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|February 12-18, 2009
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Colorado’s “lost ski areas” offer skiers the best beginner backcountry
by Dave Philipps
Ski resorts come and go, but skiing lives on forever.
Peter Bronski reached that conclusion in 2006, the first time he pointed his skis down a slope of one of the dozens of out-of-business ski hills that haunt the Rockies.
The East Coast transplant had climbed with a friend to the top of Geneva Basin in the mountains southwest of Georgetown. The little ski area closed in 1984. The lift towers had been hauled away, the base lodge had burned to the ground, but the view from the top was still the kind skiers dream of: Long, open runs beckoned with deep, untracked powder, and not another skier in sight.
“It was amazing,” said Bronski on a recent morning as he drove his aging Jeep Cherokee toward Geneva Basin. “It was a perfect powder day, and we had it totally to ourselves.”
At the bottom, after an epic run, his friend turned to him and said, “that was my best day of the season.”
Right then, Bronski decided to ski as many of Colorado’s other lost ski areas as he could.
Two winters, 7,000 miles of driving, seven ski partners and one trip to the hospital later (he ran into snow-covered rocks), he had skied nearly 40 closed ski areas. He has just published a guide to them, called Powder Ghost Towns.
The book combines great history with great skiing, and since most of the lost ski areas are in relatively low-angle terrain below tree line where avalanches are rare, they offer some of the safest, most enjoyable introductory runs for those new to the backcountry.
Bronski, who lives in Boulder, parked his Jeep at the prow of an 8-foot mound of snow that marked the end of plowing on the road to Geneva Basin. The forecast called for a high of 13 degrees and high winds, but plentiful snow in the days before hinted that conditions at the Basin could be prime.
He strapped on his skis and started the four-mile trek to the base of the old resort.
Most of Colorado’s ski areas closed before Bronski, 30, was born.
There are about 200 lost ski areas in the state — most were tiny community rope tows that operated only a few years and doubled as pastures in the summer, but a few dozen had restaurants, parking lots, groomers and chairlifts.
Today, there are about 27 areas.
“They all give different reasons for failing,” Bronski said as he skied up the road. “Some did not have enough snow. Some were too far from populations. Some were too low so the snow melted.”
But the underlying problem for most, he said, was greed.
“Almost all of these small areas wanted to be bigger. So they would borrow money to expand, then they’d have a bad year when they couldn’t repay what they borrowed. That was it.”
Geneva Basin is a perfect example. It opened in 1961 with a humble base chalet and two secondhand rope tows. Over the years, the tiny ski area added a two-seat lift and a T-bar.
Then another lift.
It had several owners over the years, but never made much profit. One owner, Roy Romer, who later became governor of Colorado, joked that as the father of seven children, it was cheaper to buy a small ski area than to pay for lift tickets.
In 1984, the ski area was sold to new investors who planned a massive makeover for the aging resort. But once they started, they found they couldn’t pay the bills and filed for bankruptcy protection. In 1993, the U.S. Forest Service, which manages the land, burned the lodge to the ground and cut down the lift towers.
Lost resorts like Geneva can be found in every state with a hill and a bit of snow, but Colorado is one of the few where they are still skiable.
“In most other places they are quickly overgrown. The runs are gone. You can’t ski them,” said Bronski. “Here it takes a long time for the trees to come back.”
As if to prove his point, Geneva Basin suddenly came into view around a bend. A cascade of a dozen white runs spilled 900 feet down a dark, forested mountainside, as if the ski area were still open.
“It looks like this could be very nice skiing,” he said.
Colorado’s lost ski areas come in all shapes and sizes, from Berthoud Pass, which operated until 2001 and still attracts scores of backcountry skiers from nearby Denver, to tiny Pioneer near Crested Butte, which had the first chairlift in the state but has been closed since 1952, and is nearly forgotten.
Before Bronski started exploring, the history of these places had been well documented by Brad Chamberlin and others on Coloradoskihistory.com.
“But no one had really gone and skied them all until Peter,” said Chamberlain, 26, who started the website while in college. “I had always kicked around the idea, but I’m not much of a backcountry skier.”
After reading Bronski’s book, Chamberlin said he’s inspired to give it a try — after taking an avalanche safety course.
Though lost ski areas are relatively safe in the realm of backcountry skiing, there is still risk of potentially deadly snow slides.
The one thing all lost resorts have in common is a lack of chairlifts. If you want to ski, first you have to hike.
“That backcountry aspect is what I find most appealing,” said Bronski.
“I like the solitude, the camaraderie of skiing with a few friends. And in rough economic times, the powder ghost towns are great.
They are free if you’re willing to put in a little sweat equity.”
Bronski crossed the windswept meadow where Geneva Basin’s chalet once stood and began tramping up an abandoned green run on the grippy climbing skins backcountry skiers strap onto their skis for uphill traction.
Half an hour later, he stood at the top, next to the only building at the resort still standing: an old patrol shack backcountry skiers now use as a warming hut.
Bronski chose to call his book Powder Ghost Towns because, like the ghost towns of the gold and silver mining days, the ruins of a brief boom stand abandoned in remote valleys.
“But at Geneva, ‘powder ghost town’ takes on a different meaning because this mountain may be legitimately haunted,” he said.
In the resort’s early days, a worker named Eddie Guanella, son of Paul Guanella, for whom the pass was named, was decapitated while stringing cable for one of the lifts.
Former employees told Bronski that the spirit of “Ed the Head” is said to walk the woods near the patrol shack.
“It’s a headless body,” Bronski said. “No one has seen the head.”
After a quick warm up and lunch in the patrol shack, Bronski turned his skis down one of the old runs.
Wind had blasted the top of the ridge, leaving a miserable, breakable crust, but a few turns below the top Bronski entered a sheltered run and shot into deep, light powder.
He slalomed through Christmas tree-size firs that had grown up on the slope, sending sprays of powder up at every turn.
No sign of Ed the Head or any of the other ghosts of Colorado’s ski past, but the skiing was as lively as ever.
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