Summit’s Historic Yesterdays: Chalk Mountain Ski Area, 1934-1962, meets sudden demise
This is the fourth and final installment of a historical series on Summit County’s first ski mountain, birthed in 1934. At Chalk Mountain, a “rope tow to heaven” transported pioneering early day skiers to powdery bliss. That paradise attracted Summit locals, like ski legends, Max and Edna Dercum, who traveled all the way from Ski Tip on Montezuma Road to Chalk Mountain, which perched atop Fremont Pass.
The ski area, sponsored by the now-extinct molybdenum mining town of Climax, had night skiing, piped-in classical music, a pastel-painted warming hut and a camaraderie long remembered by Summit old timers. As the region’s first ski area, Chalk Mountain played a significant role in the birth of Summit County skiing. Find the whole story in Mary Ellen Gilliland’s local history, “SUMMIT, A Gold Rush History of Summit County, Colorado.”
After World War II, Chalk Mountain emerged as a ski racing leader. Edna Dercum wrote an article describing a memorable race.
“In April, 1946, the ski club decided to host a downhill on the smooth open slopes of 13,500 foot Bartlett Mountain, across the road from Chalk Mountain. Climax has begun excavating on the south side of this mountain. This excavation was known as “The Glory Hole.”
“Race day was cloudy with snow flurries. Contestants carried pine boughs, strewing them alongside the course as they climbed. By the time Max, the forerunner, skied off, the snow was really coming down. The racers were to start at half-minute intervals. As the first racer, I could hardly see the pine boughs and luckily reached the finish. A few racers showed up at the finish line, some coming too close to check their times. It was decided to cancel the race and everyone retired to the local tavern. One racer finished the race at Kokomo, five miles below Climax. Fortunately, no one fell in ‘The Glory Hole.’”
Danger existed in early-day skiing as it does today. Spring skiing on the back side of Chalk Mountain proved itself a glorious experience until a man was killed in a slide there. Zella Gorsuch responded with her own solution for this avalanche threat to her children, avid skiers. She told the kids, “Get on your ski clothes. I’m going to teach you to swim.” The puzzled youngsters, dressed in snow suits, climbed a ladder to the garage roof. The snow below lay over 10 feet deep. Zella instructed the children to jump into the snow, move their arms and legs like swimmers and kick their feet. “Not only will you surface, but you will have fun,” she said. Zella jumped in first and amazed the children by swimming up to the surface of the deep snow. Soon, the young Gorsuches were diving into the snow and more prepared to survive avalanche danger with the new technique. Neighborhood children learned to swim in snow and memorize Zella’s advice for snow slides: “Get rid of everything that can pull you under — skis, pack, poles — and then swim.”
Susy Culbreath schooled Climax kids not on avalanche skills but on their three R’s when she arrived at Climax after college to teach elementary students. Susy mentions the friendly atmosphere of the ski warming hut. She remembers happy times of skiing and socializing.
“The ski hill was a great place. There was a warming hut at the foot of the hill and we gathered there often after skiing. Bob Zdechlik would get in the middle of the floor and entertain with song. After skiing and other times, we would go down to the Kokomo Bar and have a steak dinner and listen and dance to the juke box. The steaks were superb!
“In the spring we had a spring bash on the hill. Many would dress up in funny costumes and then ski down an obstacle course. What fun we had! Also in the spring we would ski down the back side of Chalk Mountain. The run was long and beautiful. We came back to town in cars that were driven down beforehand.”
These happy times ended abruptly in 1962 when Climax Molybdenum Company closed its company town. A number of former Climax skiers moved to Summit County to leave a mark on local skiing. They had an added incentive to relocate in Frisco and Breckenridge because skiing had begun at Breckenridge.
Chalk Mountain skiers threw themselves into forming a Summit County ski club, helping others such as Edna Dercum, Gert Culbreath Young and Adina Ganong to promote a Summit schools ski education program. They also coordinated a ski jump training program (which produced Olympic jumpers like Pat Ahern) and helped Jody Anderson to launch the Frisco gold rush cross-country ski race.
Skiers still cherish memories of the camaraderie of Chalk Mountain skiing. They remember après ski gatherings with Jackie Pyles and Marie Zdechlik, yodeling and on-mountain dress-up days when skiers donned wild costumes. On one of these “Goof” days, Bob Zdechlik won top honors with a perfect Little Lord Fauntleroy costume. They reminisce about the music piped onto the slopes for skiers — and laugh about the melodious sound being punctuated by an occasional dynamite blast from the mine across the valley. The explosion demolished boulders stuck in the ore mill’s crusher. Hopefully the blast accentuated a musical crescendo.
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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