In the one-room warming hut at the base of the Lake City Ski Hill, Betty Lou Blodgett serves hot cocoa to kids in no need of a sugar high. She mans the hut alone, maintaining a loose sense of order while selling lift tickets and doling out rental gear. A big barrel woodstove blazes while children stuff their feet into retro ski boots. "Let's go have some fun!" declares one bundled-up tyke, stomping his clunky boots on the weathered wood floor. "Yeah, boy," Blodgett responds with a husky laugh. "Go, Lake City, go!"
It's a bluebird January day, and the local Hinsdale County ski team is challenging visitors from Silverton, another small town tucked even deeper into the San Juan Mountains in southwestern Colorado. Skiers and snowboarders aged 4 to 30-something are competing in the annual Matt Milski Memorial Ski Race. The slalom course drops 247 vertical feet on a gentle grade -- a less-than-30-second descent for the swift.
Racers ride the hill's single, whirring Poma lift -- Colorado's oldest operating lift, first used at Arapahoe Basin in the '50s -- pulled up by a "platter" between their legs. At the top, 11-year-old Elizabeth Wuest, a local, awaits her turn at the starting gate, her blonde hair poking out of a silver helmet. "This year, I hope to get second or first," she says. It's her fourth appearance at the race, and she's been practicing regularly on her home hill, which boasts a small terrain park and six runs, including a "black diamond" consisting of one short, steep drop. "It's not as big as Crested Butte or Loveland," she says, "so I can't get lost."
There are only a handful of community ski hills left in Colorado. Opened in 1966 as the Lake City Winter Wonderland, the hill's historic lift was lugging skiers up modest slopes long before today's mammoth resorts with their shopping villages and high-speed chairlifts hauled hordes into the sky. Community hills are often publicly funded and provide an affordable way for locals and occasional visitors to learn to ski and stay active in far-flung mountain towns. Lift tickets at Lake City are a mere $7 for kids and $15 for adults, with skis, boots and poles included. By comparison, single-day tickets in Aspen and Telluride top $100.
Keeping the Lake City ski hill accessible to all has been Henry Woods' 30-year labor of love. "We used to have kids who couldn't afford season passes, so we had the haves and have-nots of the ski hill," says Woods, ski coach and mayor pro tem. "I didn't like that." So he asked the Lake City Community School to pitch in $1,500 a year so all students and teachers could get a pass. Now, he says, "there's nobody who can't ski."
Unfortunately, "it's a losing operation financially," says Ben Hake, recreation director for Lake City, population 400. Ticket sales cover only $5,000 of $17,000 in annual expenses. "But the town agrees that it's important enough to fund." City sales taxes help, along with cash donations and volunteers. Rocky Mountain Lift Association members donated thousands of dollars in labor, and the Poma company donated parts to revive the old lift in 1989 after it sat dormant for three years. Crested Butte Mountain Resort gave jumps and rails for the terrain park, and most recently, Wolf Creek Ski Area provided a snow cat and groomer.
Most of the few hundred ski areas lost in the U.S. since the 1970s have been small ones, says Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association. "The single biggest reason for the decline of the small ski area was the inability to afford snow-making. Some years you may have a six-week season, some years you may have a four-month season." This year, Lake City got early snow, but Cranor Ski Hill in nearby Gunnison has been closed for three years for lack of it.
"Having grown up in Colorado in the early '80s, I can attest to how special these places really are, and how rare they are now," says Lance Roberts, Silverton's coach. When snow closes the roads and isolates Silverton, the local Kendall Mountain ski hill is a vital community outlet. "I love the fact that, as I sit here, the only distraction is the hum of the little wheel on the Poma lift. And all I see on the hill are little kids with big smiles," Roberts says. "It's just completely unpretentious."
After the race, an awards ceremony commences outside the warming hut. Winners mount a plywood podium amid cheers and the persistent clanging of a cowbell. Elizabeth Wuest takes second place in her age division and her brother, Ethan, a snowboarder, takes first in his. "Hopefully, they'll be able to bring their kids here as well," remarks their father, Nathan Wuest, a lift operator at the hill. "Maybe then we'll have a chairlift."