It makes sense because, as Cecily and I learned last March, you’ll dodge a few cow pies crossing from the parking lot to the snow. They are thawing clues to the summer use of these leased ski pastures.
And the plaque makes another kind of sense because Ski Hesperus, a 680-vertical-foot, one-chair hill 11 miles west of downtown Durango, is very much loved by local racers. Some race after school. Some train at night under the lights. All are at least semi-serious about their gate-running and unequivocally possessive of the place they call “Hespie.”
When we introduced ourselves to owner and chief chili chef Jim Pitcher and told him we were researching small ski areas on the Western Slope, he snapped, “What do you mean small? It’s a tough mountain, you’ll see.”
Compact and tightly put together like a gymnast, with gray hair, Pitcher came out from behind the counter which serves as ticket office, ski school, gear sales and snack bar all rolled into one. He is both proud and sour. Proud of the area he’s kept going for 22 winters, “with a couple of breaks for bad snow years.” Proud of his $3 namesake chili: “Yeah, it’s good.” Sour because of all the time spent battling the tram board over his old, slow double chair: “I can ride it. The kids can ride it.” Sour because, well, after working his whole life in the ski industry – starting up at Beaver Mountain near Logan, Utah, where he grew up, then on to Keystone, Flagstaff, Cloudcroft, N.M., Elk Meadows, Ut. – maybe it’s just “time to hang it up.” Ski Hesperus has been unenthusiastically for sale since 2003.
“I think Pitch says that every year,” said a volunteer ski patroller from Mancos lounging outside near the lift shack. “There’s a lot of support for this hill. It’s great terrain. You come up here mid-week at night, with a foot of new and 15 people on the hill, all of them, you know….”
There were maybe 15 people out this day, including a guy in dreadlocks and coveralls and a hot-skiing kid ripping laps on the tricky refrozen spring snow. It was easy to picture, though – the ’troller’s reverie. These 680 feet are consistently steep. There are over 20 named trails, with scores of ungroomed ribs and gullies and open slots through the scrub oak- the man-high oaks give the place a kind of Middle Earth quality. Add a foot of fresh and, yes, you’d have a giddy, practically private good time.
Lots of little ski areas have come and gone across Colorado in the sport’s short history. Colorado Ski Country USA produced a rather elegant poster a few years back devoted to the 146 “Lost Resorts” no longer operating in the state. They are, the poster says, “the ski areas that have fallen by the wayside – victims of competition, victims of bad business decisions, victims of scanty snowfall, victims of time.”
Some of the names have a familiar ring: Berthoud Pass, St. Mary’s Glacier, Ski Broadmoor, Pike’s Peak. Others are harder to place: Hot Sulphur Springs (near Granby), Old Man’s Mountain (Estes Park), Cowboy Hill (Oak Creek), Ski Sugarite (or Raton Ski Basin on the New Mexico border), Pioneer Ski Area, which built the state’s first chairlift in 1939, east of Crested Butte.
By my count, there are 28 still-functioning ski areas in Colorado. This includes the Kendall Mountain chairlift in Silverton, the occasionally open Vinegar Hill rope tow in Ouray (town-operated, with 65-foot vertical), and precipitous, sporadically-covered Chapman Hill off the mesa edge below Fort Lewis College in urban Durango.
Nationwide, the numbers are harder to determine. I’ve heard the number 1,700 ski areas at the boom’s height in the 1950s and 60s. This included all the little back-orchard, one-lift club hills that sprouted across the country’s northern tier from the 1930s on, when the Model T rope tow made its first appearance.
A blogger named Jeremy Davis started something called the New England Lost Ski Areas Project, and so far he has identified 592 defunct ski areas in New England alone. (He’s got pages for other regions, too.) I count 68 ski hills operating in the Northeast today.
The 1970s and 80s saw a great winnowing down, brought on by forces both natural and unnatural. Best guess: There are now about 440 ski areas in the U.S. Competition was the biggest winnower. The big got bigger while the small withered away. Cheap air travel enticed skiers to the bigger destinations. Capital for snowmaking and grooming equipment was a necessity, as increasingly spoiled skiers demanded smooth sliding and a season-opening date certain. And, as it turned out, big post-war snow totals were unusual; the thinner, more typical snowpacks of the 1970s and 80s made artificial snow mandatory.
One not-so-evolutionary change happened overnight in 1977. The case of James Sunday versus Stratton Mountain, Vt., blew the lid off the age-old concept of assumption of risk. Before Sunday tipped over on a trail at Stratton in 1974, ski areas were responsible only for getting you up the mountain safely. If the lift broke and you were hurt, sure, sue them. But if you broke your leg skiing back down, well, that’s the nature of the beast, part of its wild attraction – that’s the risk you assumed.
