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Comparing disciplines: A look at the distinctions between Nordic and alpine skiers

Grand County is a paradise for winter adventure and while our downhill ski slopes garner a lot of mass media attention Middle Park’s Nordic ski options are among the best in the world.

From the Fraser Valley to Grand Lake and far to the west at Latigo Ranch Grand County is a proverbial Mecca for cross-country skiers. But despite the close quarters the two disciplines share here in Middle Park there is little in terms of animosity between the hardcore adherents of either hobby.

“Most of the people who come to Latigo have distinctly decided that they prefer cross-country skiing to downhill skiing,” Lisa George, owner of Latigo Ranch – own of Grand County’s top Nordic skiing destinations – said. “Our clientele tends to be a bit older and we see fairly few kids.”

George compared the two styles in terms of personalities with different types of characters gravitating to the two respective sports and added that she sees little crossover between the two groups.

“I think cross-country skiing is more for the quieter set, while the rowdy set likes the downhill skiing,” George said. “It is a personality thing. ”

Other factors also play a part in keeping things friendly between the two groups. Unlike the dynamic between skiers and snowboarders downhill riders and cross-country skiers do not share space on the same mountain slopes, limiting the potential for conflicts.

Across Grand County there are plenty of options for both Nordic and downhill skiing. Most citizens are well aware of Winter Park Resort and Granby Ranch as in bounds options while former ski resorts like Berthoud Pass and Baker Mountain offer backcountry options covering thousands of acres.

There are also four top tier Nordic resorts as well ranging from the ritzy and refined Devil’s Thumb Ranch in the Fraser Valley to the family friendly and laid back atmosphere of Snow Mountain Ranch just outside of Granby. Grand Lake’s Nordic Center offers 35 kilometers of groomed trails nestled in the quiet pine filled valleys just outside of Grand Lake while Latigo Ranch north of Kremmling provides the sort of quiet experience you can only find far away from the city and its crowds.

ON THE MOUNTAIN: What sets Winter Park Resort apart from other ski areas

Rising high above the Fraser Valley Winter Park Resort stretches across 3,081 acres of skiable terrain making it the fourth largest resort in Colorado and placing it among the big dogs of North America but it is more than just its expansive size that draws thousands of visitors at year up and over Berthoud Pass.

“I think what always strikes me about Winter Park is its total authenticity and lack of pretentiousness,” Steve Hurlbert, spokesman for Winter Park Resort, stated. “This of course starts with the people here, who are genuine, friendly, passionate about the area, and want visitors to be passionate about it as well.”

It is a common refrain from many who call Winter Park their “home” mountain. From eccentric characters like the Mayor of Mary Jane to the stalwarts of the skiing industry who have long called Grand County their home Winter Park Resort tends to draw folks who put love of skiing, or snowboarding, above self image. That stripped down mentality, focusing on function over form, has created a culture of locals and regulars that prizes the fun of a good powder run above almost anything else.

But culture alone is not what brings the crowds from Denver. For that Winter Park Resort relies on a collection of factors ranging from affordability to snowfall.

“On the surface, the biggest draws are our great snow, our expansive terrain, and other amenities like our Village and the Winter Park Express train,” Hurlbert stated.

Winter Park Resort has averaged 323 inches of snowfall per season over the past 10 years and while it may not get as much snow as some of the remote resorts of the southern San Juans the mountain is well known for its March and April powder dumps when late spring storms often deposit a foot or more of fresh snow. The Resort is also famous for its mogul runs and tree skiing, especially in the Mary Jane Territory.

Other major draws for Winter Park Resort include its close proximity to Denver and the broader Front Range population centers. Located roughly 66 miles from downtown Denver Winter Park Resort is the third closest ski resort to the state’s capital, with only Eldora outside of Nederland and the diminutive Echo Mountain being closer, though Denver residents will find little difference in drive times between Winter Park and Eldora.

Winter Park’s advantageous position right beside the Union Pacific Railroad track running through Grand County also offers a truly unique opportunity for riders in the form of the Winter Park Express. As such Winter Park Resort is the only ski resort in North American that offers slope side access from a train.

