Drilling, Blasting, and Skiing

Article by Steve Voynick

Climax Ski History – December 1996 – Colorado Central Magazine

Not many of us today associate the Climax Mine with skiing. But 50 years ago, Climax had one of the best-equipped ski areas in the entire West.

Organized skiing at Climax began in the 1930s, a time when Climax was fast becoming a legend in American mining. Given the dismal nature of underground work and the long winters at the 11,400-foot-high mine, Climax was always interested in providing outdoor recreation to make life a bit more bearable.

The biggest natural recreational resource at Climax was fine powder snow–an annual average of 350 inches. Many miners enjoyed cross-country skiing, but in fall, 1936, Climax employees Scott Gorsuch and John Petty asked Resident Manager Tex Romig for permission to carve a few runs for a downhill ski area on the east-facing slope of Chalk Mountain, just north of the summit of Frémont Pass.

Using wires and lights “borrowed” from the mine, volunteers worked nights clearing trees and burning and blasting out stumps. The Climax Ski Area opened in January, 1937. But with no tow or lift, only the most dedicated, conditioned, hard-core skiers would–or could–make more than three runs per day. Nevertheless, the little ski area became so popular that the first Climax Ski Meet, held on April 25, 1937, drew a crowd of 300, half from Climax, and the remainder coming from Leadville and the Tenmile mining camps.

The following year, with the Climax Ski Meet now sanctioned by the Southern Rocky Mountain Ski Association, 70 expert skiers competed. The downhill competition was held on the western slope of Bartlett Mountain. The run skirted the jagged edge of the deepening Glory Hole and ended near the Phillipson Tunnel portal. Slalom competition was held on the Chalk Mountain slopes, where the 600-foot vertical descent over a short 1,400-foot-long run brought out the best–and worst–in any skier.

In 1941, Climax skiers founded the Continental Ski Club. The company, eager to support any healthy, outdoor form of recreation that didn’t involve drinking or shooting, allowed the club to install a rope tow and night lights. The improved Climax Ski Area opened in December, just as bombs fell on Pearl Harbor and Climax became a top-priority defense installation. A diesel engine salvaged from a wrecked Climax dump truck powered a winch that operated an 1,800-foot-long rope tow. Several hundred industrial light bulbs, “borrowed” from the Climax warehouse and strung along both sides of three runs, provided just enough light for night skiing.

The Climax Ski Area operated on Wednesday and Friday nights and all day Saturday and Sunday, attracting hundreds of area skiers, as well as Tenth Mountain Division ski troopers from nearby Camp Hale. During World War II, Climax was one of Colorado’s best ski areas. It was also the only ski area in the world with its own air defense blackout warden, a Climax employee whose duty it was to cut the night lights in a blackout alert.

In 1947, the Climax Mine footed the bill to make the Climax Ski Area one of the best in the West. New improvements included a 2,600-foot-long, all-steel, 300-skier-per-hour T-bar tow; an extended, 720-foot vertical descent; and four runs fully lighted for night skiing. Climax employees paid $10 for a season pass–and their families skied for free.

After the T-bar tow was installed, Climax Molybdenum Company President Arthur Storke left his New York headquarters to visit the mine much more frequently. As an expert skier familiar with the best slopes of Europe, Storke knew good powder when he saw it. During his visits, Climax upper management complained bitterly, for Storke insisted on beginning company business well before dawn–to make time for his afternoon skiing.

During the 1950s, Climax skiers enjoyed a two-story warming lodge, some new runs, a few jumps for the adventurous, and the services of a ski shop. Winter weekends were festive occasions atop Frémont Pass, where as many as 500 skiers gathered at the Climax Ski Area–years before anyone ever dreamed of Vail or Copper Mountain.

Climax also produced a number of serious, competitive skiers, the most notable of whom was Dave Gorsuch. Gorsuch, a Max Schott School (Climax) student, went on to represent the United States in skiing at the 1960 Winter Olympics at Squaw Mountain, Calif.

But industrial progress and expansion, the same forces that helped build the Climax Ski Area, also brought about its end. In 1962, the Climax Mine phased out its company town and got out of the community and recreation business entirely.

Today, travelers crossing Frémont Pass on Colo. 91 can see the old runs weaving between the pines on the eastern slope of Chalk Mountain. The skiers are gone, but the old-timers still remember the days when the Climax Ski Area was one of Colorado’s best.

Steve Voynick of Leadville once mucked at Climax, and his history of that mine, town, and ski area is available at fine bookstores throughout Central Colorado.