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

The mass of cars parked in the Berthoud Pass parking lot sheds a little light on how popular the area was for skiers in the 30s and 40s.
Courtesy | Pioneer Village Museum |

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.”

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