Those factors were highlighted by Viking Lodge owner and Middle Park High alpine ski coach Scott Sutcliffe who explained the draw of Winter Park Resort in two words, “accessibility” and “affordability”.

“It is easy to get here,” Sutcliffe said. “People don’t have to drive through the tunnel.”

Sutcliffe went on to highlight Winter Park Resort’s terrain variations and small weekday crowd sizes as big factors and also noted that the Resort and visitor accommodations throughout the county are much more reasonably priced than many other resort communities across the state.

“We sell rooms starting at $79 a night in winter time,” he said. “I doubt you can find that in any other destination ski resort in Colorado.”

For Hurlbert and Winter Park Resort though it all circles back to the people who make it all possible.

“The quality of the people who work and live here will always be what sets Winter Park apart from other resorts,” he stated.

Love for skiing, snowboarding outweighs risk of serious, long-term injury for many

Whether it’s taking on the backcountry at Berthoud Pass, carving between moguls at the Mary Jane or Nordic skiing at Devil’s Thumb Ranch winter sports are a way of life in Grand County. Skiers and snowboarders are dedicated and passionate, braving terrible traffic and snowstorms to get on the slopes. But at what cost?

We all know that skiing and boarding can be dangerous, with the constant risk of hitting a tree or breaking your leg, but the long term health effects of skiing can be equally daunting.

“We can see a prevalence of injury in terms of snow sports,” said Stephanie Zavilla, director of sports performance at the Winter Park Competition Center. “Most of what we see are knees and concussions. Obviously the amount of injuries can range, but like any very active sport there’s going to be wear and tear on the body. And most of us would not sacrifice the love we have for something in order to prevent injury.”

The most common long term concern for snow sport enthusiasts, predominantly skiers, is deterioration in the knee. Because of the forward lean of ski boots skiers tend to have an interior tilt in their pelvis, which loads a majority of your weight onto your knees. The tilt in the pelvis also means that skiers tend to load their knees more than necessary off the hill as well, according to Zavilla.

The increased stress on the knee over time can cause several complications long term.

“We see more ACL tears at a much later age than one would normally see in an urban setting,” said Lori Myers, physical therapist at the Denver Health Alpine Clinic in Fraser. “Obviously with skiing there’s an increased incidence of meniscus and ACL tears. And depending on how both are managed that could lead to arthritic changes in the joints, and perhaps later necessitating a partial or total knee replacement.

“We’ve seen quite a few total knee replacements in this population. You can extrapolate that it’s related to other knee injuries from years of skiing.”

The skier’s tilt also leads to lower back pain due to the hips and back being in a constant state of extension.

While it’s called “skier’s knee” for a reason, there are ways to help prevent damage to the knees, back and hips. Zavilla recommends postural restoration therapy, a variation on physical therapy that looks at your skeletal alignment and asymmetries that occur naturally in your body.

“We need to be moving in loading the hips and moving from our glutes instead of using our hamstrings and only loading the knees for the majority of our power,” said Zavilla. “What we’ve worked on a lot recently with postural restoration therapy is looking at realigning the pelvis back into a neutral position. That then frees up the hip flexor, you get less lower back pain and we start chaining properly in terms of our movements, range of motion and getting power from the correct muscles.”

Snowboarders are typically more susceptible to trauma injuries, though also risk long term injury to their backs. Boarders throw their feet around and torque the pivot point at the thoracolumbar junction between the thoracic and lumbar spine, creating stress on the back.

“There’s a lot of excessive rotation that occurs in that,” said Myers.

Another major long term health risk for both skiers and snowboarders is concussions. While research into concussions is still in its relative infancy, with much to still be uncovered, concussions can come with a myriad of vestibular, cognitive and memory symptoms which can develop into seizures, according to Zavilla.

Because concussions are an invisible injury, recreational skiers and snowboarders often return to the slopes before their bodies are ready.

“I think there’s a lot of myths surrounding concussions, where people think its been two weeks and they’re probably fine,” said Zavilla “In reality it could take months. I’m going on two years for mine. So it’s different for every person, and going back too soon can cause long term effects.”

