TR: Ski Cooper (and Chicago Ridge!)
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Roger Z
March 11, 2008
Member since 01/16/2004 🔗
2,181 posts
Took advantage of a long weekend to sneak off to CO for a trip. After much deliberating, I decided to head to Cooper... yes, that's Cooper, not Copper, the slightly-better known big brother just down the road. Moreover, I decided to do the road trip from KC to CO, as most people here have done it at least once, if not once a winter, I thought it was time to join the ranks of desperate KC skiers who are willing to drive 11 hours to make turns.

Just so you know, the drive was excellent. ;\) There was a very nice windfarm just west of Salina. I could go on and on, but apart from the lights of Denver that's about all you see for the first nine hours. At least it was an easy drive.

Cooper sits above Leadville- the highest incorporated town in the United States- on Tennessee Pass, at the headwaters of the Arkansas River. It's trail map makes the place look alarmingly like Ski Liberty:

Cooper...

or Liberty?

though it has twice as much vertical and about five or six times as much ski terrain. Cooper has no snowmaking at all, and was sporting a 6 foot base when we showed up.

Despite being small, the skiing was quite simply some of the best I have ever experienced. There are so few people at the ski area that there were almost no moguls, there are simply not enough skiers to build them. There are also not enough skiers to ski off the snow, so the base was deep, consistent, and softly packed. I was able to make "hero turns"- giant, high speed, one-end-of-the-run-to-the-other- on almost every single run I took there. With the exception of one novice run off the front lift, it was rare if you were on a slope with anyone else. And the backside was spectacular: comprised of three open fields and numerous glades and small trails, you could probably take 25-30 different ways down. In three days, I did not ski all the options on the back side, and was still finding trails on Sunday.

Now, there is nothing difficult at Cooper. Most of the blacks would be blue even by east coast standards- the only one that might not would be Boot Leg, their gladed semi-mogul run, but even that isn't as steep as Devil's Drop at Wisp- but it is fantastic for people looking to step their skills up a notch or just crank around on wide open terrain that overlooks the highest peaks in Colorado (Mount Elbert and Mount Massive are just south and across the Valley).

And then there is Chicago Ridge. The tickets ($39, or $31 if you get them at the local ski shop) and lodging ($69-$95 a night, sometimes that price includes ski tickets as well) is so much cheaper than skiing in the Dillon/Frisco area ($86/$65 lift tickets, $160 or so lodging) that I took the savings and bought a day of snowcat skiing. It was the first time I have ever been snowcat skiing in my life. Cooper uses an area called Chicago Ridge- approximateyl 2,500 acres scattered across four vast bowls and two burn ridges, the size of Copper itself but there's only 12 people on the tour.

The folks on the tour were as cool and mellow as any you could imagine, and the guides were simply outstanding. John- 2 years guiding on Chicago Ridge, proud new dad, whitewater guide in the summer- and Ralph- 19 years of guiding on Chicago Ridge, native of Ski Denton PA, probably knows every inch of the mountain- were both as excited as anyone else on the trip, extremely helpful in pointing out how to ski the snow, and knew how to set us up to pitch us into progressively harder and better terrain with confidence.

The powder? Bottomless. The runs? 1,200-1,600 foot vertical each time. Tracks? Non-existent, unless you were skiing behind someone in the trees. Fat skis? As one guy who has been up over a dozen times said to me when he found out I rented fat skis- "you're cheating. It's so easy with fat skis you're gonna feel like you've mastered it all after one run." And indeed, it was easy. In the Buckeye Trees, probably the softest snow we hit all day (since there's no wind in the trees usually, and the run faces north, the snow settles very gently), I was able to swish the skis around almost like I was on packed powder. It gives you a fearless feel, and I pushed through tight spots in the woods faster than I've ever done before with complete confidence.

Fortunately, the best runs of the day were in the afternoon. The run we took crossing from the morning bowl to the West Elk Meadows was simply spectacular. The upper 800 vertical feet or so were in an open bowl about 12,500 feet above sea level that no one had touched since before the last 2 foot snowstorm. After we got to the bottom of that, we were all going nuts with joy. Then Ralph said "follow my line through these trees here" and took us into an open burn for another 600 feet of vertical or so in soft, also-untracked snow. We were doing all we could to keep from screaming with joy by the time we got to the bottom of that one.

