Rocky Mountain High Real Estate Values

Street scene in Aspen, Colo.

Street view in Aspen, Colo.

by James A. Bacon

According to a 2011 Wall Street Journal article, Aspen, Colo., could boast of having the most expensive real estate in the country. I don’t know if that’s still true, but I wouldn’t be surprised. As I sit here blogging at Ink! Coffee, looking upon a patio filled with Pellegrino umbrellas and baskets of bright mountain flowers while perusing the real estate ads in The Aspen Times, it quickly becomes clear that this is a place where I could never afford to live. A 3,414-square-foot home with a view of Aspen Mountain and within walking distance of downtown is on the market for $4,995,000. Select neighborhoods in Manhattan might be more expensive on a per-square-foot basis — I don’t pretend to know the national real estate market — but there cannot be many places that are.

Prone as I am to over-thinking absolutely everything, I have been asking myself, how did Aspen get to be one of the most desirable locations in the planet, while small mountain towns in Virginia with comparable natural beauty slide into senescence? Does Aspen provide lessons that Virginia communities can learn from — not with the unrealistic aim of becoming a playground of the one percent, but with the modest goal of attracting tourists and retirees, supporting jobs, lifting the tax base, and paying for amenities that make life more enjoyable for the people who live there?

In the article that follows, I will endeavor to address those questions, fully cognizant that anything I say is based upon the hasty and superficial impressions. My methodology is simple: I stroll around town with iPhone camera in hand and an eye to observing land use, architecture, transportation, and the retail scene. As always, I pay attention to the quality of the public sphere and the “small spaces.” When possible, I engage people in conversation. As it happens, Aspeners (or Aspenites, whatever they call themselves) are incredibly friendly and eager to talk about their fair city.

Aspen got its start in the late 1880s as a silver-mining boom town. When the silver boom went bust, so did the town. Fortunes did not revive until 1946 when Friedl Pfeifer, a former Austrian skiing champion, linked up with industrialist Walter Paepcke and his wife Elizabeth to form the Aspen Skiing Corporation. The town’s most enduring resource, as it turned out, was not silver but world-class skiing.

The inter-mountain west has many  popular ski resorts, but none has done as well as Aspen at winning name recognition and attracting the super-rich. One key to its phenomenal success, I would suggest, is its silver-mining inheritance: a downtown laid out in a classic grid street pattern, a number of handsome brick buildings, and a municipal government intent upon preserving that heritage. Aspen has something that many of its ski-resort peers does not: walkability. Admittedly, Aspen isn’t the only walkable ski town — Jackson, Wyoming, springs to mind — so pedestrian ambiance is not exclusively responsible for vaulting it into the real estate stratosphere. But a comparison with Virginia/West Virginia ski resorts such as Wintergreen, Snowshoe and Massanutten lacking downtown districts suggest that walkability is a critical differentiator.

Downtown Aspen, comprising about two dozen blocks, is a destination in itself, and real estate ads tout houses’ proximity to the urban center. While the “Mountain Modern” style of architecture often presents a jarring contrast with the 1880s-era buildings, the overall effect is still magical. Visitors come to Aspen, fall in love, and gladly pay a premium to buy a house or condominium that allows them to live here.


Not only are historic buildings from Aspen’s silver-mining past architecturally distinctive but they help define the walkable street space.


One of the first things my wife, friends and I noticed when strolling around downtown was the paucity of cars. Traffic was negligible. I assumed the empty streets reflected the lassitude of the summer season at a skiing destination. But a friendly acquaintance, a commodities trader who moved here from Chicago, assured me otherwise. We were, in fact, experiencing peak downtown traffic. Summer tourism is booming, and a lot of people bring their own cars and four-wheel drives to take advantage of the hiking, fishing, rock climbing, and whitewater rafting.

While cars may be scarce, human beings are everywhere. The ability to live here without driving is a prime attraction. People can meet most of their daily needs by walking and biking. The commodities trader said he goes a week at a time without ever stepping in a car. Another acquaintance, a native Philadelphian who lives here eight months of the year and does business in New York, said when he recently sold a Jeep he’d owned twelve years, it only had 15,000 miles on it.

Uncongested streets are the result of thoughtful design. Aspen hews to the rules of classical urbanism. For starters, the buildings define the street space. Rather than standing out and saying, “Hey, look at me” with egocentric starchitect designs, they conform with one another in size, height and relationship to the street. By abutting the sidewalks, their facades delineate the public space of the sidewalk realm. While you won’t see many cars driving around, plenty are using the on-street parking — and that’s a good thing. Parked cars and building facades bracket the pedestrian domain as a distinct space. This pedestrian realm, as I shall describe, is adorned by flower gardens, rain gardens, statuary, street seating, and window shopping that make it extraordinarily inviting.