While concussions are difficult to prepare for, aside from wearing a helmet and avoiding overly dangerous terrain, precautions can be taken to help prevent long term knee, hip and back injuries.

Conditioning is key. Building muscle around the knee will help protect the joint, and skiers and snowboarders should take lessons to ensure they’re using the proper form, or consult with a postural restoration therapist. Experts agree that you should be in good physical condition before you ski or snowboard, as opposed to conditioning yourself through the sport.

Nutrition is also an important element in injury prevention, as snow sports participants should know how to fuel their bodies for a day on the slopes, and how to recover afterwards.

Zavilla also emphasized the importance of mental preparation.

“I tell the athletes to have a present mindset. Becuase if you’re in the past thinking about the last time you crashed on a run, or something unrelated to skiing you’ve left the moment and you’re not fully engaged in what you’re doing. That’s when we see some injuries happen.”

The prospect of a total knee replacement or a concussion can be intimidating, but it shouldn’t stop you from enjoying your favorite snow sports, especially given the myriad of health benefits that also accompany skiing and snowboarding.

On top of improved physical fitness, snow sports can help improve coordination, balance and strength. Being outside and exercising in the fresh air is also great for your mental health.

“There’s a sense of well being and people tend to be happier when they stay physical,” said Myers. “Both skiing and snowboarding are excellent in terms of encouraging triplaner motion throughout the whole body, using the whole body in a three-dimensional manner. There’s really just better overall conditioning with people that ski and snowboard.”

More than snow: The economics of the ski industry

The heavens finally opened up this weekend, dumping several inches of beautiful, white snow over Grand County. While the weather was certainly welcomed by most, it was the ski areas, desperate for a jolt of life, that first come to mind.

Weather is a fickle thing. It can’t be controlled or persuaded to act a certain way. So when one of Colorado’s biggest industries is built around snow, how do they prepare for the worst?

The answer is simple enough; make your business about more than snow.

“There are some small ski areas that are very approximate to population bases that really carry most of their revenue from lift tickets and pass sales, and they don’t really have any ancillary revenue streams,” said Dave Belin, director of consulting services for RRC Associates, a research and consulting business for resorts based out of Boulder.

But larger ski areas, which typically attract people to spend the night, Belin said, totally change the dynamic in terms of business operations.

It presents the opportunity for a ski area to generate revenue from various different departments, and really helps to grow the business overall, he explained.

At the end of the day, snow is still king, and getting people on the mountain is still the biggest source of revenue for ski areas. According to Belin, about 45 to 48 percent of revenue for ski areas come from selling lift tickets and passes. Ski schools, dining and lodging each make up about 15 percent of the pie, while rental shops and retail stores account for about five percent each.

Season passes and pre-sold lift packages have become a major product in helping to mitigate risk for resorts worried about snowfall.

“The theory behind that is exactly what we’re experiencing now,” said Steve Hurlbert, director of public relations and communications for Winter Park Resort. “You try to sell as many passes early on and that helps insulate you from when you have something as variable as the weather that can really help offset, especially when it comes early in the season, some of those dry periods that you inevitably get.”

Season passes help to lock up customers early in the season, or before it begins, at a considerably discounted rate compared to selling passes at the window. Ski resorts are open to making that small financial sacrifice to assure visitors to the mountain. According to Hurlbert a majority of visitors to the resort are pass holders. Once they’re on the mountain, resorts can reap the benefits of patrons utilizing their rental shops, ski schools, restaurants, condos and hotels.

Winter Park Resort, for example, owns the Vintage Hotel, along with a number of condos in both the Zephyr Mountain Lodge and Fraser Crossing Founders Pointe. The resort’s lodging team also works closely with homeowners to secure the best rates for units when they’re not being used. In total, close to 500 individual units are located at the base of the mountain, according to Hurlbert.

By diversifying activities on the mountain resorts also diversify their customer base, welcoming in visitors less interested in skiing or snowboarding.

