One of the great mysteries of Colorado skiing is how a ski area that racked up more snow than anywhere else in the state, was an hour and 15 minutes from downtown Denver and which had some of the steepest terrain in the country managed to go out of business.
Berthoud Pass wrapped up operations in 2001 (although the owners struggled on for an additional two years as a cat-skiing operation). And while the low-key scene, cheap beers and historical lodge will be missed, the terrain and the snow are still there. Better yet, with a combination of car shuttles, short hikes and a bit of hitchhiking thrown in for good measure, you can rack up nearly as much vertical almost as easily as if the lifts were still running.
Berthoud Pass started operations in 1937 with the installation of a rope tow, making the ski area one of the first to commence operations in the state. The first double chair was installed at the area in 1947. With an uphill capacity of 400 people per hour, it was one of the most modern lifts in the country at the time.
But with limited terrain and shorter runs — not to mention a lack of base lodging — Berthoud became eclipsed by nearby Winter Park and other major Colorado resorts. The last chair was loaded at the end of the 2001 season. Shortly thereafter the Forest Service demolished the historic base lodge (an unannounced move of quasi-legality). Today the only evidence that the ski area ever existed are the empty ski runs and the hardcore locals in the parking lot, many of whom used to have season passes and just can’t stop skiing at “their” ski area despite the fact that the lifts no longer exist.
But if you’re looking for deep, steep and cheap, Berthoud is one of the best destinations around. Situated at 11,022 feet, the top of Berthoud Pass catches storms from both the east and the west. Upslope conditions? The pass is getting pounded. Big cold front from the west? The pass will grab two feet of precipitation while nearby Winter Park gets a measly six inches. This moisture, coupled with the terrain — a bouillabaisse of steeps, glades, cliff and the defunct ski area’s gladed runs — makes Berthoud one of the best backcountry destinations in the state. Throw in the potential for car shuttles, which allow powder addicts to repeatedly lap terrain like Floral Park, and short hikes to longer runs, not to mention easy access from the Front Range, and you have the rare commodity of a “do-it-yourself ” ski area. The kind of place where a lift ticket costs you only a bit of sweat and a couple bucks for gas, and where the snow is consistently better than any other resort in the state.
We start our day in the snowed-in parking lot, wistful for the warmth of the now demoed lodge. It’s early, the sun not up yet, only a hint of crystalline blue skies to come as a cold light from the east washes the high peaks in a pale glow. Early is part of the plan. Get here before the sun, and you can be back in Boulder staring at the walls of your cubicle and dreaming of the weekend by 11 a.m.
We take it easy on our first lap, heading up the west side of the pass. It’s a fast skin track up to the top, not too steep, and we’re soon where the Continental Divide chairlift used to drop off paying customers. From there, the choice is easy. The ridge plunges down towards Highway 40 on terrain that may be short but is steep. Caution is advised here. Now that the ski patrollers don’t control this zone for avalanches, there’s some risk. Head far to skier’s left, and you’ll drop into dead-end lines that terminate in massive cliffs. This area was roped off and permanently closed when the resort was in operation, but the ropes are long gone now, so it’s important to scope your lines and stay within a conservative game plan.
The runs here, with names like Rush, Nitro and Plunge, offer blissful powder turns with some rocks, trees and cliffs thrown in for good measure. We drop into Plunge on this early morning, the truckers humping their loads over the pass, oblivious to our face shots. The snow is stable and deep, so good, in fact, that it’s a no-brainer to go back up and do it again. So we do.
With our legs warmed up and our appetites whetted, we cross back over the highway, grab some food at the cars and head up to Hell’s Half Acre. These runs are longer, and offer the option to ski down and then hitchhike or car shuttle back up to the parking lot. We choose Hanging Meadow for our first run. True avalanche country, Hanging Meadow and the other lines off this exposure are longer and steeper than the stuff on the west side of the pass. They also funnel down to the road, meaning you can gain a better vertical descent for your hike with the luxury of hitchhiking or car-shuttling back to the lot.
We ski Hanging Meadow one at a time, standard protocol to minimize the seriousness of getting caught in an avalanche. The goal is to expose only one individual to any danger, so that the other members of the group can provide rescue and emergency assistance in case of a slide. But today we don’t have to worry. Conditions are stable, and the snow is blower, sloughing on the surface past us with each turn. At the bottom we traverse out to the road and then decide to take it easy for the next couple runs, trading turns driving the car and hitting the Current Creek runs on the west side of the pass. Easy access along the Berthoud Pass Ditch — which diverts water from the Fraser River to Standley Lake for use by Northglenn and Golden — allows us to traverse to steeper terrain. A pullout formerly used by the resort’s ratty shuttle bus to take skiers back to the lifts is the ideal spot for hanging out with the car and watching your buddies ski down.
After six laps, it’s time to head back down the hill to town. We’ve only scratched the surface of the terrain here. We didn’t hike to Mines Peak or Russell, both of which yield ample return for the sweat equity invested. And we didn’t dip our noses into the gladed steeps of Floral Park, an area that’s protected from the wind and which offers superlative turns on powder days. But that’s OK. While it used to be possible to ski all of this in one day when the ski area’s lifts and shuttle buses were running, our slower pace allows us to savor the experience. The snow is still the same, the turns just as sweet.
Before you go…
The Friends of Berthoud Pass is an advocacy group dedicated to preserving the area as a skiing and outdoor recreation resource. Their website includes avalanche information, maps and other info. The group also organizes avalanche safety classes. Go to berthoudpass.org.
The Boulder Outdoor Center’s website features decent maps of Berthoud from its days as an active ski area. Go to berthoudpass.com.
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center tracks weather and avalanche conditions throughout the state. Don’t go into the backcountry in the winter without calling their avalanche hotline first. Call 303-499-965, or go to avalanche.state.co.us/index.php.