by Greta Hanson Maurer
It is said that immigrating Scandinavians miners taught early Colorado miners and mailmen how to ski, making movement around the state possible during the tough winter months. Skiing as a winter recreational sport in Colorado was first established in 1914 at Howelsen Hill in Steamboat Springs. Howelsen Hill still holds the distinction of North America’s ‘longest continuously operating ski area. The small hill with a 441’ vertical drop has produced 89 Olympians!
For a Beulah family in the 1960s-1980s, there were three ski areas that garnered the most interest. In order of closest proximity, they were Ski San Isabel, Silver Hills, and Conquistador. While Monarch, located west of Salida, is certainly bigger, it was also more expensive and it took more travel time. Ski Broadmoor in Colorado Springs was convenient, notoriously icy, and one of the few places to ski at night. With so many possibilities near and far, it was no wonder that Colorado kids in the area felt it was their right as a citizen of the Rocky Mountains to learn how to ski.
Some parents joined their kids in learning to ski, making a family day of it, armed with a picnic lunch, while others appreciated being able to drop their kids off when the ski area opened, picking them up seven hours later. There was never any fear (or guilt) for their children despite not having access to a personal phone.
Some families had ski gear but many rented their equipment from the ski areas or Bud’s Ski and Sport in Pueblo. For several years there was a 4-H Ski Swap held at the Pueblo Armory off Northern Avenue in Pueblo. My brother Eric and I felt like we had scored the deal of the swap when we came across two pair of bright orange Lange Banshee boots that represented the first generation of modern ski boot with buckles, even if they were a few years old. A few skis in, we learned why the boots had landed at the ski swap. Large divots formed on our shins with every excruciating turn.
Some of the ski manufacturers names included K2, Dynastar, Kneissl, Kastle, Olin, Rossignol, Head, and Hart, and the skis were long and kept getting longer. They came with ‘safety straps’ that bound the ski to each ankle, even if you stepped out of the bindings. Although the straps were intended to stop errant skis from hurtling down the hill, many pondered the new danger of being hobbled to the flailing skis, a problem eventually solved by ski brakes. hniques for turning included snowplow, stem christy, or parallel, based on your skill level. When there was too much snow, a Gorilla turn was employed—survival skiing at its best. It wasn’t until the ‘shape’ ski was introduced in the 1990’s that ski lengths trended back down.
Ski fashion on the slopes of Southern Colorado in the early years was fairly homogenous with dramatically fewer brands than are available today. Most everyone just wore what they had, what was handed down, or what was received new, usually at Christmas. The classic 1970s ski look included “I Ski” sunglasses with mirrored lenses (or glacier glasses with the leather sides that prevented glare, as well as your peripheral view, a coveted wool ski sweater that could smell like a wet dog when damp, stretch ski pants (usually blue, black or red with a stripe or two), a department store jacket, a colorful knit hat resplendent with a large pompom, and gloves wrapped with duct tape for better grip and longevity. By the 1980’s brighter colors and neon dayglo were a big deal and easy to spot against the white snow.
Stevie Nicks, David Bowie and Fleetwood Mac were playing in our ranch truck, and the mood was light and spirited. The route to the ski area for Beulah folks was usually by way of North Creek Road, as 12-Mile was not maintained in the winter. Making it up North Creek pass before the snowplow always felt like an accomplishment. The trip to San Isabel took you by way of Hardscrabble Road (now closed). The trip to Silver Hills or Conquistador followed SH 96 through Hardscrabble Canyon. In the mid-1970s, Pueblo County kids and their parents had an exceptional opportunity to learn how to ski through the local 4-H clubs. Pueblo County CSU extension agent Bernie Elliott spearheaded a program that packaged five weeks of lessons culminating on the sixth week with a ski carnival—costumes, races, obstacle courses, and general merriment. The 4-H package included weekly lessons, lift tickets, and discounted rentals. The reasonable rates enticed many new members to join 4-H—it was a win-win. Bernie himself learned how to ski in the program, ultimately teaching skiing at Monarch until he was 74 years old.
