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‘When in doubt, go higher’: In issue 200, Mountain Gazette pays tribute to its Colorado roots

The 200th edition of the Mountain Gazette magazine features a gold aspen leaf on the cover, created by late Aspen artist Tom Benton and sourced from the collection at Fat City Gallery. Benton also designed the second-ever cover of the Gazette, as well as the artwork for the 36th edition; he was known for collaborations with gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, another Pitkin County resident and contributor to the magazine.
Jeremy Allen
Courtesy of Mountain Gazette
The 200th edition of the Mountain Gazette magazine features a gold aspen leaf on the cover, created by late Aspen artist Tom Benton and sourced from the collection at Fat City Gallery. Benton also designed the second-ever cover of the Gazette, as well as the artwork for the 36th edition; he was known for collaborations with gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, another Pitkin County resident and contributor to the magazine.

The Mountain Gazette is publishing its 200th issue this fall, with a nod to the magazine’s Colorado roots and a cover designed by an Aspen artist.

The magazine was born in 1966 as the Skier’s Gazette, then reborn a few more times between breaks in publishing. The current editor, Mike Rogge, resurrected it in 2020, when he purchased what was left of the publication from the previous owner.

“On the bill of sale, he asked me to buy him a Coors Banquet beer,” Rogge recalled. “And so at 8:30 in the morning, I signed a contract, I bought a Coors Banquet beer, and I was the new owner of a storage unit in Boulder, Colorado that contained the rights to publish Mountain Gazette.”

Now, the magazine about mountain culture and outdoor adventure prints enough copies for more than 8,000 subscribers.

Readers pay $70 a year, plus shipping, for two issues that almost look more like coffee table books.

Each edition sells out, and there is no digital version. Aspen Public Radio’s Kaya Williams spoke with Rogge over Zoom from his office at Lake Tahoe about the revival and the history of the Mountain Gazette. You can hear the conversation using the “listen” button above, or read a transcript below; this interview has been edited and condensed.

Mike Rogge: Obviously, January 2020, bright eyed and bushy tailed, nothing in the world could ever throw me off my track and of course, the pandemic hit. And that gave me a lot of opportunity to really dig into the past of the Gazette. And I spent several months here in Tahoe just kind of understanding the ethos — like, what was this magazine about?

A lot of people had asked me, like, “Why didn't I just start my own thing?” And I'm a big believer of building on legacies, of building on foundations of reusing things that are already there. And from that, we launched our first issue back, which was 194, the 194th issue of Mountain Gazette.

To my surprise — we printed 1,000 copies, and I remember telling my wife, “We'll probably have 800 copies in our garage forever” — we sold out in about 45 days. And the level of enthusiasm was great.

It's the only time in my life where our readers, who are also obviously our customers, were like, not only did they want to buy the magazine, they're like, “How can I help? How can I bring this back?”

The enthusiasm was way beyond anything I could have ever imagined. And the magazine is growing. It's growing quickly. But more importantly, I think people are feeling that it's getting better, which is important to me.

I'm really proud of what we've done so far. But I’d be lying, like 200 has only been out about a week, and I'm already working on 201, the next issue because it's just how my brain sort of works.

Kaya Williams: Speaking of issue 200, the cover of this magazine is a Tom Benton piece. He was an artist who lived and worked in Aspen, the artwork itself is an aspen leaf, and it actually came from Fat City Gallery, which is run by DJ Watkins in Aspen. So what was the decision process to put that particular piece on the cover?

Rogge: Mountain Gazette has become this unique community, where a year ago, for issue 198, I was writing about the band Goose — another popular band within Colorado, I think they just sold out Red Rocks twice — and one of the guys there had worked at The Belly Up (in Aspen). I knew him from my powder days. And he said, “Man, I really think you got to meet my friend, DJ, who runs Fat City Gallery.” And so, yeah, I follow those leads.

And so DJ and I chatted, and we decided we want to do a retrospective in 200 because Tom Benton did the second cover of Mountain Gazette ever and he also did issue 36. And we just felt like this is a cool way for us to celebrate, kind of, some of the former contributors who are no longer with us.

