A part of skiing history | VailDaily.com

A part of skiing history

Allen Best/Special to the Daily
Special to the Daily/Otto Roach, Denver Public LibThe Berthoud Pass ski area began operations in 1936, between the Victorian era and the Modern Era when typical skiwear for women included a scarf and a dress.

BERTHOUD PASS – After almost 20 years of off-and-on operations, the plug is finally being pulled at Berthoud Pass, one of Colorado’s oldest ski areas.

The resort’s two chairlifts are being removed this summer as its owners go follow through with their plan to offer high-end boutique skiing, where it costs $225 a day to get to powder skiing with a Sno-Cat, as has been the case for two winters already.

Berthoud Pass was troubled long before price wars among Winter Park, Breckenridge and other Colorado mega-ski areas within striking distance of Front Range skiers. In fact, the beginning of the end may have been in the 1960s and 1970s, when construction of Interstate 70 provided easy access to other, larger ski areas.

Model-T power

The resort began operations in 1936 using a rope-tow powered by a Model T engine, making it perhaps the oldest such ski area in Colorado. It’s a thin distinction, however, as Aspen, Monarch and Winter Park opened at about the same time as the sport of skiing suddenly became popular.

From the outset, Berthoud’s major advantage was its relative proximity to Denver by automobile. Its primary disadvantage was a relative lack of terrain, above-timberline weather conditions and the lack of base-area real estate. Unlike Aspen, there was no ready-made town; but it did have strong competition nearby: Winter Park, just another 10 miles down the road.

Berthoud Pass perked along at 10,000 to 20,000 skier-days a year into the mid-1980s. Then it lurched, several times closing, then opening again – at one time getting up to 30,000 skier days. The ski area also expanded beyond its small core of intermediate terrain into an experts-only area triple the size.

In the late 1990s, during the last two years of lift operations, the new owner, Marise Cipriani, tried to reposition Berthoud Pass in the market, selling low-priced season passes to self-styled extreme skiers. To an extent, it worked.

“They were all expert skiers, young and good,” says Mike Wilson of Denver, a season passholder two years ago. “They were competent at skiing chutes and jumping off cliffs, and the ski terrain demanded those skills, too.”

Despite being the closest ski area to Denver’s 2 million residents, however – the highest concentration of skiers in the United States – Berthoud never again got more than 20,000 skier days a year, and two years ago Cipriani shut down the lifts.

Black diamonds not profitable

Gerald Groswold, the long-time manager of Winter Park, says he sees an extremely small market for extreme skiers. And Berthoud Pass, he points out, has mostly double-black-diamond terrain.

“Extreme skiers hardly pay for the electricity,” he says.

Groswold should know. He supervised creation of Mary Jane, the component added to Winter Park in the late 1970s that has almost exclusively black-diamond ski trails.

“We realized that as a free-standing ski area it would not be successful, because it is predominantly expert terrain,” he said. “The reason it has worked is that it is an adjunct to Winter Park.”

Nevertheless, Groswold says he’s sure that this Sno-Cat powder skiing enterprise will be successful

Berthoud’s fundamental problem, says long-time industry veteran Jerry Jones, is that it lacks real estate development to subsidize ski area operations – as well as as parking. And finally, there wasn’t enough skiing variety at Berthoud to warrant a high-priced lift ticket.

“You can’t charge more to ski Berthoud than you charge to ski Vail,” said Jones, who helped manage Berthoud during the 1990s and engineered the sale to Cipriani.

Jamie Wolter, operations manager for the Sno-Cat touring operation, reports business at 80 percent of capacity this winter, a 30 percent increase from the inaugural year. He says he believes the current operation should be around for many years to come.

This summer, the two ski lifts at Berthoud Pass are are scheduled for removal this month while there’s still plenty of snow, so that it’s easier to get around. In summer, a lot of soil damage could occur.

The triple chair is going to a ski area near Kansas City and the quad lift is headed for Berkshire East, a resort in Massachusetts.

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