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Ski Cooper: Real History, Good Powder, and Affordable

Article by Steve Voynick

Local History – January 1997 – Colorado Central Magazine

Many Colorado ski areas share a common heritage. Like Aspen, Breckenridge, and Telluride, they took over comatose mining towns; or, like Copper Mountain and Vail, they were conceived on drawing boards. Either way, their bloodlines can be traced to venture capitalists out to make a few bucks.

When it comes to bloodlines, however, no Colorado ski area can stand up to Leadville’s Ski Cooper. Although it wasn’t the state’s first ski area, Ski Cooper laid the foundation for development of Colorado skiing into today’s mega-buck industry. Yet Ski Cooper itself never made it into the big leagues of skiing, and maybe that was good. Considering the high quality of its skiing and its low lift-ticket prices, Ski Cooper may be Colorado’s best skiing bargain.

Cooper started in the early years of World War II, when foreign invasion of the U.S. was a real threat. The military believed that an invasion could be most effectively countered in the rugged terrain of the western Rockies or the eastern Appalachians. Thus Charles Minot “Minnie” Dole, the civilian founder of the National Ski Patrol, urged the War Department to train special troops for mountain, ski, and winter warfare.

In 1942, the Army acted on Dole’s advice. It created the Tenth Mountain Division and selected a training site near the remote railroad ice stop of Pando, midway between Leadville and Minturn. The site had everything the Army needed: rail transportation, rugged mountains, and a 250-inch average annual snowfall which would assure a six-month-long ski training season on the slopes of nearby, 11,700-foot-high Cooper Hill.

Army engineers leveled the valley floor near Pando and named the site Camp Hale, after Brigadier General Irving Hale, a Denver native and West Point graduate. At Cooper Hill, engineers cleared three ski runs and installed the region’s first T-bar tow.

Military ski training on the slopes of Cooper Hill wasn’t easy. The T-bar tow was used only occasionally. Thus would-be ski troopers often hauled their skis, an M-1 rifle, and a 90-pound pack to the top of Cooper Hill — on foot.

Following two years of rigorous training, both on Cooper Hill and in the Leadville bars, the Tenth Mountain Division was ordered to Italy to spearhead the advance of the U.S. Fifth Army. In a series of actions in the Apennines that included Riva Ridge and Mt. Belvedere, the Tenth breached the German army’s supposedly impregnable Gothic Line, secured the Po River Valley, and liberated much of northern Italy.

But by May, 1945, when the Germans surrendered, 992 ski troopers had been killed in action and 4,000 wounded, the highest casualty rate of any U.S. division in the Mediterranean Theater.

After the war, the War Department auctioned off Cooper Hill as surplus property, and the U.S. Forest Service got it back. In Leadville, the Lake County Recreational Board wisely saw Cooper Hill as a golden opportunity to expand county recreational resources. The Board had already dabbled in the rudiments of ski area management in 1942, when it installed and managed a rope tow at Leadville’s Dutch Henry Hill (on the current site of Colorado Mountain College).

The Board immediately obtained the use of Cooper Hill through a 99-year lease with the Forest Service. The Cooper Hill ski facility then consisted of three cleared ski runs, the original military T-bar tow, and a few frame buildings at the base and upper terminal of the lift.

In the following years, Cooper Hill exerted an indirect, yet profound, effect on the future of Colorado skiing. After the war, a few Tenth Mountain Division ski troopers returned to Colorado to help found such growing new ski areas as Aspen and Vail.

Early management philosophy at the Cooper Hill Ski Area can best be described as casual. It had always been just a backyard ski area, not a place that was actually supposed to make money. Some years it turned a buck, but never enough to pay for any major improvements. When improvements were made, the board just borrowed the necessary money.

At Cooper, through the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, most skiers were still Lake County residents, with only a few coming from Summit and Eagle counties. The public name of the ski area was formally changed to something a bit more contemporary — Ski Cooper. But no one really cared whether Ski Cooper attracted out-of-area skiers or not.

The modest improvements at Ski Cooper were overshadowed by those being made at Vail, Aspen, Copper Mountain, and Breckenridge. Ski Cooper, content in its obscurity, seemed destined to continue forever as a cozy, backyard ski area for a county that didn’t need, want, or even particularly like tourists.

