Mountains

Hesperus Ski Area

Sunset cases a radiant glow on the mountains around Hesperus Ski Area as Dusty and Radiance Beals ride the lift for another run. The night is still young - skiing is open until 9 p.m.

By Luke Groskopf Journal staff writer

Luxury condominiums? Nowhere to be seen. A five-star restaurant? Missing in action. Boisterous tourist hoards calling to one another in foreign tongues or a southern twang? Unlikely to find them here at Hesperus Ski Area.

What you will find is a casual, unrefined atmosphere awash with quirky charm and personal touches, and a clutch of local snow revelers inseparably loyal to the place. Oh, and some pretty good skiing.

Compared to the panache of Telluride, the powerful ascent of Purgatory's "Six-Pack" lift, or the copious powder at Wolf Creek, Hesperus is a bare bones area.

It has one lift, with room for two on each chair. Skiers and snowboarders glide between clusters of scrub oak instead of towering ponderosa pines. A trip down from the hill's saddle takes all of three minutes.

In place of a majestic timber-framed lodge at the base area, visitors take refuge in a metal-roofed Quonset hut with burnt orange carpet and rustic green lamps hanging from the ceiling. They warm chilled bones with nachos, chili and hot chocolate served from behind a counter. Owner Jim Pitcher - also called "Pitch" - walks in and out, taking breaks from running the operation to mingle casually with regulars he recognizes.

There are few frills here, and not a hint of pretentiousness.

The people love it.

BACK IN THE DAY

For people, turning 50 years old is a milestone. It inspires them to take stock of the past and ponder their own mortality.

Hesperus Ski Area surpassed its own half-century mark this season; it first opened in the fall of 1962, and the circumstances were almost accidental. There was no ribbon-cutting ceremony. In fact, it was a surprise people showed up at all.

It began with three brothers and an idea. Wilbur, Bill and Glenn Hare - all of Bloomfield, N.M. - loved to ski, but weren't so fond of the long trek to Coal Bank Pass or the now-defunct Stoner Ski Area north of Dolores. They longed for closer, more accessible terrain.

After some reconnaissance, the brothers found what they were searching for: an quiet, hilly tract of land between Durango and Mancos, just off U.S. Highway 160. They approached the incumbent sheep and cattle rancher, who agreed to lease a portion of his property to the Hare brothers for winter recreational use.

Wilbur Hare, now 86, says the trio didn't intend for their little ski getaway to become a commercial business.

"We built it, at first, strictly as a family ski area, for our family members. Then, the first weekend we started it up, we found that wasn't going to work. A big crowd of people showed up," he said. "There was no place for them to park!"

In the early years, infrastructure upgrades were piecemeal and trial-by-error. Two tow ropes - one 300 feet, the other 800 - pulled skiers up the hill. The first structure ever erected at Hesperus, the venerable Quonset hut, still stands, but the Hares' ensuing attempt at expansion failed - in spectacular fashion.

"We trucked up another building to make a bigger lodge. It was an old barracks from the Aztec school district. We got it situated, carefully, on the foundation," Hare said. "Then it snowed 30 inches and the roof caved in."

"We didn't pursue that any further," he added, laughing.

Two of the brothers - Wilbur and Bill - had work experience in heavy construction, and put their engineering know-how to use making improvements. The biggest project was a homemade T-bar lift cobbled together from scratch.

"We built the whole apparatus ourselves," Hare said of the T-bar, a precursor to modern chairlifts. "There were big sprocket wheels on each end where the cables go around, and we fabricated our own clamps to secure the cables. The cables we bought new. And we used old rims for the smaller wheels."

They dug a well to supply guests with fresh drinking water and tapped a nearby natural gas pipeline owned by El Paso Natural Gas Co. (where Glenn worked) to power the T-bar engine.

Managing it all was no easy day at the office.

"I'll tell you what, it was the hardest work I ever did, for the least money," Hare said. "Standing out there in the cold helping skiers get onto the lift, fixing equipment, grooming trails. It was a heck of a job."

The brothers enlisted some outside manual labor to prepare the runs. Lacking any type of mechanized tiller to smooth out lumpy snow, they'd tamp it down by crisscrossing the trails horizontally on skis.

"We'd give out free ski passes for their help," Hare said.

"Hespie's" unassuming, minimalist appearance - then and now - belies its role as host to several major historic events. The pinnacle was probably 1966, when the National Cross Country Championship took place on its grounds. For many years the Durango High School and Fort Lewis College ski teams used it for training.

Some business was siphoned away when Purgatory Ski Resort opened to the public in 1965, and after 13 years in charge, the brothers decided to move on. Hesperus changed hands several times before falling to Jim and Lexa Pitcher in 1988.

Did Wilbur Hare expect the little family hill to still be chugging along five decades later?

"No. Not really," he said. "But I'm glad it is."

