50 years of skiing Colorado

A founder of Vail, Pete Seibert (pointing), with Earl Eaton
Photo courtesy of Vail Resorts

Talk to a skier who learned in the ’60s and they’ll tell stories of coaches imported from Europe to teach Americans how to tackle obstacles like moguls — knees together! — and ski edges sharp enough to shred your ski pants. Our rocker skis, wide leg stance and Gortex pants are a long ways from those experiences.

For that matter, the idea of skiing for sport is a long way from what first brought two planks to Colorado. The first recorded use of skis in the state was in a snowbound mining town near Breckenridge in the winter of 1859-60. Webbed snowshoes had proved inadequate for traveling through the deep snow of Colorado’s high mountains, so skis were imported from Norway and put to use shuttling supplies to and from mountain towns. Some historians credit skis with speeding the settlement of the state.

But it wasn’t long after skis arrived and were put to use for things like hauling mail and commuting to work that people started incorporating them into winter festivals and events. As techniques and equipment started to evolve, interest grew, and the first ski areas started cropping up around the state.

According to the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum, 137 resorts have opened and then been abandoned across the state. Some lasted a single season, like Magic Mountain, which introduced snowmaking to Colorado for its single season and has now seen its slope carved out by a gravel quarry operation.

Some saw more success.

Vail, Steamboat and Eldora, as well as the skiing organization Colorado Ski Country USA, celebrate 50-year anniversaries this year, while Loveland recognizes its 75th season.

When Loveland Ski Area opened for the 2012 season on Oct. 23, it was its 75th year in business. The ski area was established decades before construction on Eisenhower Tunnel even started.

Vail opened 50 years ago with trails cut and groomed by 10th Mountain Division veteran Bob Parker, who’s in the Colorado Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame.

Vail opened Dec. 15, 1962, with one gondola and two chairlifts. Lift tickets were $5. | Photo courtesy of Vail Resorts

Vail opened with lift tickets at $5 in 1962 before blossoming through the ’60s into the powerhouse resort we know today.

They’re celebrating 50 years this year with the debut of a new gondola (see story on page 12) and early season events including Snow Daze, Dec. 10-16, which will include concerts by Wilco, The Shins and Michael Franti & Spearhead. The 50th anniversary celebration is planned for Dec. 15.

Before Steamboat became the training ground for Olympic competitors and home of the registered term “champagne powder,” it was just a development idea on the part of a son from a local ranching family, Jim Temple, who saw the increasing popularity of skiing and decided to cash in on it. The mountain opened Jan. 12, 1963, with a double chair lift and an A-frame warming house. The temperature was a bold -25 Fahrenheit, and receipts for the day totaled $13.75.

Steamboat’s 2012 opening day, Nov. 24, is exactly 50 days before the Jan. 12 anniversary, and they’ll be giving away free lift tickets, chances to ski or ride with Olympians, and access to anniversary programs up until the anniversary celebration Jan. 11-12.

Sunlight Mountain Resort opened in 1966. | Photo courtesy of Sunlight Mountain Resort

While big resorts do it up big, Boulder’s hometown mountain, Eldora, celebrates 50 years as we’d expect — without a lot of hoopla, and with continued focus on the community that has made Eldora what so many skiers have come to cherish.

Fifty years ago, Eldora Ski Resort opened with little more than a T-bar to the top of where the Cannonball and Challenge lifts now run and terrain concentrated in the lower stretches of the mountain.

Eldora was among the first areas in Colorado to have snowmaking and night skiing, a half pipe and a women’s program. The half pipe is gone, though terrain parks endure, and the women’s programs are flourishing. Snowmaking kept Eldora in good skiing conditions even through a drought in the 1970s. This year, they’ve added 50 snowmaking guns, doubling the size of their snowmaking acres.

There are more big things brewing for Eldora. Ski area management is in negotiations with the Forest Service to upgrade their master plan. Proposed changes include new lifts and opening new terrain on the back side of the mountain and extended from the blue cruiser run Jolly Jug.

“The change in Colorado skiing has certainly changed Eldora,” says Rob Linde, spokesperson for Eldora. “When the Eisenhower Tunnel opened, it sort of sucked the life blood out of Eldora back in the ’80s, but now the tables have turned and skiing continues to grow and be popular, and I-70 has gotten so crowded, now Eldora is sort of benefitting from that. It didn’t do well financially in the ’80s, and now it is doing well. Because of the crowding on I-70 people think twice about driving up that way.”

And while Eldora grows and expands, it’s not adding a resort function. With nowhere for out-of-towners to stay and make it a weekend experience, the area is likely to continue to be a playground for locals.

That’s a long way from the miners and pioneers who first strapped on planks to skate around the state.

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