Until the 1980s, Lake County was unique among rural Colorado counties. For 50 years, it had shared in the seemingly boundless fortunes of the Climax Molybdenum Company. The Climax Mine not only hired any Lake County resident who wanted a job, but it paid them very well, then paid most county property taxes to boot. If any county could afford to indulge itself in a backyard ski area that was already $200,000 in debt and rarely earned a nickel, Lake County was the one.

But Lake County got a big dose of reality in 1981, when the molybdenum market crashed and Climax laid off most of its 3,000 employees. With the local economy suddenly in shambles, the county suddenly had to shift its economic base from mining to tourism.

That sobering prospect demanded an immediate re-evaluation of Ski Cooper’s role in the county economy. Ski Cooper could no longer afford the interest on its debt, nor could it continue as a happy-go-lucky, break-even ski operation.

Ski Cooper suddenly represented a tremendous economic resource for Lake County — if it could expand quickly, increase operating efficiency, and devise an effective marketing program. In other words, Ski Cooper would either begin attracting visitors and paying its own way, or turn into history alongside the long-defunct Camp Hale. To turn things around, the county started out by firing the board.

In 1983, Ski Cooper received an $800,000 impact assistance grant funded by the state mineral severance tax (which had largely been funded by Climax). The first big improvement was the installation of a $640,000 triple chair lift, appropriately named the Tenth Mountain Lift. Crews also cut a dozen new runs covering 50 acres — thereby expanding skiable terrain by 35 percent.

The following year, Ski Cooper picked up a $250,000 federal grant, and operations went from five to seven days per week, not immediately to benefit the ski area, but to aid economically-depressed Leadville-Lake County merchants.

In 1986, as annual skier-days soared to 60,000, the base lodge and maintenance facilities were expanded. More importantly, Ski Cooper became financially self-sustaining and began paying its own way.

Crews next widened several trails to meet NASTAR racing requirements and cleared four new trails. In 1991, a children’s ski school opened and snowcats began backcountry tours for bowl and glade skiing. Moreover, Ski Cooper retired its debt so that all future profits could be directed to further upgrading and expansion.

In 1996, Ski Cooper completed a $350,000 expansion of the day lodge. Its 26 beginner, intermediate, and expert trails are now served by four lifts with a total capacity of 3,300 skiers-per-hour. Ski Cooper also offers fine cross-country skiing, with 15 miles of cross-country trails and direct access to the Tenth Mountain Hut-to-Hut System.

What’s in the future for the revitalized ski area?

“We don’t intend to go compete with the big boys across the pass,” says John Guess, Ski Cooper’s president and general manager. “Our strong point is in being an alternative to those areas. We don’t have the glitter of a Vail, but we have the same snow and you don’t have to take out a bank loan to ski here. We’re affordable, so we attract families. We’ve carved out a good skier market niche, and we’re going to continue to work that niche.”

Ski Cooper is not only a successful alternative to the big ski areas, it’s also become an economic resource for Lake County. Accounting for more than 67,000 skier-days per year, Ski Cooper visitors spend about $2.5 million each winter in Leadville-area hotels, motels, restaurants, shops, and gas stations. With 80 percent of all Ski Cooper visitors now from out-of-county or out-of-state, their spending represents an infusion of “new” dollars into the local economy. Also, Ski Cooper’s 90 employees, two-thirds of whom work year-round, earn a $560,000 payroll and spend most of it in Lake County.

But growth has not changed Ski Cooper into just another run-of-the-mill, bottom-line ski area. For Lake County residents — who continue to enjoy special rates on lift tickets — still think of Ski Cooper as their “private,” backyard ski area.

More importantly, Ski Cooper has never lost touch with its rich history. Granite monuments engraved with the deeds and the names of the casualties of the Tenth Mountain Division ski troopers stand at the ski area entrance on Tennessee Pass. Ski Cooper hosts annual reunions for the ski trooper veterans with a solemn honor guard ceremony at the monuments and a lot of toasting on the open deck of the lodge. A big weekend crowd attends the reunions to watch the “Pando Commandos” — Tenth Mountain Division ski troopers with white skis and camouflage field gear — glide down the same slopes where they trained more than 50 years ago.

“Ski Cooper will always be a special place with a special identity,” says Gene Kulyan, president of the Ski Area board. “Sure, a lot of other ski areas are bigger and glitzier, but every one of them wishes it had even a touch of our history and our tradition.”

Steve Voynick lives, skis, and writes near Leadville, and his books about minerals and mining can be found throughout Central Colorado, and many other fine locations as well.