Snowmass: 40 and counting
December 17, 2007
ASPEN, Colorado ” In the late 1950s, Bill Janss was searching for the next great place to ski. When he spied the mountains above Brush Creek over the wing of his airplane, an idea was born.
On Dec. 16, 1967, after nine months of chaotic construction, Snowmass-at-Aspen opened with five chairlifts accessing 3,000 acres of wide-open ski terrain. A lift ticket cost $6.50.
Forty years later, one man’s dream is not just the mountain of bricks and lumber that make up the town of Snowmass Village, but one of the most popular ski resorts in North America.
Today, a lift ticket costs $86 and the ski area sees more than 750,000 skier visits annually. It’s the largest and most lucrative of the Aspen Skiing Co.’s four mountains, ranking fifth in a Ski magazine rating of North America.
Skico has poured some $65 million into on-mountain improvements in recent years, and the area is getting a new million-square-foot Base Village.
And while the years of rampant development may not align with Janss’ original vision, the ski area that he carved from raw forest and historic ranch land has proved a resounding, if imperfect, success.
A poster-sized photo of Bill Janss hangs on the wall in a side bedroom of Mary Janss’ home in Aspen’s West End. In it her father, Bill Janss, has just hopped up, grinning, from a face-plant in fresh powder.
“Snowmass was one of his favorite places,” Janss said.
Bill Janss skied up until his death in 1996. A graduate of Stanford and a one-time member of the U.S. Olympic alpine ski team, Janss first came to Aspen on a three-month honeymoon in 1940 and fell in love with the area.
It was his passion for skiing and love of the mountains as much as his business sense ” he was a successful developer in California ” that inspired Janss to begin acquiring historic ranches in the Brush Creek Valley starting in the late 1950s.
Some ranchers, like Sam Stapleton of “Sam’s Knob” fame, held out, but in the end, Janss was able to acquire most of the ranches, including the Hoaglund Ranch land that would become the base of the ski area.
Working with his brother, Ed, and friends like Kingsbury “Pitch” Pitcher and a crew of energetic, young businessmen, Janss wanted to create a series of European-style villages connected by trails ” a place where people could leave their vehicles and enjoy ski-in, ski-out convenience in an intimate village setting.
“His dream was to make it like Zermatt with a train and no cars,” Mary Janss said.
She attended European boarding schools while her father toured the fabled ski towns of the Alps ” Kitzbühel, Zermatt, Garmisch ” searching for ideas for an idyllic ski village in the U.S.
“He loved to envision and go after the design of something new,” Mary Janss said. “He loved the concept of having wide-open spaces for people to float through.”
After acquiring the lands on the mountain and the ranches throughout the valley in the early and mid-1960s, Janss coupled with then-Aspen Ski Corporation president D.R.C. Brown to bring Snowmass to life. Janss would run the town side and the Ski Corp., which had run snowcat skiing there since the early 1960s, would run the slopes.
The name Snowmass comes from the 14,092-foot peak of the same name that sits several miles away ” a more catchy term than Mount Baldy or Brush Creek, which made up the actual ski area terrain. (Longtime locals still bristle at the addition of Snowmass Village and Snowmass ski area to a valley where the giant peak, an alpine lake, a creek and even a ranching-oriented part of the valley already bore the Snowmass name.)
By December 1967, Snowmass was home to a few hotels, restaurants and the Snowmelt Road, where heated coils beneath the pavement allowed vehicles to drive the steep stretch in winter snow.
Ten years later, Snowmass Village incorporated as a town.
“No one knew whether Snowmass would be successful,” said Dick Moebius, a partner.
But ever since the 1967 opening, Snowmass has boomed, becoming one of the premier family-focused ski resorts in the country, Moebius said.
“We had tons of people here,” Moebius said of opening day. “We knew the place was going to go.”
Moebius remembers Stein Eriksen and his gang of ski instructors jumping on skis through a hoop set up on Fanny Hill. “It was kind of enchanting,” Moebius said of those early days on the village mall.
Chuck Vidal came to Snowmass from California as a representative of the Janss Corporation in 1965.
“It was hellbent. We were just a bunch of young Turks out there spending money and making it happen ” and not a lot of restraints,” Vidal said. “It’s the kind of thing that doesn’t happen today.”
Aspen was more “provincial” at the time, Vidal said, and locals believed “Snowmass was somewhere near Utah.”
And it was easy to earn approvals from the Pitkin County Commissioners, Vidal said. No one showed up at public comment for approval of the new ski area: just Vidal and three longtime commissioners.
And though the design team was “short on experience,” Vidal said, they were given a lot of freedom and brought a lot of energy to what Vidal called a “myriad of negotiations” for everything from roads to water and sewer services.
Construction wasn’t easy, Vidal said.
“Hunting season came and everybody went hunting,” Vidal said.
Ski patrollers and ski instructors working summer jobs in construction dropped their tool bags once the flakes started flying.
“There really wasn’t a construction industry as there is here today,” Vidal said.
But nine months later and just days before opening, a heavy snow covered the stacks of wood and materials in what was more a “construction site” than a ski area, according to Vidal.
“It was close to miraculous what was accomplished there in an extremely short period of time,” said Rollie Herberg, project manager for the duration of the project.
Opening day came off without major glitches, and a group of journalists, including an NBC television crew, were on hand to document the opening.
John Cooley, an early marketing director with the project, said hiring Eriksen as ski school director “really put Snowmass on the map,” as did a Boston Herald article that referred to “the Beautiful People of Snowmass.” The resort took off from the start to become one of the largest ski areas in the U.S., posting its own record attendance of 884,066 skier visits in the 1997-98 season.
Janss wouldn’t be around to see his idea come to life, though. Under some financial strain, according to sources close to him, Janss sold his shares to the American Cement Company before the project was finished.
Janss went on to run the ski area in Sun Valley, Idaho, until the mid-1970s.
“It was a wonderful dream he had,” McBride said of Janss. “But what’s happening out there is far from his dream.”
Development since those early days has been somewhat piecemeal and unorganized, and Janss’ vision of multiple villages has been overtaken by golf courses, subdivisions and condominium complexes, but Snowmass Village is constantly reinventing itself.
Residents struggle to turn their resort into more of a true community, and town officials are busy crafting a comprehensive plan to take the town into the future.