CUTTING THEIR TEETH

While the upper trails at Hesperus include some challenging gulleys and chutes - Alligator Alley, Why Not and Quick Draw come to mind - the ski area is better known for being a non-threatening place for novices to hone their skills.

"Longtime residents will tell me stories of how they learned to ski here as youngsters," Jim Pitcher said.

The bolder, precocious ones might teach themselves. Others rely on sage advice from a parent or private lesson instructor. Hundreds more owe their deftness on the slopes to Sno-Katz Kidz, the after-school program that each season tutors youth ages 5-15. This year enrollment is 85 kids.

"They'll come up here to cut their teeth. We work hard teaching them. For someone just starting out and testing the waters, it's ideal," Pitcher said.

Fittingly, Hesperus' hours of operation correspond to the school day: 4-9 p.m. during the week, a 12-hour 9-to-9 stint on Saturdays, and 9-4 on Sundays. During the holidays, when the kids have more free time, hours expand.

Installing large floodlights on 80 percent of the hill is among Pitcher's proudest accomplishments. Night skiing not only offer a unique, otherworldly ambience; it also gives locals - occupied by work or classes during the day - a chance to hit the slopes.

"(The lights) add a whole new dimension. No other ski areas around here, even the large ones, offer night skiing. People have realized that coming up for 2 or 3 hours after a day at the office is a nice way to get some exercise and burn off stress," said Jim Class, a member of the Hesperus Ski Patrol since 1977.

The Pitchers have been at the helm long enough to witness a generational changeover. Children who crept timidly up to their counter to rent skis or buy hot chocolate two decades ago are now prodding their own kids to do the same.

Take Jason Curtis of Farmington. Having learned at Hesperus as a boy, Curtis is now shepherding his 4-year-old daughter along on her maiden ski voyage. Mother Lindsey captures the moment on camera.

As the girl gathers speed, Curtis lets go of her hand. She coasts along with aplomb, no poles needed. She's a natural.

Inside the toasty Quonset hut, Dan and Amy Long, of Cortez, observe their two sons through half-fogged windows. From the inside, with its rounded shape and wooden slat ceiling creating a hull-like effect, the hut resembles a sea vessel. Instead of gazing out onto open waters, though, the windows offer a front-row seat to the skiing and snowboarding action.

As a parent, Amy Long likes the visibility aspect.

"You might worry at bigger resorts. If you get separated from (your child), good luck finding them. Here you can watch them come down," she said.

The Long's elder son, 13-year-old Dylan, is steady and assured on his snowboard - an old hand. The younger, 8-year-old Kooper, is a little wobblier. Having learned to ski three years ago, Kooper now wants to follow in his big brother's footsteps. Changing to a board takes some practice.

"(Kooper) has no fear. His first time skiing he came barreling down the hill full-speed. We were shouting and motioning for him to stop," Amy Long remembers. "He'll catch on soon enough."

The Longs have been recurring patrons of Hesperus for 15 years. They like to bring out-of-town extended family that come to visit.

"We come here for the convenience," Dan Long said. "It's close and affordable. And I love the small business aspect. It inspires loyalty."

WHITHER WINTER?

This season's discordant weather patterns - a dry November, a snowy December, an all-over-the-map January - are a good example of how the Pitchers roll with the punches. They've grown used to it. They have no choice.

Since purchasing Hesperus 25 years ago, they've opened late, closed early, and a few years not opened at all.

"The season has definitely gotten shorter and more unpredictable. You can't predict the snow or temperatures anymore," Jim Pitcher said.

Such are the trials of a low-tech, low-elevation operation. With no snow guns to supplement natural snowfall in a dry spell, Hesperus is subject to the whims of Mother Nature. The base elevation of 8,100 feet (rising to 8,800) means snow consistency can be a toss-up.

On a recent overcast Saturday en route to the hill, precipitation fell steadily but was lingering on the soggy cusp between rain and snow. The thermometer read 35 degrees. Then 34, and 33. Cresting the final rise and pulling into the Hesperus parking lot, the droplets turned to watery flakes. Just in time.

Between erratic weather, up-and-down visitor numbers, the workload and operational costs - lift repairs, the land lease, licensing, staff wages - the challenges are many. Running the place can be a grind; a "hassle", in Pitcher's words.

At 64, finding a successor is something that's crossed his mind. He and Lexa have put Hesperus up for sale, off and on, over the last decade. They've had a few curious lookers, but none have panned out.

"I'd like to pass the baton," he said. "And I'd like to see the atmosphere stay the same. There aren't too many ma and pa's out there anymore. I can't think of many one-lift operations left."

Hassles aside, he still has a fondness for "Hespie" and the people who enjoy it.

"When the sun peeks out, the snow is packed and people start showing up excited to ski, there's a sense of satisfaction. You feel your efforts have paid off," he said.

lukeg@cortezjournal.com

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