May 12 • 30M

Podcast #13: Reviving an Abandoned Ski Resort with Will Pirkey

“It is Part of our Mission to Make Skiing and Riding Affordable and Accessible to Everyone.”

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Snow sports have been trending in a direction that’s more affordable in the long term. But it’s done at the expense of a much higher financial barrier to entry for new riders. The Panadero Ski Corporation is working to change that.

fresh snow blankets the ground on a cloudy day. A skier rides toward the camera. The sun almost breaks through the clouds.

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Going Back in Time

In the back half of 1981, lifts started spinning at “Panadero.” Over the years, the property changed names and hands, opening and closing many times before finally shuttering operations for good in 2000.

The base area — dozens of acres of private property — effectively walled off access to the skiing terrain on the forest service land beyond.

In 2017, the Cuchara Foundation helped purchase that land for Huerfano County with the goal of creating year-round outdoor access and recreation opportunities. The foundation donated $25,000 to the county for the down payment on the land, then later worked to raise the remaining $125,000 to give to the county to pay for it in full.

Will Pirkey is a board member with the Panadero Ski Corporation. It’s a non-profit that spun off of the Cuchara Foundation in 2019. Its mission: restore the old Lift 4 and revive the lower part of the abandoned ski area.

a sign reads "cuchara mountain park." in the background, a chair lift heads up the hill and out of sight.
Welcome to Cuchara Mountain Park

Quick side note for readers and listeners:

I’m aware that many of you discovered Cole’s Climb after clicking over from The Storm Skiing Journal. By coincidence, this week’s content somewhat straddles the worlds of ski area operations and expanding outdoor access.

Visit The Storm Skiing Journal

I’m glad to have you here, as well as all the other new subscribers who have recently signed up. And of course, if you haven’t checked out the Storm Skiing Journal, I highly recommend you do so.

Interview Notes:

1:30 — History of the Old Resort
3:30 — How the public lost access to the land
4:15 — The creation of the park
6:00 — Access to the outdoors, year-round
6:45 — Plans for the future
8:45 — The next milestone: opening the lift
11:15 — When will guests be welcomed in?
14:30 — Keeping skiing affordable
16:45 — Filling the need in a ski resort desert
20:00 — Finding an affordable option for recreation
26:00 — How you can get involved
28:00 — Backcountry access

“One of the Challenges was to Find Schematics for an old Riblet Chair… They’re no Longer in Business, so We had to Find Some Schematics to Actually Find out: Here’s how We Wire this Correctly.”

The Panadero Ski Corporation has approached this project the way one would restore a cool artifact of history: carefully inspecting and x-raying the chair lift components to ensure everything is in safe, working condition.

After quite a bit of work, Pirkey tells me the project is near the finish line. The next step will be getting the lift certified so they can purchase insurance, and welcome guests.

Best case scenario: this will be done in time for their upcoming Summer Celebration and fundraiser on July 2nd.

a chairlift chair, covered in snow
Chair 56, collecting snow on Lift 4

“It is Part of our Mission to Make Skiing and Riding Affordable and Accessible to Everyone.”

Pirkey says selling lift tickets will be necessary to cover operations cost. But the goal is to make the place one of the most affordable places to ride in Colorado.

Cuchara Mountain Park is located in a region relatively far from other big mountains and resorts. Having lift-served terrain would offer an amenity to nearby communities that would otherwise need to drive hours to a resort.

“We’re not looking to make any money. We’re just looking to break even, cover our expenses, and if we get a little bit extra: to grow the experience and enhance the experience.”

“I Think we have a Niche that Needs to be Filled in the Ski Industry as a Whole. And that is: People who Haven’t Gotten into the Sport and who face Financial Barriers to do so. It’s a lot of Money to put up Front to See, ‘Do I even like this?’”

An issue I’ve noticed in recent years is the inherent problem with the growing ski pass model: unlimited access passes are great for experienced skiers and snowboarders. But it also front-loads the cost for beginners.

Day tickets in Colorado have surged close to the $200 mark for many resorts. That’s a lot of money for a first timer to spend on something they’re not sure about.

Pirkey also points out that for a family of four: you can easily pay $500 for a single day. That’s going to drastically limit how often you can come to the mountain and impede progress in learning how to ride.

“The Vision for the Mountain is to Provide Year-Round Recreation”

While the Panadero Ski Corporation is focused on the lift operations, the goal of Cuchara Mountain Park is to be a gateway to year-round outdoor activities.

Pirkey mentioned access for mountain biking could be coming down the road as well.

a map of the terrain at Cuchara Mountain Park
The terrain that will be lift-served. Side-country access highlighted in green.

“I Think we do have a Cool Story, and the More People Learn About it, the More Power in numbers to help us Fund this and get it up and Rolling.”

The Panadero Ski Corporation is in a fundraising push to gather enough money to have their lift inspected. Will says this is one of their last hurdles to clear before the park can start sending guests up the hill and taking in money from low-cost lift tickets.

Right now, they are looking for donations or volunteer help — especially if you have specialized knowledge in the ski industry. To pitch in, click the button below to learn more!

Learn More

Did You Like the New Music?

Quick little end note: long-time listeners may have noticed the intro/outro music for trail talk has changed. The last episode on the crazy sport of Ski Joring didn’t have any.

Most of the prior ones — including this fascinating conversation on what it takes to live in a cabin in the middle of nowhere — actually use a tune that now appears in CarMax commercials.

It was getting expensive to maintain the rights, and it didn’t quite suit the vibe I was looking for. So instead, I commissioned the highly talented Ty Ellenbogen to create a new song.

You can check out more of his work on Spotify, or his website, here!