Trail’s End – Ya Gotta Love Loveland

Colorado’s first ski area celebrates 75th anniversary 

Cathleen-NormanOne of Colorado’s first ski areas turns 75 years old this season. The Loveland ski area opened in winter of 1937-38 on the eastern slope of Loveland Pass in the Arapaho National Forest. The snowy slopes 55 miles west of Denver first attracted cross country skiers and snowshoers. Then, in the mid-1930, the enthusiastic members of the Zipfelberger Ski Club created four makeshift ski runs and even hauled their own rope tow to the top of Loveland Pass.

The U.S. Forest Service issued a permit to winter athlete Al Bennett, who would run Loveland for nearly two decades. In its early days, the Loveland Basin Winter Sports Area sported a single rope tow powered by a Model T engine.

Skiing for fun was not new in Colorado. Starting with the early 1860s gold rush, people had strapped on long thin “Norwegian snowshoes” to get around the snowy high country. Ski outings entertained mountain-dwellers during the long and snowy winters. The Colorado Mountain Club introduced Denverites to cross country “ski touring” in the 1910s; and in the 1920s, spectacular ski jump events attracted hundreds of spectators to the foothills west of Denver.

By the late 1930s, the popularity of downhill skiing in Europe encouraged the sport here too. Loveland and a couple other ski areas opened in Colorado, but downhill skiing remained in its infancy until after World War II.

Loveland installed a new Heron double aerial lift in 1956-57 - it got easier to get up the mountain and skiing became more social as well. Another double lift was added the following season. Photo courtesy of Denver Public Library, Western History Collection

Loveland installed a new Heron double aerial lift in 1956-57 – it got easier to get up the mountain and skiing became more social as well. Another double lift was added the following season.
Photo courtesy of Denver Public Library, Western History Collection

During the war, the 10th Mountain Division of skiing soldiers was trained in alpine warfare at snowy Camp Hale outside Leadville. Many of these soldiers and their ski instructors returned after the war and took skiing to a new level in Colorado. Several of them helped shape Loveland.

Skiing grew during the “baby boom” of the 1950s and 1960s, as more and more Denver families embraced the sport. Loveland’s modern amenities, superb customer service and affordable prices brought skiing within the reach of everyone.

The ski area expanded considerably when a group of investors re-incorporated the Loveland Ski-Tow Company in 1955. The first aerial lift opened in 1956-57; it was the third lift in Colorado, after Berthoud Pass and Aspen. Excited skiers were gleeful they no longer had to grip the rope tow to get up the mountainside.

Several ski industry leaders are linked to Loveland, three of them nominated as Sport Builders to the Colorado Skiing and Snowboarding Hall of Fame. Peter Siebert, a 10th Mountain Division veteran, became Loveland’s first general manager in 1955-56 before going on to develop and open Vail resort in 1962. Gordy Wren, another 10th Mountain vet, managed Loveland from 1959 through 1963, and was perhaps the first in Colorado to use a snowcat tracked vehicle for slope grooming. Wren went on to manage Jackson Hole and other premier ski resorts in the West. Otto Werlin, GM from 1964 through 1992, helped grow Loveland from a small ski area with two chairlifts and a rope tow into a major area with five chairs.

More than 1 million people have learned to ski on Loveland’s gentle friendly beginner slopes. The Loveland Ski School started in 1956, giving lessons on the slopes and also recruiting new skiers at Dryland Sessions in different Denver locations. Crowds as large as 500 people gathered to watch a slide show about Loveland and learn basic information about skiing – what sort of clothing to wear, how to rent equipment and what to expect on the slopes.

Skiing skyrocketed during the 1960s and ‘70s. Loveland became a favorite for the Schussboomers, Winter Fun and Front Range other ski clubs, as well as the Air Force Academy, Colorado University Buffs and Kansas City Ski Clubs. The Loveland Ski Club began in the winter of 1959-60 to encourage youngsters on the slopes. It quickly became a premier program that still produces top-notch young skiers who compete in state, national and international competitions.

Loveland excelled at promotion through colorful campaigns: Denver’s Most Accessible Modern Ski Area; Skiing to Suit Your Fancy; It’s What the Locals Know and Love. Of course, the Little Skier cartwheeling over his ski poles showed up on Loveland advertising, ski accessories and billboards. The cartoon-y logo was created by Garth Wil
liams, the famous illustrator of Charlotte’s Web and the Little House on the Prairie children’s books.

The ski area has faced its challenges too. In the 1960s, construction of Interstate 70 bisected Loveland, and the Ski School had to move a half-mile downhill to Loveland Valley. Nevertheless, Loveland kept going and growing. The ski area pioneered snowmaking in 1966, the second in Colorado after the now-defunct Ski Broadmoor in Colorado Springs.

Loveland’s Little Skier became a favorite and showed up everywhere, like this 1960 brochure.

Loveland’s Little Skier became a favorite and showed up everywhere, like this 1960 brochure.

After Eisenhower Tunnel was completed, skiers could drive faster to the newer resorts like Breckenridge, Copper Mountain, Keystone and Vail. Yet Loveland remained popular especially with Denverites – easily accessible and friendly, without all the glitz and glamour.

In 1972, the Upham family of Mineral Wells, Texas, became Loveland’s sole owner
incorporating as the Clear Creek Skiing Corporation. Chet Upham had been an investment partner since 1955, and the Texas oilman continued his goal to “create the premier mid-sized ski area in America.” The Uphams’ ownership continues today, making Loveland one of the last family operators in the U.S. Chet is especially remembered for treating everyone – skiers, workers, ski patrol members – like family.

During winter of 1998-99, Lift 9 opened. The highest four-person lift in the world, it took skiers to an altitude of 12,700 feet and offered access to ski the ridge along the Continental Divide. With the additional 300 acres accessed by Lift 9, Loveland’s area reached 1,365 acres. Today, Loveland consists of 3,620 acres with 1,800 lift-served acres and 414 acres accessible by hiking; Lift 9 is the third highest lift in the world.

Skiing at Loveland remains a family favorite for many. Today, Baby Boomers are bringing their grandchildren to ski where they themselves learned to ski. And many families have worked, taught or patrolled at Loveland for two or even three generations.

Loveland has its beloved traditions. Opening in October, the ski area is proud to be the first to open in Colorado most seasons and often opens first in the entire country. Blessed with an average annual snowfall of more than 400 inches, when needed Loveland uses snowmaking equipment to open first. Another tradition is the Loveland Derby, organized annually by the Loveland Ski Club and the longest-running ski race event in the U.S.

The most colorful tradition is surely the Valentine’s Day Mountaintop Matrimony Ceremony, which celebrated its 22nd year last week on Feb. 14. At noon at the top of Chair 2 – 12,050’ altitude and regardless of weather conditions – a minister performs nondenominational wedding vows to a group of brides and grooms and guests who then ski down the mountain to the base lodge for wedding festivities.  Eighty-eight couples are wed or renewed their matrimonial vows this year.

Cathleen Norman is writing the History of Loveland Ski Area, to be published later this year.

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