Outfitted in all-white pants, parka, skis and poles, the men of the 10th Mountain Division looked ghostly as they skied the slopes of Cooper Hill. Their leather boots, only ankle high, fit into a binding with a simple toe strap and heel cable. Bound to wooden skis, they hauled 90-lb. packs and rifles up and down the mountain for months. A 6,000-foot-long rope tow usually pulled the troops up; other times they walked to the summit in skis strapped with seal skins for traction.
This was high up in the Rockies on Tennessee Pass in the 1940s. About 15,000 special mountain troops were training at nearby Camp Hale to eventually fight the Germans in Italy. Among the volunteers were champion skiers, world-famous mountaineers and even Southern boys who’d never seen snow, let alone skis. Ironically, the 10th never wore skis while fighting in Europe. But for some, the experiences in Colorado made a lasting impression.
After the war, Pete Seibert, seriously wounded by a mortar blast in Italy, founded Vail, and veteran Friedl Pfeifer helped develop Aspen. In fact, the 10th Mountain left their influence on nearly every resort in the state. While the ski industry exploded with resorts growing ever bigger and more extravagant, Cooper Hill, renamed Ski Cooper, remained a little backyard mountain. And that’s its charm.
Ski Cooper is not a resort. You won’t find condos, world-class restaurants or even snowmaking guns (the snow’s all natural); it’s simply a ski mountain. The gravel parking lot backs right up to the base of the mountain. A short walk and you’re at the lodge and the 10th Mountain lift where if there’s a line, it’s a busy day. “You don’t have to worry about the crowds,” says Maggie Dishman, children’s ski school director. “You don’t feel like you’re gonna get run over coming down the hill.”
Rolling blues like Trail’s End and Blackpowder make up the front side. At the 11,700-foot summit, take in views of the continental divide and the Sawatch and Mosquito Ranges. Tenth Mountain soldiers camped here for weeks at a time, sleeping in snow caves and tents at 30-below zero, sometimes subsisting only on Pemmican.
Looking down the mountain to the left is a handful of black runs. You’ll likely discover fresh snow or corduroy sections.
“Three days after a big storm you can still find powder in the trees,” Dishman says. Head down Nightmare and imagine wearing 7-foot hickory planks that remained fixed to your feet, even if you tumbled down the mountain. Some soldiers broke legs this way. Others reveled in the 65-mph speed they could go on these things.
If you visit Cooper on Feb. 19, maybe you’ll get a chance to ski alongside one of the old vets at their annual WWII reunion. They can show you how it was done nearly 70 years ago.
+ Oakley A-Frame Shaun White Goggles. Maximum visibility. $130
+ Ski Cooper Adult lift ticket $42, child (6-14) $23. Expert skiers can try backcountry snowcat tours. skicooper.com
[Tips for enjoying cooper]
+ Exploring around Ski Cooper Tennessee Pass Nordic Center offers challenging groomed cross country skiing. A mile up the Cooper Loop trail sits the Cookhouse. But don’t let the yurt fool you. The Cookhouse serves delicious lunches and gourmet dinners. Reservations recommended. tennesseepass.com
+ I-70 W to CO-91 (Copper Mt. exit) to Leadville. Right on US 24 for 9 miles to Tennessee Pass. Right at the pass down a dirt road to Ski Cooper.