Sunday, a beginning skier, claimed his ski tip caught on something unseen beneath the snow surface. He tumbled off the trail, hit his head on a rock, and was paralyzed. Three years later a jury awarded him $1.5 million, saying, in effect, that ski area operators should be the guarantors of a certain safe, expectable experience. Uphill and down.
Insurance rates immediately tripled. Some areas just shut their doors. Others worried that they’d have to mark every obstacle, groom every trail to perfection. The ones that survived, naturally, passed on their costs to their customers. Ticket prices essentially tripled in response, from an average of around $7.50/day in the mid-1970s to $29/day in 1978.
Skiing went from being an admittedly lily-white but at least somewhat affordable middle-class endeavor to an unabashedly lily-white luxury recreation available only to the wealthy. It’s a wonder any of the little ski areas, the ones that didn’t have real estate to peddle, survived at all.
I knew nothing about Ski Dallas before I talked with Grace Herndon at the old Telluride Times, where we both worked. This must have been soon after the Sunday case. I just happened to mention that I’d been eyeing the open slopes on either side of an old, sagging T-bar near the top of Dallas Divide between Ridgway and Telluride. On the right day, I said, that would be some fun skiing.
“Oh,” Gracie exclaimed, “the Herndons built that lift. Well, along with four or five other ranching families from Norwood and Montrose.” They built it from scavenged mine parts in the early 60s, a full decade before Telluride opened its lifts. They secured the top terminal by looping cable around the biggest ponderosa they could find. For a counterweight, they hung a great chunk of lichen-covered rock. On cold mornings “eight or nine people would take the batteries out of their cars and line them up and – bang! bang! – they’d get the lift going.”
Kids took lessons from “a gal in a great black fur hat that we thought was pretty smart. We met a lot of other families from Montrose and Ouray. There was a wonderful cooperative feeling. The kids got to know each other. On race days the Telluride bunch would come down. They had their own rope tow [on what is now called The Kids’ Hill, appropriately enough] and didn’t think our hill was very steep. But they came.”
Ski Dallas hung on for a few years after Telluride opened in 1972, but the lure of the big mountain ensured its eventual demise. The Herndons and their friends gave up the lease on the sheep pasture and sold the one-room lodge. In the mid-70s, a group of Telluride ski patrollers attempted to revive the place, but their enthusiasm was no match for the shifting demographics and expectations of skiing’s new age.
A couple of winters after that, I did skin up the old Ski Dallas and telemarked back down in thick, deep snow with overgrown willows whacking my parka. When I called Gracie to tell her, she sounded tickled, then wistful. “I had hoped our grandkids would ski it someday,” she said. “We had to have been crazy, but we had so much fun!”
The same story, more or less, could be told about the ski hills at Stoner, outside Dolores, which made it into the early 1980s, and Red Mountain, above Glenwood Springs (1940-1959), and the Blue Mountain ski area on the north slope of the Abajos above Monticello, Utah (dates unknown, though I think I remember it operating into the late 1970s). Ski Stoner in particular, with its wall-climbing T-bar and its commensurately hairy moguls, served as a low-cost, weekends-only incubator for Telluride’s nascent Bump Club.
There were no moguls to speak of the day Cecily and I skied Hesperus. Except in the narrow drain of Aspen Glade, slicing through a stand of mature white-bark aspens. Below the trees, we came to the VW.
Kids on snowboards were spanking little natural hits in the West Bowl Fun Park, and right in the middle of it was this sunken Volkswagen bug, its rounded red metal dented and burnished by a thousand edge slides. “I hate rails and stuff,” Jim Pitcher said later. “People break ribs. Early on in that era we put that up there. It used to have windows and everything. The legend was it had stalled out on the highway, and we just. . .
You’re never quite sure with Pitch. One minute he’s complaining about not even having a dumpster; he has to haul the garbage himself down to Durango. The next minute he’s speculating about all the business he could do if he could just break into the Farmington market. A couple of Indian families spooned chili at the oilcloth and duct-taped picnic tables inside. A few more were tubing on the adjacent tube hill. We didn’t see any Native Americans on skis.
When I called Pitch recently to ask if he was planning to crank up the lift again this season, I introduced myself and said we’d met last winter at the ski hill. “I meet a lot of people,” he groused good-naturedly. But the answer to my question was yes, he said. “I am.” He isn’t giving up the lease from the cattle rancher. Snow gods willing, the lift will run, the lights will come on at dusk, the kids will race, and the Hespie powder will barely get skied out. He even has a new tiller for grooming the lower slopes.
And is the resort still for sale? I asked. “Yep,” he said. “Still workin’ on it.”