Colorado’s favorite little ski area just got bigger — and badder

A new sign at the top of the mountain points skiers and snowboarders in the direction of the new double black diamond runs.

At the bottom of the steep, forested mountainside, a snowboarder has caused a fuss.

He grabbed hold of the T-bar, struggled to balance on the ride up as many chair-accustomed first-timers do, and yanked the handle from the cord.

Now maintenance was due in Tennessee Creek Basin. Now Ski Cooper patrollers came on snowmobiles to evacuate the few visitors braving the new terrain and similarly hair-raising lift.

“There’s signs everywhere for a reason,” one sternly told the perpetrator. “If you can’t stay in the line, you can’t be back here.”

The signs are everywhere, indeed: “CHECK YOURSELF. ONLY ONE WAY OUT FROM THE BOTTOM: T-BAR.”

Yes, the T-bar was cheaper than a chairlift, say Cooper’s decision-makers. But also, they say logistics would be worse in the case of a chairlift power outage. And the hope was that the old-school mechanism would serve as a deterrent for skiers and boarders unprepared for the double-black diamond runs that lead to it.

Colorado’s favorite little ski area just got bigger — and badder

Light shines through the trees, illuminating moguls on one of the new trails at Ski Cooper. Parker Seibold, the gazette

That’s “honest-to-God double-black diamond,” General Manager Dan Torsell warns.

“Something totally different that Cooper hasn’t had,” says Vice President of Mountain Operations Tim Kerrigan, a lifelong skier here.

In all of the ski area’s 75 years, Tennessee Creek Basin might represent the most significant terrain expansion ever. The 70 acres opened this month, and the reviews are in.

“Nothing to trifle with,” says one regular, Kai Wilson.

Says Sam Finnell, who grew up on the green and blue cruisers here: “It’s kind of like, Whoa, OK, Cooper.”

From 11,757 feet, the chutes are fast and tight between tall, dense lodgepole pines. Mogul-laden trails go by names such as Maverick and Viper and Needle’s Eye. The trees only clear briefly, revealing Chicago Ridge in the distance, the snowcat-accessed realm that was formerly Cooper’s only option for experts.

Now there’s a lift-served option on the back of the hill that locals claim as their own.

“A lot of people grow up on Ski Cooper,” says Howard Tritz, 84, who was among them, a Leadville native now on the ski area’s board of directors.

He saw Interstate 70’s mega resorts come and Cooper’s customers go.

“They graduated to those tougher runs. They said, ‘Ski Cooper’s too easy for me anymore.’ Now we’re hopefully gonna bring them back.”

They’ll come back to a lift that recalls Cooper’s humble, historic beginnings.

Skiing here began with a T-bar in 1942. It was used by soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division training for winter navigation in Europe.

In the years after World War II, Cooper Hill became a carefree escape for nearby families with hard-earned mining roots. The county took responsibility from the military. And the hill’s front side saw four lifts added, including the double chair that replaced the T-bar in 1973.

But money was hard to come by.

“There was a time here, before I got on the board of directors,” Tritz says. “Things were so tough that guys on the board all got together and mortgaged their houses. Just to keep this place afloat.”

For the masses, more alluring were the bigger mountains to the north, the likes of Copper Mountain, Vail and Breckenridge, all expanding much faster than little Cooper, which couldn’t consider such frills as snowmaking and grooming.

Under the public trust of the county, the ski area was to create no financial burden — no loans, no debt.

Colorado’s favorite little ski area just got bigger — and badder

The snow-covered Sawatch Mountain Range towers over the lodge at Ski Cooper this month.photos by Parker Seibold, the gazette

That has meant slow growth. But it picked up eight seasons ago with Torsell’s arrival.

He was a manager at a bigger resort in Vermont, with other industry stops in Utah and his home Pennsylvania. But Cooper had a special place in his heart. His Uncle Jim is pictured in a frame at the lodge, a 10th Mountain man who later filled his nephew’s young imagination with regal images of the Rockies.

But Torsell found the hill to be “a bit in the dark ages.” Expanding broadband was one priority. Marketing was another. Instead of contracting out food service, Torsell thought business would be better in-house — “a money- maker we never realized,” Tritz says.

Radio-frequency scanners for passes seemed strange in such a rustic place, but again, efficiency was the idea. Package deals were introduced. A bar replaced retail space.

And then there was the dream mentioned decades ago in the dusty master plan: the untouched steeps just beyond.

“We were putting a lot of money in our piggy bank,” Kerrigan says. “Business has been getting better, so it was time to change things up.”

The expansion cost upward of $2 million, Torsell says. For as long as he’s been here, he says, “revenues have grown significantly every year.” That while day passes remain $62, less than half the prices found at Vail and Aspen, among others.

But Tritz foresees that going up. “Eventually, it’s going to have to,” he says. That’s the reality of getting bigger.

But with Tennessee Creek Basin, Torsell sounds satisfied.

“I think a lot of ski resorts have lost their way in terms of this,” he says, pointing to the new trail map. “There’s so much emphasis on lodging and other things. We’re purists here.”

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