Sunlight Mountain celebrates 50th anniversary this winter

"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 Post Independent last week.

GLENWOOD SPRINGS | 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 back 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 Post Independent last week.

“Finally, our family relented and we closed Holliday Hill,” said Don 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 over 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 recalled. “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 frozen by the time I got there, but it was a ride.”

POST-WAR BEGINNINGS

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,” said Don Vanderhoof.

“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.”

But it did get the family thinking about 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.

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 eight 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.”

This year marked the 30th anniversary of Sunlight’s Skier Appreciation Day, where proceeds from discounted lift tickets go to local charities. Over the decades, more than $200,000 has been raised for community organizations.

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.”

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Information from: Post Independent, http://www.postindependent.com/

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