.

In a change from past European FIS schedules, where the downhill was held first and racers earned their starting order in the slalom and giant slalom from their downhill performance, the men’s and women’s downhills were scheduled last in Aspen because of fear that the “ferocious terrain” would eat up racers and too many might be absent from the other two formats.

Under Chief of Race Friedl Pfeifer, Durrance and Fred Iselin set the courses for all six races.

The FIS giant slalom course coming out of lower Silver Queen (today’s upper Little Nell). Note the Constam T-bar terminal (1948-’56) at the top of Schuss Gully. Before upper Little Nell was cleared of trees and before the Kleenex Corner road was bulldozed to the top of Nell (in the early 1950s) numerous mine dumps and ramshackle debris populated the unskiable terrain to the skier’s right of lower Silver Queen. Credit: Aspen Historical Society, Ringquist Collection

Giant slalom

Events opened on Sunday as the Rifle, Colo., high school band — whose female trombone player’s instrument froze — led a parade of officials and racers from the Hotel Jerome, down Mill Street and into Wagner Park for opening ceremonies. Governor Lee Knous, Mayor Gene Robison, and FIS president Colonel N.R. Ostguaard, military aide to Prince Olaf of Norway, gave speeches under international flags.

First on the schedule for Monday and Tuesday was a new type of ski race recently introduced in Europe by Gunther Lange of Italy, who’d named the concept “Slalom Giganteus.” Durrance brought the new format to the Aspen FIS, making it the first giant slalom in the United States as well as the first ever in a World Championships or the Olympics, said the January 1986 edition of Skiing Magazine. Then, the race consisted of one run instead of two combined as in modern racing.

The men’s giant slalom began at the top of today’s Silver Queen where the Schiller Road intersects. The women’s giant slalom started on lower Silver Queen, uphill and east of the existing Compromise Mine building. Both courses offered a fast, risky line out of the Queen before entering Schuss 
Gully on the west side of the enormous Veteran’s Mine ore bin and down to the top of Mill.

The Post described the men’s terrain as a drop of 1,800 feet through 35 gates, negotiating a “series of counter-slope turns with compressions and three circus jumps,” while the women’s dropped 1,200 feet through 35 gates. A fall-away jump turn off the lip of the Elevator Shaft for the men offered airborne drama.

Colò’s style, which he developed in Switzerland during the war after he’d hiked across the border and surrendered to Swiss authorities, was such that he “races wide open and either wins or cracks up,” the Post wrote. George Macomber, the youngest on the U.S. ski team, observed that Colò was the first to realize what a ski could do, making parallel turns while stepping from ski to ski. “He was not a stylist but fast,” said Macomber.

After the 1948 Olympics, Eriksen, then 20, was characterized as the “prototype flash-or-crash racer.” He’d ridden a Greyhound bus across the country to Aspen from Hartford, after working in a ski shop there to learn American ways. Showing up early before the races, he stayed at the Gray House for a dollar per night. Word spread of his skiing skills and he became the hot kid in town.

The Feb. 14 Post reported that “he of the high forehead and gold-plated smile,” Colò, won while “twisting, turning, and schussing,” with a time of 1:54.4 seconds, 1.2 seconds ahead of second place finisher Fernand Grosjean of Switzerland, and 1.3 seconds ahead of third place James Couttet of France.

The old hands successfully held back the young challengers Eriksen and Pravda, who finished 11th and 12th respectively. Eriksen would go on to be a gold medal Olympian and skiing superstar, while Pravda would go on to win the Hahnenkamm downhill twice, considered the toughest race course in the world.

FIS 1950 winners and world champions, George Schneider, Trude Jochem-Beiser, Dagmar Rom, and Zeno Colò. Credit: Aspen Historical Society

Racing romances

The women’s giant slalom ran on Tuesday, Valentine’s Day. On a cold morning, the star of the race if not the talk of the town was Austrian Dagmar Rom, a blond 21-year-old philosophy student from Innsbruck, aspiring actress, and celebrated knitter, who raced wearing a headscarf tied under her chin to contain her curls.

