MONARCH MOUNTAIN • The ski area’s marketing director is strolling down a hallway, pointing out black-and-white portraits on the wall — instructors, patrollers, locally famed athletes and families important to 80 years of business here. “There’s only like three of these people alive,” he says, when a voice comes over his radio.
“Billy Block is in the house.”
The parking lot attendant follows up a little while later.
“Fearless Freddy is in the house.”
We’ll get to the nickname later. Block and Fred Hocking have a few other stories to reminisce on first.
“Did you happen to attend the employee Christmas party at the lodge in about ’74, ’75?” asks Hocking, the beard from his 20s now big and white, his long hair now a shock behind the balding.
A gold cap shimmers in Block’s quick, toothy smile. “You’re not talking about the one that ended up in the pool.”
Hocking nods. “Yes I am.”
This was the time fellow college-aged members of the mountain crew went skinny dipping. There are more stories about races on the slopes followed by keggers in the old bierstube. Snowball fights between the bump skiers and the downhill tribe. Toga parties.
“It was the girls checking the guys for underwear and the guys checking the girls for underwear,” Block says. “My wife was one of the judges for the guys, which is OK with me, I guess.”
There was “reefer ridge.” There were particularly chilly descents where reliable Charme would be waiting in the shuttle, ready to whisk her buddies away while they re-clothed.
Charme Krauth is here today, too. Of course she is. It’s her birthday, and she always skis her favorite mountain on her birthday. “It was a big party all the time,” she recalls.
And the party must go on at Monarch, which abides by a mantra in this anniversary year: “Keeping it real since 1939.”
It’s as real as the surface of the slopes. The ski area is one of Colorado’s last relying entirely on Mother Nature — no snowmaking. Only a few can claim the longevity, and yes, the gifts from above are largely to thank.
The latest report scrawled on the whiteboard in the owners’ lounge: “Huge snow!!!” And a response: “Uh, well, yeah, it’s Monarch.”
Block is one of the owners, one of the local dozen with a minor share. Along with 350 inches of powder a year, the ski area boasts a ticket less than $60, and that affordability also keeps Monarch thriving, Block says.
“And the people,” Fearless Freddy says. “The family.”
That’s what the Pueblo native found after first coming here in 1964. He was a school kid along for the high, winding ride up Monarch Pass. Upon arrival, Hocking opened the door and puked.
The general manager, also serving as a parking lot attendant, looked at him unconcerned.
“Welcome to Monarch,” he said.
The ski area had built itself on grit. Locals in 1936 formed a sports club on the mountain, powering a shoddy rope tow with a six-cylinder truck engine. The pass was finished over the next few years, spelling greater access and higher popularity.
And the same vigor that went toward organized skiing also met the pass’s proposed name: Vail, for the state’s top highway engineer at the time, Charley Vail. Locals were known to rip out Vail Pass signs, knowing the corridor’s rightful name to be for the resident butterfly.
The town of Salida agreed to take responsibility for the ski area, born by a Works Progress Administration project. The first guests paid a quarter to ride the rope tow.
But business waned as America joined World War II. The town sold the ski area for $100 to Ray Berry, a perfect fit for that truck engine, being himself a mechanic.
By the time he sold to Elmo Bevington in 1967 the price tag was reportedly $132,000. Elmo would be seen flipping buffalo burgers, expanding dining with other parts of the operation.
The good times rolled with a bunch of Vietnam-rebelling 20-somethings, including Block, who deferred by attending Western Colorado University. He picked the school for its proximity to Monarch, where he hoped to work as an instructor.
He was given the chance by a boss named Bev, who went around giving orders between cigarette drags. She asked Block for a simulated ski lesson.
“The one thing I want to make sure we do today is have fun,” he recalls telling his invisible audience.
That’s all he had to say that day in 1970. “Been here ever since.”
He was around for the Gerald Rogers era of the next two decades, a name that now lives in infamy. Under him, the cash flow was more like cash waves.
“He just took a wand, wrote a check, and everything basically doubled — the lifts, the lodging, the parking, everything,” says John Engelbrecht, who skied the mountain in childhood and helped transform it through adulthood.
Rogers tasked Engelbrecht with marketing, and many more millions were available for that. Monarch was all over full-page newspaper ads and national magazines, interstate billboards and the radio. “There’s only one way to describe Monarch,” said the TV commercials. “Yahoo!”
It was all colorful cover for Rogers.
Federal suspicions of embezzlement and tax evasion followed him through the ‘80s. In 1990, he was arrested for mail and securities fraud. He died incarcerated.
If Engelbrecht felt his home mountain was being built on dirty money, well, he didn’t ask any questions. Questions aren’t asked today, except this:
“What was it Robert Palmer said?” Engelbrecht says, citing a hit song. “’She’s so fine, there’s no tellin’ where the money went.’”
Good times prevail
But Monarch wasn’t so fine in the following years.
To recoup what it was owed from Rogers, the ski area went to a fringe religious group, whose members look like ZZ Top in pictures kept at the base. They soon sold to Japanese investors, who in turn sold to the Chinese. All parties were mostly absent from the mountain while infrastructure crumbled.
A concerned local, Rich Moorhead, went to someone he knew with deep pockets: Bob Nicolls.
The commercial real estate mogul had always brought his family to the place. Would he consider buying it?
“I said, ‘Rich, I thought you were a friend,’” Nicolls says. “I thought it’d be a total pain in the ass and we’d never make much money.”
But since 2002, he says, he and three other majority owners have pumped $15 million in profits back into the ski area — “and given ourselves a nice return,” Nicolls says. The business is debt-free, he adds.
All the while, Monarch has resisted the industry trend of glitz and conglomeration. Possibly on deck for the future: a terrain expansion on the mountain’s backside, along with another lift.
Not that the ski area has to do anything more to please its most devoted. “Fearless Freddy” Hocking returns for the same kind of thrill he got 46 years ago, when he was challenged to ski the daunting Gunbarrel. He succeeded in 11 seconds, the legend goes, earning the nickname.
Those were fast times indeed, fleeting like the stories he and Block swap now. Soon, Block boards the lift for some laps before a bloody mary by noon.
As for Hocking, he might just ski all day, as he’s prone to do, taking the last chair up. But it’s not about speed anymore.
Before sundown, he likes to pause atop his favorite mountain, to take in the view that goes on forever.
“It’s what I call my chapel,” he says. “You can just give thanks. That’s what I really enjoy.”