Summit’s Historic Yesterday’s: Crazy or creative? 1930s skiers debut a ski mountain
Author’s note: Chalk Mountain straddled the county line so including its history here is a technical call. Yet Chalk Mountain skiers rank as pioneers who broke ground to establish Summit County’s first ski area and jump-started its colorful history.
A young population of mine workers, school teachers and company employees at the company town of Climax atop Fremont Pass struggled to cope with eight-month long winters at the town’s sky-bumping altitude of over 11,000 feet.
They worked at Climax Molybdenum’s massive mine, or taught in its school, staffed its hospital or clerked in its general store. Climax residents, who dealt with abundant deep snows, knew about skiing. They skied to work, school, the post office, store and home during wintry months when light champagne powder fell regularly from the nearby heavens.
That abundance of white fluff and no convenient way to schuss through it presented an intriguing challenge to Climax winter sports enthusiasts.
In 1934, one of these Climax residents, Scott Davis “Jack” Gorsuch enlisted the help of several friends to clear trees for a ski trail on Chalk Mountain, just west of town across highway 91. After trail clearing, the comrades faced another challenge: to construct a rope tow to pull skiers to timberline. The friends built the tow under Gorsuch’s direction, using timbers from the mine and an ore bucket as a counterweight. They discovered eager response from young workers. Together they formed the Continental Ski Club in 1935, which continued to support Chalk Mountain skiers for decades to come. Even when the town of Climax was dismantled in the 1960s, these club skiers remained close friends.
Charter ski club members included:
Jack and Zella Gorsuch
Mr. and Mrs. Frank Coolbaugh
KIDS TAKE TO SKIS
Their children joined in, learning to ski on 1930s equipment — long, heavy hickory skis with wooden wedges to anchor the foot and a slot to hold two-piece toe irons. They used leather straps and cables for bindings and bamboo poles with oversized baskets. The wooden wedge often worked loose; the toe irons turned and the leather cable around the heel stretched when wet, according to early Climax skier Louise Roloff.
Tiny Roloff skied on 7-foot Northlands with no edges. Her skis cost $10, the bindings $2.75 and the bamboo poles 75 cents. An old flat iron, heated on a wood stove, warmed the beeswax or paraffin applied to the ski bottoms. She dressed in knee-high, lace-up hiking boots and wore trousers designed like jodhpurs used for horseback riding, full around the thighs and tight fitting below the knees.
The clatter of these wooden skis, the thump of boots stepping into bindings, the pitch of excited conversation and the shouts of children greeting friends filled a warming shack at Chalk Mountain’s base. Resident Marie Zdechlik later painted the building’s exterior in rainbow colors to make it stand out against its white snow surroundings and attract passing skiers. The bright hues also relieved employees’ boredom with the company-required yellow-white paint that covered every residence’s walls inside and out. (The warming house, despite its head-turning paint job, lacked one amenity. A visit to the toilet meant a frigid trek to the outhouse.)
While skiers jubilated, other Climax workers shook their heads in disbelief over the idea of downhill skiing for winter recreation. “They acted as if you had a rock in your head if you skied,” Marie Zdechlik recalled. But Climax Mine management, anxious to reduce employee turnover at the harsh high altitude mine location, smiled on the new sport.
Local ski legends Max and Edna Dercum abandoned their cozy Alhambra Cabin on the Montezuma Road for regular ski outings and early-day races at Chalk Mountain, long before Arapahoe Basin became a reality. They tucked their kids in piles of blankets in the car and checked them between runs. (Yes, Rolf and Sunni managed to grow up, and became ski racers themselves.)
When World War II broke out, Tenth Mountain Division ski troops training at nearby Camp Hale validated the Climax skiers’ passion for the sport. Some soldiers destined to become Colorado ski greats competed in Climax ski races. They included Colorado ski mountain pioneers Pete Seibert who founded Vail, Steve Knowlton, Gordy Wren and Barney McLean. “They were my heroes,” Jack Gorsuch’s son, Dave Gorsuch, told the Denver Post. Their 75-lb. backpacks and impervious resistance to biting winds, white-outs and steep Continental Divide-area slopes easily earned that hero designation. The Colorado mountain training the Tenth underwent at Camp Hale, on adjacent Cataract Creek slopes, Fremont Pass terrain and nearby Chalk Mountain worked to change the course of World War II when these skiing soldiers captured a key enemy stronghold, Italy’s Mountain Belvedere.
Mary Ellen Gilliland’s “SUMMIT, A Gold Rush History of Summit County, Colorado,” has captured the colorful gold rush. She details the misbehavior of history’s miscreants in her “Rascals, Scoundrels and No Goods” and recounts the story of the region’s first town in “Breckenridge.” Gilliland is also the author of the popular guide, “The Summit Hiker.” All are available from The Next Page Bookstore or online at alpenrosepress.com.
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