The Austrian women found the fastest line and snow-plow checked—high-speed side checks had not yet been invented on the equipment both men and women had then—before the “circus jumps,” sweeping all but third place of the top seven finishers. Rom beat second-place Trude Jochem-Beiser by two-tenths of a second, and third-place Lucienne Schmidt-Couttet of France by one second. That same day Rom and her teammate, the “straw-haired knicker-wearing speedster” Egon Schöpf, announced their engagement.

The nearest American hopeful in the men’s giant slalom, Jack “Red Dog” Reddish, who grew up skiing at Alta and Sun Valley, finished 27th. In 1954, as a 27-year-old ski instructor in Sun Valley, he charmed a stunning 18-year-old Katharine Thalberg, who’d been visiting there with her family. Soon after, they married in Reno, Nevada. The marriage was short-lived and Thalberg much later started Aspen’s classic Explore Booksellers.

The Post said the Americans had good style but were slow because of bad ski wax, while the Italians, French, and Swiss used “buzz-bomb juice.” A recent groom himself, Colò attributed his victory to local Italian ski shop owner Mike Magnifico’s “witches brew” wax.

Aspen’s “original ski bum” and Tenth Mountain vet Steve Knowlton, owner of the famed Golden Horn, called the “rip-roaringist place in Aspen” by the Rocky Mountain News, placed 44th for the U.S. The Horn, as it was known, with its good food and live music was jam-packed nightly with racers, press, and the social register of Aspen, including the ubiquitous Gary Cooper.

Austrian Dagmar Rom racing in the FIS slalom. Note her characteristic racing head scarf to contain her big hair. Credit: Aspen Historical Society, Henry Collection
Andrea Mead Lawrence racing in the slalom of the 1950 FIS World Championships on upper Magnifico as it leads down into the FIS trail before finishing at the top of Mill Street. Mead finished sixth. Note the natural bamboo pole and her square on approach to the gate, as opposed to the emerging reverse-shoulder technique of Pravda and Eriksen that allowed racers to pass closer to the gate. Credit: Durrance Family


The men’s and women’s slalom followed on Wednesday and Thursday, running from the top of today’s Magnifico and down the eponymous FIS Slalom Hill. Not as tight as modern slalom courses and without the vertical straight flushes of today, the men’s and women’s ran 38 and 32 gates respectively through a maze of bumps to the Mill Street finish.

Before the slalom, Colò petitioned for traditional wooden-poled gates instead of the new flexible bamboo because of the emerging reverse-shoulder technique developed by Christian Pravda, which enabled racers to hug up close to the gates with their backs.

Colò’s technique, which suited the old style of rounding solid gates and not hitting them, lessened the chance of a gate falling in front of the racer, while Pravda’s new reverse-shoulder aggressively smacked the lighter bamboo gates off his shoulder blades, often knocking them over behind him. But the FIS committee saw the future and went with bamboo.

Pravda’s new method, one that Eriksen and other reverse-shoulder stylists refined, lasted into the 1960s and produced a faster, straighter line that dislodged a lot of gates. Essentially, Pravda pioneered the skill of modern slalom racers who now wear warrior helmets with face masks, hand and shin guards, and armored clothing to mow down hinged poles like self-righting punch toys, while their skis pass centimeters away from the gates.

Despite his protest, Colò still placed second. Georges Schneider, Swiss cabinet maker and 1948 Olympian, beat Colò by three tenths of a second to win the slalom with a time of 2:06.4, followed by Eriksen 1.6 seconds behind in third. Schneider commented to the Feb. 16 Sheridan, Wyo., Press that, “Small school boys would run this course. I am accustomed to something more difficult.”

On Thursday, the women’s slalom had a smooth base, thanks to the male racers who boot-packed and slipped the soft course following their Wednesday competition. Both the men’s and women’s French teams used a special breathing technique of snorts to clear the lungs that “sounded like a freight train on a hard grade.”

Slalom specialist Friedl Pfeifer had coached the U.S. women’s team. But Austria dominated the slalom, placing Dagmar Rom in first at 1:47.8, with teammate Erika Mahringer one-tenth of a second behind, followed by Seghi of Italy 1.7 seconds out in third. Some three seconds behind Rom, 17-year-old American Andrea Mead came in sixth over rough chatter marks.

