Boulder’s backyard playground hits its stride, and plans for growth
By Seth Masia
During the winter of 2010-11, Eldora Mountain Resort held a series of meetings to explain its growth plans to local residents. The resort wants to extend the trail system a few hundred feet down toward Middle Boulder Creek, where the terrain is sheltered from the wind. They got enthusiastic support from residents of the City of Boulder, at the bottom of the canyon, and some stubborn opposition from the hermits living in the town of Eldora, at the west end of the road below the resort. Townies were afraid they’d be able to see and hear skiers across the creek.
Boulder County has long restricted growth in the mountains at its western end. For instance, in 1996 the county commissioners capped the resort’s traffic at 180,000 skier days, and there’s little chance any form of overnight lodging will ever be approved there. Despite that, Eldora is now a roaring success with a loyal following among the college students, aging jocks and ski racers of Northeast Colorado. For most of each winter, the resort offers the closest expert-level terrain to this market, and a sterling ski school to train the next generation of Colorado’s racers.
In the late 1950s, Boulder skier Gabor Cseh, a building contractor, explored the steep forests above Lake Eldora, a few miles east of the Continental Divide. He talked the terrain up to friends, and fifty years ago, a small group of investors incorporated as the Lake Eldora Corp. Fifty years ago this month, in July 1961, LEC approached Forest Service District Manager Paul Hauk for permission to build ski lifts on 480 acres steeply forested acres of Roosevelt National Forest, just 20 miles up Boulder Canyon from the University of Colorado campus. The terrain ran from Middle Boulder Creek at 8,970 feet elevation, to the ridgeline at 10,650 feet – a tract about a mile on each side. LEC’s partners included prewar alpine racing champion Frank Ashley and University of Colorado ski team coach Bob Beattie, who had just been named coach of the U.S. Ski Team. Beattie’s participation was a key to the Boulder market: he would use the new hill as a training ground for his teams.
To site the base lodge and parking lot, the group bought 440 acres of private land to the south and west of Lake Peterson and Lake Eldora.
LEC spent about $2 million on a base lodge and two T-bars. Sel Hannah came out from New Hampshire to cut some trails. For the 1963 season, one lift served the beginner hill, with a vertical of about 220 feet, and the other went to the east end of the high ridge, along the route now served by Challenger lift, with a 980-foot vertical. Beattie’s 1964 Olympic skiers got in some training off the big T-bar. The following summer, the company spent $40,000 to grade the steep, winding Shelf Road up from Eldora Road on Middle Boulder Creek. A third T-bar was installed in 1965.
The weather didn’t cooperate. Eldora got precious little snow for three years, and couldn’t open at all for 1966. LEC declared bankruptcy, and went up for sale.
Tell Ertl, Ph.D., moved quickly, buying the area for $335,000 on extended terms: $35,000 down and $10,000 per year, with a final balloon payment of $100,000 due in 1986. Ertl was a professor of mining engineering and one of the world’s leading experts on oil shale. In the 1950s he began buying up old oil-shale claims in Western Colorado, and eventually set up his own company, Energy Resources Technology Land (ERTL, Inc.). By 1963, ERTL realized significant income from leasing these lands to large oil companies. His young family skied at Aspen and Grand Mesa.
Ertl took over operations for the 1967 season, and immediately installed a snowmaking system. He also ran a chairlift, the Cannonball, alongside the big T-bar. He installed lights for night skiing. The family planned eventually to build a 100-room hotel. Meanwhile, they had an apartment above the patrol headquarters, with picture windows facing south for a perfect view of the slalom hill.
Business picked up. Boulderites were enthusiastic skiers, and liked having a backyard resort area where their small kids could learn to ski and race. The ski school staffed up with part-timers who had real professions on weekdays. The CU team trained on the slalom hill early each morning, providing role models for the kids, and at night “retired” racers drove up the canyon to run gates under lights. Local factories, notably Head and Lange, tested product at Eldora. The resort was able to sell group visits to busloads of Texas skiers, who lodged in Boulder.
Eldora did suffer a deficit of real expert terrain. In 1968, the Western Slope Gas Co. built a natural gas pipeline, paralleling the creek at about the 9200-foot contour. The availability of gas power opened the opportunity to run an expert-level lift along the west end of the terrain. Corona lift opened in 1970, named for Corona Pass four miles to the west.
It proved a mistake to remove all the trees from Corona Bowl. The snowmaking system didn’t yet extend there, and 50-knot winds often scoured loose snow off into the woods. If you wanted powder at Eldora, you needed tree-skiing expertise. In retrospect, Tell Ertl’s real stroke of genius was to leave a few trees to break the wind on the very steep West Ridge terrain. Eldora now had its black-diamond chops, spanning about 1,370 vertical feet. In 1975, an extensive network of Nordic trails opened south of the lake, mostly on land owned by Dr. Henry Toll.