The town promotes walkability in other ways. Street corners are sharp, not rounded, requiring cars to slow down when they turn and also making for shorter pedestrian transit across streets The city has no stoplights; cars are required to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks. By encouraging people to walk and bike places, the lack of stoplights creates a dynamic where people don’t drive …. and don’t need stoplights.

The community also has invested in bicycle racks and stands of free bicycles, buses (running on compressed natural gas, naturally) that link Aspen with other communities in Pitkin County, and a free circulator bus in downtown. By my casual observation, more people use bicycles than cars to get around. Indeed, skateboards and Segways are common modes of conveyance.

Parking policy is critical. I don’t know what official policy is, but I can see the results. I observed only two lots in downtown proper, and one of them served a grocery store. Most parking is relegated on on-street slots, alleyways and garages. Insofar as parking lots and parking decks clash with walkability, creating visual dead zones, Aspen city policy avoids a cardinal sin committed by all too many other municipalities.


Place Making

Crucial to making a a place walkable is sustaining visual interest. Perhaps the most effective eye candy is other people. If the people in question are young, svelte and dressed in Spandex, all the better. Here in Aspen, walkability feeds upon itself. One of the reasons people like walking places is to enjoy the pleasure of seeing and encountering other people.

Aspen residents also love flowers. Downtown is full of pocket gardens — no space goes unwasted. Colorful mountain flowers adorn every every odd patch of land between buildings. Aspenites hang flowers in baskets, line their window sills with them, and place them in giant urns.


Aspen17People also love their statuary. The city doesn’t go in for the giant European-style monuments (although it has erected a modest statue of skiier Friedl Pfeifer), but there are numerous small statues on private plots of land, usually set amidst flower gardens. Aspenites, in my observation, favor of depictions of wildlife like the one above.

Pedestrian mall in downtown Aspen early Sunday morning before it fills up with people.

Pedestrian mall in downtown Aspen early Sunday morning before it filled up with people.

Over the years Aspen City Council has invested in creating plazas, parks and other attractive public places. Downtown can boast of an extraordinary one-block pedestrian mall (seen above) where people can sit under aspen trees, drink wine and eat meals served by restaurants on the mall. Perhaps the most remarkable touch was a tiny brook running through the middle of the mall. Any other municipality would have run the water through an underground pipe. Here, the stream created a unique feature that I have not seen in an urban garden anywhere else.



What does one call this body of water? A stream? A brook? A rivulet? Whatever, it is one of the most delightful sights I have ever beheld, and it epitomizes the extraordinary attention that the locals pay to small spaces. Above, the rivulet runs through a flower garden. To the left, it cuts through some aspen trees. If you need a sense of scale, the channel is just wide enough for a golden retriever to bask in. (We saw a dog cooling off later in the day. Just don’t drink from it, sparkling clear as the water appears. We saw another dog pee in it.)

Virtuous cycle

Aspen has not invested in any mega-projects that I can see. Instead, City Council has made small incremental improvements of a type that any Virginia city or town could afford — not all at once, of course, but over a generation or two.

The sustained effort has set into motion a highly virtuous cycle: Tourists come to ski and then fall in love with the city. They buy a house or condominium, driving up prices. Higher real estate valuations bring in higher tax revenues. In The Aspen Times I see a house selling for $7.8 million that brings in $17,500 a year in property tax revenues. When the average house is valued in multiples of millions of dollars, the tourism/second home/retirement nexus generates a gusher of tax revenue. Thus, City Council can afford to invest in more amenities — parks, trails, plazas, street ornamentation — that elevate the quality of life for everyone, the super-rich and locals alike.

This cycle may not seem so virtuous to local retail workers and bartenders who can’t afford to buy a house in Aspen near where they work. (Real estate is so expensive that I heard a story of a developer who purchased two vacant lots within walking distance of downtown for more than $10 million.) The working class does not live in Aspen — workers live in outlying communities, often riding buses into town. Although City Council has attempted to provide some affordable housing, I hear from locals, stiff density restrictions aggravate the housing scarcity. City policy preserves and protects the ambiance that the city’s 7,000 or so registered voters — and the city’s super-rich visitors — love so much. But in so doing, it perpetuates a transfer of wealth from the the renting class to the propertied class. Such are the inherent contradictions of progressive politics.

WIth all the trails around Aspen, mountain bikes and ATVs do a rip-roaring business.

WIth all the trails around Aspen, mountain bikes and ATVs do a rip-roaring business.

Can the cities and towns of Virginia’s mountainous west spark a similar virtuous cycle at a more modest level? Can they position themselves as locales where people come to play in an environment of extraordinary natural beauty — hiking, fishing, camping, spelunking, kayaking, rafting, rock climbing, mountain biking, ATV riding, bunji jumping, etc. — fall in love with the area, buy second homes and retirement homes, push up property values and invest in the amenities that benefit both locals and visitors alike?

