Boarding’s birth at home-town resort |

Boarding’s birth at home-town resort

Christine Ina Casillas
Ski Cooper, one of Colorado's gem resorts, is where some of the state's best skiing and snowboarding can be found. Located off the beaten track, it is less crowded than area ski resorts with more down-to-earth prices. And parking is free. Ski Cooper's Chicago Ridge back country ski tour takes riders into unmarked terrain that stretches across more than 2,400 acres.

It was the end of the season. The snow was starting to melt slowly. The mud season was close behind.

It hadn’t been an epic snow year in Colorado ” in 1981 ” but there was no fear of a drought.

That, of course, came years later.

The snowy slopes at Colorado’s highest ski resort faced its last open days before the summer’s heat entered the scene.

It was then that a group of 12 young hotshot snowboarders converged onto the terrain at Ski Cooper for an experimental contest that included slalom and freestyle races.

All gnarly skateboarders ” the epitome of the nation’s “bad boys” ” brought with them contraptions and equipment they had manufactured by hand.

Known for their sense of adventure and no-fear attitude, snowboarding notables like Tom Sims and Jake Burton took to the hills.

The contest ” “The King of the Mountain” ” became the first organized snowboarding event to hit Colorado, as well as the nation, said Kristin Lee, former communications director of Ski Cooper.

It was because of their carefree attitude, the innuendoes of their status in society, that stopped many of the legendary pioneers from experimenting at the nation’s top ski resorts.

But off the beaten path, huddled high at 10,200 feet, a small, atmospheric hometown ski resort in the heart of Colorado tuned out the warnings from other ski resorts and allowed these 12 men to play in the fresh, deep snow.

“Ski Cooper was the only one who would let us do it,” said Richard Christiansen, original event organizer. “We contacted every resort in the state ” they thought it was strange ” and Ski Cooper said, ‘Come on up. If it doesn’t work or if there’s a problem, who cares? It’s the end of the season anyway. We’ll just close the mountain.'”

Ski Cooper became the first ski resort ” at least in Colorado ” to sell lift tickets to snowboarders. Now, more than 60 percent of ski resort lift tickets are sold to snowboarders.

And that was just the beginning of a new sport that swept the nation.

Ski Cooper, Lake County’s gem resort, has been instrumental in the first festival to honor is many avid telemark skiers, as well.

Last March, Ski Cooper played host to Telefest, which included a rondonee rally, a slalom race and a telecross event.

The event sparked when Carrie Marshall at Colorado Mountain College approached Lee about a new event that would bring more diversity to Ski Cooper, incorporating a sport that has been growing more popular each year, Lee said. “Ski Cooper is a great place to telemark ski just because of its gradual slopes and the way the trails are cut,” Lee said. “People love to tele here.”

And it’s known for its quiet, short lift lines that make it a local’s favorite.

In Colorado’s ski country, some of the best skiing and snowboarding is found off the beaten track. In ski terms, these special ski areas are known as “gems,” because they are less crowded with more down-to-earth prices. With a variety of terrain and an easy-going, laid-back atmosphere, it’s no wonder why these “gems” are Colorado’s hidden treasures.

Ski Cooper might remind those who have experienced the larger, more expensive resorts what skiing is all about, the way it used to be, affordable and friendly ” with some extra attractions.

“This out of the way gem has wide-open spaces with no one in site. In the midst of the 10th Mountain Division, the depth of history that surrounds Ski Cooper hails only in comparison to the depth of powder it can receive,” said Nicole DeJarnatt, of Boulder.

Aspen’s Nate Peterson ventured across the state last season in search of the best gem resorts the state has to offer.

It was here at Ski Cooper where he conjured up images of fresh powder, deep snow and unclogged lift lines.

He wrote: “At tiny 400-acre Ski Cooper, located at 10,500 feet on Tennessee Pass near Leadville, I found myself alone on wide-open groomed cruisers, on the same day that spring-break hordes clogged nearby Vail. I had a similar experience at local gem Sunlight, with fresh powder stashes in the trees all day long.

Everywhere I went, I found scant lift lines, free parking and lunch for less than $10.”

According to some statistics, the Colorado gem resorts racked up just 1,261,812 visits last season. Vail, the largest ski resort in the United States, attracted 1,568,192.

Which leads to a question: Can a tiny, independent ski area like Ski Cooper survive in the long term – especially when a behemoth like Vail, which is 13 times as big, is just 35 miles away?

“I think the future looks very bright,” said Molly Cuffe, CSCUSA’s communications director. “They’ve really fulfilled their niche in the market. This year, the year-to-date average of skier visits is 23 percent higher than the five-year average. I think that trend is really indicative of a bigger trend of people wanting to get off the beaten trail.”

So get off the busy, backed-up interstate and head to a mountain oasis free of expensive paid parking, fancy apres and lift lines that go on for hours.

Vail Daily, Vail, Colorado CO

Support Local Journalism