“A lot of skiers are more casual or intermediate, and they want to ski but they don’t necessarily want to ski wire to wire,” said Belin. “It’s really important for ski areas to offer things for those areas to do other than skiing. Whether its having a cocktail in a bar, shopping, restaurants, spas or a ton of other activities that are going to keep people engaged, and give them new experiences to do beyond the hours that they’re actually sliding on snow.”

Belin noted that many ski areas, Winter Park Resort included, are also looking for ways to attract more customers during the summer season.

“It’s an opportunity for not only Colorado areas, but all ski areas to really leverage the people who are already coming to the surrounding area, and figuring out what’s not available to them at the resort,” said Belin. “What are they doing in the summer time, and what can the ski area offer that would compliment the existing offerings at a mountain destination.”

Belin said that despite the variable nature of snowfall, it’s rare that droughts will move the revenue needle from year to year for resorts with ancillary revenue streams, except in extreme cases. This is primarily because of season pass holders, and the fact that ski areas, especially in Colorado, rarely suffer from a severe lack of snow.

“The range of the volatility is relatively narrow,” said Belin. “It’s not these super wild fluctuations. Even if the weather isn’t great there’s still a baseline of people who will come out.”

While ski schools, lodging, dining, rental and retail shops make up a huge percentage of the revenue models for ski resorts, the most important factor in deciding success is still the ability to get skiers to the mountain, and make sure they come back.

“When you want to talk about financial sustainability you can talk about competitive prices on ski passes, discounted lift tickets or discounted lodging,” said Hurlbert. “But the bottom line is whether people want to come and ski at your resort. So if you don’t provide a great service for people the rest kind of becomes irrelevant.”

A ‘local dignitary’: The Mayor of Mary Jane preps for his 40th season at Winter Park Resort

Ski resorts are known for their eclectic mix of characters and Winter Park is no exception but amongst the various rogues, ramblers and plain ole bums that populate the slopes of the Fraser Valley one man stands out from the crowd; Dave Turner is something of a fixture in our local ski scene, though you may known him by his more popular moniker, the Mayor of Mary Jane.

If you cruise up to the Jane’s C-Lot on a weekday after Mother Nature has dropped a few inches of fresh powder odds are you will eventually catch sight of the Mayor. It is hard to miss him on the mountain, even when he is not wearing his special mayor’s outfit – a suit, “mayor’s” sash, and comically large top hat combination vaguely reminiscent of the Mad Hatter from “Alice in Wonderland.”

The 65-year-old Turner is a gregarious and laid back character with more than a touch of counter-cultural nonconformity – he is Easy Rider meets Warren Miller. But don’t let his age or eccentricities fool you, the Mayor can outride most folks on the mountain, especially if you go playing in the trees and he is fairly famous on the local ski scene.

“The Mayor is the embodiment of the spirit of Mare Jane and his passion is downright infectious,” Steve Hurlbert, Winter Park Resort spokesman, stated. “His enthusiasm creates a lot of smiles and I know many guests find their ski day at Mary Jane incomplete without seeing ‘the Mayor’.”

Turner demurred about his near celebrity status at Winter Park Resort and put everything in context of his deep love of skiing.

“I never get tired of this,” the Mayor said in reference to skiing. “The next ski day is always the greatest day of your life. The people I meet are awesome. You find friends that have that little gleam in their eye. If you have it you know what it is, and once you have it, it is like being a little kid again.”

Originally from California the Mayor’s father was in the Air Force and he spent several years crisscrossing the country with his family. He started skiing before he was five years old and was taking his first turns at Winter Park Resort in the 1960s while his family briefly lived in Boulder.

After graduating from college in the Washington D.C. area Turner and his then newly minted wife moved to Boulder in 1978. The couple had visited Winter Park Resort the year before, hitting Mary Jane for the first time after the newly opened territory was featured in Powder Magazine. Turner remembered his earlier experiences at Winter Park as a child and decided to check out the new digs.

“We were like, ‘whoa’, this place rocks!” Turner said. “We’ve been skiing it ever since. About 40 years straight now.”

Over the last four decades the Mayor has watched as his beloved Winter Park Resort has transformed from a relatively small ski area with only T-bar lifts to the expansive mountain it is today.

