Friends of Berthoud Pass
Shaping a new future for Colorado's oldest ski areaby Josh Rhea
The West side of Berthoud Pass in 2000, while the lift operation was still running.
The toilet was infamous. It sat in the 1939-era Berthoud Pass Lodge, covered in garbage bags more often than not, and caused more than a little discomfort for the line of skiers and snowboarders jonesing to start their day. Unlucky riders were forced out into the cold to use one of several snowbound Port-O-Potties. On top of that, the carpet was worn through, the glass doors stuck open, and the wooden exterior steps were more treacherous than arcing turns through the 40-foot cliffs on the west side of the pass. None of it mattered though. The truth is that no one who regularly visited Berthoud Pass Ski Area cared much about the facilities anyway—it was all about the mountain.
The Lodge back in the day. Amazingly little has changed.
Behind the lodge-in-disrepair, the ancient lifts, and the ill-equipped ski patrol shack laid a mountain blessed. Surrounded by tourist-trodden resorts like Winter Park, Breckenridge, Copper, and Vail, all of which rarely exceed the 300-inch-per-year mark, Berthoud Pass wallows in over 450 inches of snow annually and terrain to make the most expert of skiers’ hearts flutter in delight. Camaraderie among pass holders was the rule, and lift lines were more myth than reality.
The state of repair at Berthoud in the late 90’s was viewed as character by some; hardship by many. Unfortunately, the many won out and in 2001 the area’s two ski lifts closed indefinitely. Citing intense competition from the surrounding mega-resorts and their bargain-basement season pass pricing wars, owner Marise Cipriani pulled the plug on Berthoud Pass Ski Area. For the following two years, the Powder Guides cat skiing operation kept the ski area permit alive, but the operation wasn’t to last.
Historic Berthoud Pass postcard.
Since the closing of the ski area and the cat skiing operation, common sense would have reasoned that recreational traffic in the area would drop. It hasn’t. Today, weekend days on the pass regularly see far more vehicles in the parking area than ever filled the lot during the peak of the lift-served seasons. The result is an overflowing lot lacking parking attendants, restroom facilities, or any safety resources.
It was this increase in backcountry usage in the absence of a commercial operation at the Pass that spurred the creation of a non-profit agency called the Friends of Berthoud Pass. Formed largely with the support of season pass holders from the former ski area and a host of dedicated backcountry enthusiasts, Friends of Berthoud Pass (FOBP) promises to be an influential force on the future of Berthoud.
Headed by volunteer executive director Shan Sethna and several other backcountry enthusiasts who share a passion for the Pass, the group, which now consists of well over 200 members, is a self-described “…collective of outdoor and backcountry enthusiasts dedicated to preserving the legacy of safe access to public recreation at Berthoud Pass.”
Backcountry recreation in the Rock Garden at Berthoud.
While many members’ main concern is rooted in ensuring continued access to the epic backcountry skiing and boarding at the Pass, FOBP’s mission goals are unquestionably altruistic:
- Access Management – The safety of public
access points to the area is of crucial importance. Berthoud Pass requires
careful consideration to preserve its delicate blend of pedestrian and
- Community and Education Management – The
accessibility of this area provides a unique living classroom for the
study of—among other subjects—the Continental Divide, high-alpine
ecology, snow science, environmental studies and mountain weather. Berthoud
Pass provides substantial untapped resources that might be applied to
the public good.
- Safety Management – The Berthoud Pass Volunteer Ski Patrol will endeavor to provide emergency first aid and rescue services to both skiers and motorists during periods of high use. This devotion to public safety is unwavering among the fully-trained, all-volunteer patrol.
As for the toilet, it’s still there. It probably even has a garbage bag taped over the top. Its days are numbered however—the U.S. Forest Service slated the Lodge for demolition this year, but it will likely now have to wait until summer 2005. It’s another focus of Friends of Berthoud Pass. Whether a new structure is built or the old one restored, the group is adamant about the necessity for a common shelter on the pass to house educational programs, safety resources like the Volunteer Ski Patrol, and of course, restrooms.
In the Western U.S., where populations are exploding and interest in backcountry recreation is on the rise, groups like the Friends of Berthoud Pass may hold the key to our backcountry’s future. It is a unique model, focused not only on the needs of one group, but of all constituent users to create a prosperous and sustainable future for a treasured backcountry resource. It’s a model sure to be replicated across the country.