By Cynthia Reaves
Cooper Resort is in the heart of the Rocky Mountains at 11,000 feet, a few miles from Leadville, the highest incorporated city in the US, within the Tennessee Pass. Cooper is in close proximity to Summit County / Eagle County / Vail areas. Cooper is the most affordable ski resort in Colorado and the only one operating as a nonprofit. Cooper Hill is the second ski resort built in Colorado and has always served people learning to master skiing. During World War II, nearby Camp Hale was the training hub for the 10th Mountain Division. The camp boasted six months of snow for the area, which equaled six months of training on Cooper Hill. The troops trained there diligently before going to fight in northern Italy. When they returned to the U.S., many flocked to the fast-developing ski industry. Over 50 resorts were either founded or had employees from the 10th Mountain Division, including Vail. Theoretically, Cooper is the reason Colorado has ski resorts, and it is now one of the reasons I can ski better.
Cooper ski hill is wide open and exactly what I dream of when I imagine skiing. It is not the long lines, the fancy food, or the fresh, innovative ideas in the sport that appeal to me most (although that is all awesome, too). Being the best certainly isn't essential to me (let's face it, personal design ruled that out).
The things I like most about skiing are connecting with nature, sailing through the powder as the crisp air fills my lungs, the wide-open spaces in the heavy snow treeline, and THE VIEWS!
When I entered the resort, I found all of that. Not only is the hill fantastic for beginners, but the days I was there, the crew opened, the steepest most challenging, black runs in the state.
The new run is all backcountry double blacks, serviced by a high-speed t-bar with massive trees, very steep lines and devoid of people.
Cooper has cat skiing on Chicago Ridge, nordic ski trails for nordic ski and fat bikes (fat bike rentals on-site at Nordic Center), nearby Yurts, a cookhouse, and a BYO sledding hill. You can also stay in the original 10th mountain hut system. Cooper is all-natural; they never make snow. They rely on Mother Nature. Cooper Mountain has awe-inspiring, breathtaking, unforgettable views of some of Colorado's finest 14ers such as Mt. Massive and Mt. Elbert.
The first day I skied started magnificently. I slept in a new yurt 1.5 miles away from the resort, and I nordic-skied to pick up my ski equipment (first time on cross-country skis, so it was slow going and peaceful for my soul). I picked up my gear as I use rentals from the resorts, unsure yet if I really want to commit to this sport. I planned the first day for taking photos, meeting the staff and getting a feel of the resort.
I committed to learning to ski this season and I had two lessons at Eldora and several practice ski days. My first day solo at Cooper I skied two runs solo and did not fall — a first for me. I felt like the Queen of the Universe. The lessons are working. As I bask in the joy of staying upright, I got on a mysterious lift I did not ride up at the beginning (big lesson use maps).
I got to the top of the lift, glided off right into ski patrol and vomited. Something about Cooper is, their lifts start where others end, and even their beginner runs start above 11,000 feet.
The ski patrol suggested strongly that my ski day was over and that I had a bout of altitude sickness. I rode down wrapped in a giant splint with a stellar woman ski patrol and a sadness in my soul because I had to cut the day short. Hydration is vital when you ski. I should consume water before, during, and after being on the mountain. The general rule is a minimum of 67 oz of water a day, take 67% of your body weight and drink that number in ounces per day. I live in Colorado, I should be more aware, I had been drinking tons, but I was not really drinking what I needed.
I hobbled to the Nordic Center, after my medical assessment, which is my home base for my stay in the yurt. I got a ride on a ski mobile to the Bot (my Yurt). I felt defeated and started hydrating for the next day of lessons.
The second day I was determined, invigorated and hydrated. I had all of my gear. I hiked the 1.5 miles to the ski resort. I was a bit early and eager to learn.
I met my instructor, Michael, who also is an adaptive ski instructor making waves in the sport. Michael is hosting his first adaptive race, the Dinosaur 100, on August 1. I was fortunate enough to learn from Michael.
We did our introductions, and Michael said his only mission was to help me reach my goals and have fun. He had a light approach to skiing. I could tell from his mission and devotion to teaching people with disabilities to do what some deem impossible — he believed in the power of skiing. Michael asked me my goal for the day. I told him I wanted to make it down the mountain as many times as I could without falling. Michael said, "Well, we can make that happen." He guided me in a way that the lessons seemed applicable to both life and skiing. I joked at everything he said, like, "wow, that is a lesson I need to learn beyond the mountain."
