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Thursday, December 17,2009

The lost roots of Colorado skiing

By Conan Bliss

Remember when Chautauqua was a ski area? No?

In the golden aspens this fall, we finished a day of biking by riding up the final grade of the Walrod Cutoff Trail, finally stopping to catch our breath as the trail leveled out. Perched on the northern slope of Cement Creek, about eight miles south of Crested Butte, this trail provides a great vista of Cement Mountain, Round Mountain and the lower Cement Creek drainage. Sitting in the grass, gazing at the southern slope of the drainage, I distinctly made out what looked like a couple of ski trails cut into the forest, and a steeply ascending lift line cut. The trails were now densely populated with second-growth forest that looked to be 40 or 50 years old, and I could not make out any lift apparatus of any kind.

Intrigued by my “discovery,” I did some research to find out more about what seemed to be an abandoned ski area. It turns out that this little area, a few miles from my home, had, indeed, been a little gem of a ski area, cut into the steep mountainside in 1939 and aptly named “Pioneer Ski Area.” The area featured two trails, the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper. There was a small base lodge and a few cabins to stay in, currently noted by the sign for the Pioneer Guest Cabins, a small local business that continues today on the beautiful site and caters to tourists and anglers, although the lifts have not run in more than half a century.

The ski area was built with labor from the Works Progress Administration and used the meager supplies available in Gunnison County in the Depression years of the late 1930s. Namely, the rope tow ran off of a used Model A Ford engine, and the amenities were Spartan in nature. What made Pioneer Ski Area truly a pioneer in Colorado skiing was its 3,000-foot aerial tram, which was Colorado’s first aerial ski lift. Even this was a little dodgy, as there was only one tram operator at the base area, over a half mile away from the upper station, “Star Point,” where skiers had to fend for themselves in the unloading process. There is little doubt that this lift in no way complies with even the most basic of the safety requirements in place today, but it certainly made for more exciting skiing.

After finding some entertaining history on Pioneer, I began to wonder about what other ski areas have come and gone in Colorado, what eventually became of them, and who skied these areas. It then occurred to me that I had skied one such area. I don’t want to date myself, but I spent many days in my formative ski years at another one of Colorado’s “lost” ski areas — Berthoud Pass.

Most people know Berthoud Pass as the apex of a large number of switchbacks en route to Winter Park, but Front Range backcountry skiers flock to Berthoud Pass today because of its abundant snow and proximity to Denver and Boulder. Snowcat operations take place here as well. In its former life, Berthoud Pass proudly ran two lifts, one on the east side of the pass, one on the west side of the pass, and it is doubtful whether the combined total vertical of both lifts was more than a thousand feet. What really made Berthoud Pass great were the shuttles, which, simply put, were small passenger buses, outfitted with ski and board racks, that went up and down either side of the pass, stopping at the switchbacks to load skiers who would ski the untracked snow on the sides of the pass. Because only one shuttle ran on either side of the pass approximately every half hour, it effectively kept skier numbers low, so the powder always seemed to be untracked. The drawback was that sometimes you would have to wait 20 or 30 minutes on the side of the road to catch a shuttle back to the pass, only to be subjected to obscure, scratchy Grateful Dead bootlegs on the “hi-fi” cassette stereo, completely subject to the whims of the inevitable 1980s Rasta wannabe super-kind driver. That certainly kept it real.

Of all of the lost ski areas, one stands out at the top of the “keeping it real” pile: Sharktooth. With connotations of steep couloirs beneath a huge jagged tooth-like granite spire, I couldn’t help but wonder how a ski area with such a name could ever go defunct. It turns out that Sharktooth, in operation from 1971- 1986, held one record that no other Colorado ski area will ever match, especially in light of global warming: lowest base elevation. At 4,600 feet above mean sea level, and boasting a 150-foot vertical, Sharktooth’s summit was almost half as high as the base of Arapahoe Basin, and boasted around 7 percent of the vertical. Located just outside the bustling cattle feedlot town of Greeley, Sharktooth had as many dust storms as snow storms and catered to local kids and families, UNC college students and ranchers who were used to this environment and just wanted to have some fun sliding down the snow, never mind the grit. It is a fair bet that you would stand out if you weren’t skiing in jeans, preferably a tight set of Wranglers. In spite of its humble statistics, Sharktooth had what many ski areas dream of: a local fan base that enjoyed what it had to offer. Sadly, we may not get to ski at Sharktooth again unless humans collectively and conclusively stop global warming.

Closer to the hearts of Boulderites is the fabled Chautauqua Mesa Ski Area. In operation from 1949–52, and again in 1962–63, Chautauqua Mesa began as a ski jump built by local residents seeking a little excitement. A 200-foot rope tow powered by a World War II Dodge Truck engine followed soon thereafter, and Boulder briefly had its own ski area. As one might guess, the snowpack in Boulder was highly variable, making operation of the ski lift subject to the whims of nature. In spite of this, a number of current Boulder residents recall skiing at Chautauqua Mesa years ago as young men and women, enjoying the winter recreationclose to home.

The more I explore Colorado, the more of these little abandoned resorts I find, each with its own unique story. They all began with optimism, but most passed away for similar reasons, such as lack of money, poor location, inadequate skier visits, inability to compete with larger mega-resorts, or lack of consistent snow. In spite of this, a number of these little resorts remain and have flourished, humbly running the low-speed lifts with little or no marketing budget, relying on word of mouth to attract skiers.

The next time you think of heading to a large resort, take the time to stop at a small ski area to make some turns and experience a different kind of Colorado skiing.

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The demise of the Chautauqua ski hill was more due to vandalism of the rope tow than anything else.

BTW, don't forget Hidden Valley ski area in RMNP.  It was pretty popular in its day.


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Check out Peter Bronski's book "Powder Ghost Towns" if you're interested in skiing some of Colorado's defunct ski resorts.  There are over 200 areas that have closed over the years, but the book focuses on those that have public access and reliable snow.



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