Aspen, the king of Colorado ski areas, was founded by members of the 10th Mountain Division, snow warriors who had trained on its slopes, who felt the essence, and the potential, of the terrain, and started an industry that changed Colorado forever.
In 1962, Vail was formed and the I-70 legend began its winding road across the Rockies. Also at that time, a Boulder ski race champion and building contractor, Gabor Cseh, who had explored the trails above Lake Eldora, convinced a group of investors that a smaller, Front Range ski area would be a good way to spend their money. They agreed and called themselves the Lake Eldora Corp. The partners included Frank Ashley, an alpine ski racing champion, and Bob Beattie, the University of Colorado Ski Team coach who had just been named the U.S. Ski Team coach. Beattie wanted to use the area for his ski team training ground.
It was a great dream and the corporation did a great job of getting the area up and running. They just hadn’t foreseen the trials and tribulations that the trail would run into on the way. Overcoming the winds and drought of winter was the main challenge.
In July 1961, the group approached Forest Service District Manager Paul Hauk, asking for permission to build ski lifts on the 480 acres of heavily forested steep terrain looking up at the Continental Divide. The next step was to buy 440 acres of private land for the construction of a main lodge and a parking lot. The lodge and two T-bars cost $2 million.
Trails were cut for the 1963 season allowing for a beginner slope with a T-bar and a trail on the East End now known as Challenge Lift where the 1964 Olympic team trained. What seemed ideal at first soon became a burst balloon. There was little snow for three years and by 1966 the ski area could not open at all. They went bust, belly up and sold the whole adventure to Tell Ertl, Ph.D., for $335,000, with $35,000 down — a lot of money at the time.
In 1967, Ertl did what has saved Eldora through the years. He installed a snowmaking machine. He also put the Cannonball chairlift in as well as lights for night skiing. These are the times that many old timers remember as being the most fun. The Ertls had an apartment above the ski patrol shack.
CU racers trained on the slopes. Texans came in busloads, staying in Boulder, and retired racers cruised the Night Hawk slopes. In 1970, Corona Lift was built, opening up lots of expert trails, but the weather was harsh on the large exposed run and snowmaking was not yet available. Skiers waited anxiously every year, hoping for snow, to soon zoom down the west wall.
In 1975 Ertl died of cancer and the management of the area was handed to Accountant Joe Fox who had little experience. By 1979 to 1980, Corona was abandoned to cut costs. Unfortunately, at the time, the Eisenhower Tunnel opened. No more traveling up a treacherous Arapaho Pass. Skiers could get to Vail in two hours, and they went.
The Ertl family wanted out and wanted to sell the ski area, but Rett, the son did not. He made a great effort for a comeback. The night lights burned seven nights a week. A Cardboard Derby became a popular crowd-drawing event and they tried to reopen Corona, but failed.
Eldora was soon losing half a million dollars a year and the economy was plunging. In 1985 the Ertl family sold the resort to Steve Finkel, known as O.Z. Minkin, and the dark years commenced. Minkin showed up in a white limo and with a team of body guards. Minkin was finally indicted in Los Angeles on federal fraud charges. The Ertls recovered the resort through foreclosure and was closed for the 1986 to 1987 season.
The closure of Eldora brought hard times to Nederland, which banks on the skier traffic stopping in town. Local race teams had to train at Estes Park and the people on the Front Range missed the friendly, small town atmosphere of Eldora; especially now with the tremendous growth of the I-70 resorts and the traffic that would become a challenge.
In September 1987, the president of Copper Mountain, Andy Daly, leased Eldora with an option to buy. He immediately began to inject renovations, including extending snow-making guns to Corona and opening the lifts. It was a day to celebrate.
In 1989, Daly became general manager of Beaver Creek and Vail Associates bought a share of Daly’s management operations. Vail planned to build a 450 room hotel at Eldora, but in 1991, Boulder County was in a low-growth mode, not open-armed to development in the mountains. The Vail Associates realized they weren’t going to make their dreams come true at Eldora and, once again, the ski area was up for grabs.
Next on the Eldora owner list was a triumvirate of businessmen who didn’t think that the ski area needed a hotel to be successful. Billy Killibrew came from Heavenly Valley, California, and was a successful retail entrepreneur. Chuck Lewis was the former president of Copper Mountain and Graham Anderson, a former ski racer, sold insurance to ski areas.
The new owners went to work. By 1998, there were two quad lifts and a lift between Cannonball and Corona to serve the new Indian Peaks group of trails. The new Indian Peaks lodge upgraded the efficiency of the ski school, offering rentals and signups downstairs and a dining room upstairs for ski groups.
Eldora became known as one of the most convenient and professional places for children to learn and train. Eldorables and the Trek Program offer top-notch ski and snowboard instructors. Expert snowmaking has made Eldora the place to be when weather does not cooperate. When the larger areas are bemoaning the barren trails, Eldora snowmakers get to work and create a champagne product.
Under the general management of Jim Spenst, the area has continued to maintain, averaging more than 175,000 skier days annually. The area is seeking Boulder County approval for upgrades to the trails and the lift system.
It hasn’t been an easy trail for Eldora Mountain Resort, but it has now been owned by the same group for going on 20 years. There will be parties and celebrations and a great hullaballoo all season long. Look for a schedule of events and also look for a Friday, Nov. 16, opening, 50 years later.