Other than a juicy scandal, nothing excites Aspenites more than new ski terrain.
Such a treat is in store for the 2020-21 season on Aspen Mountain, should Aspen Skiing Co.’s plans come to fruition, with expanded terrain and a lift in the east-facing Pandora’s side of the mountain, beyond Walsh’s and out to Harris’ Wall. That snow-loading lee side of Aspen Mountain has an interesting history.
On the cold night of Dec. 8, 1972, after a big powder day, Aspen Mountain ski patrollers were celebrating the good life at the Red Onion bar, when word came round that the talented and universally admired, local ski goddess Meta Burden had not returned home that night. Adding to the intrigue, she and the late Tim Howe, a seasoned, consummate princeling of the patrol in his prime, were having an affair.
Howe and Burden had been skiing that day, his day off, back when the patrol worked six days a week. With a December base nearing 40 inches, the new storm had left a lot of weight on top of a ground layer of faceted snow with poor adhesion, known as depth hoar.
That afternoon, Burden, a one-time racer who skied on 207 Dynamic VR17s — the black-and-gold, cultish, French racing boards that ski-bums worshiped — had an argument with Howe outside the Sundeck. She wanted to ski Kristi. Howe said no, the snowpack there was too dangerous. They had words, and she skied off alone for a defiant, white-room run there.
By 7 p.m., the patrol was riding up top in the back of a Tucker Sno-cat from the base of the brand new Lift 1A. Howe had already snowmobiled up to look for her. Her tell-tale tracks led into Kristi, where, according to the American Avalanche Association’s “Snowy Torrents 1972-1979,” a 24-inch soft-slab had run 600 feet over Loushin’s Road — now Lud’s Lane — below.
At the time, the runs we know today as Kristi, Hyrup’s and Walsh’s were closed areas not subject to avalanche control, poached through pinball-like entrances of thick woods. While the snow-loaded Kristi had not slid that year, Walsh’s had the day before during the big two-day cycle.
At 10:30 pm, with snow still falling, while probing by lantern light, patrol found Burden under four feet of snow about 200 feet below the road. Resuscitation proved fruitless. Former patroller Ed Cross recollects the victim was frozen solid and CPR was challenging. He looked up at Howe, who shook his head to indicate “No more.”
In the late 1970s, Howe, nicknamed “El Avalanchero,” became “supervisor of avalanche control” for Aspen Mountain, and he named the one-time-secret patrol ski stash just south of Kristi and Walsh’s “Pandora’s Box,” based on a concern over what would happen if the general public ever ventured into the steep, timbered terrain that ends with no obvious runout to the valley floor or return to the ski area.
Since then, that frontier along the east flank of Aspen Mountain and Richmond Hill, stretching out past McFarlane’s Bowl above Difficult Creek, has been pushed by out-of-bounds skiers and has caught more than a few in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Before Walsh’s, Hyrup’s and Kristi became part of Aspen Mountain’s open terrain in 1984, the steep gullies of Pandora’s, out to Powerline and beyond, held a high degree of the wild unknown. That entire east side of Aspen Mountain from Pandora’s all the way south out Richmond Hill is now referred to in modern ski-patrol lingo as the “Far East.”
With avalanche dangers having always been a consideration along that steep ridge, some argue that the concept of understanding risk has diminished with the advent of high-tech beacons, airbags, cellphone dependence, and avalanche classes for dilettante experts.
That said, without frontiers, error and sacrifice, new ski-area terrain would never be tamed.
Way before skiing, miners along the east side tried to tap into the porpoising silver vein that ran out Richmond Hill past where the Sundeck restaurant now stands.
The Grand Duke, Hudson, Champion and Legal Tender mine claims converge in a matrix under what are now Kristi, Hyrup’s and Walsh’s, according to Aspen Skiing Co. documents.
An 1891 U.S. Geological Survey topographical map of Tourtelotte Park shows the Dutchman Tunnel to be in the woods on a land-bench overlooking today’s Pandora’s, where relics are still scattered in front of the collapsed mine. The April 9, 1892, edition of the Rocky Mountain Sun included a story about how Christopher Strassheim, a grocer from Chicago and owner of the Dutchman, tried a side-line strategy into Richmond Hill. The same topo map locates Strassheim’s Little Robert hole on the summer “nature trail” along the east rim next to the logs of a one-time cabin, where today’s powder hounds traverse south of Powerline in winter.
The Sun said the plan by Strassheim, who had floated a $2 million capitalization and formed Colorado and Illinois Mining, was to tunnel west into his Little Robert, Lime and Quartzite claims along Richmond Hill.