Puebloans Cliff and Hannah Gibbs managed first-rate ski schools as certified members of the Professional Ski Instructors of America for over 20 years. No matter where they set up shop–Conquistador, Silver Hills, or Ski San Isabel–they had a successful formula. With their salty characters punctuating their styles of teaching, each could demonstrate perfect form slow motion to accentuate the technique. A posse of eager instructors were required to attend the weekly clinics to further hone technical and teaching skills. The focused drills helped to make the most of a short beginner hill. Developing and encouraging skiers of all levels with just 100 vertical feet was a talent and imparted an important lesson of making the most of what you have.
When the time came to ride a chair lift up a larger mountain and ski those longer dream runs, there was a deeper gratitude for the luxury, alongside a knowing confidence to handle the harder terrain. In total, Colorado has played host to 175 ski areas over the past 100 years. Surprisingly 19 of them were once located in Southern Colorado and within an hour or two drive from Beulah, all are considered ‘abandoned’ (see the complete list of lost ski areas at coloradoskihistory.com/lostresorts). Today a mere 32 ski areas remain in the entire state of Colorado. Chalk it up to unpredictable and diminished snowfalls. Of those remaining ski areas, the majority boast thousands of vertical feet, and acres of skiable terrain. However, today the average cost of a ski ticket for a single day in Colorado is $143, Vail Resorts hit an all-time ticket price high this year with a fee of $239 for the day.
In Beulah, we know from experience that small ski areas are where the soul of skiing is found. v
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San Isabel Ski Circle Tow Brodin’s Ski Area Ski San Isabel
Years of Operation: 1958-1985; Vertical Drop: 100’
Location: East side of Bigelow Divide on Highway 165 (between San Isabel and MacKenzie Junction), on the south side of the road. Ticket Cost: $.99 - $8
Lifts: 2 twin rope tows, initially powered by tractors Facilities: A ‘hut’, and then a small lodge with food counter.
History: Initially built by Glenn Brodin who leased the property from the Pennington family of Canon City. The Giarratano family operated the ski hill from 1974-1977 and changed the name to Ski San Isabel.
Years of Operation: 1966-1984
Location: Between Westcliffe and MacKenzie Junction on Hwy 96 Lifts: 1 J-Bar; (manufactured in Austria before WWII and originally installed at Camp Hale), 1 Rope
Tow Facilities: Rental shop and a small lodge for eating lunches.
History: Owned and operated by Clara Reda and Margaret Locarnini, the ski hill also had a tubing operation, too.
Years of Operation: 1978-1988, 1992; Vertical Drop: 1200’
Ticket Cost: $12 adults, $8 children
Lifts: 1 platter lift (Borvig), 1 triple (Doppelmayr), 1 double (Doppelmayr) Facilities: 6,000 square foot base lodge, 90% snowmaking, ski patrol, nearby overnight accomdations
History: Despite the protests of nearby Westcliffe residents, citing lack of snow, ski runs were cut into the Sangre de Cristo mountains. In 1982, an $8M expansion brought two new lifts, but the investment never paid off, and the property foreclosed. Despite a brief attempt to open the ski area in 1992, the devastating winds ended the season early.
Years of Operation: 1981-1989; 1992-1994; 1995-1996; 1997-2000 Location: SW of Walsenburg, from La Veta follow Hwy. 12, south of Cuchara. Vertical Drop: 1,562’ Lifts: 2 tows (O'Connor), 1 triple (Riblet), 3 doubles (Riblet) Facilities: base, lodge, rentals, ski patrol, ski school, hotels & condos History: The inconsistent operation dates tells the tale of a ski area that includes a trail of Texas investors; and poor snow conditions. In 2004 a group of local residents formed a parks and recreation district, and purchased 47 acres designated as the Cuchara Mountain Park. As recent as December 2021, two Florida investors proposed ‘Grand Expeditions’ for the larger area that includes an all-season approach, but the idea has not found a foothold in the community.
Lunch on Ski San Isabel Deck
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