A mountain of history
Loris “Bugs” Werner remembers skiing the mountain that bears his family name when trudging up the mountain was the only way to ski down. In fact, Werner skied what is now the Steamboat Ski Area before there were any runs.
“I used to ski (the mountain) in the spring. I would get a ride to Rabbit Ears and spend the night in a snow cave,” Werner said. “We’d hike up the back side and bushwhack our way through.”
At 10,568 feet in eastern Steamboat Springs, a mountain sits in the valley that once was home to only bears, elk, deer, cattle, sheep and an abundance of birds.
And while those creatures still roam and hibernate throughout the seasons, they also share their home with several hundred thousand human snow lovers every winter.
Storm Mountain was not only another mountain in the Yampa Valley but also the one that caught the storms rolling through the Rocky Mountains from the west.
When Jim Temple came to Steamboat in the 1950s, he knew that particular mountain could bring people to ski and profit to a business.
“He was the one who had the dream,” said friend and colleague John Fetcher.
After research and studies about the mountain terrain, Temple broke ground on what he called Storm Mountain
July 6, 1958. Other business partners and friends to help in the design of the mountain included Fetcher, Marvin Crawford and Buddy Werner.
Werner, youngest sibling of Skeeter and Buddy, was in high school when the men gathered to make plans for runs and lifts.
Traversing on the mountain in the spring gave Werner an insight as to which areas would be appropriate to build ski runs. He became instrumental in naming different runs (Elkhead and Spike) and worked as a consultant for the first company that bought the mountain.
It was 1961 when Fetcher, Henry Perry, who became head of the Storm Mountain Corporation after Temple, and a few others, grabbed a few beers down at the A-Frame warming hut. The
A-Frame, which no longer exists, stood at what is now Christie II and III lifts. Fetcher and friends used to share a few laughs there and began naming future runs of the Steamboat Ski Area. During Apres skiing, Heavenly Daze, Headwall and many other runs were named.
Werner said the A-Frame was one of the only facilities at the base of the mountain during the 1960s that housed a cafeteria and bar area with Skeeter’s ski and rental shop in the basement.
“We never dreamed it would progress the way it did,” Fetcher said, who was president of the ski area after Temple resigned in the early 1960s. “But we knew if we wanted Steamboat to become a destination vacation area, we’d have to put in a gondola.”
When the Steamboat Ski Area opened Dec. 22, 1961, Vail’s ski area also was opening but it offered a four-passenger gondola, Fetcher said.
Opening day in Steamboat left Fetcher and crews frozen in
40-degree below-zero temperatures and no running equipment.
“Nothing would work because everything, all the oil, was so stiff. I had to light a fire under the gear box,” Fetcher said recalling that blustery day.
By Jan. 12, 1963, Fetcher and Merle Nash built the first Christie chairlift and officially opened the ski area. They tested the lift out on University of Denver’s ski team.
For the first year, Fetcher said five people manned the Christie chairlift but no one bothered to place an attendant at the unloading zone at the top.
“We just told everyone, ‘If you don’t get off, you’ll just come back down,'” Fetcher said.
Fetcher was a mechanical engineering graduate from Harvard in 1932 and began skiing the Swiss Alps in the mid-1920s. He helped redesign the ski jumps at Howelsen Hill in the 1950s when he met Temple. Fetcher continued working indirectly with the ski area by taking charge of business at Mount Werner Water and Sanitation District.
Werner said after the A-Frame came Ski Time Square and the Inn at Thunderhead. Although the Sheraton wasn’t built until the early 1970s, Werner said business began booming when LTV bought the company and expanded to create the gondola plaza.
The Steamboat Ski Area now refers to the storm-catching mountain as Mount Werner, named after local Olympian Buddy Werner, Loris’ brother, who died in an avalanche in 1964 in Switzerland. The mountain was renamed Feb. 15, 1965.
Trudging up the mountain with skis and poles found its place in history when the first power-operated chairlift was installed. Club Claw was the first lift on Storm Mountain and it made the organization a profit of $265 for the 1961-1962 season.
According to the Tread of Pioneers, Temple, Fetcher and others trekked through the forests to find bear marks on the nearby trees where they built the first two chairlifts Cub Claw and Bear Claw.
Although the two lifts no longer exist, the Bear Claw Condominiums have helped keep Storm Mountain history alive.
When the Thunderhead double chairlift was built in 1965, it also opened a variety of runs new to the local skier: Heavenly Daze, Vertigo, Concentration and Vagabond.
According to “The History of Skiing at Steamboat Springs” by Sureva Towler, three of these runs were picked out of the blue at a party in 1965 at the Stuart Robinson Gallery restaurant in the old Smith ranch house near the Fetchers. The restaurant sat in what is now Torian Plum Plaza.
Concentration was the steepest run before the Four Points lift was added. Fetcher and Gordy Wren spotted a four-point buck near the construction site.
“We were putting in stakes and (Wren) looked up and saw a buck. It was summer you know,” Fetcher said.
An eight-passenger ride up the “Silver Bullet” gondola in 2001 is quite a different sight compared to a six-passenger ride in the “Stagecoach” gondola ride in 1970. The view into the Yampa Valley didn’t include the thousands of condos now built at the base, Gondola Square or the Steamboat Grand Resort.
Suddenly, the bears, elk and deer were pushed aside to make room for a $10 million expansion when LTV Aerospace of Dallas bought Mount Werner in 1969 for $8 million.
Werner said the initial visions were to create a family mountain a mountain that didn’t portray glamour and glitz but family values and a low-key profile.
“We had to have a three-, five- and 10-year plan,” Werner said. “I don’t see much expansion now but I think several lifts should be upgraded and improvements could be made to the runs and the facilities.”
The first owners were Temple, Fetcher and Perry followed by LTV Aerospace, then a Denver syndicate of LTV, a Japanese corporation and finally Steamboat Ski and Resort Corporation, whose parent company is American Skiing Company.
“We hope there’s going to be another soon,” Fetcher said of Ski Corp.’s sale of the ski area.
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