The obvious difference between Aspen and Virginia towns such as Abingdon, Lexington and Staunton, or even resort communities like Wintergreen and the Homestead, is that Colorado has world-class skiing and Virginia does not. The Rockies rise higher, allowing longer ski slopes, and elevations are higher (Aspen is around 8,000 feet above sea level), creating consistently better snow conditions. That fact alone will make it impossible for any Virginia community to replicate Aspen.

But Virginia communities have a tremendous advantage: proximity to East Coast population centers. Aspen is remote. After flying to Denver at considerable expense, we had to rent a car and drive four hours to reach Aspen. Virginia communities as far south as Roanoke are located within a four-five hour drive of the Washington metropolitan area. Furthermore, Virginia communities are far more affordable. While Virginia communities don’t have much prospect of attracting the super-rich, they do have a shot at attracting the modestly rich and the well-to-do.

Aspen’s other hard-to-replicate asset is its downtown. Fortunately, many of Virginia’s mountain cities and towns were founded in an era when grid streets were the norm. Staunton, Lexington, Roanoke, Harrisonburg, Abingdon and Abingdon have charming downtowns. Sadly, local governments have cluttered and defiled outlying areas with small-town versions of “suburban sprawl” — scattered, disconnected, low-density growth that will take literally decades to un-do. But Aspen didn’t become Aspen overnight. Articulating a vision, building a consensus and sticking to it can repair the landscape and build upon existing assets like the Appalachian Trail, the Skyline Drive and the Virginia Creeper Trail.

Virginia also can draw upon rich historical, cultural and agricultural assets as well as Blue Ridge mountain landscapes that are just as beautiful, if not as spectacular, as the Rockies. Virginia communities also can bring to bear unique regional cuisine, musical traditions, mountain crafts and locally grown foods. The trick is to not view tourism as an economic generator by itself — the dollars are too small to support the economy — but as a means to create an enviable lifestyle and a tourism/second home/retirement complex that supports jobs, builds the tax base and supports a high quality of life.

There are currently no comments highlighted.

20 responses to “Rocky Mountain High Real Estate Values

  1. If Jim cannot afford to live in Aspen – what about the folks who serve him coffee and food and service his other needs like accommodations?

    Isn’t that the issue with any place whether it be Aspen or Northern Va or Richmond?

    All the folks who provide services also have to have a place to live and isn’t that a legitimate issue for govt and the private sector for any urbanized place?

    As far as comparing Aspen to SW Va ….

    you don’t need world-class skiing to attract scores of people for all manner of lower-brow activities these days. Western Va has the raw material for mountain biking , kayaking, hiking, rail-to trail, ATVs, horseback, camping, fishing, zip lines and more – even Airbnb – but mountaintops removed, rivers despoiled and good old boy attitudes… are real challenges.

    Western VA and West Va have loads and loads of good stuff if they are willing to orient themselves and exploit it as well as they have the coal.

    You’d also need investment and investment is risk-adverse to folks with minimal educations whose culture, lifestyle and vision is more comfortable with coal mining, good old boy “activities” and a distinct preference for govt benefits like Social Security Disability when coal mining dies.

    Western Va and West Va could never be Aspen – totally true – it could be better – because for every East Coast family than can afford to travel to Aspen – there are 10 more who would seek more affordable weekends and vacations nearer.

    it’s not what you can’t be – it’s what you could be.

    • Larry, I think you’ll find I address your key points if you read the whole story. I know it’s long, but I had a lot to say.

      • you did cover a lot – I was not contradicting it – only expanding on it and pointing out some differences

        Interestingly – both Colorado and Va and WVA has large regions of National Forest which draw active young people for all manner of outdoor activities.

        Some of the finest whitewater and mountain biking in the country is located in the Appalachians and it’s vast National Forest lands.

  2. Ah, yes, Aspen. Another Paul Nitze story. Elizabeth Paepcke was Paul’s sister. She went by the name Pussy (I’m not making this up). It had nothing to do with anatomy, it came from a more innocent time (a good friend of mine from 4th grade wound up living in San Francisco and had to change her name from Gay to Gaye when she got involved in Victoria’s Secret).

    Pussy ran that show; Walter was too busy with Stone Container back in Chicago. Paul and Robert McNamara started the Ski Corp, as it was and I believe, still is known. They wound up making a another fortune when they sold it to 20th Century Fox in the mid 70’s (which provided one of the only disappointments I ever had in Paul, but that’s another story)

    The secret was not the skiing. The secret was that the Ski Corp owned all the ownable land (the mountain itself was leased from the Forest Service). Ski operations were a constant loser or at best break-even every year. They made their money selling land. Pussy controlled how the land was developed, and control it she did. She started the Music Festival and the Aspen Institute, all still going today, and which some say are the real foundations of Aspen. Most people will tell you that the summer season is really the season to be in Aspen. Anyway, if Pussy didn’t approve it, it didn’t get done. So the answer is: total control until the direction is well established, then too many people have a stake for it to go down the tubes. The same is true for Lookout Mountain outside Chattanooga. The rest of what Larry says is mostly twaddle.

