By Troy Hawks
Sometimes you love a ski area for what it isn’t. There are a lot of things Ski Cooper isn’t, and noisy on a Tuesday afternoon is usually one of them. In fact on most days, about the only racket skiers and snowboarders hear is the clamor of the sheave wheels as the chairlift grip passes through each lift tower. If you’re riding one of the 180 chairs on the 10th Mountain lift, that noise occurs about every 30 seconds. It’s the time in between, the near absolute silence that comes at the 15 second interval, when you’re the furthest distance in between the towers and the cable sags to its lowest point, that you discover why Ski Cooper is considered one of the gems of Colorado Ski Country.
The ski area is nestled on the north side of Highway 24 just 10 miles northwest of Leadville. Her 400 acres top out at 11,700 feet, and she’s flanked by mega-resorts that lie just a few miles away as the crow flies. Season after season, events like the Winter X Games, Dew Tour, Grand Prix, and World Cup races generate a clamor, commotion, buzz, and celebration that fills the air of these mountainous peaks for weeks; yet things at Ski Cooper remain relatively quiet.
Sure, there have been some modern upgrades along the way. Just this season the area refurbished the base area buildings including an entire remodel of the rental shop and added new technology to its point of sale system. Still, this place continues to epitomize the operational nature and essence of the sport – just as it was several decades ago.
Ski Cooper isn’t the place that normally draws the attention of fame-chasing media types. The marketing message doesn’t promise to represent all that’s hip, rad, and trendy in the ski industry. Nevertheless, there was a day when these 1,200 vertical feet were one of the places to be if you wanted to ski. These are the same slopes that boys in their late teens and early 20s skied in the 1940s as they trained for battle in World War II. The Army selected this area for the 10th Mountain Division because its rugged terrain, 250-inch average annual snowfall, and access to rail transportation.
Last season Warren Miller Entertainment premiered the film “Climb to Glory: Legacy of the 10th Mountain Ski Troopers,” an hour-long documentary film that tells the story of the thousands of men who trained at Ski Cooper. The film is one of several that chronicle the 10th Mountain, many of whom later fought in World War II.
Climb to Glory is the brainchild of professional skier Chris Anthony, and as he described, was “intended to teach children about the troops and keep their history alive.” Anthony, and his contemporaries in the ski and snowboard world have accomplished amazing feats on skis and snowboards, but he would likely agree that they pale in comparison to the heroic tales that the men that first skied the slopes of Ski Cooper can tell.
It’s pretty difficult to near impossible to reverse-engineer major infrastructure expansions and real estate developments. And once those pieces have been put in place, there is no way to make them more quiet or less noticeable. Ski Cooper offers a dressed down experience and true Rocky Mountain solitude that cannot be bottled and sold. It’s an asset other ski areas in the region can only envy, and it’s an experience worth breathing in and appreciating. As they say, history is fleeting, and so are the people who make it: once the real thing ceases to exist, we’re left with only memories of how it all used to be.