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Mountain News: 'Good man' tried to fire bomb Aspen



ASPEN, Colo. – What has scarcely been mentioned in all the reporting about Jim Blanning, the former Aspen resident who deposited four bombs of gasoline in the city’s business district before killing himself on New Year’s Eve, is how closely the fundamental story line resembles the strange and fearful machinations in two other Colorado mountain towns, Alma and Granby.

In the case at Alma — which is located south of Breckenridge and has the distinction of the highest incorporated town in the United States — a 50-year-old man shot and killed a former mayor, firebombed the town hall, then drove a front-end loader into a number of buildings, including the post office, fire department and water-treatment plant. That was in 1998. The man — who was put into a mental institution — had objected to being forced to go onto the town’s water system.

In 2004, the owner of a muffler shop on the edge of Granby rampaged through the town in a bulldozer, shielded by a concrete-encased cabin, tearing into the town hall, the newspaper office, and the former mayor’s business, among others, before turning a gun on himself in the basement of a Gamble’s store. He had felt aggrieved that a concrete batch plant had been permitted near his property, and felt that the newspaper editor had sided with town officials.

True to form, Aspen has the most colourful and bizarre story of all. Blanning was very well known in Aspen, and had been profiled by The Aspen Times in 1976. That, however, was before the trouble — the trouble over the mining claims.

Blanning had moved to Aspen during World War II with his mother and three brothers, living in the Hotel Jerome at first, skiing for Aspen High School, and graduating from that same school in 1954. He was handsome and a lady’s man. He had been fired from one job as a truck driver, because the truck was so often found parked in alleys while he was enjoying dalliances. In all, he was married seven times, including twice to the same woman.

Early on, he became fascinated with the town’s mining history — and tried to ratchet himself into a position of wealth. “He was always looking for the mother lode,” said Pitkin County Sheriff Bob Braudis, who had known him since the 1960s. “But he was always scraping for a grubstake.”

Braudis, who was considered a friend by Blanning, said Blanning would “rather hustle a dime than earn a thousand dollars.”

While still a youngster, Blanning gathered around the old miners at the Jerome and began learning about the claims. Even as a teenager he was doing meticulous research on ownership. “I don’t know anybody who knew as much about mining claims as Jim Blanning,” said Gaard Moses, Blanning’s friend for almost 40 years. “He would educate lawyers on the 1872 mining law.”

City officials put his knowledge about Aspen Mountain to use in 1983, a particularly wet year. The officials were concerned about the potential for mudslides into the town’s business district.

“Jim has always been an eccentric fellow, but he wasn’t mad in those days,” said Bill Stirling, then the mayor.

But his wheeling and dealing in mining claims put him at odds with Pitkin County officials in the late 1980s and especially the 1990s, says The Aspen Times . The county government more aggressively examined development applications on land that Blanning claimed to own or that he sold, thwarting his development plans for the backside of Aspen Mountain.

One time he threw a Colorado law book out the window of the county commissioners’ meeting room. Another time he climbed out onto the second-storey roof of the courthouse, tied a rope around a fixture and his waist, and eluded law officers’ efforts to pull him in. Braudis finally talked him down after several hours.

Most colourful of all, a nude Blanning confronted county officials at a local bar one day after an official meeting, wearing a sock as a dildo and taunting them.

He finally was accused of illegal financial manipulations, convicted and sentenced to 16 years. The judge, who died recently, said he had no discretion about the length of the sentence. Because of the nude appearance before the county officials, Blanning was sentenced to prison with sexual offenders.

“For the first two years I was in prison, I woke up every day wishing I was dead,” he wrote in his suicide note.

Released to a halfway house in metropolitan Denver, he spent the rest of his life scheming but deeply embittered and perhaps changed by antidepressants. “Both professionally and personally, I have seen incredible mood swings from a pill, and it can cause suicidal and homicidal effects,” said Braudis.

The Aspen Times says the old-timers who knew him saw him as disillusioned over the changes the town experienced and angry that he couldn’t cash in on the soaring real estate prices.

Still, those friends and acquaintances were shocked when they learned of Blanning’s final day. He had created four gasoline bombs, deposited two of them in banks and then two in an alley. None went off, but hotels and other buildings were evacuated, and the usual New Year’s Eve merriment was halted.

