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Gaffney's Playground

The closure of Colorado ski area Berthoud Pass at the end of the 2000 ski season marked a tragedy that most don’t comprehend even to this day. While the terrain remains and has become a backcountry skiing hotspot, the resort itself was historic. Berthoud was the first ski area in the state to install a rope tow (1939), and one of the first to install a chairlift (1947).

The skiing was (and remains) amazing. A prime high spot in the Front Range, Berthoud sucks up moisture from both the northwest flow as well as upslope storms, making it the only ski area in the state to benefit from these opposing weather patterns and giving it an average of over 500 inches of snowfall each season.

The resort was an early adapter of an open gate policy, and much of the in-bounds terrain felt similarly wild and raw. Zones like Hell’s Half Acre, Floral Park and Current Creek offered everything from steep rocky chutes to hidden glades to above treeline turns. With the bulk of the mountain’s lift served access considered expert skiing, it also wasn’t a place for rookies, and the ski area’s locals were a hardcore group in love with the lack of grooming and other amenities.

It was this combination of terrain, snowfall and enthusiastic locals which gave birth to the Berthoud Pass Bad Ass, a series of freeride events that eventually grew to encompass the Colorado Freeride Championships, a three-day big-mountain competition for skiers and snowboarders that culminated on 12,240 foot high Russell Peak, and which attracted athletes from as far away as Canada.

“I had done a couple of the Bad Ass series events and I saw that there was the potential to do something bigger, which could put Berthoud on the freeride map,” recalls Tom Winter. Winter, who went on to run events at Snowmass and Taos and who is also the founder and editor of this magazine, adds, “I approached Berthoud management and they were receptive, so we came up with the idea for the Championships.”

Winter was paid with two fully transferrable season passes during the two years that he organized and ran the event, although he admits he would have done it for free.

“I lived in Vail at the time, and Berthoud was the complete opposite of that mountain. The crusty locals, the fact that there was hardly any money to run the lifts, and the whole vibe of the place, it was just an amazing feeling up there,” says Winter. “I really wanted to see the resort succeed, and so anything I could do to get more people hearing about it was a no-brainer.”

 

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Dropping into the face of Russell.

The highlight of the event was, of course, the competition on Russell.

A pyramidal shaped peak with a large frozen waterfall providing an exclamation point to the rocky, cliff-studded terrain, Russell wasn’t in the resort’s operational boundary. But it was inside the ski area’s permit area. Meaning that this hike-to terrain could be used for an event, provided the resort was willing to put out the effort.

“It presented a lot of challenges,” says Jamie Wolter. Wolter, the former director of Ski Patrol and snow safety at Berthoud Pass, recalls that the event was, “very fun and exciting. We hadn’t done anything on Russell before, so we had to go hike in and run control routes off the top of the peak and dig pits and decide if we could even pull it off.”

“The biggest issue was snow stability and how to safely to run the comp with the snowpack and the second part was the non avalanche safety, having a back board and toboggan up there and belay the patrollers down the hill. There’s no lift access and no heli access, like in Alaska. You can’t just fly someone up and do a rescue.”

Still, says Wolter, “getting people to sign up was easy! People were stoked on it!”

According to Winter, the competition came to an end with the closure of the lifts at the ski area.

“The owners perhaps didn’t realize that the ski area was ahead of its time. They got tired of sinking money into it and tried to run a cat operation, but that didn’t work out either,” says Winter.

“I truly believe that if Berthoud was still open today, it would be one of the most popular places for the core skiing market,” adds Winter.

“The whole freeride thing blew up a year or two after they closed, and we’ve had an explosion of interest in sidecountry and backcountry skiing over the past ten years,” he says. “Berthoud offered the kind of authentic experience and terrain that people are now spending tons of money to get. It was located only an hour and fifteen minutes from Denver and it got 500 inches of snow each year. It would be the place in Colorado right now if the lifts were still spinning.”

But they aren’t and they won’t again, which is why all that we have left from the Berthoud Bad Ass are some photos and a few YouTube video clips. 

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