The Aspen Evening Chronicle reported on July 1, 1893, that while on a mountain lion hunt southwest of Richmond Hill with a pack of dogs, Strassheim and a visiting “young German capitalist” cornered a “king of the forest” on a cliff. The capitalist’s shot wounded the lion, which jumped into the pack of dogs below, and “things were terribly mixed … the howls of the dogs, the angry roar of the wounded beast.” The capitalist fired again, and “the brute fell over dead.”
Strassheim’s work in the Dutchman stopped in 1893 when the tunnel hit solid granite and silver prices crashed, the Aspen Democrat noted on July 11, 1907, after Strassheim tried to reopen the tunnel. But his speculation fueled optimism for a second mining boom.
“Ere long our idle mines will become hives of industry,” the Democrat said, but big-time mining never came back, and Aspen slipped into its “Quiet Years” until skiing mushroomed after World War II.
Working by torchlight
The earliest ski-related avalanche documented on the east side of Aspen Mountain occurred on Feb. 14, 1948, on a lower, steeper face on Difficult Trail.
In those days, Aspen Mountain skiing maps and signs outside the Sundeck showed Little Annie and Difficult as ski runs, in an era when non-pampered trails and personal responsibility were accepted norms.
The Denver Post reported on Feb. 16, 1948, that “Alexander McFaddon, a businessman from Tennessee, died beneath an avalanche above Difficult Creek.” He and his cousin Alexander Cushing, along with ski patrolman Morris Shepard and Aspen Ski School director Percy Rideout, a 10th Mountain vet of the pivotal World War II battle of Riva Ridge, “left the Sundeck at 2 p.m. to explore the Difficult Trail, seldom used this time of year.”
The exact location is hard to discern. “They skied across the open upper slope and into the smaller of two basins above Difficult Creek” when Shepard, skiing last, saw the basin crack loose. Cushing and Rideout were caught and half-buried, but the brunt of the “300-yard” slide engulfed McFaddon, “who tried desperately to out-ski the torrent.” Shepard “sent out an SOS from a ranch phone” below.
Led by Friedl Pfeifer, Dick Durrance and Fred Iselin, 30 Aspen Ski Corporation personnel responded, while others rode the lifts up by 8 p.m. The rescue party swelled to “almost 100 men,” who skied to the scene with flashlights. Working by torchlight and bonfires, they dug through the “ice-hard tumble of snow,” estimated to be 20 feet deep.
At 4:45 a.m. the next morning, after “squaring an excavated shaft,” they found “the crushed body of McFadden … eight feet below the surface.” Pfeifer said he had never seen a community turn out in an emergency as Aspen did.
Some today speculate that, with time, “McFaddon” may have morphed into “McFarlane’s” Bowl, since The Post account describes two basins (similar to McFarlane) above Difficult, where the tragedy may have occurred. But historical evidence of a one-time sawmill in the area suggests otherwise.
On Aug. 12, 1882, the Sun reported that Aspen pioneer Andy McFarlane moved his steam-powered sawmill from Ashcroft to “the Roaring Fork River above Ute City.” The Sun wrote on Nov. 28, 1885, that McFarland built a sawmill — called “Blandy Mill” — and road up Difficult Creek, while the April 16, 1887, edition of the Aspen Times located the mill uphill on “the northeast slope of Aspen Mountain.”
This would be on the lower bench southeast of today’s Pandora’s, now called “Sawmill Park,” where rusted boilers and old stacked logs can be found. A defined logging road, reinforced by a stone retaining wall beyond Powerline, still angles up to the top of Aspen Mountain from there.
Blurbs in around-town columns in the Sun and Times in the 1880s further mention McFarlane’s mill and that the trail up from Difficult Campground to Richmond Hill was McFarlane’s lower logging road. The many old stumps in the area suggest that “McFarlane’s Gulch” and upper Difficult area supplied wood for the mill.
McFarlane also operated a mill up Hunter Creek and supplied Aspen with its building wood in the 1880s, said his obituary that appeared in the April 29, 1895, edition of the Times. Appointed by Colorado Gov. Walker Pitkin in 1881, McFarlane was the first sheriff of Pitkin County, the obituary said.
He died at age 44 after falling into a shaft while not using a candle in the Della S., next door to the Smuggler Mine. “The remains were accompanied to the Rio Grande train depot by seventy-five Masons,” and his cousin DRC Brown Sr. and family accompanied his body to Denver.
McFarlane was also a celebrated wrestler and “nozzleman” for the Cowenhoven firefighting team, said the Times and Sun. After returning from a mining stint in southern Colorado, McFarlane was quoted in the Chronicle on Sept. 3, 1890, as saying: “If a man thinks Aspen is dull he has only to make a trip outside, and he is quickly cured of any hallucination that may have possessed his brain.”