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Inside the mission to revive an abandoned Colorado ski resort

CUCHARA In a shadowy, bomb shelter-like hallway, Bill Coppola’s sweetest skiing memories are represented on the wall.

He’s looking at a map of the old Cuchara Mountain Resort, the last name for the ill-fated operation that started as Panadero Resort in 1981. Coppola loved it so much that he started building a home nearby in 1999. That was the resort’s last winter.

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Bill Coppola, one of the members of the Cuchara Foundation, talks about some of the runs in the old Cuchara Valley. A map of the closed ski area hangs in the newly restored main clubhouse, where weddings are being held.

From the green El Tejano — meaning Texan, honoring the former clientele — to the black diamond-rated El Diablo, the devilish descent on the mountain’s north side, “I skied them all,” Coppola says.

He traces his finger along the one called Rattlesnake, meandering through glades. “Last December, I skied this for the first time in 30 years,” he says.

Yes, the runs are still there, still in view from afar on U.S. 160. Now they’re overgrown with grass that crawls up rusted hydrants. The concrete block of snowmaking headquarters still stands, though it’s been gutted, the pumps and pipes scrapped.

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A generator was recently hooked up to lift No. 4 at Cuchara Mountain Park to see if it would turn. It did. But the lift can’t host riders without approval from the Colorado Passenger Tramway Safety Board.

And three chairlifts still stand, including the one labeled No. 4 at the base near 9,250 feet, near the toppled building that was the day lodge and the other building where skis were rented.

The latter has been restored, the packrats banished, the walls replaced, the floors refinished. It appears indeed like it once did thanks to the handiwork of Coppola and others.

And here in this hallway, work is underway as well.

The former day care, still with its colorful paint and cubbies, is now home to Chris Smith’s tools. He’s moved stuff around in the former store down the hall: the boxes of boots and bindings and other inventory, the clearance displays and retro ads. When Smith bought the building a few years ago, he also found desks still with framed family photos and flowers.

“It was like Chernobyl,” he says.

But the wreckage has been cleared upstairs in the dining room, which Smith has returned to its former elegance. Here he’s been booking weddings. Soon he hopes to welcome the first guests of a hostel.

It’s all part of a grassroots mission to bring the ski area back to life.

Opportunity arises

Now when people drive to the old base, they drive through a gate welcoming them to Huerfano County’s Cuchara Mountain Park. They are no longer trespassing.

Lois Adams, a founding member of the Cuchara Foundation, was at a yoga class in 2016 when she got to griping again about those “private property” signs and the eyesore growing on the mountainside.

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Lois Adams is one of the founding members of the Cuchara Foundation.

“We have a dead golf course at one end (of Colorado 12) and a dead ski resort at the other end,” she recalls telling a friend. “We got jerks at both ends of the highway and nobody wants to do anything with this community.”

As it goes in a small town, the “jerk” from the mountain got wind of those comments. He called Adams.

The conversation turned colloquial. He sounded willing to sell.

With funds built up from an annual music festival and other special events, could the Cuchara Foundation make something happen?

“I hung up and called Bill,” Adams says. “‘Bill, sit down, quick.’”

She and Coppola looped in Max Vezzani, a county commissioner with a heart for parks. If the foundation could work up the money, he’d convince fellow commissioners to sign the deal for the land.

The Cuchara Mountain Park advisory committee was born, a team of locals dedicated to seeing the vision through: an outdoor hub, starting with mini golf and disc golf courses. First, they needed to raise $150,000.

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The Cuchara Mountain Park advisory committee is a team of locals dedicated to seeing the vision of Chuchara Mountain becoming an outdoor hub. One of the goals is to reopen the mountain as a non-profit ski area. (Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette)

Jim Littlefield, a 20-year Cuchara resident and retired businessman, set out to secure large sums from the valley’s richest patrons. His earnestness came from the question he always asked himself driving by the mountain: “Why can’t we make something happen up here?”

And it came from all those high school kids he met 27 miles away in Walsenburg. All those kids who all their lives never ventured to the beauty of Cuchara.

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Three of the old chair lifts are left at Cuchara Mountain Park. The slopes at the old resort offer beautiful views of the Spanish Peaks. (Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette)

In a county consistently ranking among Colorado’s poorest, “there’s problems associated with that,” Littlefield says. “There’s drug use and other things. Kids are sitting there playing their games and getting into other things instead of getting up here and recreating. What a shame that is.”

He thought the Cuchara Mountain Park could make a difference. And apparently, so did the donors, everyone from prominent ranch owners to the cup-maker in town who chipped in a dollar.

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The main clubhouse at Cuchara Mountain Park has been restored to it’s former glory and is being booked for weddings. (Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette)

The $150,000 was raised in nine months. The park opened Labor Day weekend 2017.