Tell Ertl died of cancer in January, 1975, and management of the resort passed to Joe Fox, an accountant who handled ERTL’s books. He had no experience in marketing to skiers. Eldora prospered as a family-skiing area, with traffic peaking a 147,000 skier-days in 1979-80. Fox cut costs by abandoning the Corona lift and its expert-level terrain.
But that was the year the Eisenhower tunnel opened, and suddenly Boulder skiers could reach expert terrain at Breckenridge and Vail in just two hours. By 1982, Eldora traffic fell to 99,360 skier-days.
The family decided to sell the resort, but Tell’s son Rett, then 32, objected. Rett, a computer salesman for IBM in Europe, took over management in 1982. He turned on the lights seven nights a week and brought live entertainment to the base lodge. He ran promotions, like Dollar Nights and the Cardboard Derby. He tried to reopen the Corona lift, which had fallen into disrepair. It derailed. The 100-room hotel remained a distant dream, and when Rett launched a plan to sell homesites, Boulder County officials killed it.
Rett figured break-even was 110,000 skier-days, and he couldn’t quite reach it. The resort lost about half a million bucks a year. In 1982, when world oil prices plunged, the oil shale bubble burst. ERTL Inc. could no longer afford a ski area operating in the red, especially with the 1986 balloon payment looming.
In 1985, the family sold the resort to Steve Finkel, aka O.Z. Minkin. Finkel-Minken showed up in a white stretch limo with a crew of bodyguards. His history of unpaid bills and bounced checks infected Eldora’s operations. O.Z. was indicted in Los Angeles on a federal fraud charge. He went to prison for five years and the Ertls recovered the ski area in foreclosure. Eldora didn’t open for the 1986-87 season.
A rescue was needed. The white knight was Andy Daly. In September of 1987, Daly quit his job as president of Copper Mountain and took a lease on Eldora, with an option to buy. He invested $250,000 for base-lodge renovations and lift maintenance. He gladed the woods on either side of Corona Bowl and ran snowcat tours out to West Ridge. He extended the snowmaking system to Corona and reopened the lift in 1989. Groomed smooth and firm, Corona was able to hold snow. It became a favorite route for ex-racers and wannabes carving fast turns on good toothy racecourse snow, while the glades and West Ridge drew the loyalty of Boulder’s hardbody powder-and-bumps advocates.
In the fall of 1989, Daly pulled off a coup: He went to work as general manager at Beaver Creek, and part of the deal was that Vail Associates bought a substantial share of his own management operation at Eldora. At the same time, Vail took over operation of The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs: the strategy was to operate “feeder areas” to train customers for the big resorts. Vail also hoped to build a 450-room hotel at Eldora.
It was not to be. By the spring of 1991, it was clear that the county wasn’t interested in supporting rapid growth at the mountainous end of its jurisdiction. Vail declined to exercise the purchase option, and that spring Eldora was back on the market.
This time the white knights were a trio of savvy ski industry veterans who could see their way to a profitable operation without a hotel. Billy Killebrew was Hugh Killebrew’s heir at Heavenly Valley, Calif. After selling Heavenly to Kamori Kanko in 1990, Killebrew ran a number of successful retail chains. Chuck Lewis was former president of Copper Mountain. Graham Anderson, ex-racer and Sun Valley resident, had made a successful career selling insurance to ski resorts.
The new managers expanded Eldora’s capabilities at both ends: For advanced skiers, they brought in a used triple chair from Sun Valley, increasing uphill capacity on the Cannonball line by 150 percent. In 1997, they installed a fixed-grip quad to serve the new Indian Peaks trail complex, midway between the Cannonball and Corona lifts. Corona got its own quad in 1998. Beginners got some new chairlifts, too.
Perhaps the most impressive new development is the ski school complex. The brainchild of marketing director Rob Linde, the building offers ski rentals and ski school desk on the ground floor and a cafeteria upstairs. New skiers can walk in the front door, get equipped, and walk out the back door to meet the instructor. Beginner lifts are just steps away. The learning center confirms Eldora’s status as the best place for northern-Colorado locals to send their kids for training. Graduates of the Eldorables kids program feed naturally into the successful Lake Eldora Race Team (LERT), juniors who can shoot for the University of Colorado ski team or the U.S. Ski Team.
Skier days now average 175,000 annually – far into the black side of the ledger. Under general manager Jim Spenst, the resort’s application for an expanded trail and lift system is moving forward toward county approval. When winds close the Corona quad, we’ll be able to ski the tree-sheltered Rocky Mountain powder down to about 8900 feet. There’s some cliffs in there: it’s going to be tasty.
This article is based on interviews with Rob Linde, Jim Spenst, Rett Ertl and Bobbi Chenoweth, and on Rett Ertl’s archives. Thanks to all who contributed their time.