January 10, 1996
Long before high-speed quad lifts, $50 lift tickets and artificial snow, Berthoud Pass, northwest of Denver, was the “destination” ski resort for pioneering skiers. Fate has thrown quirky snowballs at the tiny, yet historically significant ski area ever since two Denver men were killed by an avalanche here Feb. 7, 1937, on the first day of lift-assisted skiing in Colorado. Although the lifts at Berthoud are frozen in history (for now) it remains a popular destination for backcountry skiers and snowboarders. Chances are that anyone who survived a few runs down Berthoud’s famous “The Plunge” will remember this area with either fondness or fear. (Pictured below is an area just to the north of Berthoud.)
Skiing on Berthoud Pass dates back well before the 1937 lift opening to when enthusiasts of the young sport drove cars to the top of the 11,314-foot pass to ski Seven-Mile Run on the west and Hoop Creek on the east. At the bottom of the run, skiers loaded into cars to ride back to the top.
Today, with no lifts operating and the area closed for the past three winters, skiing continues on Berthoud Pass in exactly the same fashion – drive to the top, ski down, hitch a ride back up. The primary difference is the skis have been replaced by snowboards.
Many of those who skied “The Pass” in the early 1930s were members of an informal band of Denver adventurers called the Winter Sports Council. A primary meeting place for the club was the Navarre restaurant. Some members of the club had visited Sun Valley, Idaho in 1936 to witness the rope tow in place there. Returning to Denver, members of the Winter Sports Council convened at the Navarre and drew up plans to construct Colorado’s first rope tow.
Financing for the ambitious engineering effort was provided by the May Co. department store and the Denver Ford dealers, who donated a V-8 engine to power the machine. The 848-foot rope tow was completed for $2,500.
Lucy Garst, once an owner of the ski area and now curator and collections manager for the Colorado Ski Museum, said some contend a rope tow was in operation at Glen Cove near Colorado Springs a few months prior to Berthoud’s, but evidence authenticating the claim is sketchy. Berthoud Ski Area is generally given credit for the first ski tow in Colorado’s ski country.
The original Forest Service permit for the ski area included a whopping 37,000 acres, an area that would encompass all of Berthoud’s ski terrain and the terrain now part of Winter Park Resort.
The first man to ride Colorado’s first rope tow was Bud Barwise, manager of Denver’s Merrill Lynch office. The second was Clark Blickensderfer, father of State Sen. Tom Blickensderfer. The two men killed on the first day of operation were Joseph Oppenheimer and John Oberdorfer, both employed by Barwise. Their bodies weren’t found until spring.
Fire plagued the area in its early years. The original inn, constructed in the 1920s as a roadhouse by Charles Fitchett, burned in 1939. That lodge was replaced with three smaller buildings, but a fire destroyed another building at the area in 1940. The lodge standing today was constructed after the second fire at a cost of $75,000. It opened in December of 1949. An outbuilding still standing on the property is a relocated structure from one of the Western Slope’s wartime POW camps.
In 1945, the Forest Service issued another permit for the ski area, this time the owners consisted of three prominent Denver families, the Grants, the Shafroths and the Tolls, each of whom owned 30%. Sam Huntington of Idaho Springs owned the remaining 10% and was the onsite manager. It was Huntington who in 1943 designed the world’s first double chairlift. Single chairlifts were in operation elsewhere in Colorado, but when Huntington built his lift at Berthoud with the help of Bob Heron, Berthoud provided the sport with yet another innovation and important milestone. Huntington’s double chairlift was in operation in 1947. The patent he received in 1952 was never enforced.
Heron went on to become one of the world’s foremost lift manufacturers. Huntington was electrocuted in the mid-1950s while inspecting a chairlift in Utah. Huntington’s chairlift continued operating until January of 1988, when a malfunction injured a Denver nurse and closed down the lift forever.
By 1946, Berthoud Pass Ski Area enjoyed unheralded market share. It was estimated by a Forest Service report that of the 100,000 skiers in Colorado, 30,000 skied at Berthoud Pass. By 1961, Irma Hill, a giant among city concessionaires, leased the ski area from the Grant family. She bought it outright in 1972.
In 1977, Hill sold the area to Ike Garst two days before Ike’s marriage to Lucy. The Garsts operated the ski area for the next 10 years. The area by then had become a small, rustic place serving a small core of devoted followers. While the days of pioneering ski technology had ended for Berthoud Pass, the Garsts still made one lasting and important contribution to the ski industry. Berthoud Pass was the first Colorado ski area to allow snowboarders full access to lifts and terrain.
The Garsts sold the area to Peter Crowley in 1987. The financial deal was closed Aug. 10, the same day eight tourists were fatally injured when a six-ton boulder smashed a tour bus on Berthoud Pass. The accident served as sinister foreshadowing to a period of financial woes and shutdowns for the area.
Crowley’s notion for a new Colorado ski experience was called “off-piste.” He continued to operated the original double chair and the T-bar tow, but he also offered bus shuttles up and down the pass. The shuttles were a convenient re-creation of the 1930s when skiers depended on autos to get back to the top. The skiers skied the same terrain as the pioneers, but marketing had given it a new name. “Off-piste” loosely translates from French to “off-the-trail.” Crowley renamed the area Timberline.
The 1988 lift accident that closed Huntington’s double chair also represented the first domino to fall in a series that eventually closed Berthoud Pass Ski Area for good. Lawsuits and financial woes followed the accident. Crowley became the first ski operator in Colorado to be fined by the Colorado Tramway Board for improper care of lift equipment. Bankruptcy followed for Crowley the following September.
Soon thereafter came Gary Schulz, owner of New York-based lift manufacturer, Borvig Lifts. Schulz obtained a new Forest Service permit and gobbled up incentives from Grand and Clear Creek County economic development groups with promises to build three new lifts at the area and to move his manufacturing plant to Colorado. The grandiose plans fizzled. Contractors never got paid for work installing the new lifts. More lawsuits followed. The Forest Service vowed never again to grant a ski area permit at the top of Berthoud Pass.
Today, the Borvig lift towers still stand, but the chairs are stacked on the ground in the absence of a cable. The historic base lodge is closed.
Yet the rugged spirit of Berthoud Pass lives on. With no lifts and no lodge, skiers and snowboarders continue flocking to “The Pass,” where they enjoy the same old ski runs and the same old drive back to the top as did Colorado’s ski pioneers.