Tom Ross: Ted Cordova is one of the last of the drifting cowboys and a builder of ski trails
Steamboat Springs — One of my favorite mid-morning powder runs at Steamboat is Ted’s Ridge, a north-facing upper intermediate trail that peels off to skier’s right of Heavenly Daze. Often, you can still find untracked snow on the far right and far left of the moderately steep first pitch at 10 a.m., then bounce through small powder bumps where the pitch begins to gentle.
If you’ve enjoyed a quick charge down Ted’s Ridge, like I sometimes do, you may have paused to wonder, “Who is this guy Ted?” and “What do I have to do to get my name on a ski run at Steamboat?”
Ted Cordova, who celebrated his 90th birthday Jan. 25 in Walsenburg, worked for 24 years at the Steamboat Ski Area, cutting new trails and service roads with a bulldozer and grooming trails in the cab of a big diesel powder cat. But for most of his adult life, he was a cowpuncher. And when I say that Ted Cordova was a cowboy, I’m talking about the real deal.
If ever anyone embodied Steamboat’s claim to being a cowboy ski town, with ties to the days when ranch hands drove cattle to the rail heads, it is probably Ted Cordova. He left home at 15 to ride with old hands who had cowboy-ed in the 1920s.
“Ted may be one of the very last of the ‘drifting cowboys,’” Routt County-based documentary filmmaker F.M. Smokey Vandergrift wrote in a recent letter.
But that’s not all, Cordova’s family confirmed to Vandergrit that the Cordovas were original recipients of Spanish land grants. Vandergrift attended Cordova’s birthday party last month.
“For all those years, every night in the winter, he drove a snowcat making those runs absolutely, incredibly safe for millions of people, and he did it very quietly,” Vandergrift said. “And he damn near died doing it.”
Late in his career at the ski area, Cordova survived a rollover in a large bulldozer, spent 11 months in the hospital and returned to work after he recuperated.
As a young man, Cordova worked at big spreads from New Mexico to Canada in the 1940s and 1950s, driving cattle with his remuda trailing behind. Before he was hired on at a new ranch, he was often required to prove himself by riding a particularly ornery horse to prove his mettle.
“I used to like all the bad horses,” Cordova told Vandergrift in a video interview in the autumn of 2011. “All those big outfits had at least one or two, what they called outlaws. They used those horses to test the new cowboys. If you could ride one of them bastards, you was hired.”
Cordova grew up the third oldest of 12 children on a ranch outside Walsenburg down by Rattlesnake Buttes. His father ran cattle and sheep, and it was hard work from dawn to dusk.
“Dad was hardcore. He was hard to get along with,” Cordova recalled. “If you didn’t do what you were supposed to do, you got the bullwhip. He used the black snake. He was a rough character.”
Cordova graduated sixth grade at a country school and went out on his own at age 15 after taking a job at a ranch near Walden, where he worked for two years.
After that experience, he worked for some legendary cattle outfits. There was the Quincy Cattle Company in Montana and the DX ranch in New Mexico. For a good stretch, Cordova and three of his compadres followed the small town rodeo trail from Amarillo, Texas, to Greeley. They pooled their prize money to stay alive and somehow managed a case of beer every night.
Cordova spent a decade working for ranches in South Dakota and met his bride, Donna, there. A bad goring by a bull may have caused Cordova to re-think his future.
“The damn bull tore everything out of me,” Cordova recalled. “They took me to Rapid City. and I was in that hospital for about two months.”
After a winter working at a ranch in Nevada, Cordova headed for the Yampa Valley in March 1965, perhaps with springtime in mind.
Arriving on St. Patrick’s Day, he wasn’t prepared for what he saw.
“There was so much snow, all you could see was the top of the posts,” he recalled. “I’d never been in country with that much snow.”
Cordova couldn’t imagine feeding cattle in Steamboat’s climate, but went to work for Keith Studer, then Bob Gay for a time, then Glen and Ralph Werner, and finally Lloyd Gilroy, “until everybody started selling out.”
He worked at a meat packing plant for a few months but found his way to the ski area in 1969, where he started out as a lift operator working for Merle Nash.
“I worked for Merle all winter and damn near all summer,” Cordova told Vandergrift. “That fall, I transferred to the maintenance department where Gary Kline was the manager of all the heavy equipment and snowcats.”
Whether it was rodeo broncs, bulls or a D-8 bulldozer, Cordova had his close calls. He was seriously injured one spring while clearing ice from a cat track in preparation for spring construction, when the bulldozer he was driving slid off the road and tumbled through the trees.
Cordova was lucky to survive, but when he recovered, he climbed back onto the big machine and carried on.
Steamboat will never forget Ted Cordova, the cowpuncher who helped to build a ski mountain and who deserves the recognition of the ski run named after him.
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