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The Rocky Slope of Custer Skiing

Column by Hal Walter

Ski History – December 1996 – Colorado Central Magazine

The ski slopes loom above Westcliffe like a trophy, a lasting tribute to development gone awry.

It isn’t the only failed ski area in Custer County, just the most visible. Perhaps no other county in Colorado has as many ghost ski areas.

People have tried again and again to make skiing work here and it just hasn’t. The lack of snow in some years — accompanied by the bounty of extreme winds — makes skiing marginal here.

But a successful ski area takes more than just snow and a fall line. Certain amenities and a certain attitude are required. Actually Westcliffe has some of the amenities — like expensive groceries and over-inflated real-estate prices. But something else is missing.

It’s the ‘tude, dude.

For instance, just like in many ski towns, there are plenty of little shops in Westcliffe selling worthless stuff. The problem in Westcliffe is that none of this stuff costs enough. In a real ski town visitors always need to be able to spend twice as much for silly items they wouldn’t consider purchasing back at home. You can’t buy a Rolex in Westcliffe.

There is no place in Westcliffe where you can pay actual money to park your car for short periods of time.

Also, when you walk into the coffee house in a ski town at 2 a.m. you expect to be greeted by an earring-wearing purple-mohawked critter of indeterminate sex who hollers: “Dooooooode! ‘Whassop?”

In Westcliffe, you’re lucky to find the coffee shop still open in the wintertime when the sun dips behind the Sangres way before 5 p.m.

Nobody in Custer County speaks dude either. In fact, the only thing “cool” about Westcliffe in the wintertime is the wind-chill factor.

Some old-timers say the first ski area in Custer County was located above what is now the Alpine Lodge restaurant at Alvarado campground.

Legend has it that the owner died after some heavy machinery rolled on top of him. If you look today on the north-facing ridge above the campground some say you can see where the new timber has grown over the little slope.

Perhaps his ghost haunts the ski business here.

Later came two small ski areas in the Wet Mountains that attempted to attract skiers from Pueblo, Cañon City, and Colorado Springs.

Ski San Isabel was located near Bigelow Divide a few miles north of Bishop’s Castle. It’s now a private ranch.

Silver Hills, where my wife, Mary, remembers skiing as a child, was located on top of the Wet Mountain Range above Hardscrabble Canyon, between Westcliffe and Wetmore. Today the owners use the former ski slopes as pasture for appaloosa horses. A few years ago the rope tow and warming hut were disassembled and removed.

The basic trouble with these smaller areas was that most active-youth types in the southern Front Strange cities are more interested in team sports — like basketball and drive-by pistol marksmanship — than skiing. And the few who are seriously interested in skiing are willing to drive an extra hour or two to get to a real ski hill like Monarch, Cooper, or even the slopes along the I-70 industrial-tourism ghetto.

This drives us to another reason skiing never worked out in Custer County. There’s snow in them thar hills, but there’s no stairway to this flaky heaven. Many successful ski areas in Colorado have something in common — a major highway that uses skiers’ own motor vehicles as the primary lift to get them to a fairly high elevation base.

Monarch is a great example. U.S. Highway 50 whisks skiers — in the comfort of their own cars — up to an elevation where the snow is reliable.

From Salida, the highway lifts skiers 3,000 vertical feet. Monarch’s vertical is 1,160 feet and the snow is good from the base, which is well over 10,000 feet.

Ski Cooper is at the top of Tennessee Pass. A-Basin is on Loveland Pass. Copper Mountain is on Vail Pass. Winter Park is on Berthoud Pass. Wolf Creek is on Wolf Creek Pass.

But there is no passable pass over the main Sangre de Cristo Range, and that’s probably why there’s no passable skiing there either. You can’t help but wonder if things might have turned out differently if Hermit Pass Road was a paved four-laner. But Hermit Pass is just a bumpy four-wheel drive road, and though it reaches 13,000 feet, the ski-slope scars just to the south of it are well below the line of reliable snowpack.

The resort opened as Conquistador in the 1976-77 ski season, as best as can be determined from records. According to the United States Forest Service, 8,000 skiers risked their equipment on its rock-studded slopes that first year. Over the next few years Conquistador operated sporadically, opening when there was sufficient snowfall.

Dick Milstein was involved in the early development of Conquistador and he says the resort was a mountain of controversy from the get-go. “I had some great people in the valley backing it and a lot of people fighting it,” Milstein, now 75, recalls from his home in Cañon City. “There were a lot of ranchers there that didn’t want it.”

Despite the claims of detractors who say the resort’s originators located Conquistador in a bad location for snow, Milstein says he had done his homework. “We had 15 years of study,” he says. “. . . We didn’t just go up there and spend all those millions of dollars for nothing.”

