WINTER PARK — As the two septuagenarians reminisced about the beginnings of skiing, the phrase "good old days" didn't come up once.
One gentleman will turn 77 this year, the other 75; both started skiing as boys in the early 1950s. There was talk of the leather straps that bound their skis to their feet pre-bear-trap bindings, boots that took forever to get on because they had a series of laces both inside and outside, and hiking up hills before anything as newfangled as a rope tow was on the scene.
"In those days you really had to want it," remarked the elder of the two, sipping on a craft brew in the bar of the sleek new Lunch Rock cafe atop Mary Jane.
When it began a century ago, alpine skiing in Colorado was far different from the comfort and convenience of the sport today. Rather than wait in a lift line to earn their turns, early pioneers cut roads, bushwhacked and hiked to make their way to mountaintops, only to descend through uncertain terrain on equipment that fought them every inch of the way.
With a trio of the state's oldest resorts celebrating the three-quarter-century mark and Howelsen Hill reaching 100 years in operation, it's time to remember the contributions of those early skiing pioneers.
WINTER PARK: 75 YEARS
Learning the players in the creation of Winter Park is as easy as reading a trail map.
During construction of the Moffat Tunnel in the early '20s, railroad workers would hike up what was then known as West Portal to take some turns on wooden planks from the lumber pile. During the early 1930s, George Cranmer of Denver Parks and Recreation first envisioned a winter playground for the people of Denver.
In 1937 the U.S. Forest Service built a ski jump, and the following year ski trains shuttled skiers from Denver to Grand Valley. (The Ski Train ran continually until 2009 and is on track to begin running again next season.)
Winter Park Ski Resort officially opened in 1940 under the management of Bob Balch. Tickets to ride the single rope tow were $1. Seven years after the resort opened, it consisted of just four lifts and eight runs, but it was still the biggest ski area in Colorado at the time.
By 1950 skier numbers reached more than 26,000, and the city and county of Denver formed a nonprofit agency, the Winter Park Recreation Association, to run the resort. Steven Bradley (known for developing the first snow-packing machine) was the association's first director and Denver attorney Allan R. Phipps was the first chairman of the board. Winter Park is still run by this leadership paradigm established 65 years ago.
MONARCH MOUNTAIN: 75 YEARS
In the southern part of the state, skiers were pushing into the wilds of the mountains without the aid of rail.
A true locals' mountain, Monarch Ski and Snowboard Area first saw skiers in 1936, when the Salida Winter Sports Club hooked a rope tow to a Chevy engine at 11,000 feet atop Monarch Pass. In 1939 they applied to the U.S. Forest Service for a permit to cut trails, construct a lodge and put in a lift. The original $26,000 construction grant from the Works Progress Administration was issued during the Great Depression.
The forefathers of today's extreme skier, Monarch's founders made the resort's first trail on a 30 percent slope. The expert run was named Gunbarrel and could be accessed only by hiking past the resort's first rope tow, which was installed in 1939. This same year, a new lodge was built, but since it had no inside restrooms, guests had to answer nature's call outside.
During the first ski season of '39-40, 64 people bought season passes for $1. Salida residents Ray and Josephine Berry bought the resort from the town in 1951 for $100.
A T-bar was installed with A-frame lift towers made from logs cut from the mountain in 1957. The towers were set on the ground and held in place by guy wires attached to car axles driven into the ground. The resort's first lift, made by a Texan from used oil derrick parts, was installed in 1960.
Ownership changed hands several times through the years until Monarch was purchased by a private ownership group in 2002. Since then the owners have invested $7 million in M onarch, including a 16,000-square-foot expansion of the base lodge and the opening of Mirkwood Basin.
WOLF CREEK: 75 YEARS
Among the highways and mountain passes constructed during the 1930s was a road to connect the San Luis Valley to Pagosa Springs. When the Wolf Creek Pass road was completed in 1938, a rope tow powered by a Chevy engine (apparently a trend at the time) was installed near the summit of the pass. That summer the Civilian Conservation Corps built a warming shelter for the area, and the highway department graded a road to the ski tow and hut.
Wolf Creek's staggering annual snowfall of 430 inches, which now draws powder hounds from Colorado's Front Range and neighboring states, was discovered before there was any talk of establishing a ski area there.
In the early '30s, locals such as Charles Elliott would track up high mountain bowls on their homemade skis. In November of 2013, when Elliott turned 100, he carved turns in that terrain that is now a part of the resort he helped create.
Elliott is just one example of Wolf Creek's history being a living history.
At a mere 95 years of age, Kingsbury "Pitch" Pitcher, Wolf Creek owner, was inducted into the Colorado Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame in October. The lifelong skier raced for the Stanford University ski team and was a ski school instructor, supervisor and ski area operator for many years. He has played a role in the development of many ski resorts besides Wolf Creek, including Snowmass, Buttermilk Mountain and Arrowhead.
HOWELSEN HILL: 100 YEARS
Norwegian skier Carl Howelsen is arguably the father of recreational skiing in Colorado.
Before he arrived in 1913, most Coloradans thought of skiing only as a practical way to get around during the winter. Howelsen didn't wait long to get into the skiing business, forming the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club in early 1914 and turning the town's Elk Park (a small wildlife preserve) into a ski hill in 1915.
Howelsen Hill, with a vertical rise of a mere 440 feet, was used only for ski jumping through the 1920s. With growing interest in skiing's other disciplines of downhill and slalom, a new course was cleared on the east flank of the hill in 1931.
The first lift installed on Howelsen Hill was a modified boat tow that had hauled lumber and other materials to maintain the jumps beginning in 1934. In 1937, when the crude lift was found to be usable by skiers, it was relocated and extended to the top of Howelsen Hill. This homemade tow, with a length of 1,000 feet, was used until 1970.
No history of Howelsen Hill is complete without mentioning that it is still home to the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club, which has produced 79 winter Olympians, 130 members of the Colorado Ski Hall of Fame and six members of the National Ski Hall of Fame.
And that is a history worth celebrating.
Chryss Cada is a freelance writer and journalism instructor at Colorado State University. Visit her at Chryss.com.