So in that process, we had asked if we could use an image for the cover, and we never heard back. So we moved on. And we were like, truly uploading our cover image to our printer when we got an email from Fat City Gallery saying, “Yeah, it's totally fine.” So we canceled our upload, alarming our printer. It was a true, like, “stop the presses” moment.

And I'll tell you, like, you know, the roots of this magazine are heavily in Colorado. It was founded in Colorado, heavily influenced by Aspen, Colorado in particular. And you know, the green background, the gold leaf — I felt like that subtle tribute to Aspen, Colorado, where really the ethos and the heart and soul of this magazine was formed, felt important to me as we celebrated this milestone.

Williams: Can you speak a little bit more to those Aspen ties of the magazine?

Rogge: Sure, yeah. I mean, Dick Dorworth (former Aspen Mountain ski school director) did a lot of writing — former U.S. Ski Team coach, very good friend of (Aspen-based ski racer) Spider Sabich back in the day. And for me, 1960s, 1970s Aspen is — you know, I'm very happy to be alive and living in this current, present day, but if I could get in the DeLorean and go with Marty McFly back to the future, I'm pretty sure I'd want to pop into the late ‘60s.

When I look at the old issues of Skier’s Gazette, which is what Mountain Gazette was initially before it switched in ‘72, I see a lot of the heart and soul of what our contributors care about today. I mean, you have the Sierra Club in there, you have calls from outdoor companies asking (people) not to drill in Alaska anymore.

You've got the famous, you know, “save Aspen or sell it,” you know, “rename it to 'Fat City,' so tourists don't come.” I mean, you could change a lot of the narratives from the ‘60s and ‘70s into today's nomenclature. And I think, I think a lot of the ideas resonate.

Aspen, even though it's changed so much — and you know, I've been privileged in my career to travel to a lot of mountain towns — Aspen has always been a bit left of center. It's always been its own place. You know, as much as people want to manufacture what Aspen is, I think the value of Aspen doesn't lie in the stores on the main street, it lies in the community that's there, and that's an ethos that I've definitely borrowed from the town of Aspen into what we're doing here at the Gazette.

I think we can learn a lot from the past, and I think Aspen's really been good at doing that. And I'm trying to emulate that as well.

Williams: Now, it's worth noting, this magazine is unique in the current landscape, in that there's not a lot of online content at all. Tell me a bit about that conscious decision to not put any of this in a digital format in the way that so much else is super digital these days.

Rogge: I remember reading a piece about Jack White of The White Stripes, starting a vinyl record label. And I remember at the time thinking that was kind of crazy, right, because everything's about streaming right now, and touring. And I think what was cool was he looked at the economics of it, and just said, “Look, I can stream one of my songs 10 million times and make X amount of dollars. Or, I can go into a studio and record an entirely unique album that's only available in vinyl and sell 10,000 copies and make 10 times the amount of money.”

And now, what does 10 times the amount of money do? That doesn't mean, like, I'm here in Tahoe buying boats and flying on private planes. What it means is that we can invest more in our size, in the quality of our paper, in the quality of our content, in our contributors, in our contributor expenses — which as a journalist you know, having a budget to go pursue stories is really tough in this environment. 

So what I found is that if people were going to spend $80 a year on two magazines, I wanted them to feel like what they were getting was valuable. That for me is an economic model that I can get behind when it comes to journalism.

Williams: The slogan of Mountain Gazette is “when in doubt, go higher.” What does that mean to you?

I think the original ethos of it was the idea of just like, “if you're at sea level and things aren't working out for you, maybe move to a mountain town.” But for me, it's about stepping up your game and try and just do a little better every day.

And I think if all of us were kind of working towards a better tomorrow, we can actually achieve it. And so it's kind of a big grandiose thing for “when in doubt, go higher,” but it's something that I believe in for sure. It's something our whole staff believes in as well.

Kaya Williams