Although abandoned for 25 years, the dual slopes of Ski Broadmoor still stand out against the backdrop of Colorado Springs. When it snows, the long vacant resort looks like an active ski area.
And it's likely it will be that way for years to come.
Two researchers from the University of California, Davis have found that abandoned ski areas can take decades to recover, some changing very little after being ghost spaces for nearly half a century. Ski Broadmoor is not alone in its slow recovery - in Colorado, around 10 dozen ski areas lie dormant, many still visible on the landscape. Southern Colorado is home to 19 such areas, including five in Colorado Springs, four in Teller County and the well-known Cuchara Valley ski area in La Veta.
Most people assume that, without human traffic, ski areas would grow wild, trees would reclaim the runs and the landscape would swallow the remnants of resort life. But usually that's not the case, said Jeffrey Clary, director of the Stebbins Cold Canyon Natural Reserve in the UC Davis Reserve System.
Research found that how quickly abandoned ski areas recover depends on how they were made. And many a ski area's ecological systems were decimated by the work it took to build runs, making for a long recovery process, Clary said.
"A lot of times we just think the mountains can take care of themselves," he said. But mountains are cold and dry places, often inhospitable to fast new growth, and few landscapes need more help than abandoned ski areas.
Two techniques are used to carve ski slopes - clearing, a more gentle method of chopping down trees, and grading, a highly mechanized alternative that tries to make runs as smooth as possible.
"They both are pretty common, but grading has become more common over time," Clary said. "(With grading), particularly with a slim snowpack, you might be able to open up a slope early."
Clary and lead researcher Jennifer Burt focused their studies on several abandoned ski areas in the Sierra Nevada mountains in Nevada and California. Burt got the idea for the study while hiking one summer around an active ski area in Northern California, where she noticed that some runs seemed to have more growth than others.
"After inquiring with some ski area managers, it became clear that there were these two very different approaches to creating a ski run, and that grading had become more common than simple clearing, so I thought it would be useful to quantify the ecological effects of both approaches," Burt wrote in an email.
The researchers found that areas that had been cleared - where trees were cut to stumps but the slope otherwise left unchanged - recovered quicker and more regularly than areas that had been graded. Graded slopes were highly unpredictable in their recovery, Burt and Clary found, with some appearing not to have recovered at all.
"When you do that smoothing, you are moving the soil around. With that, you also are removing all the seeds that are within that soil," Clary explained. "Theory would still predict they'd recover, but over the scale of up to 47 years, we weren't observing that yet."
Nonetheless, grading remains the most popular method of clearing ski terrain, Clary said.
The methods used to hew slopes in the Pikes Peak region might be lost to time. A few of the region's ski areas were informal attempts organized by locals. Others, such as Glen Cove, started with legitimate efforts - Glen Cove boasted the state's first rope tow in 1936 - but quickly fizzled. The Pikes Peak ski area operated from 1939 to 1984, and Ski Broadmoor survived until 1991, when new owner Vail Resorts shuttered it due to lack of profit.
The issue of restoring abandoned ski areas is addressed in the U.S. Forest Service lease contracts signed by most ski resorts in Colorado, said Lawrence Lujan, a spokesman for the Forest Service. Ski areas on federal lands are required to remove all equipment and restore the area as much as possible once a resort has shuttered, although requirements can vary by site.
While some abandoned ski hills require some finding, few are as obvious as Cuchara Valley, which opened and closed sporadically from 1981 to 2000. After changing hands several times since its closure, the area has been broken into pieces with different owners, the Huerfano World Journal reported in May. The new owners told the Journal they had no immediate idea what could be done with the area.
Meanwhile, chairlifts, buildings and snow guns at Cuchara guard the empty, snow-covered pistes. Employee shifts still are listed on boards in the lift shacks. And the runs, but for a few small trees, look ready to ski, despite having been abandoned for 16 years.
Only a paper stuck to a building window suggests that something is not quite right: "Cuchara Ski Area is closed for the summer," it says. "Effective 07/2000."