“He intended to cause death and destruction, which is totally out of character,” Braudis said after reviewing the suicide notes. “It sounds like he was apologizing for mass murder that he intended here…”

“Could have done some serious damage,” Blanning said in his note. “Oh, well. Too tired. To the bone.”

He took a pistol to himself at a nature preserve three miles east of Aspen. He was 72.

“I saw the good in him, and I saw the insanity in him,” Braudis said.


Jobs are drying up

AVON, Colo. – The common joke used to be that all it took to get a job in a ski town was the ability to breathe. Just a year ago, the story was still of figuring out new ways to recruit seasonal employees.

My, how times have changed. The Vail Daily reports of four Chilean college students who thought they would spend their summer working at a ski shop in Beaver Creek. They would get to travel, learn better English, and ski. But when they arrived, there were no jobs to be had — not even the reduced hours that had been mentioned at some point.

The newspaper suggests that the plight of the four Chileans may by no means be unique. One restaurant in Avon reports up to 50 job applicants a day, many of them immigrants with J-1 (student) visas. However, not all of the immigrants come with a clear understanding that they had jobs.

Kelly Ladyga, spokeswoman for Vail Resort, said the company does its own recruiting instead of relying upon independent agencies. The ski company has hired 300 people at its five ski areas in the West.


A crazy, crazy year for slides

JACKSON, Wyo. – Ski industry, U.S. Forest Service and ski patrol associations in coming months will be examining closely the circumstances of avalanches that killed three skiers and slammed into a restaurant inside ski areas during December.

The three skiers died at Utah’s Snowbird, California’s Squaw Valley, and Wyoming’s Jackson Hole.

Other non-fatal slides have caught skiers or ski patrollers at Jackson Hole, and also California’s Mammoth and Colorado’s Arapahoe Basin and Vail ski areas.

Doug Abromeit, director of the Forest Service National Avalanche Center in Ketchum, Idaho, called the avalanche fatalities and close calls “unprecedented” in developed ski areas. “We have never seen a series of incidents (like those that occurred) inbounds in the last couple of weeks,” he told the Jackson Hole News & Guide in late December.

“It’s been a crazy, crazy year,” he added.

In the case of the three fatalities, ski patrollers had used hand-thrown charges or howitzers on the slopes that ultimately failed, but without success. The slopes had all been skied by others before they let loose.

“Snow is an extremely complicated medium,” Abromeit told the newspaper. “Ski patrols can reduce the risk to almost zero, but they can’t eliminate it.”

“The ski patrollers have been out there pounding it, trying to make it safe,” he said. “I wouldn’t call it a wake-up call, because I don’t think anybody has been asleep. These were an extraordinary string of events.”

Abromeit said “many hours” will be spent trying to sort out what happened. “It may just be coincidence, or there may be some trend that we can learn from all this. When you think of the millions of people that visit ski areas each year, the odds of getting caught in an avalanche are pretty miniscule.”

But the potential for an avalanche that partially buried five ski patrollers at the on-mountain Bridge Restaurant at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort was well-known. One of the patrollers was buried to his neck; he was dug out by Jerry Blann, president of the resort.

The slide also tore the railing and glass shields off the restaurant deck, burst through the doors and windows, and piled snow eight feet deep inside. Outside the building, reports the Jackson Hole News & Guide , the debris was up to 30 feet high.

Another major slide had occurred in the same area in 1986, after storms left 117 inches of snow in 11 days. Later, in 1998, when the restaurant was being considered, the Forest Service predicted the restaurant building would stand a 22 per cent chance of being hit by an avalanche of the same severity during the building’s projected 25-year design life. Art Mears, an avalanche expert from Gunnison, Colo., had made several suggestions to mitigate avalanche danger to the restaurant, including construction of a major deflection berm. But resort officials, say the newspaper, rejected the berm, saying it would be an eyesore and create environmental problems.

Blann said the building did exactly as it was supposed to do, protecting the people within.


Snowfall record set

ASPEN, Colo. – All the news about the economy has overshadowed somewhat the phenomenal snow year at some ski resorts in Colorado. All sorts of records were broken last year in December, but this winter’s marks for December have surpassed them at Aspen Highlands, where 102 inches fell at the top of the mountain. The measure at Aspen Mountain was just shy of last year. However, other ski areas just a few miles away — Snowmass and Buttermilk — weren’t as close to their 2007 marks.


