Long before Purgatory was a twinkle in Ray Duncan’s eye, Southwest Colorado residents were enjoying schussing down hills in the winter.
Purgatory’s 50th anniversary was part of the inspiration for the Animas Museum’s new exhibit on the subject. It traces skiing in the area as far back as the 1870s, when skis were called “snowshoes,” and skiing was a functional way of getting around in the winter, said historian Robert McDaniel, former executive director of the museum.
One pair of longboard skis in the exhibit hails back to the pioneer Aspaas family, museum Executive Director Sherry Bowman said. While they didn’t belong to Hans Aspaas, an emigrant from Sweden, they were used by his immediate descendants.
During the winter of 1874-1875, Hans Aspaas was one of several men who skied the 40 miles between Silverton and Del Norte over Stony Pass, a four-day trip, carrying not only mail but staples such as sugar, coffee and dried fruit. Other skiers helped supply mining camps in the winter throughout the area into the 1930s.
During his research, McDaniel found illustrations in the June 9, 1883, edition of Harper’s Weekly of men skiing titled, Adventures in the San Juan Mountains. The men in the drawings are wearing skis similar to those in the museum and using only one long pole instead of two shorter poles.
The museum also has a pair of skis made from barrel staves donated by a descendant of another local pioneer family, Alice Paulek Barlow.
With the advent of a new century, skiing shifted to more of a recreational activity, with women joining in the fun wearing long skirts. The museum didn’t have any information as to whether woolen bloomers were part of a woman’s sporting ensemble in those days, but it seems as though it would have been rather drafty without them.
“Rope tows ushered in big changes,” McDaniel said. The first rope tow was introduced in the U.S. in Vermont in 1933, and La Plata County got its first documented rope tow in 1937 at Cascade Meadows, located northwest of the entrance from U.S. Highway 550 to Purgatory Resort. Locals built a rudimentary warming hut, and ladies were encouraged to toboggan on the slopes as well.
The tow was moved down to Lechner Field, renamed Chipmunk Hill, in 1939, about a mile south of the entrance to Electra Lake. Southwest Colorado residents skied there until 1943, when it became a popular sledding and tubing hill. The tow then headed to its third location in less than a decade, to what later became Calico Hill – thus named because it usually had patches of brown, green and white – before being named Chapman Hill in honor of Colton Chapman, a pioneer in winter sports in the area.
This new invention raised skiing to a whole new level, McDaniel said, and led to the creation of the San Juan Ski Club.
“These people were really banding together, joining forces and going on pretty major ski trips,” McDaniel said. “They also had competitions and night club skiing. When you think that this was happening at the end of the Depression, it’s pretty amazing.”
While skiing activity in La Plata County slowed down during World War II, it rebounded with a bang after GIs came home.
Columbine Guest Ranch, just south of what is now Purgatory, offered its own rope tow and night skiing. Owned by members of the Yeager family, one of Durango’s most prominent ski families, it was just one of several rope tows, many private or shared with other families, the Yeagers had on their properties north and west of Durango.
“I think my dad had a rope tow in his garage well into the ’70s,” Patt Yeager Emmett said. “What people forget is how unsafe they were and how difficult it was to deal with them.”
It took the arrival of Dolph Kuss in 1954 for Durango youth to begin training for competitive ski teams. He began coaching junior Nordic skiers shortly after his arrival, and two of his students, Gordon Rowe and Larry Edwards, qualified for the first Junior National ski championships in 1956. Kuss also negotiated the purchase of a rope tow from Camp Hale near Leadville to replace the deteriorating Cascade Meadows tow at Chapman Hill. Kuss went on to train several champions, including three-time Olympian Mike Elliott.
And then, in 1965, came Purgatory and a new chapter in skiing in La Plata County.
While the rope tows of yore are remembered mostly by stories and remnants, the legacy they built helped Durango become a ski destination.