    Jim, I trust you made some time to go the tent for a concert and maybe the Jacob Harris Hall, which has some of the most perfect acoustics in the country.

  3. twaddle? geeze..

  4. You don’t actually ski, do you Jim?

    “But a comparison with Virginia/West Virginia ski resorts such as Wintergreen, Snowshoe and Massanutten lacking downtown districts suggest that walkability is a critical differentiator.”

    I’d argue that skiability is a bigger differentiator than walkability.

    Anyway – so many words about real estate and not a peep about reefer. Please tell me you are enjoying the fruits of America’s states’ rights and democratic process by getting high as a kite while you are in Colorado. I mean … would you go to Kentucky and not try the bourbon?

    I haven’t had the chance to visit Washington State or Colorado since they legalized marijuana.

    53% of Americans and 54% of Virginians favor legalizing marijuana. Bacon – enough with the walkability tripe. Time for you to get us the goods on ganja. You’re a big reggae fan. Queue up The Maytals or, better yet … Arlington County’s own SOJA, scarf down an Aspen pot brownie, open a big bag of Cheetos and start typing. Walkability, smalkability – we want some hunter S Thompson style stoner stories.

  5. This is all so — what is the word–high cotton.
    Jab relaxes with the one percenters. What ever happened to backpacking? Too low brow?

  6. well I have to agree – of all the things I have done and would do in Colorado – Aspen is at the bottom of that list.

    We’ve been biking in Durango, paddling on the Yampa River, checking out the petroglyphs in Mesa Verde and Canyon of the Ancients… walking the Gunnison Canyon… and a few more …

    Sitting in a coffee shop slurping high dollar java in Aspen pondering walkability and “big” taxpayer-funded “projects”.. lord…

    and Don – that “respectable” “businessman” singing the praises of weed.. lord lord.

    I think I’m starting to see the difference between “leftists” and “rightists”.


    • The only thing not respectable about weed was the fact that it was illegal. That was good enough for me. Hard to imagine the risk / reward tradeoff for possibly going to jail for ganja when I can walk into a Virginia – owned liquor store and buy whatever I need for a dry, very cold martini. However, once spleef is legal … the risk / reward calculation changes dramatically.

      Alaska, Colorado, Washington and Oregon have already passed marijuana legalization laws. The question will definitely be in front of voters in California, Maine and Nevada this November. The question may also be on the ballot in Arizona, Arkansas, Massachusetts, Montana and North Dakota.

      There could be 12 states where hootch is legal by the end of this year.

      And where is the Imperial Clown Show in Richmond? Asleep at the wheel as usual. “Democracy is for little people” said one of our legislators (sarcasm alert). “Vote? Let’s the little people vote? Ha. That isn’t going to happen in Mr. Jefferson’s Old Dominion” said another.

      I also thought this was a good idea …

      “A few states have potential proposals that would reform campaign finance laws. Arizona, for example, would require the disclosure within 24 hours of “original sources” and “intermediaries” of all major political donations that exceed $10,000 to influence elections. ”

      Wow! Make The Imperial Clown Show in Richmond actually transparent! Trace the money back to where it originated and who bundled and unbundled it! Try doing that with

      Virginia has the most corrupt, least accountable, least transparent legislature in America.

  7. I’m okay with weed being available… but I think it will be one cold day in hell before the Va GA agrees… which is ironic given their rural voting base infatuation with oxycodone and crystal meth – as well as the Social Security Disability fund.

    But here’s a question;

    Is Aspen the great place it is because of the Colorado Legislature or Aspen governance?

    and if you like that one

    Is SW Va the way it is because of Richmond or because of local failure?

    Do we not have “Aspen-like” leaders in Virginia – neither local nor State?

    finally – here’s a Don “special” – Does Va and SW Va “fail” because of Dillion’s Rule?

  8. Maybe Bacon will channel the late Gonzo journalist and local sheriff Hunter S. Thompson.

  9. Jim Bacon suggests that ambitious Virginia Towns could learn much from their study of Aspen. I agree.

    CrazyJD tells of Elizabeth’s Paepcke pervasive influence. Yes, and I found many of her ilk there and in the surrounding territory, a surprising number from Back East, the DC area included, all early pilgrims of pervasive influence giving soul to this remarkable place. Soul comes in all strains, and varieties, particularly in Aspen.

