Summit’s Historic Yesterday’s: Upgrades at Chalk Mountain enhance 1940s ski heaven
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.
The fledgling ski area birthed in 1934 as Chalk Mountain atop Fremont Pass took flight after World War II as one of the American West’s premier ski destinations. Lights, music and a new T-bar, high-tech for its time, made this ski paradise even more heavenly.
When Arthur Storke took over as mine company president, Jack and Zella Gorsuch, along with other members of the Continental Ski Club, petitioned the company again for an upgrade in ski facilities. Chalk Mountain needed improvement. Storke enjoyed Chalk Mountain himself, sometimes cutting short his work day and asking Zella Gorsuch to run the lift on the closed ski mountain for him as he skied away an afternoon. In 1947, Storke, an expert skier familiar with Europe’s finest terrain, transformed the Chalk Mountain ski area into one of the best equipped in the West. A new 2,600-foot, 300-skier per hour Constam steel T-bar began operating Dec. 7, 1947. This plus an extended vertical descent and four runs lighted for night skiing came at a bargain $10 for a season pass. And the season lasted eight to nine months.
Chalk Mountain opened on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Climax laborers, some of them on demanding shift work, struggled to find time to ski. The solution: install lights for night skiing. Chalk Mountain had the only lighted night skiing in Colorado except Howelson Hill at Steamboat Springs, according to ski historian Abbott Fay.
Ski legend Edna Dercum in her popular book “It’s Easy Edna. It’s Downhill All the Way,” described her first experience night skiing with her ski pioneer husband, Max, at Chalk Mountain:
“On the way back home we reached the big brightly-lighted mining operation of Climax on Fremont Pass. The 600-foot ski hill across the road from the mine was well lit, showing the beautiful unmarked powder snow.
“Since it was already dark and the youngsters were getting sleepy, we tucked them into the two down sleeping bags we always kept in the back of the car. Clamping on our skis we climbed up to the warming hut. Here we found the reason for the untracked snow. The skiers standing around the pot-bellied stove told us the rope tow would soon start.
“We skied until 10 o’clock. It was heavenly although my arms ached from the rope tow. It was an unreal world with the exhilaration of floating through all that light powder, in and out of the tree shadows. … What added to the feeling was the music. Someone had placed loudspeakers on the rope tow poles. They were playing Grieg’s ‘Peer Gynt Suite’ and ‘The Hall of the Mountain King’ was especially appropriate.”
Jackie Gorsuch Pyles Evanger, daughter of ski hill founder Jack Gorsuch, remembered the night ski experience in a 1996 interview with writer Sylvia Labato. “I have wonderful memories of skiing at night with gentle snowflakes falling. I can still close my eyes and feel the flakes gentle on my face.”
However, nights on the Continental Divide were frigid. Temperatures often dipped to 20 degrees below zero. Jackie’s mother, Zella Gorsuch — who taught kids to ski, toted Kleenex to mop drippy noses and tears and also underpinned the ski club — developed lung cancer, aggravated by skiing at night in sub-zero temperatures. Sadly she died in 1950 just before her 43rd birthday.
Cold didn’t drive skiers from Chalk Mountain because it was so much fun. While Swiss music poured from the loudspeakers, ski comrades practiced yodeling, a musical art they perfected using a yodeling handbook. When the ski club worked together on Monday nights to fix the springs on the T-bar, they joined in songs gleaned from a mountain club songbook. Chili suppers and casual parties solidified the camaraderie of these 50 or so ski buddies.
Before the Dercums helped launch Arapahoe Basin in 1946, Chalk Mountain provided the only outlet for their love of skiing.
“I don’t know what we’d have done without Climax,” Edna said. “That first year it was the only place to ski. We’d ski all day Saturday till about 9 o’clock at night and then all day Sunday. The kids loved playing in the snow there. We’d put them in down sleeping bags and they’d sleep all the way on the long drive home.”
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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