A skier at the top of the 1950 FIS downhill start along today’s Jet Trash Traverse to Bonnies restaurant above Midway on Ruthies. The sign reads ‘Open, FIS Downhill.’ Credit: Aspen Historical Society
A racer plummets down Niagara in the 1950 FIS downhill. Credit: Aspen Historical Society


More accustomed to skiing on courses set on natural mountain terrain and glaciers, the Europeans had never seen a course carved out of mining chaos. Some characterized the men’s race as an obstacle course. The Post called it a “Barnum and Baily Circus without a net.” Reckoned to be 2.3 miles long with a 2,800-foot vertical drop and only eight gates, nobody could take it straight.

Some complained of “reverse troughs” that threw them backward. With plenty of room for creative line finding, each racer had to devise a plan for speed on the hard-packed course devoid of any pads or netting save for a few hay bales.

Eriksen was the favorite. At 22, he’d grown up in Holmenkollen, Norway, the ski jumping capital of the world, and he wasn’t afraid of big air. Meanwhile, Colò and others had been developing strategies. The buzz was whether to jump the big bumps or check before them and try to make ground time on a course that had all the racers a bit on edge.

Fortunately the sun was shining that Saturday. The starting gate above midway on today’s Jet Trash Traverse road to Bonnie’s Restaurant launched racers into a ribbonlike FIS trail, after the starter stomped on the striker of an oversize desk-service bell. Technicians also manually punched stop watches coordinated over the phones in case of an electronic failure.

Coming off FIS, they turned left just above the bottom of today’s Lift 6 (first built in 1959) into Spar, which narrowed radically ahead like the V of a gunsight, but not before negotiating two tailing piles left by the Tourtelotte Park miners: the “Little Dam” and the “Big Dam”—often recollected as just the dam, but in actuality they were like a two-hump camel.

Little Dam stood where the now-flattened knoll at the bottom of Lift 6 serves as a loading platform. Back then the dump had a backward lip to it, as evidenced by an online video of old films from the race (see YouTube). A blink later came the Big Dam, a large roll that launched some racers nearly 100 feet to the high left of Spar near the bottom of modern S-1 Gully.

Pre-jumping and body positions in air were still in the development stage and clothing was as aerodynamic as a loose tarp. Some wrapped leather straps around their pantaloon-style ski pants for less flapping. Many snow-plow checked in advance of the big jumps, because high-speed side-checking on eight-foot hickory skis with screwed-in metal edges — such as the popular Authier Vampire — meant disaster. Others paddled like ducks to stay upright in the air. Some even skied around the dams.

At the time, the French were using a pre-jump style, and Colò added his innovation, placing his hands lower to form a rudimentary egg-position. He and his Italian teammates were also known to rub snow on their eyelids at a race start to chill their tear ducks and decrease wind tearing.

A racer comes off the compression at the bottom of Niagara in the men’s FIS downhill. Note the entry notch upper left. Racers came down the lower face of today’s Niagara into the flats at the bottom of today’s Lift 5. At the time, upper Niagara and upper Little Nell had not been cleared of trees and mine dumps. Credit: Aspen Historical Society, Kaeser Collection
Stein Eriksen’s famous fall at the compression at the bottom of Niagara during the 1950 FIS World Championships men’s downhill. After the fall, he scrambled to his feet and finished the race twenty-ninth out of the 48 finishers, 17 seconds behind Colò and only four-tenths of a second behind his older brother Marius, who finished twenty-seventh. The February shadows to the left on Niagara’s northerly face show that the picture was taken in the mid-morning. Credit: Aspen Historical Society, Knowlton Collection

The Niagara leap

After the dams, racers settled into rippled terrain that rocketed them down the high-side left of Spar under the current Zaugg Dump. A wide right turn then angled them over the V-shaped gulley of original Spar, which the Sept, 20, 1951, Aspen Times later described as “like the old fashioned V-trough used to slop the pigs,” after the Ski Corporation bulldozed 40 feet of dirt into the narrows to make it “wide and suitable for beginners.”

Once across the gully compression, they followed a side hill over washboard chatter on the lower part of Bell Mountain, shooting them through what was then a ditch rather than the ballroom of Grand Junction we know today.