    Here, however I’ll focus on the vagabond culture. In particular that virulent strain and its offshoots that infected the climbing community after WW1, people driving Blue Highways climbing the American West out of the back up of a mini-van or truck (including those who also scattered out into the greater ranges, most always returning to roost carrying their stories home). These folks got deep into the lay of the land, its warp and woof. From Baja to the Bugaboos, and everything in between, these were home range for many who’d pass through Frog, Mexican Hat, Stoner and Farson on the way to One and Two Dot, going God Knows Where, for decades.

    I traveled these lonesome roads for three decades passing thought these places, and most all of the other well known places up and down the Spine of the American Rockies, but never did I pass through Aspen till after the turn into the 21st century. That was when, still vagabonding about, I was still chasing stories and words and ancient images when I finally came to rest in Aspen only to discover that Aspen had picked me up in a tornado four decades earlier. And had been carrying me aloft ever since, going round and about, until dropping me like a lost bottle back into Aspen more than 30 years later. Surprisingly, once there I discovered that I was only one of many. Such was and is the power of Aspen and its surrounds.

    You see, Aspen is a place of Druids. Some Druids come in and out of Aspen. Colum McCann, one most recent example. James Salter split times there since the late 1950s until recently. George Stranahan helped invent the place and much else along the way, prodigious things.

    Salter was famous for is parties I am told. McCann is famous for his after parties, that’s my experience, how Colum and his side kick Irish Troubadour revved Aspen’s soul to a fevered pitch that could challenge a rising sun.

    George is the ultimate trickster. I think he helped create and harness that variant of soul in multiple and powerful ways that the lift others up into the air and carry them aloft, even for decades even. He did that for me. And I speculate of Salter too, surely at least in Solo Faces. That is only my opinion.

    George Stranahan: A major mover and shaker lift off man for Aspen Center of Physics (1962), Mountain Gazette (1972), Woody Creek Tavern (1980), W.L.C.C. Turbo prize bull 1990, (Flying Dog Brew (1992), Master truth teller in film, and story telling, and publisher of same.

    So here we speak from the Mountain Gazette that changed and enriched the soul of the American West in the minds of a generation or more. Again in my opinion, and surely in my case. Here’s a sampler from the 1970s.

    “God’s Plan for the State of Utah: a Revelation, by Edward Abbey. Mountain Gazette 55

    “We’re riding along the rimrock above Pucker Pass Canyon, me and this red dun horse, minding our own business and generally at piece with the world, such as it is. His head was going one way and his legs was going that other way, and he was dancing along the edge of the rim with that Goldamn river 2000 feet straight down below …and then I give him a crack between the ears with this here piece of lead pipe I carry along for pleasure rides … when we come across this stranger.”

    The Crusoe, by Jeff Long. Mountain Gazette 51

    “A beautiful, young woman, well known as a rock climber among the Camp IV set, was delicately padding up a 5.9 friction slab in Toulumne Meadows when the meteorite struck. She was soloing along except for her gliding shadow which instantly disappeared when it was struck by the sudden glare. Shocked more by the flashing absence of her shadow … she slipped and vanished from the rock.”

    Coyote Song, by Dick Dorworth. Mountain Gazette 52.

    … he who pursues the road, no matter how sporadically, will, like every gypsy who ever used unspeakable cruelty to teach a bear to dance, (will) someday find himself once again on the same stretch of road during one or another of his swings away from his own ever changing, unvarying nature. (like when coming down over Teton Pass), Wilson is little more than a road stop at the eastern side. Site of the Stagecoach Bar … cowboys, ski bums, hippies, climbers, tourists, musicians, horny housewives, college students (on holiday), construction workers, fat cats, lodge owners, condo salesmen, fishing guides … on Sundays the Stage coach Jumps. Jumps, hops, skips, rocks, rolls, howls, runs, back-flips and spread eagles … That’s Wilson.”

    Jackson has its charms … but all in all it’s the worst tourist trap in western America … During Summer Jackson is wall to wall people, bumper to bumper traffic, ass-hole to eye-lid hustle, junk stores … all the lost energy of displaced American’s desperately seeking their own mis-spent history and heritage in the noon and 5p.m fake gun fight held daily in the town square … (Or) drift into the Cowboy Bar. At one time only the bold, the blind, the unwise, or the saintly longhair would have dared venture into the then aptly named saloon. But times change …

    Don’t Go Near the San Juan, by Barry Corbet Mountain Gazette 48

    A few weeks ago, I floated the San Juan River from Mexican Hat to Lake Powell. I reluctantly take pen in hand to protest the deplorable state in which I found this River. Shortly after the start of the trip a few yards below the Mexican Hat Bridge, the more unruly members of our party – characteristically the hairy and unkempt ones – discarded their life vests and helmets … And at our first stop for lunch this same element discarded their clothes as well … and went on to soak in the river … and later … I was shocked to discover that water hazards not only abound in this river, but they are completely unmarked! I don’t know how to convey the stark terror I felt confronting unknown rocks and rapids without adequate forewarning … And (all the while) our bad-ass elements smoked and ingested all manner of weird substances, then perpetrated a naked soccer game. The degeneracy was so complete that the game actually transported itself through the kitchen, properly manned by the gentle ladies. When they too forsook supper for soccer, I retired to the civilized comfort of stimulating spirits. (If only) the river had been properly policed …

