Creation and growth of Summit County’s ski areas shaped the mountain sports community
Breckenridge Ski Resort co-founder Trygve Berge points out several locations from his perch at The Crown coffee shop above Breckenridge’s Main Street. Few structures resided in the footprints of these contemporary buildings when he first visited six decades ago.
He waxes nostalgic about how property was alarmingly cheap to purchase. He emphasizes how there was hardly anyone here. Historical records chronicle the Rocky Mountain mining town’s population dipping to 383 in 1960. Scouring his memory, Berge recalls that number being closer to 200 — maybe fewer.
“It was becoming Alma or some of these ghost towns,” Berge said about Breckenridge. “Mountain towns with very few people, very little going on. … (The ski area) changed it totally.”
Now 87, the 1956 Olympic Norwegian Alpine skier still skis more than a half-century after he first arrived to scout the potential of a ski area. Berge was invited by Bill Rounds, of the Kansas-based Rounds and Porter Lumber Co., along with fellow Norwegian Olympic downhiller Sigurd Rockne. In 1960, the trio toasted to the town’s future near the current location of the upper terminal of the Colorado SuperChair on Peak 8.
Fast-forward 59 years to this past June: Berge hops off the Independence SuperChair at tree line on the resort’s Peak 7. It’s just a short ski north along the Tenmile Range from where he, Rockne and Rounds toasted in 1960. On this warm, sunny day, Berge sticks to trails below tree line, though many others ride the Imperial Express SuperChair to ski from just below the summit of Peak 8.
Rising to 12,840 feet, Imperial is the highest chairlift on the continent and serves as an emblem of what Summit County resort skiing has become nearly three-quarters of a century after Arapahoe Basin Ski Area, the oldest remaining ski area in the county, opened in 1946.
As impressive as Imperial is, Berge wanted more. He once dreamed of Breckenridge resort offering skiing all the way north to Peak 1 in Frisco with a monorail connecting the two towns. He even considered connecting Breckenridge across Tenmile Canyon to Copper Mountain on the other side.
Berge said his European-style vision was a hard sell for the local mining families, but soon enough, he was teaching their children how to ski. Berge and Rockne started Breckenridge’s ski school in 1961 with just 13 pairs of rental skis.
Day by day, the Peak 8 Ski Area — as it was known when it opened with 1,764 acres in 1961 — laid the snowy tracks for the town’s ski future. Two more ski areas, Keystone and Copper Mountain, opened in the early ’70s. The cluster of four ski areas, along with the completion of the Eisenhower Tunnel in 1973, suddenly made Summit County a popular ski destination easily accessed from Denver.
Over the next 40 years, Summit County grew to become a hub of winter sports and home to Olympic-caliber athletes.
Case in point: On a winter day, it’s not uncommon for the world’s best park and pipe snowboarders to be training at Breckenridge while some of the world’s best downhill skiers train over at Copper. Among them are Olympians Red Gerard and Chris Corning, who call Summit County home. Riding the lifts alongside them are young Summit locals.
“Red Gerard, Chris Corning — all of these people are not just pie in the sky,” said Rodey Robinson, director of development for the Team Summit sports club. “They are real people our athletes associate with on a daily basis. Having that, they are not just on a pedestal. They are people working hard. That opens eyes to what is possible. It’s not just a dream.”
Building a culture of skiing
Edna and Max Dercum worked to realize their dreams, too. The couple founded A-Basin in 1946 after driving their 1940 Ford convertible from their home in Pennsylvania.
In her autobiographical book, “It’s easy, Edna, it’s downhill all the way,” Edna wrote that the first time she heard about Arapahoe Basin was during the annual early March Mine Dump downhill ski race at Loveland Pass. A fellow racer named Larry Jump turned, pointed at the nearby snow bowl and informed her that’s where the race would be held next year.
“Max looked at me,” Edna wrote in the book, “and I looked at him, and he nodded at me. I realized that was where Max bought our mining patents.”
Later that month, Arapahoe Basin Corp. was formed, and that summer, Max and seven others constructed the ski area that would open that winter.
The new ski area had a literal connection to the area’s mining history: The track cable used for one of the ski area’s earliest lifts came from a mine near Monarch Pass.
“Soon we would see this cable, which for years had trammed tons of silver ore off a rugged mountain, serve as a track for moving thousands of skiers,” Edna wrote.
The Dercums soon began operating the Ski Tip Lodge. It was in mid-July 1954 — five years before the idea of a Breckenridge ski area came to be — when a few of the lodge guests wanted to check out Peak 10, which they heard had some of the state’s best lingering snowfields. Edna drove her Jeep up the old Briar Rose mining road to the base of the snowfield. She remembers one guest attempting to ascend with his skis on before tumbling down the snowfield, his new jeans painting a 500-foot blue streak.
“With a wet, cold rear, he said, ‘I think I’ll head back to Chicago and leave my skiing for the winter,'” Edna wrote.
For those who decided to stay year-round, A-Basin was at the heart of the Summit County ski community. Then in 1970, Max and co-founder Bill Bergman opened Keystone, laying out the ski area with a focused blend of recreation and ecological expertise.
“’The only way the trails can be laid out correctly, Edna,’ he told me one day, ‘is to know the entire mountain,'” Edna wrote.
Ski bum lifestyle
One guy who got to know the entire mountain was Scott Toepfer, a Summit County resident who spent his career as an avalanche forecaster and now hosts visitors at the Summit Ski Museum in Breckenridge. Toepfer has been around since his family bought a three-bedroom cabin in 1962 in Loveland Pass Village across from the current site of the Snake River Saloon. In 1974, he moved here full time, met then A-Basin owner Joe Jankovsky on a lift ride and was hired before they’d reached the top. The job was installing the new Lenawee Lift, though it didn’t come to fruition that summer.
Without a paycheck, Toepfer and friends resorted to eating chipmunks and porcupines as a way to get by. Still, to Toepfer, it was better than living in Denver.
“We were there for the absolute purity of the love of skiing,” he said.
Toepfer relents that his idyllic perspective of Summit County is slowly slipping away with each crowded day, but lest he forget the free-spirited people who made this community what it is.
One of those people, CJ “Crazy John” Mueller, knows the peaks of Summit County perhaps better than anyone. Mueller was at the heart of Summit County’s free-spirited ski community in the 1970s. Thinking back to those wild days, Mueller remembers the Roman Candles ski jumps at A-Basin. He remembers Berge’s front-flip off a self-made jump in front of the Bergenhof lodge at the base of Peak 8. And he remembers when, in 1984, Breckenridge became the first ski resort in the state to welcome snowboarders, a move Berge said helped to save the ski industry, though Mueller disagrees
But what Mueller remembers more than anything is an old Summit County saying that speaks to its spirit:
“You stay mostly because of the people,” he said. “I think it’s really, really true. When you hear that song from ‘Annie Get Your Gun,’ ‘There’s no people like show people,’ we changed the words to ‘There’s no people like snow people.’ And really, there’s not.”
Now, 73 years after A-Basin’s founding, Summit County’s ski areas continue to shape the community. But it all started with the vision of transplants like Berge and the Dercums, who found their slice of heaven on earth here in the Colorado Rockies.
“I wonder if we will get to ski in heaven?” Edna wrote in in the final line of her book. “If Saint Peter gives me wings, I think I’ll trade mine for skis.”
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