Copper Mountain 40th anniversary: ‘It feels like yesterday’
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Copper, silver, gold, charcoal, timber, sheep and, finally, snow have all at one time been products of Copper Mountain, from the early 1800s up to the present day. This weekend, the Copper Mountain ski area, which opened in 1972, celebrates its 40th anniversary. While much has changed since those early years, the memories of those who experienced them have not, presenting us with a rich view of a history that stretches over four decades.
It was an unknown miner who gave Copper its name, disappointed after digging a mineshaft into the peak and only turning up low-grade copper ore. Gold and silver were mined from around copper through the 1880s, alongside which cropped up the town of Wheeler and a railroad station.
While eventually ski areas like Vail, Breckenridge and Arapahoe Basin became established and started drawing skiers into the mountains, Copper remained silent. Although a few had noted it favorably, it wasn’t until the U.S. Forest Service mentioned the mountain in a 1969 report that people began to recognize its true potential.
“If ever there was a mountain that had terrain created for skiing, it would be Copper Mountain,” the report stated and many believed it.
Just as the birth of any great endeavor, Copper’s wasn’t easy. A reluctant private landowner and a need of large amounts of funding during a shaky economic period were just a few of the challenges facing the ski area’s inception.
A group of about 16 initial investors gathered to organize the purchase of the 280 acres of private land in the valley and then raise the rest of the funds necessary to build up the ski area itself. The group was led by Chuck Froelicher, who in turn brought in Charles D. “Chuck” Lewis, a man whose name would become almost synonymous with Copper.
Lewis already had experience in the ski business, having served as general manager and later vice president and treasurer at Vail Mountain. He is described as an accomplished skier and avid outdoorsman, whose passion for skiing and the mountain shone through in everything he did.
Hoping to hold the grand opening in 1971, Lewis traveled back and forth across the country seeking funding. For a long while he was unsuccessful and it wasn’t until June of 1971 that he finally reached his goal.
Copper Mountain opened for the 1972-73 season with around 20 trails and five lifts. Now, the ski area boasts 126 trails and 22 lifts, with 2,465 acres of terrain.
Passion passed around
Nearly every story about Copper’s early years seems to involve Lewis in some way, and many afterwards as well. Former employees praise his skiing skill and passion almost as much as his friendly personality.
“He was something,” said Bob Winsett, who started working at Copper in 1973. “He’d go out and tell the lift operators to take a break and bump chairs for a while. He was that kind of guy. There was nothing elite about him, nothing about him that wanted to be separate from the employees. He was one of the best bosses you could ever have.”
Lewis was in his mid 30s when Copper started and could often be found on the mountain, working, chatting with employees or spending time with his family – wife Penny and three young children.
“He was a great guy,” Chuck “CJ” Julin, Copper’s 116th employee, recalled. “He had a passion for skiing; he really loved to ski, so as a founder and as someone who runs a resort or is responsible for it, his love and passion filtered down to the employees.”
The employees loved him not only for his passion but for the opportunities he gave them to be a part of Copper. According to former Copper employee and current general manager of Eldora Mountain Resort Jim Spenst, many of the new hires were young and eager to join the ski industry.
“When he started Copper, he allowed a lot of us that were young to do things,” Spenst said. “A lot of other ski areas were already entrenched – they had their mountain managers, they had their head cat drivers, they had their head lift guys. … Chuck was willing to let us younger guys, I was 19 years old when I went to work at Copper, loading lifts, driving cats, helping work on trails, ski patrolling, busing tables, doing whatever needed to be done, it was a real family kind of atmosphere.”
As a result of that trust, Lewis was able to get his crew to do “just about anything,” Spenst said. One example is the 1976 U.S. Nationals. When lack of snow drove the event out of Heavenly at Utah, Lewis decided that Copper would step up, which it did, preparing in just two weeks.
“He gathered a bunch of us together and said this is what we’re going to do and we’re going to get it done,” Spenst remembered. And they did. Spenst also credits Lewis for many of the tricks and methods that he’s used during his ski industry career.
The spirit of the mountain
Lewis cared very much about the community among his employees, working to make sure that they felt supported, by the resort and each other. Many of the former Ski Patrol members still speak fondly of the tight-knit group that formed.
“It was a whole lot of fun, back in those days,” said Chuck Tolton, who worked at Copper for 35 years as a ski patrolman.
“When I was patrolling, there were probably less than 25 of us,” Winsett said. “It was a privilege to work for Chuck Lewis at Copper in any capacity, but it was definitely a privilege to be on that Ski Patrol with the people that were there, because they were all super qualified mountaineers and skiers. … Back in those days, everybody was there because they wanted to be there.”
Not only did the employees work together all day, but they often spent their free time together as well. Many of them lived in condominiums right in the village, Spenst recalled.
“A lot of us ended up marrying those that we worked with and having kids,” he said.
He was one of them. Though he had known her before, his future wife worked at various positions in the resort and her sister was one of the first woman snow cat operators in Colorado.
Although now Copper employs many more people, that doesn’t mean there still isn’t a sense of camaraderie to be found.
“Yes, there’s been an extraordinary amount of change, but the essence of the sport, the simple enjoyment of being outside, for ski area workers, I think, is largely the same,” Tolton said. “Why else would you do it if you really didn’t enjoy yourself and the people that you’re out there working with?”
While 40 years may seem like a lot, time can be tricky, particularly when it comes to memory.
“It seems like it was just yesterday,” Julin said. “It did go by very fast. I think it’s great to celebrate it, because it is a chance for all of us to celebrate our opportunity to meet Chuck and be a part of his dream, but also to re-connect with people that we haven’t seen for many years. (That) was a big part of it, because we all had a chance to stand at that threshold of a frontier, the frontier which is now the modern ski industry, and we shared that together.”
He added, “Chuck Lewis, he’s there – his spirit’s there, his heart’s there, so those things just continue on.”
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