“It’s happened quick in a place where things don’t happen quick,” Adams says.

Now from the park’s mini golf holes and disc golf baskets, advocates are turning their gaze uphill.

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The original name of the Cuchara Valley ski area was Paradero, when it opened in 1982. An original poster hangs on the wall of a Bed and Breakfast in the town of Cuchara. (Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette)

A tricky rebirth

Once upon a time, the ski area was billed “the Vail of Texas.” The phrase makes Mike Moore gag.

Cuchara’s scraggly-bearded bed and breakfast owner likes to say he worked every job on the mountain, his last being general manager.

“The three owners I worked for here, every one of them wanted to know how to put a four-lane freeway through this valley,” Moore says. “And I would tell them to go buy a flak jacket, because I’d be the first one with a submachine gun shooting at them.”

His joke comes with a serious message: “We do not want to change this valley.”

He finds himself stressing that with organized skiing back in the local conversation. Some might laugh, having seen the failures. Others might get mad, having been burned.

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The main clubhouse at Cuchara Mountain Park has been restored to it’s former glory and is being booked for weddings. (Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette)

Some gave money to past owners. Others handed over water rights. Others, their land.

“There’s a lot of pain associated with this place,” Adams says.

So proponents like Moore are careful in how they talk about a ski revival. They say they do not harbor the greed of past proprietors. They are not like those people at all, they say. They are, in fact, mostly retirees with their finances settled.

“The vision is not (from) corporate yahoos or somebody trying to make a buck and leave,” says Bob Kennemer, who’s been promoting the natural side of the valley he’s called home for 33 years.

The vision is a nonprofit.

For inspiration, Moore has looked to Wyoming’s Antelope Butte Mountain Recreation Area, whose abandoned slopes reopened last season thanks to a foundation now building capital on lift tickets and season passes. Montana’s Bridger Bowl and Idaho’s Bogus Basin are other examples of the model working.

In Moore’s view, it works in remote areas where small populations can’t boost profit margins. Areas like Cuchara, where fewer than 100 people live year-round.

A 501(c)(3) request has been filed in hopes of an operator stepping up to take on expensive liability, which the land-holding county wants no part of.

A generator was recently hooked up to lift No. 4 to see if it would turn. It did.

But the lift, accessing five runs and a modest 400 vertical feet, can’t host riders without approval from the Colorado Passenger Tramway Safety Board. Overseers think they could be ready for inspection next summer — but they also think they have to raise another $150,000 to get the lift up to snuff.

With success at the base, perhaps the U.S. Forest Service would consider firing up the lifts stationed on its land. That’s the goal, anyway: to prove viability at the base, then move on to the terrain reaching the summit near 10,800 feet.

But just as every profiteer did, a nonprofit would have to reckon with Mother Nature.

“Ski areas in northern Colorado get great snow three out of every four years. We get great snow one out of every four years,” Moore says. “So snowmaking is very critical for us if we’re gonna have a consistent operation.”

Even with a multimillion-dollar system, past operators struggled.

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One of the remaining chairlifts at Chuchara Mountain Park is lift No. 4. Members of the Cuchara Mountain Park advisory board have been donating their time to get the lift back up and running so that it can pass inspection.

“The previous owners would start off huge. Huge openings, huge parties,” Moore says. “Then by the second year we were opening four days a week, three days a week. By the third year, they were usually figuring out how to skip town.”

But Moore and company are here to stay, out of love for what the ski area once was. He’s brought in a friend, Bryan Edlund, who’s going on four decades in the industry.

He’s had his fair share of “last days” at now-abandoned ski areas across the West. He’s always been sad to see them go.

“Just to see something come back,” Edlund says as to why he joined the Cuchara cause. “And there are a bunch of people that aren’t just concerned about the almighty dollar.”

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Bill Coppola, one of the members of the Cuchara Foundation, talks about some of the runs in the old Cuchara Valley. A map of the closed ski area hangs in the newly restored main clubhouse, where weddings are being held.

Still dreaming

When or if the lift is ready, the seats are waiting.

“Out of the sun,” Smith says here in his building, safe from the elements.

Maybe Coppola will sit in one of those cushions again. He’d spend half the day riding, racking up the kind of vert expected on much bigger mountains.

The lines were never long. And therein lied the business problem.

The years wore on. “It just broke my heart to watch it fall into abuse,” Coppola says.

Maybe he’ll see the ski area return to glory. Or maybe he’ll just continue skinning up as other locals do after storms, in search of their favorite lines and powder stashes.

He dreams of them now staring at the old map on the wall.

He asks Smith about the slots beside each trail, about the “open” and “closed” labels that filled the empty spaces. Amid the wreckage, Smith could only find one green slip and one red.

“I gotta find somebody that could make these,” he says.

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