The last two runs were in the same meadow, but maybe a quarter mile apart and with completely different exposures and wide enough that you didn't cross a single track descending. Ralph even brought me over to one edge of the ridge and let me go down an area where the nearest ski track from our group was probably 100 yards away.

Oh, did I mention the grilled salmon and rice pilaf they served for lunch in the backcountry kitchen? Yeah, it tastes even better when you've been skiing powder all morning.

In a word, Chicago Ridge was superlative. I would go back snowcat skiing with them tomorrow and was seething with envy when I saw the folks up there on Sunday. If you haven't tried snowcat skiing yet folks, YOU HAVE TO TRY IT. Pay the couple hundred bucks and get back there. You will not regret it.

So, overall, I think Cooper was a great place to spend a few days just chillin' and livin' easy. Oh, also- Leadville is surprisingly undiscovered. Sure, there are some vacation homes in the area, but most real estate there is still well south of $500K. The downtown still has some vacant storefronts, dinners are in the $10-$15 range, and as far as I can tell there were no chains whatsoever downtown- every store was local. It's definitely worth getting to and checking out before it becomes discovered (there's talk of a luxury ski resort being built in the next pass west of Cooper, which could transform the whole area for the worse in my opinion).

I'm really enjoying trying out the local hills in Colorado. Last year it was Wolf Creek, this year Cooper, I think next year I might do Monarch in March. We'll see.

Oh, the whole weekend, I had this song stuck in my head, which has to be by far the best song I've ever had stuck in my head while skiing. And it goes perfectly with powder on Chicago Ridge!

ps- JohnL, I think I'm finally starting to get the hang of powder skiing, you'll be thankful to know. \:\)

pps- Cooper isn't just a local hill. I discovered this right before leaving, which made it really, really sweet to ski at the area (the following is from their web page):

 Quote:
Ski Cooper's origin goes back to World War II. In 1942, the U.S. Army selected a training site near an isolated railroad stop of Pando, CO. Nearby Camp Hale was built as the training site for the ski troopers of the famed 10th Mountain Division. The Army selected the site because of the availability of rail transportation, its rugged mountainous terrain, and a 250-inch average annual snowfall which assured a six-month-long ski training season at the nearby, 11,700-foot-high Ski Cooper. Following two years of rigorous training, the 10th Mountain Division was ordered to Italy in 1945 to spearhead the advance of the U.S. Fifth Army. In a series of actions that included Riva Ridge and Mt. Belvedere, the 10th Mountain Division breached the supposedly impregnable Gothic Line in the Appenines and secured the Po River Valley to play a vital role in the liberation of northern Italy. By the time of the German surrender in May, 1945, 992 ski troopers had been killed in action and 4,000 wounded, the highest casualty rate of any U.S. Division in the Mediterranean.
Murphy
March 11, 2008
Member since 09/13/2004 🔗
618 posts
Awesome TR!! \:\)

Now that you're MO, you've definitely been taking quality over quantity approach to ski days. I'm jealous, I don't get much of either \:\( . I need to tag along with you next time you go.
JimK - DCSki Columnist
March 11, 2008
Member since 01/14/2004 🔗
2,696 posts
Thanks for a great report on a place I'm long curious about, but never visited. I like "alternative" ski areas, and never tried Cat skiing or fat skis in powder, so all your comments resonated in the cavernous void of my ski experiences.

BTW, where are the pictures.
Roger Z
March 11, 2008
Member since 01/16/2004 🔗
2,181 posts
Thanks guys! I don't recall any TRs on snowcat skiing here so I just wanted to encourage everyone else to try it if they can- it's fantastic!

I also forgot to mention that one run at Cooper had about 5 inches of untracked powder on it on Friday. I got first tracks down it at 9:45 a.m. (45 minutes after lifts opened), second tracks down it at 10:05 a.m., and third tracks down it at 11:30 a.m. No one else skied it but me until about 2:30 in the afternoon.

