Sunlight shines on, 50 years and counting
February 4, 2017
Sunlight Mountain Ski Resort might very well be celebrating its 70th anniversary this winter instead of its 50th were it not for a deal the city of Glenwood Springs struck with the Vanderhoof family in the late 1940s to close Sunlight's predecessor, Holliday Hill.
At the time, the city was working with an investor to reopen the 1930s-era Red Mountain ski area just outside of town, which had been idled during World War II.
"My dad (Roy Vanderhoof) and brother (John) tried to convince them that a ski area with a base elevation of 5,800 feet would never be successful," Don Vanderhoof, one of the original investors in Sunlight, recalled in an interview with the Glenwood Springs Post Independent last week.
"Finally, our family relented and we closed Holliday Hill," said Vanderhoof who, as a high school student in 1946 and '47, would spend his weekends running the Holliday Hill rope tow, powered by a 1935 Dodge pickup truck engine.
Red Mountain became Glenwood's backyard winter playground throughout the 1950s. But, just as the Vanderhoofs had predicted, it suffered from an inadequate base depth to have a very long season, and an outright lack of snow in drier years.
By comparison, Sunlight, located just across Four Mile Creek from where Holliday Hill had operated, stretches from 7,900 feet at its base to almost 9,900 feet at the top of Compass Mountain, where today's Primo lift drops skiers and snowboarders. It would prove to be a much better location for a ski area.
Glenwood Springs native Russ Brown has already logged more than 31 days skiing at Sunlight this season, including eight days in a row through last week.
"I don't remember doing that in 45 years of skiing," said Brown, who recalls his high school days in the 1970s gazing out the classroom window at the snow falling and wishing he was up skiing.
"I used to hitch rides up to Sunlight before I was old enough to drive myself," he said. "There was this one gal who drove an old Willys Jeep with no top on it who would always stop and give me a ride. I'd be froze by the time I got there, but it was a ride."
Holliday Hill came about as an indirect result of the end of World War II.
John Vanderhoof, the future governor of Colorado who at the time owned Van's Sporting Goods in Glenwood Springs with his father, learned that Camp Hale near Leadville, the wartime training grounds of the famed 10th Mountain Division, was getting rid of all its old military skis for "next to nothing," Don Vanderhoof said.
"My brother went up to Leadville and bought a whole bunch of the skis, but they didn't sell too well," he said, recalling that the heavily cambered skis were made for 175- to 200-pound soldiers carrying 100-pound packs and didn't work so well for the average 150-pound skier.
"We ended up with a lot of firewood," he joked.
But it did get the family thinking about the prospects of starting a ski area somewhere near Glenwood Springs. After talking with the Forest Service, they settled on the modestly sloped meadow near the old Sunlight mine that came to be known as Holliday Hill.
"Being a young, strong teenager, I was put to work cutting down a lot of trees as we prepared the slopes for that first year," Vanderhoof said. "Those first two years we just had the rope tow, but we had plans to put in a T-bar lift that would have doubled the length."
Instead, they shut down in order to give Red Mountain a fighting chance.
By 1966, it was time to give Sunlight its shot. Vanderhoof was right there along with founding investors John Higgs and Floyd Diemoz who, with his father, Adolph, built the base lodge that still stands today.
Diemoz recalls that they got the construction contract in August of that year and had the job completed in time for the new ski area to open in early December.
The location was a natural for a ski area, said Diemoz, who had spent his high school years on the slopes at Red Mountain.
With Aspen Mountain, better known as Ajax by locals, already well-established after it opened in 1946, and its neighbor Aspen Highlands only about 8 years old, Sunlight came along rather quickly about the same time as Snowmass was being planned and developed.
"Sunlight was quite marginal in terms of profit, but it limped along and built a strong following," Diemoz said. "It was appreciated by the locals, and a lot of effort went into making sure it kept going. I'm glad it's still there, and that it's still wonderful."
"When we were part of Sunlight starting up, we had no idea it would still be going and doing so well after 50 years," said Vanderhoof, who along with Diemoz was interviewed as part of an eight-part video series on Sunlight's 50th anniversary being produced by Chris Tribble of Versatile Productions.
Tribble began video-recording his own experiences at Sunlight in the 1980s when he first started his business.
"Sunlight was the go-to place for skiing in those days," he said. "I raised my own family up there, with one of my boys in a backpack and the other in a harness skiing in front of me.
"It's just a great place to be able to go and see everyone, and in the day of glitz and glamour with the big resorts, it's nice to have a place to go where you don't have that," Tribble said. "What makes it so neat is that it hasn't changed all that much, and that's what I love about it."
As Sunlight's 50th year rolled around, Tribble approached the ski area about putting together the video series telling the ski area's story. Between Vanderhoof, himself and Brown there were ample archives to pull from.
"Don was religious about keeping all kinds of pictures and clippings on everything that happened at Sunlight," Tribble said.
His own videos, coupled with Brown's old 8mm clips dating back to the 1970s that had been transferred to VHS tapes, along with interviews with the ski area's founders and others who have been instrumental in keeping Sunlight going over the years, helped round out the project.
"It's been a lot of fun archiving all of that, and it's something that needs to be done with a lot of the people who have been around here for a long time," Tribble said. "It's a great honor to be able to put these pieces together."
The annual Sunlight Ski Spree, which is being celebrated this weekend, was the epitome of the vintage ski mountain celebrations of the 1970s and '80s when it first came into being.
Brown recalls crazy events like the beer-chugging competition in front of the base lodge, where skiers would go from point to point and down a beer. The kids obstacle course was always a highlight, and down in town there was the annual chili cook-off and broomball competition.
One of Brown's 8mm clips includes a ski jump the was set up next to the Hot Springs Pool, where the most-daring skiers would jump into the water with their skis.
"It was a huge event, but it didn't last very many years before they decided that probably wasn't a good idea," Brown said.
Vanderhoof recalls getting in trouble with some downtown business owners when he got the crazy idea to spread snow along one lane of Grand Avenue for a snowmobile and skijoring race.
"We wanted to do something to bring more event down into town rather than having everything up on the hill, but I was rather unpopular after that," Vanderhoof said, recounting a conversation with one store owner who couldn't quite get why, after the city went to the effort of removing all the snow from Grand Avenue, they would bring it back and dump it on the street again.
Brown also recalls collecting the Ski Spree buttons that were popular during the event's heyday. "It's kind of a low key now compared to what it was in the old days," he said.
Jan. 6 this year also marked the 30th anniversary of Sunlight's Skier Appreciation Day, where proceeds from the discounted lift tickets go to local charities. Over those three decades, more than $200,000 has been raised for various community organizations, founder Phil Long said as part of the video series.
What separates Sunlight, Long says, is "that special feeling that you don't get at the larger ski operations that have grown and grown. The people who started skiing back in the '60s and '70s, they cherish those moments of the small, friendly atmosphere."
Ski Spree events continue Sunday with the Need-4-Speed ski race and another Mountain Treasure Hunt, where participants can follow clues and search the ski area for prizes.