The first lesson is that everything takes time and be patient with 'me.' Michael says the only way you get better is with miles. I often do the lesson and neglect the practice. I have to talk myself into training is an intentional act of discipline. It is not a natural disposition for me. The advice reassured me I can keep at it.
My personal weakness is self-doubt. Michael taught me to get outside of my head. He had me hold my poles in front so that my focus was not to drop them. All my flailing body mechanics,such as dropping my shoulder and being quite floppy, just vanished. I skied marvelously that way. I made it down five times without falling.
Michael taught me to set goals and keep going. I was learning, and I was learning to ski, the most fun sport, that extends an exhilarating feeling close to flying if you just let go. Michael said, have fun and reach the goal, not only once, but as many times you can after you do it. We did that. We got to the bottom, then rode up and flew down as many times as we could.
Last, he taught my master lesson, go faster than I ever had, but with ease and control. He had me do my parallel turn with a tight flow and stay in my own lane. The whole day I did big full J turns, worked on rocking my turns, and carving pretty slow. The final runs were tight and a bit faster. I felt so free and so accomplished. I felt like a real skier. I never imagined I could say that.
Skiing at Cooper is cheap on the reg, but they host special pricing throughout the week. They really want families and people to have affordable access to skiing.
- 2Fer Tuesdays, where you get two lift tickets for the price of one adult lift ticket ($62). This special runs through the end of February.
- Wednesday is Senior Day! Seniors from 60-69 get lift tickets for only $30. Seniors from 70-79 only pay $20 for a lift ticket. And for those 80+, lift tickets are always free. This special runs for eight weeks.
- $30 Thursdays with $30 lift tickets and live music from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. at Katie O'Rourke's Irish Pub.
- Live music on Thursdays and Saturdays through the season plus a couple bonus Sundays on holiday weekends.
There is something freeing and relaxing about sleeping in a yurt at the very top of the Continental Divide. The sleep yurts are unimaginable. They have views you will want to etch in your soul and never forget. The surroundings are so peaceful. So serene. And the staff is so accommodating. When you arrive, the team takes your luggage by snowmobile (and you, or you can ski, bike, hike or stroll). The yurts sleep six and are fully heated by a wood stove. The yurts have outhouses with compostable toilets. The water is brought in with your luggage.
They have a kitchen with a propane burner, complimentary coffee, hot cocoa and tea. You can bring food to cook, use room service, or go to the cookhouse for a five-course full-service dinner. I chose to mix my rustic living with my upscale living and enjoyed a dinner at the cookhouse.
I snuggled up, confident from my long day of skiing, put on my headlamp, and walked by the light of the full moon down the well-groomed snowy forest to my destination, the Cookhouse, a giant yurt, delightfully lit by candlelight, and warmed by a wood stove. As I approach, I see a large fire pit blazing in the front for the early guests to gather.
I stepped inside, and slipped off my warm clothes. I had a table for one and dinner plans to celebrate my accomplishments. My neighboring table invited me to join them. They were a group of friends who met in Mexico and visited Colorado a few times a year. Carrie was the organizer of their plans that night, and she was a local. She takes all of her out-of-town guests to these dinners for the experience. The night was vivacious as everyone enveloped into the cozy mountain yurt atmosphere. The staff was impeccable and served course after course as we all discussed travel and life. I felt as if I traveled around the globe just listening to the group. They all had such a deep connection to one another, and it was an honor to be a part of their evening.
I am a vegetarian and gluten-free. The menu and servers are very in tune with special requests, so it was no issue. My fellow new friends had Colorado Rack of Lamb with Fresh Mint Chimichurri, Barramundi with Dill Cream Sauce, Grilled Elk Tenderloin with a Wild Blueberry & Sage Port Reduction, and Oven Roasted Pheasant. I had Pan Seared Risotto Cakes. They have exquisite wines and both warm and cold specialty cocktails.
The guest came from Vail and had to ski, snowshoe, or hike from the Nordic Ski Center to the yurt. You cannot drive there. The dinners and lunch are by reservation. They often host special gatherings including weddings. The evening was intimate and quite unique. I would say they host a professionally staged evening, and the staff is trained in elegance.
I returned via the moonlight to my snuggly yurt. The path was so lit I did not need a lamp. (The center hosts monthly full moon parties with transport from the ski resort on ski cat which I want to attend).
The wind in a big snowfall sounds like soft waves in the ocean as it hits the canvas. There is a constant drifting, an ebb and a flow of nature. There is nothing more remarkable. Add a roaring fire and all the worries in the world start to melt away like the snow from the skylight.
The presence of the night sky emerges. I think of one more day of skiing. One more notch on my belt. Lucky and happy to live this life.