Pictures- I promise I'm going to try to put a few up tonight or tomorrow night, if I can remember where my online photo site is. \:\) Not many photos from Chicago Ridge, as it was cloudy on Saturday so no scenery and I didn't dare carry my camera with me.
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Denis - DCSki Supporter
March 11, 2008
Member since 07/12/2004 🔗
2,198 posts
My son and I skied Chicago Ridge in the late 90s. It was a great great day. There was a guide who led each run or gave instructions on where to ski, and another who swept the rear. The tail gunner was a patroller named Ted, who claimed his wife was the oldest active patroller in Colo. and he was second oldest. He was a 10th mountain div. veteran and was over 80. He would be last to climb into the snowcat after each run and within 2 minutes his chin would be on his chest and he'd be snoring. At the top the guide would gently wake him and we'd do another run. I want to be like Ted when I grow up.
camp
March 11, 2008
Member since 01/30/2005 🔗
592 posts
I loved my one day at Chicago Ridge in the late 90s. Was my first foray into cat-skiing too and I've been fan of it since. After our cat tour, they let us ski the rest of the day at Cooper for free.

Glad you had such a great experience.

 Originally Posted By: Roger Z
before it becomes discovered (there's talk of a luxury ski resort being built in the next pass west of Cooper, which could transform the whole area for the worse in my opinion).
Now be careful about saying this, it might start another flame thread war \:\/
lbotta - DCSki Supporter
March 11, 2008
Member since 10/18/1999 🔗
1,527 posts
Great report, Roger... My only dealing with Leadville was going to Aspen, followed Mapquest routing which supposedly took me through Leadville and of course, Independence Pass is closed during the winter... Sounds like a great place to stay and ski some uncrowded terrain...

I wouldn't fear Cooper being discovered. I think the chances of it becoming another Vail are not good due to saturation. Let's hope...
scootertig
March 11, 2008
Member since 02/19/2006 🔗
365 posts
Enjoy Leadville while you can. It may be destroyed by heavy metal-laden water...


aaron
JohnL
March 12, 2008
Member since 01/6/2000 🔗
3,514 posts
Nice adventure Roger! Gotta love the off the beaten track.

What fat skis did you use for the cat skiing day?
lbotta - DCSki Supporter
March 12, 2008
Member since 10/18/1999 🔗
1,527 posts
 Originally Posted By: scootertig
Enjoy Leadville while you can. It may be destroyed by heavy metal-laden water... aaron


Mining runoff or something else?
Roger Z
March 12, 2008
Member since 01/16/2004 🔗
2,181 posts
He's probably referring to a mine that they're reopening part time up on Fremont Pass. Since they already stripped off a side of the mountain up there sometime past, and Leadville hasn't been reduced to a bunch of cannibal mutants, I think they'll be able to survive this, too.

The resort in question would be a private one (like Yellowstone Club). I thought Minturn was a cute town, but that's from someone who passed through, not living there. Here's the article:

http://www.rockymountainnews.com/news/2008/feb/29/a-minturn-divided/
lbotta - DCSki Supporter
March 12, 2008
Member since 10/18/1999 🔗
1,527 posts
Yeah for sure, you're totally right. I have seen the damage quite visible in WV's southern counties, where mountain top mining has allowed metals to leach out and contaminate the soil, and uncovered ferrous components oxidize and render the soil acidic and unfit for construction, much less human habitation. I could go on and on about trying to house people affected by disasters in that area but I'll beg off for now...
camp
March 12, 2008
Member since 01/30/2005 🔗
592 posts
A recent article about Leadville's new problem: flooding!

and a thread about it on telemarktips.com
scootertig
March 12, 2008
Member since 02/19/2006 🔗
365 posts
 Originally Posted By: camp
A recent article about Leadville's new problem: flooding!


That's what I was referencing... A bit scary, huh?

aaron
Roger Z
March 12, 2008
Member since 01/16/2004 🔗
2,181 posts
Yes, I just saw that. Sorry Aaron, I've been really crabby at work this week (a combination of coming back from skiing and just generally disliking my work and being tired), and I let it get the best of my post earlier today.

ps- yes, that's pretty damn scary.
lbotta - DCSki Supporter
March 12, 2008
Member since 10/18/1999 🔗
1,527 posts
 Originally Posted By: scootertig
 Originally Posted By: camp
A recent article about Leadville's new problem: flooding!


