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Celebrating 60 years of Hesperus skiing

Beloved ski hill, once a family enterprise, maintains its character
Skiers and snowboarders make their way down the mountain Thursday night at Hesperus Ski Area. The community ski hill turns 60 this year. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

HESPERUS – Chuck Hare recalls grabbing the rope tow and being pulled 30 mph up the snowy slope – about as fast as he’d come down it. In those days, the rope tow ran off the rear axle of a Chevrolet pickup truck fixed at the top of the mountain.

“You could go up that hill real quick,” he said. “We made a lot of moonlight skiing trips, just the kids. They (the parents) were never supposed to know about it, but I don’t know if they knew or not. We never got in trouble for it.”

Hare, now 74, is the son of Bill Hare, who opened Hesperus Ski Area in 1962. The hill, located 10 miles west of Durango along U.S. Highway 160, is celebrating its 60th year in operation. While the Chevrolet-powered rope tow has been replaced by a two-seat chairlift, the janky and unabashed charisma of the amenity-sparse ski area persists.

Bill Hare, center, stands with Fort Lewis College ski coach Dolph Kuss, left, and President of the Durango Ski Club Mickey Hogan, right, in 1966. Hare opened what was then called the Hesperus Ski Center with his brothers in 1962. (Floyd Hill/Durango Herald file)

By light of day, a passing motorist could miss the spot, distracted by the craggy peaks of the La Plata Mountains to the north. But at night, two rows of lights illuminate the 700-vertical-foot hill for the snow-enthusiasts, young and old, who revel in its peculiar charm.

Little has changed since the hill first opened despite changing hands several times. Skiers can purchase only the most basic concessions – candy, chips and a few beverages – and indoor seating is limited. A fire burns unattended in a massive iron bowl, ignored by skiers in the lift line who would rather log runs than waste precious time warming up. Most are within 20 minutes of a warm home anyway.

A basic warming hut for families to reunite and thaw is the extent of Hesperus’ amenities. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
The warming hut at Hesperus Ski Area offers bare-bones snacks and drinks and a place for parents to wait for their children. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

“As far as ski areas go, they all have their own little charm, and Hesperus certainly has that,” said Donn Barnett, who works odd jobs at the area. “They have a really great following from a lot of locals, and a lot of people frequent that place even though they don’t offer a lot, as ski resorts go.”

Skiers back up Barnett’s assessment.

“It’s wicked family-friendly,” said Peter Thornburn as his young child tried to pull him through the lift line the evening of Feb. 2. “It’s just a sweet mountain. Especially with the family, you don’t really need more than this.”

Skiing as a family
Charlotte Bumgarner, left, and Robin Fitzpatrick, near left, both Hesperus Ski Patrol, Harlan Bryant, center, lift inspector, and Nick Smith, mountain manager at Hesperus Ski Area, hold a meeting Thursday night at the ski area. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

The attributes that Thornburn appreciates are rooted in Hesperus’ very first days as a ski area.

The ski area sits on property owned by Jack Scott, who now lives in Aztec, and his family. Scott’s parents owned a ranch and, in the mid-1950s, began to operate a small rope tow up a section of the hill. However, the system was cumbersome to operate and the family ended operations within about a year.

By the late 1950s, the Hare family of Bloomfield had taken an interest in using the ski hill for personal use. Bill Hare and his brothers, Wilbur and Bruce, leased the property from the Scotts and built a new rope tow at current location of the lift.

A woman enjoys spring skiing at Hesperus Ski Area, then known as the Hesperus Ski Center, in 1968. (Charlie Langdon/Durango Herald file)

Bruce Hare, 88, is the youngest of the brothers and the only brother still alive. He said he was responsible for building the power unit at the top of the rope tow.

“The drive unit was the engine, transmission and rear end out of a Chevy pickup truck,” Hare said. “We put it on a skid unit, then we hauled it up there.”

By 1962, the Hares saw that the public was interested in skiing their personal hill. Purgatory Resort was not yet open, and Wolf Creek Ski Area was a long haul for anyone living in Durango, much less Mancos or Cortez. And so the family built a gravel parking lot and opened the area to the public.

Scott, now 73, was in junior high when the area opened on his family’s property.

My folks bought army surplus skis – wooden skis with the bear trap bindings with the leather boots that immediately got wet and squishy,” he said. “The only skis that they could find were these army surplus skis and they were three times longer than I was. It took me a year to be able to get to the top of the lift without the weight of the rope and length of the skis destroying everything in my effort to make it up the hill.”

Modest improvements, but true to its origins

Although the infrastructure was crude, Hesperus thrived. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, ownership of the area changed several times before Jim Pitcher bought it in 1988. Tickets cost just $4.

Pitcher installed lights for night skiing and soon opened the area for night skiing six days per week. Although Texans would come visit the hill over the holidays, Pitcher said that Durango locals were his bread and butter.

Throughout the 2000s, the Colorado Passenger Tramway Safety Board cited the area for deficiencies stemming from inattentive staff and issues with the lift, which had been installed in 1982.

Still, the area remains closely held in the hearts of local skiers and snowboarders.

The access to night skiing within 15 minutes of Durango, Pitcher said, was the biggest draw.

Hesperus Ski Area is perhaps most celebrated for its proximity to Mancos and Durango and its night skiing offerings. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
Skiers use headlamps on Thursday at Hesperus Ski Area. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
Locals are Hesperus Ski Area’s bread and butter, said former owner Jim Pitcher. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

“If and when there was new snow, the powder hounds flocked to the place,” he said.

James Coleman, CEO of Mountain Capital Partners, decided that his firm would purchase the 160-acre lease for the area from Pitcher in 2016. MCP also owns Purgatory Resort and a handful of other ski areas across the country.

Pitcher said Hesperus compliments Purgatory’s offerings, and that this was a selling point during negotiations with Coleman.

“People can come there, learn how (to ski) and rent equipment, before they go up to Purg and stand in line,” Pitcher said.

Under MCP’s ownership, there have been understated improvements to the area.

Nick Smith, the area’s manager, said that upgrades to the parking lot, lift control and drive system, and upgrades to the rental fleet are small but important changes. The price of a lift ticket remains relatively affordable – just $48 for a day or $36 for a half day or night skiing.

Die-hard Hesperus fans are relatively unaware of the upgrades – and while same say they would like to see more done, others are not interested in change.

Gone is the rope tow powered by a Chevrolet that once adorned the slopes of Hesperus Ski Area. However, the current two-seat chairlift has had its share of problems. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

“It’s anti-pretentious,” said Dave Sipe of Mancos, who has skied at Hesperus for 22 years and taught skiing there for 18. “There is nothing fancy about it. Rich people don’t really want to come here.”

Tyler Hoyt, also a two-decade veteran of the hill, appreciates having the resource so close to his home in Mancos.

“It’s a great little mountain,” he said. “Tell Coleman to put more money into it!”

For the more serious skiers, the steep upper reaches of the hill offer satisfactory challenging terrain. And for those still finding their balance sliding on snow, the groomed runs provide ample space for new skiers’ sweeping turns.

Although it doesn’t offer much, Hesperus is still a local’s favorite among those who appreciate its rustic charm. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

And by the time they reach the base of the lift, smiles abound and shouts of excitement fill the chilled dusk air as the glorious sunset settled on the horizon.

“You definitely get to know all the locals who are skiing here,” said Lift Operations Foreman Patriot McKnight, before interrupting himself to shout a hello to Sipe, who is one of those locals. “It just seems like more of a community here (than at Purgatory). ... You’re providing an experience.”


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