THROUGHOUT NEARLY EVERY period of its history, Aspen has managed to distinguish itself. Its origins as a frontier mining outpost that rose to a glittering late-19th-century city set the stage. The overpowering geography of the surrounding mountains that first supplied the silver helped birth the modern ski industry. Beyond that, its people have always complemented the place, from the World War II generation’s endeavors to create a resort that nurtured the body, mind and spirit to the next generation’s quest to enshrine the values of a high-minded community into local government policy.
All of that history informs the present day; in the words of former Pitkin County Commissioner Michael Kinsley, the revolution has matured. “We stormed the Bastille 40 years ago,” Kinsley says, referring to a class of “young punks, mostly” in the 1970s, who “had a lot of fun and created our own little government.” The place is the product of an extraordinary sequence of events. And, it begs the question: Does the revolution remain in good hands? Storming the Bastille is one thing, Kinsley notes. It’s quite another to maintain the sewer system afterward.
Predicting how future historians will view the present is always risky business, but that too must be asked. What are the defining characteristics of this era? A convergence of factors—the community, the geography and the history—have united to give rise to a new generation that has seen the extraordinary become ordinary. If the dream consists of a life full of physical possibilities realized, cultural pursuits attained and community values upheld, then it has become common to live it here. Normal Aspen, where the mayor competes in endeavors like the 40-mile ski-mountaineering race from Crested Butte to Aspen, known as the Grand Traverse, is not normal elsewhere.
Its residents are left wondering what to aspire to next. For many, finding the answer has never been difficult. There is always a new objective in view from the top of Independence Pass or Highland Bowl, some combination of peak, ridge and valley, accessed in a new or interesting way that hadn’t been thought of before. The community provides fertile soil turning ideas into results.
When Ted Mahon moved to Aspen in the mid-1990s from New York, “I came here for one season, just like everybody else,” the acclaimed mountaineer says. Soon, the access—both to the physical routes and personal relationships with people who could conquer them—made it clear that Aspen was not just a temporary stopover. “The proximity to the outdoors, the tight-knit community where everyone knows each other—that lends itself to goals,” Ted says
Living close to those pursuing great outdoor achievement means one can see firsthand what it takes to get there. It’s inspiring to learn that, despite the audacity of the projects, “these are, in some ways, ordinary people,” he says. Pretty soon, one starts to say to himself, “I could do that too.”
Along with wife Christy Mahon and Chris Davenport, Ted skied the state’s 100 tallest peaks; he competes in ultrarunning races such as the Hardrock 100 and has competed Nolan’s 14—linking together 14 peaks over 14,000 feet in the Sawatch Range—in just over 55 hours. And he has a day job, working as an instructor on Aspen Mountain, while Christy is the development director for Aspen Center for Environmental Studies.
Ambitious projects in the mountains are nothing new, of course, but before social media, it took longer for achievements to be recognized. Now, it is instant. Trickle-down inspiration spreads fast, and some may wind up in situations for which they are unprepared, needing the benefit of more homework and training. On the flip side, for those willing to do the research, there are more resources than ever—detailed route descriptions, conditions reports, even videos showing the crux of the climb, all to supplement the human capacity for judgment and assessment.
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