That's what I was referencing... A bit scary, huh?

aaron


Not only scary, but mine blowouts are a time bomb of catastrophic consequences. I saw one near Logan WV, where a deep mine that had honeycombed the entire mountain, blew out near the base. Just imagine the millions of cubic feet of water collected inside, all leached acidic rust, now making its way into the water sources...

It would take significant work for the area surrounding Leadville to become marketable, as long as the threat of acidic soil and mine blowouts are in the horizon...
scootertig
March 12, 2008
Member since 02/19/2006 🔗
365 posts
 Originally Posted By: lbotta
It would take significant work for the area surrounding Leadville to become marketable, as long as the threat of acidic soil and mine blowouts are in the horizon...


So, what you're saying is... I can buy land in ski country at a serious discount?!?

YEEEEE-HAW!


aaron
lbotta - DCSki Supporter
March 12, 2008
Member since 10/18/1999 🔗
1,527 posts
You probably could... and then watch as your skin turns green, your hair gets brittle and gray, your teeth fall out and the foundation of your home gets rust-colored and porous, and starts flaking off like paper mache with bad glue... Gee what a deal!!!

Actually, if you notice the article on acidic soil and the danger of a mine blowout in Leadville, it states that the Bureau of Mines will have to do some significant work in the area. That's probably an understatement...

Several years ago, I was told that in one of the WV disasters, the disaster agency asked the US Army Corps of Engineers to look for land in southern WV in order to place temporary homes for the disaster victims. After a 6-month search, the Corps stated that they couldn't find a piece of land in two of those counties that was suitable. Acid soil and the danger of mine blowouts were the key culprits.
Roger Z
March 12, 2008
Member since 01/16/2004 🔗
2,181 posts
 Quote:
You probably could... and then watch as your skin turns green, your hair gets brittle and gray, your teeth fall out and the foundation of your home gets rust-colored and porous, and starts flaking off like paper mache with bad glue


Or you could just work at my office for 20 years and the same thing would happen.

ARGH I've gotta stop posting on bad days!!!
lbotta - DCSki Supporter
March 12, 2008
Member since 10/18/1999 🔗
1,527 posts
Obviously, acid soil isn't the only thing that will make you green....

You must not really like it in Hallmark City world... I hope things turn out good for you... Come back East, you may like it...
bawalker
March 12, 2008
Member since 12/1/2003 🔗
1,547 posts
Why do I get the feeling RogerZ's life is like a snapshot from "The Office"? \:\)
Roger Z
March 12, 2008
Member since 01/16/2004 🔗
2,181 posts
I like KC, it's a really nice place. If there was a decent mountain range within a couple hours I'd be half-tempted to stay here for good. The next time I move, it's the mountains or bust- whether that's back toward the east, further west (my preferred option), or down to El Salvador for a spell.
lbotta - DCSki Supporter
March 12, 2008
Member since 10/18/1999 🔗
1,527 posts
You have a point. I was actually impressed with KC, as much as you know my personal values and politics are totally 180 with those of the current politics of the Plains states, even though they were founded by radical socialists. I was there for two weeks briefing and getting briefed on a project in Labette County, and made sure I stayed in Westport/Plaza area. I actually found it to be a livable place, and was able to ditch the car and walk everywhere.

With your background, Boston may be a suitable place. Very close to the mountains, skiing, hiking, and granola-spewing towns where urban planning is the latest rage...

Central America? Wow... You may want to check the USAID contractors, urban planners are the rage over there and you get a US-sized salary at the same time as you get the overseas income tax benefits... Not a bad deal altogether...
Roger Z
March 16, 2008
Member since 01/16/2004 🔗
2,181 posts
Yes, I finally uploaded some photos. No action shots though:

http://picasaweb.google.com/RogerZJr/Cooper

Argh, I can't get the image upload to work. Aren't you just supposed to hit the "image" icon and then enter a valid url?
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