Perhaps Milstein didn’t consider global warming.

Jim Little, publisher of the Wet Mountain Tribune, has maintained a file-folder of articles about the ski area. Put together, these clips could serve as skeletal notes for a novel that would make James Michener proud.

Or maybe Stephen King.

According to Jim’s files, sometime in the late ’70s or early ’80s, the resort picked up some debt in its efforts to expand. It was listed as collateral on the portfolio of Royal Business Funds, a New York City-based holding company that owed the Small Business Administration more than $20 million.

The SBA foreclosed on Royal and took over the ski area in 1982. For the next six years, Custer County had a ski area operated by the federal government, an outfit notorious for not operating at a profit despite the massive amounts of money it takes in.

In 1988, after Conquistador had grown to be a national example of SBA mismanagement, the agency closed the ski area. Though the resort had been paying $50,000 in property taxes to the county, it now was pulled from the tax roles, exempt as a fallow federal holding. So, not only were a number of Custer County residents out of work, the county was also out of a major chunk of change.

And there it sat for four years — the little ski area that wasn’t.

The antiVail.

Finally, in the summer of 1992, after several other deals had failed to materialize, the SBA sold the resort — and 3,000 acres of prime real estate that came with it — to Mund Shaikly of Los Angeles and Ray McEnhill of Salisbury, England; the pair reportedly put up an initial $100,000 earnest payment on a deal that totaled $3 million. They got the ski area and 600 acres up front. The SBA released another 400 acres for every $384,000 they made in principal payments. The note was held at 8.5 percent.

The ski area was renamed Mountain Cliffe and opened once again with a management team from Utah running the show. Mountain Cliff boasted 14 runs, snowmaking on 90 percent of the mountain, a vertical drop of 1,200 feet and chairlifts with a combined capacity of 4,200 skiers per day. But its base was where the county road system ended — at 8,500 feet.

The resumption of skiing was greeted by a vicious Chinook wind which trashed the slopes. The snow headed east and the management team went west. One of them died in a helicopter crash shortly after returning to Utah.

The resort reopened later that winter. In the warming lodge, a chef cooked meals that were quite outlandish when compared to the normal Westcliffe table fare. Not many locals were eating there, but some folks from out of town were. An early warm spell closed the ski area in March of 1993, and in all likelihood that was the last time those slopes will be skied.

The note was paid off in the summer of 1995. Earlier that year the ski-area equipment and improvements, lodge, hotel, water rights and 120 acres were sold to the Zellar family for a reported $1.2 million. The Zellars had operated Horn Creek Lodge for years.

Their plans now are to turn the former ski resort into a four-season retreat called Hermit Basin Conference Center.

Though signs point the way to “Hermit Basin Ski Area,” Jay Zellar says there are currently no plans for skiing there. He plans to replace these signs soon, but he’s been busy remodeling buildings, installing a water filtration plant, and putting in a swimming pool.

And trying to sell the ski-area equipment … and dealing with the forest service over removal of this equipment and restoration of the ski slopes.

Dave Crumley, district operations manager for the forest service, says Hermit Basin purchased this restoration responsibility along with the resort.

“When they bought the private property they automatically bought the liability for the ski area, which we based on the private property in the first place,” Crumley says, noting that he hopes Hermit Basin will remove the chairlift equipment either this winter or while snow still covers the slopes this spring.

“There will be less damage to the area if they can move some of the heavy stuff while the snow is on the ground,” he says.

One group of residents that has benefited from the ski slopes is the local elk herd, which uses the slashes as meadows for grazing. The elk love the tender grasses and young aspen shoots that spring up on the slopes. The U.S. Forest Service would like to see those meadows conserved, but at the same time wishes the straight lines of the slopes to be broken up somewhat.

The discussion now centers on cutting some trees on the edges of the ski slopes to break up these lines, while nurturing bands of young trees to grow across the former ski runs. This may be accomplished by planting some new trees or using fences to protect young trees until they are tall enough to withstand the gnawing of hungry elk.

District Ranger Cindy Rivera says the Forest Service is trying to be reasonable about the rehabilitation project while doing what’s good for the ecosystem in the long run. “It won’t immediately make the ski-area runs disappear, but in a reasonable amount of time people will see the diversity, and it will blend in,” she says.

That means that, years from now, people who don’t know the story will look up at the side of the mountain and perhaps see no sign of this tribute to ski-business folly. But some oldtimers will know there was once a ski area on those slopes — and a few will remember the long convoluted history behind it.

Hal Walter hasn’t worn downhill boards since 1984, but he did once ski up and down “Mountain Cliffe” on his cross-country gear.