As Vail Mountain announced the start of the 2019–20 ski season with a fusillade of snow guns, relying on North America’s largest upgrade in snowmaking operations to engineer an early opening of a new 68-acre closed course at the summit of Golden Peak and high-elevation runs over much of the mountain, on the other side of Battle Mountain, the old-school snow farmers at Ski Cooper steadfastly relied on Mother Nature for a December 7 rope drop. But the valley’s first (and one of Colorado’s few remaining) independently operated ski resort had an ace up its sleeve.
In May, the US Forest Service green-lighted construction of a 2,600-foot T-bar lift at Ski Cooper, allowing the resort (which opened in 1942 as a World War II training ground for 10th Mountain Division soldiers from Camp Hale) to open approximately 71 additional in-bounds acres of gladed skiing in Tennessee Creek Basin, a backcountry-like backside chiseled with double-black diamond runs. Think Blue Sky Basin—albeit smaller, and without the Saturday morning traffic jam.
“I hope that it creates the kind of excitement that people got when Blue Sky Basin opened,” says Ski Cooper’s president and general manager, Dan Torsell. “We have tons of lower-level and intermediate terrain but nothing that’s really challenging for more experienced folks, and this particular area provides some extremely steep skiing—even for most areas in Colorado, it’s extreme skiing.”
The 19 new named runs (e.g., Maverick and Viper)—all steeps—include narrow New England-style trails devoid of trees, classic gladed trails lightly cleared of trees, and treed runs left untouched, including a vast area dubbed Powder ’Stache. But be warned. As Torsell put it in a missive on the resort’s website in September, “These areas require top-notch, well-honed skills but should provide the adventurous soul with a truly exhilarating experience.”
Despite Ski Cooper’s Blue Sky Basin ambitions, the 77-year-old ski hill remains a decidedly mom-and-pop operation, luring bargain hunters with $30 Thursdays (when an adult lift pass costs roughly the price of an Epic Burger and a hot cocoa at Two Elk Lodge) and couples on ski dates with 2-fer Tuesdays, when a pair of adult lift tickets can be had for the price of one ($62). Then there’s the snow. Ski Cooper may not have any snowmaking equipment, but thanks to a 10,500-foot base elevation, it doesn’t really need it. And going without is a matter of pride that resonates with skiing purists, as well as with those seeking an alternative to Epic versus Ikon at an old-school resort promising the “softest snow in Colorado.”
“Even though we don’t have as much vertical or terrain as a lot of the mega resorts, with the addition of Tennessee Creek Basin, I think we’ll be offering the same kind of product and the same kind of quality,” says Torsell. At a price point on Thursdays that even ski industry pioneer Pete Seibert couldn’t beat when he opened Vail Mountain in 1962 selling $5 lift tickets (which, calculating inflation, works out to $42.48 today).
Also Try Cat-skiing at Chicago Ridge: Daily tours leave from the base of Ski Cooper and include lunch at a backcountry yurt and laps on untouched steeps. $439 per person, $4,399 for a full snowcat seating 12 people. skicooper.com