Friday, November 24, 2006
Steamboat Springs Much to my regret, I never had the chance to ski Baker Mountain when it was served by a lift. The truth is, I'm too young to ever have skied the funky little ski area on the east side of Rabbit Ears Pass. It closed in 1953, the year I was born.
Baker Mountain is one of several defunct ski areas within 30 miles of Steamboat that have all but disappeared from the landscape. Baker Mountain is on the immediate right of motorists descending the east side of Rabbit Ears. The east-facing slope is best observed by westbound travelers climbing Muddy Pass.
Most winters, someone makes the difficult climb to the peak to lay down fresh tracks. However, the steep slope has always been described as an avalanche hazard.
I was reminded of Baker Mountain this week by my longtime acquaintance Bill Fetcher. He got in touch to add some information to the column I wrote last week about the term "Champagne Powder."
Fetcher wanted to make certain our readers were aware that the term actually originated with Kremmling rancher Joe McElroy. He later gave his permission for ski industry pioneer Jim Temple to use his creation as a slogan for the original Storm Mountain Ski Area, which later became the Steamboat Ski Area.
McElroy and his friend Willard Taussig built Baker Mountain's ski facilities from scratch.
The two men didn't actually set out in search of champagne.
Author Sureva Towler reported in her indispensable, and out-of-print volume, "The History of Skiing at Steamboat Springs," that there were five children in the McElroy household and seven more in the Taussig home. The two dads decided it would be easier to build their own ski area close to home than to drive to Winter Park every weekend with a dozen kids and their equipment.
In 1950, they built a rope tow powered by an electric engine to serve three downhill runs on Baker Mountain. If you've never had the experience of trying to grip a steeply pitched rope tow with icy leather mittens, you'll never be an old-timer.
The "lodge" at Baker was a hut outfitted with a woodstove. What else do you need? Oh, yeah, an outhouse.
Towler recounted how several dozen families from Middle Park and North Park paid $70 for lifetime memberships to a ski area that persisted for just three years.
According to legend, it was McElroy who first observed that the snow in the region was as light as "champagne bubbles."
It may have been extra brut, but at times there was so much of the champagne powder that it overwhelmed the management. Towler described how the three-quarter mile long access road to Baker Mountain was plowed by an Army surplus truck fitted with a rotary plow. There were days when the snowfall overwhelmed the plow, making Baker one of the few ski areas to close because of too much champagne.
Baker Mountain isn't the only nearby ski area to have gone the way of the rope tow. If you know where to look, you can pick up the traces of Stagecoach Ski Area and Steamboat Lake Ski Area.
You can spy the outline of the trails at Stagecoach (1972-1974), overgrown with young trees, from the top of the present day Steamboat Gondola. Turn your gaze out across the south valley, beyond Blacktail Mountain. Don't be fooled by the private timber clear-cut near Stagecoach.
The old trails on Lester Mountain at Steamboat Lake are difficult to see unless you make the turn on Routt County Road 209 and drive toward Pearl Lake. The trails are on the little mountain to your right. For one winter in 1973, they offered 600 vertical feet of skiing via two chairlifts. The ski area was abruptly abandoned when anticipated real estate development didn't come together.
However, you can still ride one of the chairlifts at Steamboat Lake - sort of.
The Barrows Chairlift at Howelsen Hill in downtown Steamboat Springs was transferred there from the slopes of the now defunct Steamboat Lake Ski Area and rebuilt in 1988. It is running to this day.