They then crossed left to a slender traverse—below the not-yet-carved Kleenex Corner road—running along today’s Bell chair line in Bingo Slot. From there the “steilhang leap” off Niagara loomed ahead “like a notch in the side of the hill with a view of Red Mountain.” With no room to choose a line, they vaulted out near the current stand of pine trees (now called Hemorrhoid Gully) on upper Niagara.

Part of the calculus after landing some 70 feet down, with a snow-plow check at the top, was to be able to suck up a compression before the roll into Schuss Gully. There was no relaxing after that because three turns between mine dumps with a road cut followed into the finish and down the east side of the Veteran’s Mine ore bin.

Stein Eriksen practices the new reverse shoulder technique to get closer to the gate, unveiled by him and Christian Pravda at men’s FIS slalom. Credit: Aspen Historical Society

Eriksen versus Colò

Intrigue pitted the confident Eriksen against a seasoned Colò, the “reckless wood chopper from Abetone.” Colò started sixth and Eriksen soon followed. Colò unveiled his pre-jumping style over the upper dams and executed a plan to carry maximum speed to Niagara, snow-plow check before the lip, and pre-jump the dreaded denouement before making good time into the finish.

Eriksen, on the other hand, had a young man’s plan to run wide open the whole way down, taking big air on all the jumps, leaning Nordic-style over his tips. What he didn’t know as he stood in the starting gate was that Colò had just checked before the Niagara jump.

Legend says that Stein had a fast time to Niagara and that he opted to carry it over the lip without a check, landing him three quarters of the way down where the compression famously tossed him into a windmilling spill for the ages.

Yet — with his skis still attached by cinched Arlberg straps and bear-trap toes — he scrambled to his feet and finished the race 29th out of the 48 finishers, 17 seconds behind Colò and only four-tenths of a second behind his older brother Marius, who finished 27th.

The Feb. 20, 1950, Calgary Herald wrote that “the squat Italian farmer crouches so low he appears to sit on his skis,” after Colò won the downhill with a time of 2:34.4, averaging 53 mph, followed by James Couttet of France and Egon Schöpf of Austria, one and two seconds respectively behind him.

Austrian Trude Jochem-Beiser, described as a “housewife and mother,” won the women’s downhill on the Ruthie’s side the day before, averaging 50.4 mph on the 1.75-mile course, described as “combining the bumps of a roller coaster and the speed of a golf ball.” The road cut traverse to Roch below the bottom of today’s Ruthie’s lift ate up a few of the women and became known as the “point of no return.” Erika Mahringer of Austria and Georgette Thioliere of France finished second and third, one and two seconds behind Jochem-Beiser. Rom placed ninth.

Zeno Colo in an FIS slalom race on Slalom Hill on Aspen Mountain, not far above the finish line at the top of Mill Street. Credit: Durrance family
Zeno Colò, the ‘reckless wood chopper from Abetone,’ and holder of the 1947 world speed record on skis (98.7 mph), was the men’s downhill winner at the 1950 FIS World Championships in Aspen. He went on to win the 1952 Olympic downhill in Oslo, Norway. In his career he also won the Lauberhorn downhill in Switzerland and the Kandahar downhill in Austria. Judging by his ruddy face and the jagged peaks behind him, this photo may have been taken in Europe some years after his Aspen victory as younger 30-year-old. Colò died of lung cancer in 1993 at the age of 72 in Tuscany, Italy. The asteroid 58709 Zenocolò, discovered in 1998, was named in his honor. Credit: Durrance Family

Noted tumbles

Canada’s Ernie McCulloch, the “King of Mont Tremblant,” tried to jump both dams, but landed on the crest of the second. Aspen ski patrolman Jim Ellertson recollected in the September 1999 Skiing Heritage Magazine that McCulloch soared and then cartwheeled. “In terms of drama,” Ellertson said, “it was a tie between Ernie at the dam and Stein at Niagara.”

Norwegian Guttorn Berge sailed over both dams but exploded on landing, knocking out a few teeth, injuring a shoulder, and suffering a concussion. Berge especially liked American cold cereal, which he called “flikk-flakk,” while Colò craved Aspen cherry pie.

