Colorado’s ski soul hides in plain sight – in the neighborhood | Way of life
This winter, Rick Noll received a call from a man on a mission to visit all the ski resorts in Colorado.
Noll, the resource manager for the town of Ouray, recalled the question: “What is the truth about Lee’s Ski Hill?”
It’s not often that Noll gets outside inquiries about the neighborhood slope, with a tow rope originally assembled with old mining stuff after the land was donated in 1946.
Noll was more than happy to answer the caller. As he sees it, Lee is part of an often-lost legacy for today’s masses bound for nearby Telluride or similar sprawling destinations. As Vail rose in the 1960s and 1970s, hills like Lee’s remained in the shadows.
And so they remain today – municipally run places that time had seemingly forgotten, relics with their trappings of rusted iron, splintered wood and old-fashioned pulleys. Their tow lines and T-bars are their most breathtaking parts. They are otherwise casual outliers of an industry that is increasingly making headlines for instigating tough real estate and labor disputes.
These are hills that seem more suitable for sledding and are therefore ignored and mocked by vacationers. They are, however, cherished by the families who live around them.
“These are invaluable breeding grounds for skiing,” said Melanie Mills, president and CEO of the Colorado Ski Country USA trade association. “And we need as many of them as we can keep operating.”
Before disbanding in 2021, Mountain Riders Alliance aimed to support these hills. The group has tracked their demise amid aging and expensive infrastructure, rising insurance costs, thinning snow and shrinking margins in the era of consolidation.
“I just got squeezed out by the big guys,” said Jamie Schectman, who co-founded the alliance.
He and his advocates counted 735 “community and independent ski areas” across the country at one point in the 1980s. At last count, a third of those still existed, Schectman said.
“A dying breed” is what Schectman calls them. “An endangered species at best.”
Depending on how you define them, there could be half a dozen in Colorado.
The scene is similar to them: children come out of school and walk straight ahead. Noll watched from the top of Lee’s at Ouray.
Such hills “are all part of Colorado’s reputation for world-class skiing,” he said. “It’s just that people don’t know.”
There is the oldest and most famous of them in the state: Howelsen Hill. Since 1915, the hill has given Steamboat Springs its reputation as an Olympian producer.
There is Kendall Mountain Recreation Area in Silverton. The lodge hosts holiday gatherings, and Fridays traditionally feel like potluck — parents toast while the kids ring in the weekend with five-track spins.
Also in the southwest is Chapman Hill in Durango. It maintains a World War II tow line used by ski soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division in Leadville. The shaggy son of the man who brought the lift rides a snowcat up the hill today.
There’s Gunnison’s Cranor Hill, which the city’s Director of Parks and Recreation likes to say is run by intrepid kids building jumps. “You wouldn’t see that in Breckenridge, kids with a shovel doing whatever they want,” says Dan Vollendorf.
And not far away is Lake City Ski Hill, which in recent years has posted an aptly posted message online: “Schuss…schuss…schuss…In other ski areas it’s the noise of the money sucked out of your wallet.” Here, it’s the sound of skiers paying between $15 and $25 for a pass, rental gear included where applicable.
Because whatever the lack of surface area and verticality of these places, there is something “intangible” lacking, as Adrienne Saia Isaac puts it.
“That intangible piece of skiing that’s hard to articulate,” the National Ski Areas Association spokeswoman said, “but you know it when you feel it, and you feel like you’re in the soul of the sport.”
It seems like more people have felt it over the past two winters.
The National Ski Areas Association has tracked abnormally higher attendance at smaller local runs for the 2020-21 season. This was partly due to pandemic-related procedures and restrictions at major resorts, the association explained.
And maybe it was also because people were finding more time to discover these hidden hills in plain sight. This included a young couple from Steamboat, Jenn Ridder and James Owens. They checked off what they found to be all 33 ski areas in Colorado last year.
At Municipal Hills, “you have these old ski lifts and patrol boats, and they kind of take care of the kids,” Ridder said. “It was joyful. And it’s really fun to be part of this community even for an hour.
It was, Owens said, “that quintessential small-town mountain experience that most people don’t fall for.”
Kelli Jaycox, Durango’s assistant director of recreation, noticed more people at Chapman Hill. She heard some say they go for the cost of Chapman over nearby resorts.
“If you’re learning to ski, it’s hard to beat the $17 price tag,” she says.
It’s a recognized selling point in a 2017 master plan for the hill, which indicated a reinvestment target to “unleash its full potential”. City plans call for a nearly $1 million chairlift to replace the towline.
This winter, Howelsen heralded “a new era” with a $3 million triple chairlift intended to attract more tourists. It replaced a fast and steep lift that had been a kind of right of way for training youngsters.
“But for the general public, it can be very difficult, so we struggled to attract a lot of people,” said Brad Setter, manager of the hill, which, in another change, is now open every day of the season. .
Silverton officials have long considered expanding Kendall Mountain to some degree. The conversations have been controversial since a 2018 study found “significant potential”. The inhabitants ask themselves: how to develop without opening the door to real estate speculation and the existential catastrophe felt in the seaside resorts?
“We moved to Silverton because of the low-key, authentic vibe,” said Chris Brosh, a young dad who was grilling at the base on a Friday last year.
In Gunnison, the mood is tough in Cranor Hill. Although skiing is never a guarantee; not enough snow has come to open this season. Making snow is not possible, Vollendorf said. Even if the water was available, his department is already exploiting the hill in deficit.
“It is what it is,” he said. “But we want it to continue for the next generations.”
Noll feels the same way about Lee’s Hill in Ouray. It also operates in deficit, with no revenue from tickets. It must remain free, according to the 1946 agreement which donated the hill to the city.
Free for children. Free for anyone who might call about it.
“Like this guy that hits every ski area,” Noll said. “He said he had a fabulous time skiing our little run here.”