    In Remembrance of Dougal Haston by Doug Scott. Mountain Gazette 55

    To me he was always Dougal of the Bat on Carn Dearg with Robin Smith; of the Cima Ovest, again with Smith, via the horrendous Swiss-Italian Route in 1961; of the Eiger North Wall in () 1963; of winter ascents of the Matterhorn’s North Face with Mick Burk in 1967; of Cerro Torre … of Mount Watkins South Face…. 1969; of Annapurna South Face 1970… Everest South West Face in 1971 with ill fated cast.

    During this period he was to me a man tampering with the frontiers of existence, a man rarely seen – just a glimpse in a pub, in Glen Coe, in Chamonix, a picture in a newspaper or on TV … as during the Old Man of Hoy. He seemed hard, morose, and aloof. He had become a cult figure – the sort that some men will hate but yet try to imitate, the sort girls gurgle over. Up until 1972 that was my impression of him.

    Then came autumn of 1972 on the South West Face of Everest. I saw quite a lot of him. In 1974 we climbed together on Changabang and in 1975 on Everest and last year on Mount McKinley South Face … the excelsior urge in Dougal was … remarkably well developed. When he was fully convinced of the logic of the route, he was able to bend his will to maintaining upward progress through the most adverse conditions. He never faltered, he never backed down and took every pitch of the climb that came his way … he was the aristocrat amongst the rest, always economic in words and deeds but busy with this thoughts processing available data, determining need for intervention or action. While the climbing went well he moved upward, quietly content. When bad organization, team fragility or hostile weather threatened he would only add the weight of his opinion to the argument for forward momentum. His strength transmitted itself to those in his presence and his physical and moral strength became their strength …

    In his autobiography Dougal gives the impression that his 1966 winter climb on the Eiger was the turning point of his life. “I felt as if I had just come at last out of the darkness into the light, and the exploration of that light offered so many possibilities that my mind could scarcely cope with the contemplation of it all.” From then on Dougal dazzled the climbing world with this exploits over the next 10 years. Arguably, it was not so much the Eiger that gave new direction to his life but the tragic events of the previous year … when on Easter night he ran a mini-bus in three climbers wandering along the old road. One of them died and Dougal was imprisoned for sixty days, since he had been drunk while driving … He vowed never to drive again and he kept (that vow). (But the guilt remained and ran so deep) he was quite unable to deal with it in his autobiography In High Places.”

    That is a small sampling of snippets from my collection of Mountain Gazette read like a bible in Washington DC every issue that came out starting around 1972. Reading those snippets now for the first time in decades I discover revelations never consciously known before, or forgotten if known.

    The writer I have admired most over the years is James Salter, a former resident of Aspen. This was a man of vast experience, but neither he (nor any writer) could have written Solo Faces and Light Years and A sport and a Past Time without Aspen and the Mountain Gazette. That is my opinion now, alone. Yes, without Aspen and Mountain Gazette, Light Years and A Sport and a Pastime. But not Solo Faces, too. All are grand achievements. Stunningly so when read one after the other, that’s my opinion too.

    To be continued.

  10. We’re in the surrounds now, an after party somewhere up near Woody Creek where my words “Loaded for Bear” send Colum’s Troubadour on another wonderful riff …

    And I “… flash the wide river, a dream of the past. The deeps fall behind, the bottom is paling the surface, we rush by the shallows, boats beached for winter, desolate piers. And on wings like gulls, soar up, turn, look back.” (Salter’s Light Years) “… and once in the dreamlike air a coin that seemed to flash, disappear and shine again for an endless time before it met the ground. (Salter’s Solo Faces)

    And now “Words become our representation of our perceived reality, and we constantly check, through conversations, our reality against the reality of others. (George Stranahan, phlogs) “And its part of morality not to be at home in one’s home,” (George again says Nicole Straight in phlogs).

    Then wisdom only yesterday intervenes in DC. “Wisdom can be found only far from Man, out in the great loneliness.” Eskimo saying. “One comes in time, to be stranger to nothing.” Phillip Levine. (More wisdom found in Mountain Gazette circa 1970s.”

    And the Great World Spins On and On.

    See how it all works, our lives, our living them? How places like Aspen and people alive in such places enrich us, exchanging souls, passing them around chains of being.

    A decade ago I wrote this:

    Secret of Moses.

