Cooper|Chicago Ridge - Scott Rappold
By R. Scott Rappold
I'm at Cooper Ski Area and frankly I'm scared.
It's an odd sensation up here. This mountain isn't known for difficult terrain. In fact, for 77 of the 78 years it's been in existence, it has offered no runs rated double-black-diamond.
Amazing views? Wide-open groomed avenues? Affordable prices? A family-friendly vibe? Yes to all of the above, but no true challenging, expert-level terrain.
All that changed a few days before my visit in early January, when Cooper dropped the ropes on the Tennessee Creek Basin on the mountain's backside, 70 acres of double-diamond skiing, with no easy way in or out.
As I was to discover, this terrain is no joke, and ski area managers hope it will be a game-changer in attracting expert-level skiers to Cooper.
A small mountain
The first challenge was actually finding the new terrain.
I rode the 10th Mountain Double Chair from the base after parking for free just 100 feet from the ticket office. That in itself is rare in skiing today, since at many resorts you have to shell out $20 or park miles from the base and take a bus (and then ride a gondola to ride a chair lift and finally ski...)
It turns out this chair spills out too low on the mountain to access Tennessee Creek Basin, so I rode the fun open groomers to the bottom of Piney Basin Triple Chair. At the top, at 11,757 above sea level, I finally saw my destination.
The lack of double-diamond terrain has long been a concern by Cooper skiers, says ski area manager Dan Torsell.
"We have probably the best intermediate runs and lower-level, beginner type terrain in the country, which lends itself to getting families in," says Torsell.
"We've kind of found through the years that say a family was to come for a five-day vacation and there was a diverse level of skiers within the family ... They're happy here for a little while but they would lose dad or mom or whoever the higher-level skiers were to some of the other areas that have steeper terrain."
Of course, you can't change the fact it's not a steep mountain. But you can change where you let people ski.
The Tennessee Creek Basin has long been eyed as such an opportunity. Torsell says it's within the area's U.S. Forest Service permit boundary and has been explored by ski patrollers over the years.
Work began in earnest this past summer when Cooper thinned and flew some 2,000 trees out by helicopter. They also built a T-bar lift to bring skiers back to the front side.
And that was basically it. No lodge, no restaurant, no wide-cut runs, no grooming.
No easy way down
At first, I wasn't sure the terrain was actually open. I saw not a single person emerge at the top of the T-bar and "closed" signs on some of the trails.
After confirming it was in fact open, I hopped on Motherlode, the only single-diamond run, with plans to hop on High Road, the only blue run, to get a feel for the area before plunging in.
But the blue was closed and I found myself back at the Piney Basin chair - the wrong drainage.
Torsell explains that Cooper chose to close the blue run for safety reasons.
"In the first couple days we were open back there we had a bunch of curiosity seekers, which I get, but we ended up with a couple people getting stuck at the bottom of the lift and we had to make arrangements to get them out," he says. "We had hoped that people would be prudent and selective about going down there, realizing they were going to have to head back up on some very steep terrain on the T-bar."
That's right, it was getting back up that was the problem. T-Bars aren't as common in skiing as they once were. A T-shaped support hooks the skier from behind and pulls the skier up by a rope. Unlike a chair lift, the skis stay on snow. Staying upright on one can be a challenge, especially on a steep pitch, especially on a snowboard.
With no intermediate trail, he says, only expert skiers would go down there.
After studying the map I realized my mistake and tried again.
A natural forest
Back at the top, I skied through the T-bar line and went down the run marked Powder Stache. To call it a run in the traditional sense would be a misnomer - more of a narrow trail through the thick pine forest.
It hadn't snowed in a while but I still found soft snow and untracked stashes as I gingerly worked my way through the forest. It was like nothing ever before at Cooper - quiet and remote, and I kept the T-bar in my peripheral vision in case I needed to bail.
I needed to bail. Did I mention these are very tight trees? Fear got the better of me, fear of the unknown. Fear of skiing into a tree.
So I finished my run on Maverick, which is essentially the T-bar line, reaching the bottom 720 feet later.
I've ridden many T-bars in my time and had no trouble, but I could understand how an unsuspecting beginner might have difficulty. I spent another hour exploring the forest and its steep, narrow chutes. This is definitely difficult terrain and I vowed to come back here and explore on a powder day.
Torsell hopes the terrain makes Cooper a more attractive destination for skiers of all types.
"The seasoned skiers who want to challenge themselves, we've just never had anything for those folks and now I think we do. We kind of have the whole package," he says.
"We're certainly not the largest resort in the state but now with this terrain, we're providing the same quality, the same diversity of product as everybody else."
R. Scott Rappold is a journalist with more than 20 years of experience, including 10 at The Colorado Springs Gazette, where he wrote about skiing, hiking, camping and all the things that make Colorado great. He is now a full-time ski bum who writes when he needs money for beer or lift tickets. He lives in Colorado's beautiful San Luis Valley. Read more of Scott's stories here.