“I have seen it change a lot since I was a kid,” he said. “From T-bars to the first chair lifts. I watched the Jane grow from the old days riding the Iron Horse to when they opened the backside and opened up the (Parseen) Bowl. It has been wonderful watching the changes.”

These days the Mayor spends as much time as possible riding in the Eagle Wind territory, which he affectionately refers to as his “happy place”.

“When I ride I go to the Jane, but I keep a watch on the Pano and Eagle Wind. As soon as they open Eagle Wind I go there until they kick me out.”

Turner bestowed the title of Mayor upon himself nearly a decade ago as a gag in hopes of getting a good parking spot in the Jane’s C-Lot but what started out as a tounge-in-cheek jokes has since taken on a life of its own.

“I gave it to myself,” he said with a laugh. “We had been hanging out in the C-Lot partying and I said I wonder if I could get a better parking spot if I told people I’m the Mayor. I got little stickers printed up and had the sash made. It turned out to be a wild hit. I had no idea it would turn into what it has become.”

How it all began: Grand County the birthplace of Colorado’s ski industry

It started with John Peyer.

Peyer was a Hot Sulphur Springs resident who worked as an agent for a development company based out of Denver. In 1911, he had an idea to help sell real estate: throw a winter carnival. The celebration would take place right in Hot Sulphur Springs, and would feature Nordic skiing, snowshoeing, ice skating and bobsledding.

The idea wasn’t completely novel. Recreational skiing had been at least a niche hobby since the 1880s and similar events had already been held in Grand Lake and Crested Butte. But Peyer had something else in mind for his carnival. He wanted to start an industry.

“There were several other kinds of events around Colorado in the 1880s, but it didn’t go anywhere and died off,” said Tim Nicklas, historian and director of the Pioneer Village Museum in Hot Sulphur Springs. “It wasn’t for tourism. That’s where Hot Sulphur Springs was different. It was specifically for creating winter tourism.

“Before that 1911 event winter was dead in Hot Sulphur and all mountain towns. People either locked themselves up in their homes or they would leave the mountains in the winter.”

And it begins

In October 1911, a group of Hot Sulphur citizens led by Peyer gathered for the express purpose of bringing tourism to the town during the winter months. The carnival was the what. The railroad was the how.

“Before having the railroad there was no way they could have done such a thing at that time,” said Nicklas. “Nobody was driving to the mountains in the winter. Period.”

Peyer spread the news, giving interviews and taking out ads in the Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News. On the last weekend of December, the Denver news media along with visitors from all over Colorado descended on the small mountain town to witness the first Hot Sulphur Springs Winter Carnival.

Patrons enjoyed the usual winter activities, and were thrilled with something new. Carl Howelson and Angell Schmidt, two Norwegian immigrants, introduced Colorado to ski jumping for the first time.

Howelson immigrated to the United States via Chicago in 1904, where he worked as a stonemason. Already a champion skier in Norway, Howelson was recruited by the Barnum and Bailey Circus as a ski jumper, billed as The Flying Norseman. He moved to Denver in 1908 where he continued working as a stonemason and began searching for skiing territory. He eventually landed in Hot Sulphur Springs, where he dazzled residents with his stunt.

Howelson’s jump was the marquee event of the first carnival, and it was such a hit that the Hot Sulphur Springs Winter Sports Council decided to hold another carnival just six weeks later, and create a continuing event. On the weekend of Feb. 12, 1912 the first annual Hot Sulphur Springs Winter Carnival was held, and an industry was born.

Putting Grand County on the map

“It just took off from there,” said Nicklas. “Hot Sulphur Springs became one of the centers of skiing in the western United States. … Howelson is credited as the grandfather of skiing in Colorado. Because he was a big time promoter of skiing. It was his passion, and it was under him that the Colorado ski industry really took off.”

Nicklas also credits Howelson, at least in part, with the birth of Winter Park Resort.

