I wrote this for the mountain’s 20th Anniversary season in 1991. Since it was for a publication that was almost wholly dependent on revenue from the resort and surrounding businesses, I had to gloss over some of the more unseemly details. The destruction of the wetlands and beaver habitat, for one, is something that would be unthinkable today.
Copper Cable/Ten Mile Times — November 1991
The valley east of Vail Pass — what Ute Native Americans once called the “Nah-oon-kara” valley — has seen some big changes in the past 20 years. Where once were beaver ponds and rich hunting grounds, the valley’s predominant feature now is Copper Mountain Resort, one of the top ski destinations in the United States celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.
Like the history of many Colorado mountain towns, the story of the area surrounding Copper Mountain is one of Native Americans, miners, and abandoned towns that either fell from the map or found another life. In the case of Copper Mountain, that abandoned town was Wheeler Junction. Following a flurry of mining and lumbering activity in the latter part of the 19th century, Wheeler had faded into oblivion by the turn of the century, following the departure of its namesake, Judge John S. Wheeler, and his family. In fact, Forest Service records show the town to be completely abandoned in 1907.
While Public Service and the Forest Service maintained a scant presence in the area for many years, it wasn’t until the 1940s that Copper Mountain started to thrive again. The Custer and Beeler families took possession of the west end of the old Wheeler property in 1941, where they operated small mining operation. In the late 1940s, the area was first recognized as a potential ski area site by Willy Schaefler. Former head of the U.S. Ski Team, Schaefler scouted Copper Mountain from Union Peak to Spaulding bowl and determined the area was a natural for a ski area. He offered to buy the land from the Forest Service but was thwarted by the then-steep price tag of $30 an acre.
In 1954, District Forest Ranger Paul Hauk also saw Copper as a great skiing mountain, saying in a report that “it amazes me that no none had done anything with it until now.” While developers continued to eye Copper as a ski area (including the developer of Arapahoe Basin), it wasn’t for another 15 years that the ball started rolling.
One crucial step towards realizing Copper Mountain as a ski area was the publication of now-famous Forest Service report in 1969. It stated that “If there ever was a mountain that had terrain created for skiing, it would be Copper mountain. It is probably the most outstanding potential ski area available in the Arapahoe National Forest and possibly in Colorado.”
A Ski Area Is Born
After reading Forest Service reports about Copper, Chuck Froelicher, headmaster of the Colorado Academy Prep School and a director of the Pochahantas Mining Corporation, asked Chuck Lewis to explore the area. Lewis, then executive vice president and treasure at Vail Associates, took a cross country ski tour of Copper Mountain and saw what Schaefler and Hauk had seen: a great location for a ski area with varied terrain and easy accessibility. This time, however, the dream wouldn’t die, as Froelicher, along with 16 other investors, collected $500,000 in capital to form Copper Mountain Associates. Lewis was named general partner and given the mammoth charge of developing the resort from the ground up.
With the purchase of 280 acres of base-area land from Eugene Sanders, Copper was on its way. Lewis then logged over 150,000 air miles trying to find the $6 million-plus in investments to begin the first phase. The money eventually surfaced in Denver through Fulenwider Management & Development Company, and construction began.
One of the hallmarks of Copper Mountain’s development was the “can do” approach taken on by Lewis and his team. When timber from trail cutting became difficult to dispose of, the Thick and Thin Lumber Company was formed. And when concrete to anchor lift towers proved too pricey from outside sources, the Pretty Lumpy Concrete Company came into being. Gravel was mined on-site, forming some several of the lakes now seen in the base area. Undaunted by the task, the development team continued forward. Almost no problem, however, was as vexing as that of the beaver population at Copper.
But We Like it Here!
Beaver dams had turned the area around Copper into a tangle of willow marshes, and it became obvious that the ski area and the beavers couldn’t co-exist. First, the dams were destroyed in the hopes that the beavers would leave. As determined as the developers, however, the beavers built the dams back stronger, using all sticks and no mud. When a trapper was brought in to relocate them, they moved back. Finally, Lewis hit upon the idea of depriving the beavers of their food. A special mulcher was brought in from Canada to removed the willows and finally the beavers left — across the highway and down the canyon.
In the spring and summer of 1971, Copper’s first trails were cut and the mountain opened for skiing via snowcat in November of that year. In November 30, 1972, the mountain opened to the public with five lifts, 26 miles of trails and six new buildings. The official dedication ceremonies were held in February of 1973,with Deputy Chief for Administration of the U.S. Forest Service Ray Housley in attendance. Housley presented the Resort with an environmental award, citing Copper Mountain developers’ great respect and careful planning in relation to the local environment.
What’s In a Name?
While Copper Mountain’s developers were highly creative when it came to solving the problems of building the Resort, they were less so when it came to naming the trails. The public was asked to supply trail names, with a season pass being the reward for one that got used. One colorful exception is the “Loverly” trail, named after then-Governor John Love, who broke his leg on the trail immediately following the dedication ceremony in 1973. Another is “Rosi’s Run,” named after Rosi Mittermier, who came away the big winner at the 1976 U.S. Alpine Championships held at Copper. Some old timers still stick to the numbers, however, so if you hear someone saying the bumps are good on “19,” head over to Brennan’s Grin. And if you hear that the powder is deep on “22,” just nod knowingly and strike out for Hallelujah.
In 1980, Copper Mountain Associates sold the resort to current owners Tony Novelly and Sam Goldstein of Apex Oil. The illustrious Chuck Lewis resigned in 1982, turning over the reins to Andy Daly, who moved up through the ranks from patrolman to president in a matter of years. Harry Mosgrove, an executive vice president of the Resort instrumental in many of Copper’s property developments, became president in 1987. Controlling interest in Copper Mountain Resort is now held by Canada’s Horsham Corporation, who continue to invest in the ongoing expansion of the resort.
The Growth Track
Since it opened in 1972 with five lifts, Copper has continued to grow and now has 20 lifts serving 1,200 acres plus 350 acres of extreme skiing and 25 kilometers of cross country track. While it hosts over 862,000 skiers a year, Copper has also expanded its offerings to the summer visitor, with the highest championship golf course in the nation, the new $5 million Copper Commons convention center and a host of summertime activities including the International Festival and West Fest. A $3 million Racquet & Athletic club serves guests year round while the Copper Village provides a number of restaurants and shops.
This year, as it celebrates its 20th anniversary, Copper Mountain Resort is coming off a record year, with the 90-91 season seeing a 12 percent increase in skier days over the 89-90 season. The Resort was also awarded the AAA Four Diamond award last year for its accommodations. A variety of special events and promotions are planned to help celebrate Copper’s 20 years.