    Part One –

    It’d been their game for twenty years, going light and fast, using speed to outrun the trouble, so now studying the thin glimmering thread its way up the dark Alpine wall, Jack should have known better. The line looked long and sustained, obviously speculative in places, and recently unstable. Another warm front was predicted at dawn. Plus it was late in the season for climbing ice. But now, shifting through the risks and possibilities in the cold brittle dark, he figured they had a small window. A cold snap had kept the wall stable all day. Now it’d harden all night. And going up it fast and free in one long push, going non-stop all night up hard ice, they’d slip through the weak spots and summit just before dawn, maybe.

    No, Yes, Maybe. No, it was doable, he figured now. And it was their last clean shot. Yesterday two gym monkeys had caught the scent. Right now they could be coming up right behind.

    But Roddy’s biggest concern were overhangs faint now high on the wall. “Gotta feed the Rat,” Jack said. So Roddy hefted his pack. It worked every time. He’d never let Jack go alone.

    But the route now glared down like an ogre.

    They climbed the lower section by starlight, matching stroke for stoke, kicking and swinging up the long vertical drops of ice. The ice thinned halfway up. They halted and surveyed the route, assembling its newest details into a free climb that switch-backed up the immense glittering rock wall to hanging ice. Jack pointed. “Lets angle left up the pocks then head back right, up that seam to the higher trellis. That’ll go.”

    “But keep left best you can.”

    “Got it,” Jack said, starting left. This way debris from his kicking boots and swinging axes wouldn’t rain down, knocking Roddy silly or off the wall.

    At first he dry-tooled up scarred rock, picking his way up glints and shadows. Sharp pointed axes and boots clicked up the icy pocks in the glazed granite as he stitched bits and pieces into a line that finally linked series of trellises that hung off the wall. The climbing was stern, but not extreme. So it fed on itself. Adrenaline sharpened their senses that registered ever-finer angles and slants until their moves fell in tune with mountain, using its rock and ice as an aid, not an obstacle; and focused down, they got lost in the climbing and became one with the route, creating a classic up high on a thin wire that unwound up into an airy place where nothing up here seemed chancy or foolish, but lyrical, whimsical even. So armed with the illusion that they controlled the mountain, they climbed enchanted. As if God’s angels using star-shine to paint their way up the peak, they savored the route’s every nuance, yet moved quickly upward too, racing the sunrise.

    After midnight ever more trellises hung below in frosty auras like a string of lucent pearls on a line of least resistance up an immense vertical expanse. But the wall steepened. Here, a half-hour below the overhangs, they climbed into the frigid gloom up overhung rock. Headlamps flared off glazed rock. The rock canted at their chests, shoving their bodies back into a tilt more than vertical. Now their boots wanted to swing off the wall and dangle. So they jammed in leathered steel, seeking purchase beneath legs that struggled to push their chests up the overhung stone through torques that wanted to yank them off. Their arms went leaden. Scorched hands fought for grips on their axes. The mountain kept coming at them. They punched back. In short bursts, they drove their bodies up a few feet at a time, caught a spoonful of relief then exploded up again. But a slugging match wasn’t their game. Minimalists armed for speed, they carried only the barest essentials. Small metal pieces dangled at their waists. Slings crisscrossed their chests. Light teardrop packs carried water and snacks so non-stop motion had kept them warm. But now this slow frontal assault put a cold brutal mountain into their face. And only a glacier glittered below their boots, the snout of a crystal snake winding down Death Canyon. The rest was all air. Their only way was up …

    Part Two

    Jack’s fall shattered his memory that blew a hole in his soul, leaving a void filled with guilt. This guilt fed every night on the shards of shattered memory that metastasized into a nightmare face. It grew like a tumor. And his mind began to come apart. He drove lonesome roads, going nowhere, and now at Lake Powell he crossed over to Frog, Utah, and took the Burr Trail across the corrugated county, but found no relief. So he tried to disappear. At the rim of a canyon, he abandoned the truck and hiked down into an unknown county. There he yanked and shoved through tangled slots woven by flash floods into the sandstone beneath Escalante until lost in its maze, he reached a dead end. There he hid out. Daytimes, curled in a dark vault carved by an ancient river, he should have suffered from the terrible heat of baked stone, and, after dark, from the dry bitter desert cold. But he’d fallen below all normal registers. So he was impervious to both, yet lay blown open and hanging loose, whistling down the wind of an implacable despair. It felt like forever, this obliteration of will. Until his water ran out. So his escape from that far off labyrinth wasn’t an act of courage, but one of desperation.

