By Damien Alexander Williamson | November 20, 2015 | Culture
Aspen's well-timed toast to winter turns 65 this year. Although the events have tamed, the spirit remains the same.
It was a quiet January in 1951, years before Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington would make local jazz clubs their own, and more than two decades before the likes of Jack Nicholson, Andy Warhol, and John Denver would help make Aspen a household name. As the rush from the Christmas holiday season subsided— and before the mid-winter crowds arrived—the few locals left in town were prepared to sit as idle as the powered-down lifts.
But local bartender and lodge owner Jack DePagter had another idea. His plan was to create a winter carnival that celebrated Aspen’s unique Nordic lifestyle while also attracting tourists during one of winter’s biggest lulls. If you build it, they will come. And thus Wintersköl was born.
“I was a devil on skis with a pitchfork instead of ski poles,” says 95-year-old Klaus Obermeyer, of the very first Wintersköl celebration in 1951. “We all wore costumes and skied down Little Nell run on Aspen Mountain.” But those early years featured much more than costumed revelry—snowmobilers would drag race down Main Street and skiers would back-flip into hotel pools in front of hundreds of onlookers. “The energy was amazing, and it was a great attempt to stimulate the local economy,” adds Obermeyer, a US National Ski and Snowboard Hall of Famer, who also served as the king of Wintersköl in 1998.
Today, January is far from quiet. The month now plays host to two major festivals, Gay Ski Week and X Games. But the four-day Wintersköl—taking place January 14–17, 2016—has persisted as a celebration of the incredible winter lifestyle in Aspen. And although the more potentially litigious elements of the fest have been replaced—like, say, snowmobile drag racing and pool jumps—a whole host of popular, mostly free, family-friendly events have popped up in their place. There’s Soupsköl, where local restaurants vie for the best soup in town; uphill, downhill, and winter mountain bike races; live music, theater, and comedy shows; comical reenactments of Aspen history from the Historical Society; US Air Force Drum & Bugle Corps; and even a canine fashion show.
“I do miss some of the craziness of the old days,” Obermeyer says, with his signature wide-mouthed grin. “But I think anything we do in Aspen is special because it’s in Aspen. And let me know if they need me to get involved again this year—I’ll go dig up my devil suit!”
PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY OF THE ASPEN HISTORICAL SOCIETY