Jim Griffith of the United States, a rookie from Sun Valley, was carrying a winning time but fell near the finish and tangled in the hay bales. He managed to crawl across the finish line losing 10 seconds, which was the difference in time between him and second place.

Aspen innkeeper Steve Knowlton, who’d finished 32nd in the slalom, pulled out of the downhill the night before with his wife in labor during Saturday’s wee hours. His son, local attorney Jamie Knowlton, was born at 9:10 that morning.

In a March 1950 Ski magazine article, James Laughlin wrote that to improve, young Americans had to compete in Europe, and that “they fell to pieces because of a lack of experience. … Men in their late twenties and thirties have wives and kids, and the call to glory sounds loudest when a man is 18 with no responsibilities,” wrote Laughlin.

The Italian team with racing skis of the era, waxed with “witches brew” by Mike Magnifico on the right (namesake of Magnifico Run on Aspen Mountain). Zeno Colò and Celina “The Tigress” Seghi are to his right. The long wooden skis are equipped with Kandahar bindings, aka bear-trap bindings. The Kandahar binding allowed the forward-pressure cable to be hooked under a U-shaped clip on both sides of the ski to keep the heel down. If unhooked from the side clips the heel could rise vertically. In either mode the toe remained locked into a metal wedge under a strap, called the bear trap because it didn’t release. Ankle-high ski boots were further secured to the ski by wrap-around “Arlberg straps.”
The finish of the 1950 FIS World Championships in Aspen at the top of Mill Street. A man on crutches and a number of spectators in non-skiing clothes watch. The Hotel Jerome is in the background. Five flagpoles down is the Turkish flag, though the finish roster for the races shows no Turkish skiers. Credit: Aspen Historical Society

One for the books

A gala dance at Armory Hall, billed by the Times as “the largest dance in Aspen History,” climaxed the races on Saturday night. Tickets cost $1.20 and were available to anyone. Italian Count and Comtessa Aldo Bonocassa held a dinner for the Italian team at the Hotel Jerome.

Later that night, Colò was hoisted onto the shoulders of racing revelers and paraded around the raucous Gold Horn, while everyone sang “O sole mio.” In 1998, the San Marcello observatory in Italy discovered and named an asteroid after Colò.

A jumping exhibition off the big Willoughby jump followed on Sunday. The show was “a no-contest affair purely for the fun of it,” said the Feb. 23, 1950, Aspen Times. At the bottom of the jumping hill the Glenwood High School band played to a crowd of 3,000.

A few of the Norwegian jumping team who’d dominated the Nordic events of the FIS held the month before in Lake Placid, N.Y., took part in the exhibition, along with a few of the racers, taking on locals and college competitors from around the state. Stein Eriksen jumped 158 feet and Christian Pravda popped 172, but nobody beat U.S. men’s team coach Barney Mclean’s previously set record of 206.

The only controversies of the week were two: One came from the Finns, who objected to the adulterated ways American potatoes were cooked; they repeatedly requested and finally received plain boiled potatoes. The other snafu, straight out of the Aspen canine portfolio, occurred when a dog at one of the races triggered a false electronic start with his wagging tail.

At Aspen’s dirt-strip airport, manager Tom Benedict had never seen so many twin-engine planes, averaging 2.5 passengers to a plane, said the Feb. 23 Times. By the end of race week the runway became so muddy nobody could take off and they had to wait for the ground to harden. Otherwise, most came and went via the Aspen bus, connecting to the train in Glenwood Springs, two years before Paepcke started Aspen Airways.

Some 5,000 people came to town that week. Many were looky-loos in galoshes and overcoats from around Colorado who came to see what the new-fangled business of skiing was about. But the die was cast and word spread of Aspen’s charm, challenging ski terrain, quality snow, and blue skies. A rise in real estate prices followed, the Times later noted, and Aspen has barely paused since.

Editor’s note: Many of the anecdotes in this story come from news clippings collected by the Aspen Historical Society. Some do not show the newspaper’s name or date. Sources are cited where available. The story was done in collaboration with the Aspen Daily News, which published it on Sunday, March 12, 2017. Tim Cooney, the author, is a veteran ski patroller on Aspen Mountain and a freelance writer working on Aspen Journalism’s History Desk.