Sun Valley Co. plans gondola

KETCHUM, Idaho – The Sun Valley Co. has announced it will install a new gondola this summer on Bald Mountain. The eight-passenger gondola will provide day and night, winter and summer, transportation from the base area at Warm Springs to an on-mountain restaurant called Roadhouse. The gondola, says the Idaho Mountain Express, was originally to have been installed last summer.


Robins hanging around

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. – Robins usually disappear from Steamboat Springs during the duration of winter. Not so this one. A bird count in December revealed 110 robins, compared to four the previous year.

“I’ve never seen a winter like this. We’re really scratching our heads on this one,” the Yampa Valley Birding Club’s Tom Literall said.

Literall told the Steamboat Pilot & Today that he believes the birds had migrated from farther north, and normally would have made their way to the Gulf of Mexico, or even Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, where the resort of Cancun is located. But last year’s heavy snows resulted in an uncommon berry crop, with an abundance of dried fruit still clinging to the branches of many bushes.


Vail sales top $2 billion

VAIL, Colo. – Real estate sales haven’t completely hit the wall in Vail and the Eagle Valley. The Vail Daily reports sales in Eagle County will top $2 billion for the fifth straight year.

That figure was helped by some big-ticket items in Vail, where five units in the Manor Vail, located at the base of Golden Peak, sold for $29.6 million. That’s nearly $6 million each. Another major source of sales was at the Westin Riverfront Resort & Spa, located in Avon. Both were projects of East West Partners.

But the sales volume is still down 41 per cent from 2007 through the month of November, and much of what volume that did occur came early in the year. Anecdotal reports of activity during December are of no more than a few dozen sales — in a market that just a few years ago had 800 registered real-estate agents.


Efficiency works

TRUCKEE, Calif. – Two years ago residents of Truckee and adjacent areas started learning how their electricity was produced. Much of it comes from burning coal, a major source of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. And those same residents firmly rejected the local utility district’s participation in construction of a new coal-fired power plant in Utah. Instead, they said, they wanted to pursue renewables and figure out how to use existing supplies more efficiently.

Now, that demand-side management effort is paying off, reports the Sierra Sun. The Truckee Donner Public Utility District has distributed 50,000 compact fluorescent bulbs and almost 10 miles of LED Christmas lights. Early numbers show that these fairly simple measures have reduced overall demand for electricity in the district by 1.65 per cent.

None of this lowers the cost of electricity per unit, but it does reduce the amount that is needed — dramatically.

Moving forward, the district plans to expand energy conservation programs — including water conservation. Moving around and treating water is a major consumer of electricity. Accordingly, smart-water controllers that sense atmospheric and soil conditions and adjust sprinklers will be installed.

As well, the district plans to create a demonstration garden showcasing native plants that don’t need as much water, a concept pioneered by the Denver Water Board and dubbed Xeriscaping. The word was derived by combining “xeros,” which is Greek for “dry,” with landscape.


Pulmonary edema claims man

MT. CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. – A 37-year-old man from Pleasanton, Texas, died the weekend before Christmas at a lodge in Mt. Crested Butte, the slope-side town at the base of the Crested Butte ski area. The man had suffered from high-altitude pulmonary edema, in which the lungs fill with fluid.

Frank Vader, the Gunnison County coroner, told the Crested Butte News that the victim had not felt well the entire week, and had he gone to the clinic he would have been easily diagnosed. The cure is to get to a lower elevation. Mt. Crested Butte is at 9,300 feet in elevation, and normally a trip to nearby Gunnison, at 7,700 feet in elevation, removes most victims from danger.

Vader, in 2004, had estimated that 10 of the 23 deaths in Gunnison County the prior year had been related to thin air. Pulmonary edema is relatively rare, and rarer yet is cerebral edema, in which the brain fills with fluid. Heart attacks are the most common form of altitude-related death.


Happy to be in the slow lane

CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. – Things could be worse — a lot worse. So believes Crested Butte Mayor Alan Bernholz. The town council was having a discussion about the best way to keep traffic moving slowly. By all accounts, the number of 40 mph scofflaws are few. Most people drive the posted 15 mph on Crested Butte’s streets, where pedestrians, bicycles (even in winter) and cars are all found. Some cars may even be going 18 mph to 20 mph, observed one public official. “I love this town,” Bernholz responded. “It’s nice to have a discussion about traffic calming where people are doing 18 miles per hour. It’s a great town.”