“In 1913 there was a major snowstorm in Colorado that put feet upon feet of snow up here and everywhere in the mountains,” he said. “George Cranmer, the founder of Winter Park, was out that day near Capitol Hill in Denver. He saw one person getting around really easily on the snow, and it was Carl Howelson on skis. Howelson hands him his skis and shows him how to ski, and that started Cranmer’s interest in skiing right there.”

While Peyer and Howelson are credited as the key figures in the creation of the Colorado ski industry, several other important figures came out of the winter carnival including Colorado Ski Hall of Fame inductee Barney McLean; the first winter Olympian from Colorado, Jim Harsh; and Thor Groswold, founder of the Groswold Ski Company.

The carnival continued to gain popularity, peaking on the 25th annual celebration when the town welcomed 8,000 guests a day over the three day event. The carnival began to fade by 1940, unable to compete with the resources of Winter Park Resort, and was ultimately crushed by the second World War.

“It was the opening of Winter Park that caused the collapse of Hot Sulphur Springs as a major ski center,” said Nicklas. “It couldn’t compete with location. Winter Park was right there when you came out of the Moffat Tunnel or coming over Berthoud Pass. And with the snow and terrain there was really no comparison.”

Hot Sulphur Springs attempted to revive their ski industry in 1947 with the opening of the Snow King Valley ski area. While the opening day was a major event, bringing major faces from the skiing industry into town, including nearly the entire U.S. Olympic Ski Team, the new ski area lasted only three seasons.

While the Hot Sulphur Springs Winter Carnival would eventually fade into history, its mark on the town and the Colorado ski industry is undeniable and long lasting.

“This town never lost its ski culture,” said Nicklas. “It was the one that got skiing as a tourism industry going in Colorado. It set a precedent. It set a mark. It was what all other places in Colorado aspired to be.”

Skiers vs. snowboarders: Locals mellow about long-standing feud

For just about as long as snowboarders have existed there has been conflict between skiers and those who prefer to take their turns on a single plank.

Snowboarders often think of skiers as entitled and elitist jerks, while skiers often see snowboarders as disrespectful and dangerous punks and while the feud between these two proverbial tribes has waxed and waned over the last several decades a new paradigm seems to be emerging as diehards from both groups embrace an ethos of live-and-let-live.

“Everybody is out here for the same thing,” Dave Turner, more commonly known as the Mayor of Mary Jane, said. “It is all about fun. I’m not here to slam anybody. If you are on a snowboard and having as much fun as me, then let’s rock and roll.”

Turner analogized the long running dispute between the two groups to the old west battles between cattle ranchers and sheepherders.

“I might think different if I had ever been run over by a snowboarder, but that hasn’t happened,” he said.

Still despite his positive outlook on snowboarding Turner, who often logs upwards of 80 days a year skiing, could not resist an opportunity to poke a little fun.

“I have tons of friends who snowboard. Both my kids went over to the darkside,” he said with a laugh. “Really though I don’t have any issues with snowboarding. I’m glad everybody is having fun.”

Other Grand County snow sports enthusiasts echoed that tongue in cheek sense of humor about the longstanding dispute.

“With my wife being a skier and I a snowboarder, I’ve gotten used to being told I’m wrong,” joked Christian Hornbaker, Grand County’s Emergency Manager. “I’m not sure if that’s my snowboarding skills or just me in general? All I know is that if we don’t band together, the mountain will be overrun by those crazy kids on hybrid ski bikes.”

Hornbaker noted that he still occasionally encounters subtle digs and mildly snide remarks from skiers as he walks through the village and said he thinks the beef between the two groups is roughly the same as it always has been.

“It’s not surprising that the divide between skiers and snowboarders has stayed about the same,” he stated. “However, I personally would like to say thanks to cell phones and wireless headphones that keep me from hearing comments about my inability to make it down the mountain in a safe or timely manner.”

Middle Park High School Counselor Ben Polonowski was more earnest in his take on the feud.

“I think snowboarders are great,” Polonowski stated. “They have been bringing new people to the hill for the past 30 plus years. I like the diversity that it creates on the hill, and the technology that snowboarding has brought to skiing has made the sport way more exiting.”

To Polonowski the conflict between the two groups was derived from the way snowboarders often side slip quality powder off the hill as they descend the slopes.