    His first try started at noon. Within minutes a frying pan heat blistered his desperation into abject despair, chasing him back into his shadowed hole. There he huddled forlorn. When the night cold descended, he tried again. He yanked and shivered his way through the frigid slots lit by his headlamp’s glare. An endless succession of dark gaps and bores offered a warren of mindless choices, none obviously wrong or right, so all held the terror of a fatal choice. He took risk after risk, turning this way and that. Finally he fell from a cleft, onto a dry watercourse. Here the earth opened slightly. Subtle disturbances in the gravel offered hope of a way out. Bent over, but walking fast at last, he tracked markings that were vaguely familiar as if from a long ago dream. Thus he reverse engineered his own earlier despair, raveling up the thread left by his boots coming in the week before. Twice he blundered, stymied, lost. Each time his hunt to recover the lost trail grew feverish then desperate. This bred shame. When he picked up the track, his relief became self-loathing at his lost nerve and furious chase after the tread left by an coward. When his headlamp died, his hands and knees searched in the dark felt like penitence. Then he was crying. Only by wild chance did he look up a stone ramp lit by the star-shine that led him onto the rim. There on the rim he felt no relief, pride, or grace. Nor was he grateful. With nowhere to go, or hide, or reason to survive, only the bitter cold forced him on across the dark of a vast desolation, staggering to his truck, finally.

    Inside its cab he slaked his sandpaper thirst and lay wasted and afraid, waiting. When it came, he plunged boots first through God’s awful noise caught in a shroud of dazzling pieces, toward the nightmare’s face. The visage snarled between arms flailing over ice roiling in a cauldron, until he bolted upright into an angry red sun. It glared through his windshield and he drove off sweating in the cab’s accumulated heat.

    He crossed an alkaline waste: going ninety he felt trapped on that flat disc of barren earth under its dead white sky. For ninety miles he saw not a hint of life or shade. Nothing moved until a glow rose at the horizon.

    Closer in, an escarpment floated into view. Uranium mines pocked its red bluffs. A green line etched itself under the cliffs and resolved into cottonwoods wrestling the wind. Trailers sat scattered back in the trees. The trees boiled in a scarlet glow. A donkey stood motionless, tethered to a post, facing away from sage that tumbled past, across gravel lots, over heaps of rusted metal, pipes and scaffolds, a gravel mixer, tangles of wire fencing. Main Street seemed to howl. Metal signs flapped wildly. Sandy gusts flared past. Warped and tilted weathered wood frames flickered in and out of gravelly blasts until Steptoe’s General Store. Its storefront glass defiant amid the chaos and collapse of Nickel City, a boomtown gone bust.

    He pulled in, shoved the door against the gale and struggled out. Gravel boiled over his boots. He filled his tank at the cast iron red pump sandblasted pink. He got six five-gallon Jerry cans and filled those too. He racked the nozzle and stumbled head down going inside. Things quieted as a bell jangled. Old wood flexed underfoot. Cans and dried goods lined the aisles. Fly speckled yellow strips dangled. Mops for sale had ropy heads like cabbages with dreadlocks hanging down. Nobody alive was about, or in view anyway. He got coffee in a jar, a block of cheese, a jug of water, ham in a can, dried beans in a bag, a wrap of beef jerky, and carried the stuff over to the register. He punched a stick into a metal bell on the counter.

    “Hold on.” An old coot in dungarees stepped through a furling curtain. A chaw lumped his cheek. Small steps took him behind the counter. He squared his shoulders and spat a brown stream that rattled tin, before he eyed the gravelly gusts rattling the window. “Them Baja plates, you got, son?”

    “Right, Baja.”

    “A young gal’s lookin’ for ya.”

    Jack stiffened.

    “A wildcat.” Another gust rattled. “Got a mouth on her too. Come in here an hour ago, talking bout how them winds up on the Mesa was blistering teats off the antelope. Now that’s a woman.” He spat, rattling the tin. He wiped his mouth with a bandana. “Got herself quite a rig, too. An old yellow school bus, I’d speculate, but it’s a mongrel now with a red V Dub welded onto its top. Sleeps up there, she said.”

    Jack winced. Georgia – had to be.

    • Wow, Reed, there’s some beautiful writing in this passage. In your mountain climbing days, I surmise, you spent a lot of time in the Rockies.

      • Yes. Climbing out of the back of a truck is a great way to see the country.

        Climbing turbo charges your senses. Then when particular things on the mountain or that are seen getting to or back from the mountain (or from any climbing route in particular) catches your attention, then you can also focus down sharply on that item, environment, or culture too.

        So for example, when and after climbing sandstone spires and deep canyon walls in the American Southwest, I got into the ancient Indian Cultures there, or their remnants in the case of the Anasazi. Then I spend weeks searching for their remnants in remote canyon-lands and riff valleys in high mountain deserts, places like Chaco and Salt Creek Canyons. And did the same with mining towns gone bust. Then I’d carry it home on film where I often organized it into get talks, and wrote about it, did a play about it too.

        But the American West I’ve have seen from head to foot, and kept it up after my climbing days. For example I took seven extended solo trips to isolated places out west in one year alone.

Leave a Reply