Colorado Ski Country USA, the industry’s longtime promotional arm in my state, has produced an odd but beautiful poster commemorating “Colorado’s Lost Resorts.” Ski historians found 137 defunct ski areas, located them on the map and wrote brief chronologies for each one.
I got hold of a copy and spent hours poring over the old jump hills, ropetows and “resorts” that had fallen victim to competition, to bad business decisions—”victims,” the authors noted, “of scanty snowfall, victims of time.”
Jump hills like Genesee Mountain west of Denver, which was a major stop on the national ski jumping circuit in the Twenties and Thirties. Prewar neighborhood slopes such as Hopkins Ranch outside Glenwood Springs with its hearse-powered ropetow. And bellbottom-era failures such as Ski Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, which never lived up to the luxurious reputation of its namesake hotel.
One of the ghost sites is just a few miles from my home in Montrose, near the top of an 8,700 foot pass called Dallas Divide. I drive by it every time I go up to Telluride to ski.
One day last winter my eye was drawn, as it invariably is, to the overgrown slopes that had been Ski Dallas. The east side pitch rolls over steeply for a couple hundred feet, then bowls out above the one-room lodge.
The westerly run slinks in a big “S” through scrub oak and ponderosa, then down sharply through the aspens to the base of the T-bar. New snow had buried some of the willows, grown up like a scruffy beard since their last pruning sometime in the Seventies. Ghosts made me pull over and stop, voices of children and their parents from the Fifties and Sixties, local families who wanted to ski and so built themselves a ski area.
The lodge was crumbling badly and stank of marmot, but the motor house for the T-bar remained dry inside and smelled faintly of oil, as if, following a good dusting, sure hands might crank the engine to roaring life.
Later, on a call to Steve and Grace Herndon in Norwood, a ranching community about 25 miles west of Ski Dallas, I learned that the motor is a Diamond T truck engine converted to propane. “Kind of noisy,” Steve recalled with a chuckle. “But it had plenty of power. It could tear that lift up if we weren’t careful.”
I started skinning straight up the liftline past hand-painted signs that read “Do Not Bounce” and “Stay In Track.” Wooden tees dangled from cable not far above my head or else sprouted from drifts like anchors in white sand.
The Herndons and “four or five families from Norwood and Montrose” built the T-bar from scavenged materials in the early Sixties, a full decade before Telluride opened its lifts. Before that a mailman from Montrose named Clarence Teffman operated a ropetow on the site. “He had the longest skis we’d ever seen,” Grace remembered. “He was a big man, a wonderful athlete and a creamy smooth skier….I was determined that my three kids would learn to ski there.”
The cable came from an abandoned gold mine at Alta Lakes, the bullwheels from other defunct digs. 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. “We gave the state engineer plenty to think about,” Steve mused. “We had only the bare essential tools: jacks, come-alongs, that was about it. Whenever the cable derailed, all of the men would take off their skis and hoof it up to the top and fix it.”
There was a wonderful cooperative feeling. Some mornings, Grace recalled, “it’d be down to 20 below, and eight or nine people would take batteries out of their cars and line them up and—bang, bang—they’d get it going. You absolutely had to be crazy to do what we did. The dads actually thought they were going to ski!”A family day pass cost eight bucks, individual tickets sold for $2.50. You could earn your pass by ski packing the slope; there was no grooming machine. “We learned to ski junk,” Grace said, “but, by gosh, we skied it!”<
Kids took lessons from “a gal in a great black fur hat that we thought was pretty smart.” Moms sold coffee and candy bars from the lodge. “We met a lot of other families from Montrose and Ouray. The kids got to know each other. On race days the Telluride bunch would come down. They had their own rope tow and didn’t think our hill was very steep. But they came.”
Halfway up the liftline, the pitch reared up steeply enough so that I couldn’t skin it without switching back. In fact it was damned steep. I could picture the kids, shrieking, hanging on for dear life over the final hundred yards, then over the lip and into the sheep meadow on top, flinging the bar and gliding away.
Stovepipe still sprouted out of the lift shack roof, but the potbelly that once warmed it was gone. The hemp rope that lined the bullwheel remained in remarkably good shape, like the rope sandals on mountaintop Andean sacrifices. In the stillness, a crow circled back to caw at me.
Ski Dallas hung on for a few years after the Telluride ski area opened in 1972, but the lure of the big hill ensured its eventual demise. The Herndons and their friends gave up the lease on the sheep pasture and sold the lodge. In the mid-Seventies, a group of ski patrollers attempted to revive the place, but their enthusiasm was no match for the shifting demographics and expectations of skiing’s new age.
I had wanted to ski the eastern pitch, the steeper straight shot above the highway. But the sun had left a tricky French-bread crust on the surface. Better, I thought, to steal down the west side, where tall spruce and fir shaded the snow. Dodging whips of willow and baby aspen, I hugged the left line. Hand-cleared terrain shapes played my skis, like otters in a stream bed, and meringue snow prevailed all the way to the creek.
“Oh, you skied Dallas!” Grace exclaimed when I called, her voice melodic with delight. In her 70s now, out on the ranch on Wrights Mesa, the stories poured out of her. “The kids in those families are all in their 50s now, or just about. I had hoped our grandkids would ski it someday,” she concluded a bit wistfully. “It was a warm, chummy thing. We had to have been crazy, but we had so much fun.”
Peter Shelton is an award-winning writer based in Montrose, Colo. Contact him at PShelton@montrose.net, or check out his previous columns in the Mountain Chronicle archives.