“I think the conflict between the groups has gotten better,” he stated. “Snowboarders and skiers are sharing and even crossing over styles and genres. With the creation of parks, half-pipes, and rails, snowboarders are now sharing the space and time with skiers. New technology with split boards is bringing many new boarders out into the backcountry.”

The merging of the two groups was something Lucas Harville, owner of Mad Munchies and Lion Head Coffee in Granby, noted in his comments.

“I would say that, luckily, we are growing into more of an overall ‘snow sports’ category,” Harville stated. “So many people now are very capable skiers and riders that it’s much less an us versus them mentality and more about doing what you enjoy most.”

A golden beacon: The life and death of the Berthoud Pass ski area

In the 1930s and 40s, the Berthoud Pass ski area was the place to be. Thousands of patrons would strap into their wooden skis and venture to the pass every day to shred between the trees and down the mountain. For a brief speck in time Berthoud Pass was king, a golden beacon calling to skiers and snowboarders alike who were just discovering the joys of downhill skiing. A time when motorists could spot the lifts coming up Highway 40, and would know they were almost home.

Of all the lost ski areas in Colorado, Berthoud Pass is perhaps the most significant.

Berthoud begins to take off

By the late 1920s, backcountry skiers had already taken to the pass, but it wasn’t until 1933 when winter maintenance on the road allowed skiers easier access to the area that it began to take off. Groups of friends would drive to the top of the pass, and send a car to the bottom for pickup at the end of their run.

Owned by the Forest Service, and with no formal ski area at the site, a group of volunteer ski enthusiasts decided to take matters into their own hands. Financed by the May Company and the Denver Ford dealers, volunteers created the first rope tow system in Colorado in 1937, giving birth to the state’s first formalized ski area.

“I look at the dedication of those early skiers and I’m just amazed at their devotion to skiing, and what they would put into it,” said Tim Nicklas, historian and director of the Pioneer Village Museum in Hot Sulphur Springs. “They would go help clear trails. Can you imagine that because of your love for skiing you’d be swinging an ax and pulling trees down in the summer? It was all done by hand. That just shows you the dedication of those early skiers.”

The opening marked a significant point in Colorado’s ski history, but it wasn’t without a black mark. The tow began operation on Feb. 7, and that day two German skiers disappeared into the Grand County wilderness. Their bodies weren’t recovered until the following spring after the snow had begun to thaw.

It wasn’t until after World War II that the Forest Service issued the first permit to operate the ski area. A group of wealthy families from Denver in the Shafroths, Tolls and Grants each purchased 30 percent of the company in 1946, then called Berthoud Pass Lodge, Inc. Idaho Springs native Sam Huntington owned ten percent of the company.

In 1947 Huntington, along with help from Denver engineer Bob Herron, designed the first double-seated chair lift in Colorado. The area enjoyed immediate success, with thousands of skiers taking to the pass every day, in large part due to its proximity to the Front Range and a growing desire for alpine skiing.

“It was fortuitous that the Moffat Tunnel opened at the same time as the emergence of alpine skiing in the United States,” said Nicklas. “Alpine skiing was far more recreational and less intimidating than ski jumping. Not just anybody is going to put on a pair of skis and go down a ski jump. But alpine skiing, on the other hand, anybody could give it a shot.

“It gave them the opportunity to play in the snow in a way that they never had. And it didn’t take the endurance of cross country skiing.”

The coalition of the Shafroths, Grants, Tolls and Huntington sold the ski area to Irma Hill, who had been working at the area since 1960, in 1972. Five years later Hill sold the area again to Ike Garst, who ran the business for ten years with his wife Lucy.

Snowboarders allowed on lifts for first time

It was under the Garsts leadership that another important moment in the industry’s history came about. For the first time in the state’s history snowboarders were allowed on the lifts.

“The Garsts saw an opportunity there,” said Nicklas. “This was part of the industry’s future and they wanted to get more people involved in the sport. It wasn’t really about promoting snowboarding by any means; they just wouldn’t deny a lift ticket to anybody. It really took off from there, and you had snowboarding competition take place at Berthous Pass, which was revolutionary in Colorado. You weren’t seeing this going on anywhere else.”

