It started with an off-hand comment about a local ski team needing a place to practice and has become a key community institution. Purgatory Resort is preparing to mark its 50th anniversary on Friday.
The ski area was founded by oil and gas entrepreneur Ray Duncan, who made the off-hand comment, who would own it until 1986. Chester “Chet” Anderson – who was general manager for the first 16 years and involved with the area in one way or another until 1990 – started laying out the trails on snowshoes at the beginning of May 1965. He was still on snowshoes when he finished six weeks later.
“We got 120 inches of snow in April that year and another 18 inches at the beginning of May,” Anderson said. “It was a wet summer, too, and so muddy. We had planned to have the lift built by October but didn’t finish until the beginning of November. It had to be inspected and licensed really fast.”
The ski area was a game-changer for Durango’s economy.
“It was a boon to winter business, and it was a boon to Fort Lewis College,” said Mickey Hogan, one of the businessmen who helped get the ski area off the ground by raising $400,000 through the San Juan Development Corp. to build the lifts.
“It’s fair to say Durango’s tourism business only ran from Memorial Day to Labor Day. That’s when the motels all turned off their water, drained their pipes and closed. And suddenly, Fort Lewis could attract all kinds of students who would come to go to school because they could ski 25 miles away.”
Duncan’s brother, Vincent, took over majority ownership in 1986.
“We interviewed four women – Carlyn Hodges, Karen Bell, Mary Lou Murray and Kim Morton,” said George Usinowicz, who led the effort to compile photos and memorabilia for the Purgatory Collection at Center of Southwest Studies at FLC. “They had a lot of praise for Bob Hill and John Ogier (who were on the leadership team in the 1980s). These ladies got to middle management in a very misogynistic industry because of them.”
Chuck and Sue Cobb, who have served as U.S. ambassadors to Iceland and Jamaica, respectively, bought the majority stake in 1999, bringing in CEO Gary Derck, who continues to head up the resort side of things for new owner James Coleman.
The journey has not been without its bumps – low-snow winters, economic slumps that kept skiers and real estate buyers at home, rocky changes in management and a locally unpopular name change to Durango Mountain Resort, changed back to Purgatory Resort under Coleman’s ownership.
The stories about the early days of Purgatory are legend, many of which are recounted in a new book being released in conjunction with the 50th anniversary. Here are a couple:
‘Put us on the map’
Anderson, Paul Folwell and Bennie Basham cleared the ski area’s first black diamond – most difficult terrain – run, Upper and Lower Hades, during summer 1966.
“We were out there all by ourselves,” Anderson said, mentioning that the steep slope made it pretty hairy. “But that run put us on the map with Taos and places like that. People like to know there’s something difficult at an area.”
The run was more than difficult. Usinowicz remembers 1975, when the NCAA Championships were held at the area.
“They set up the downhill course on Upper and Lower Hades, with skiers going well over 60 mph,” he said. “I happened to be in a ward at the old Mercy Hospital, and they filled the ward because (the run) was so dangerous. It’s the only time they ran the downhill on Upper and Lower Hades because it was such medical carnage.”
The record holder
Carrie Cline has skied every opening day but one since the resort opened.
“It’s not historical, it’s hysterical,” she said. “I was a little tiny 3-year-old with a hole in her mitten from the rope tow the day Purgatory opened.”
She has a good excuse for the one she missed: opening day 1986.
“I was two or three people back from getting on Lift No. 1 when I went into labor,” she said.
Cline’s husband, Herbert, was already at the top waiting for her, so the lift operator at the bottom called the lift operator at the top to let him know.
“Hey, man, you’re having a baby pretty soon,” Cline said the lift operator told her husband. “‘Yeah, in a couple of days,’ Herb said. ‘No, dude, right now.’”
The 50th anniversary is also being marked with a documentary and several events. More stories are yet to be created at Purgatory, but the tales of the first 50 years focus on the people who undertook the grand adventure of building a ski area.