With all the hoopla surrounding Aspen's 50th anniversary last winter, it was easy to overlook the relatively modest celebrations commemorating the 50th birthday of Aspen's smaller yet higher and wilder Colorado cousin, Arapahoe Basin. Compared to Aspen's post-war saga of grand plans and powerful patrons, A-Basin's is a simple love story.
I learned about it at Marnie Jump's kitchen table in her tiny, Sixties-era condo in Vail. She is 79 now and pours the iced tea slowly, with deliberate grace. On the counter, amid snapshots of family and friends, is a black-and-white photo of her husband, Larry, when he was in his 30s with big shoulders and dark brows above wide-set, ardent eyes.
"It's become this big thing," says Marnie of the fuss about skiing's pioneers and founding fathers. "We were just World War II veterans. Sandy Schauffler and Lar were childhood friends back East. They came out after the war on this Colorado adventure. I came west after being in the Navy WAVES and tried to get Friedl Pfeifer at Sun Valley to give me ski lessons on the G.I. Bill. I came to be a ski bum and wound up becoming vice president of Arapahoe Basin, Inc."
Larry Jump skied at Dartmouth in the class of 1936. When war appeared imminent, he volunteered as an ambulance driver for the French Army. Captured by the Germans at the Maginot Line, he became, according to Marnie, "the first American prisoner of war in WWII." However, as the U.S. was not then technically at war, he was freed and returned to the states.
Back home, Jump joined the 10th Mountain Division and later saw action in the Aleutians and in Italy. When the fighting was over, he and his buddy Schauffler hot-footed it out to Colorado, where they were hired by Denver's Chamber of Commerce to "survey Colorado's skiing and winter sports facilities, both present and potential."
The present didn't amount to much: Aspen's Boat Tow and a few Depression-era rope-tows scattered around the state. But the future appeared limitless. As Jump wrote in his report to the Chamber: "Snow conditions here are tops, but the population is not aroused to the possibilities of skiing."
Early on their tour, Jump and Schauffler were mesmerized by Arapahoe Basin, an above-timberline amphitheater aching to be skied. The Basin was a natural-close to Denver on the west side of Loveland Pass, and more alpine, more European than any other terrain they had seen. Before the snow had melted that spring of '46, the two dreamers, together with the farsighted Max Dercum (who would go on, in the late Sixties, to develop nearby Keystone Resort), Denver ski manufacturer Thor Groswold and Dick Durrance, the most famous American ski racer at that time, combined forces and formed Arapahoe Basin, Inc.
That seminal winter of 1946-47, they ran a rope-tow in the upper bowl and built the squat Midway shelter that serves today as the Midway Beach barbecue. To get up to the rope-tow, you either walked or rode in a war surplus weapons carrier. A hand-painted sign tacked to a tree near the parking lot read: "Tow Tickets Including 3 Truck Rides from Highway-$1.25 Each."
Marjorie McCleane Brown arrived in the spring of 1947 hoping "just to be a girl Friday" at the area. Instead, the blue-eyed Bennington College grad and the strapping Jump fell madly in love. He made her vice president, then he married her. "Lar was president and general manager," Marnie says, "but we all did everything in those days: parked cars, sold tickets, cleaned the johns, tramped the runs. We'd spend Saturday nights up at Midway with the ski patrol and play hearts all night. The losers had to get the fire going and make coffee, and then we'd all tramp down the runs to pack the snow."
To finance two single chairlifts, stock was sold for $1 a share. Jump sank his life savings of $25,000 into the project. Marnie convinced relatives in Pittsburgh to invest. The chairs went up-the second one to a point on the Lenawee ridge that is still, at 12,450 feet, thee highest lift-served skiing in North America.
The skiers came, mostly from Denver, and the numbers grew, but they were never as big as those put up by the big-name resorts. The skiing was extreme, and no town stood at the base like in Aspen or Breckenridge. In fact, no private land existed at all. The only lodging ever built at the base burned within days of its opening in 1961.
Nobody has ever gotten rich off The Basin. The Jumps sold their interest in 1972. Keystone owned it for a while. Now Vail Resorts, which last year bought Keystone's holdings, including Breckenridge and Arapahoe, has it on the Justice Department-mandated block. Whoever buys it should do so for the love of skiing, pure and simple.
Geography blessed The Basin, and geography has kept it innocent and old-fashioned-a mostly ungroomable mountain with a season that extends into July and a devoted following of mostly excellent skiers. They love the place for the same reasons Larry Jump cited in a late-Forties Denver magazine article: "the six feet of powder snow, the rolling slopes dropping down for miles, the snow-plumes streaming from the corniced ridges, and above all the glistening sunlight."
Marnie drove up to The Basin on a sunny May 25th this past spring for a long-overdue tribute to her late husband. A plaque was dedicated. Lunch was served in the A-frame. With grandchildren at her side, she pronounced herself "pleased."
Larry died of throat cancer in 1989. "It was a terrible thing," Marnie says across our empty tea glasses. "He was so strong, strongest man in the world. His heart just wouldn't stop beating...It was really Larry's courage and heart that kept Arapahoe going. There aren't very many left who remember."