By the end of the Garst era at Berthoud Pass traffic had begun to slow down, despite the addition of a new sport on the mountain. Winter Park Resort had emerged, ironically in part due to the once immense popularity of Berthoud Pass, and a desire from the Forest Service to alleviate congestion on the slope. Soon after Winter Park Resort had surpassed Berthoud as the public’s favorite ski area, though Berthoud continued to compete.

In 1987 the Garsts sold Berthoud to Timberline Mountain Inc., which renamed the area Timberline. Under new ownership there was a 1,200-acre terrain expansion, as well as tragedy. During Timberline’s first year of operation, the double-seated chair lift malfunctioned and injured a skier, prompting the Colorado Tramway Board to shut down the lift. The ensuing loss of revenue spelled the first real financial crisis for Berthoud, and Timberline Mountain filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

Timberline Mountain sold the property to New York native Gary Shultz in 1989, who replaced the lifts with a new triple and quad-chair lifts. But by the time the 90s rolled around, Berthoud was again under financial strain. And the Forest Service noticed.

In 1993, James Pearsall and Sandra Miorella purchased the property from Shultz and formed the Berthoud Pass Recreation Corporation, but the Forest Service didn’t want to see another ski area in operation. The permitting process was dragged on for the next five years, during which time the Berthoud ski area was closed. In 1997, facing pressure from locals, the Forest Service granted an operating permit for the south side of the pass, and the three-person lift was opened.

“It only got going again because of people’s love and determination for the ski area,” noted Nicklas. “They had a passion and a vision of what they wanted. And what they wanted was a pure, Disney free, ski experience.”

The entire Berthoud ski area reopened in 1998, but before witnessing his vision completed Jim Pearsall was killed in a car accident outside of Empire.

Berthoud was sold to Marise Cipriani, the current owner of Granby Ranch, in 1999. Facing financial issues, Cipriani decided to close the lifts down after the 2000-01 season. Under Cipriani, Berthoud Pass continued to operate with shuttles and Snowcats for the next couple seasons.

“That looked really promising,” said Nicklas. “It really gave you a better backcountry experience. But that was definitely for experts only. And how long can you sustain yourself with expert only terrain? There just aren’t enough people that are able to do that.”

Closed for good

In March 2003, the Berthoud ski area closed for good, and in 2005 the Forest Service tore down the lodge that stood on the grounds.

In a way the closure was predictable. In the late 80s and 90s several other small ski areas around Colorado began shutting down, including Ski Broadmoor, the Pikes Peak ski area and the Conquistador ski area.

Berthoud Pass couldn’t compete with the juggernaut Winter Park Resort, which had become more easily accessible via the ski train, had better facilities and more base real estate to help finance the ski area.

“Real estate became a bigger deal to financing ski areas, so that was absolutely one of the major factors,” said Nicklas. “There was just no way it was going to sustain…You’re not going to be a destination ski area, you’re not going to have a high speed six-pack and all those other things that support you financially.”

In the early 90s the construction of Interstate 70 also spelled doom for the mom and pop ski area, opening up direct passage to ski areas in Vail, Summit County, Beaver Creek and more.

In the end the Berthoud Pass ski area wasn’t built to last, but its contributions to the history of skiing in Colorado and across the western United States can’t be overstated. And while there may never be another formal ski area at Berthoud Pass, its tradition is kept alive by the backcountry skiers who frequent its slopes, and by the Friends of Berthoud Pass, a collective of backcountry enthusiasts dedicated to keeping recreation alive at the pass.

“Berthoud Pass being the first downhill ski area in Colorado with a rope tow set a precedent for all the other ski areas that came during that time,” said Nicklas. “It was the location of the first chairlift, the first multi-mountain ski passes, and of course it was the first area that allowed snowboarding in Colorado.

“Look at what the snowboarding industry did for the skiing industry, especially in the 90s. It helped keep the industry relevant, made it fresh again and that all started out at Berthoud Pass.”