The community ski hill
Grassroots get Chapman Hill up and running

Members of the Durango Winter Sports Foundation, including head coach Kirk Rawles, foreground, work to boot pack Chapman Hill on Tuesday afternoon until the new/used snowcat arrives. The DWSF has offered to step in and help staff the hill with volunteers on weekdays in order to keep the tow rope running and the ski hill operating on a regular basis depsite a lack of paid staff./Photo by Stephen Eginoire

by Missy Votel

Things are looking up at Chapman Hill. Not only has the last pipe been placed for ’s long-sought after snowmaking system, but Mother Nature kicked in a foot of fresh to get the ball rolling this week. And when budget cuts threatened to limit the hill’s operating schedule this winter, volunteers and members of the Durango Winter Sports Foundation stepped in to put the icing on the cake.

“The ski team, coaches and parents are going to volunteer to help out with lifts, mountain safety and hill maintenance,” said DWSF program director Kirk Rawles.

Freestyle and alpine team members were out on the hill last week clearing brush in anticipation of the beginning of snowmaking season. “The shorter the brush, the less snow we need to get good coverage,” explained Rawles.

On Monday night, DWSF members met with Chapman Hill Manager Matt Morrissey to work out a plan to staff the mountain on weeknights and help out paid staff on weekends. “The ski hill doesn’t have funds for additional operating time, so we’re trying to offset being open extra hours with volunteers,” said Morrissey on Tuesday afternoon. At the time, he was working feverishly to get the hill up and running in time for skiing that night.

“The Sports Foundation committed to staffing us with four days of volunteers, Monday through Thursday, to help run the lower lift on nights when there is ski practice,” said Morrissey. all volunteers will undergo safety training as per Colorado Tram Board requirements, he said.

Inferno snowboard shop has expressed interest in helping out as well. “The staff has volunteered to help out, which will also help them, because we’ll be open more regularly,” said Morrissey.

In addition, Rawles said students at Animas High School are pitching in to design features for the terrain park as part of a school project, and the DWSF will be working to set up gates, a mogul course and will provide signage, ropes and bamboo poles for the hill. There are also plans for DWSF skiers to partner up with school kids as “ski buddies” for after school programs.

Up until this week, the Chapman Ski Hill was looking at a late-December opening to offer ample time and cold temperatures to ramp up snowmaking. “The plan was to start making snow this Tuesday, basically we just finished putting the lines in,” said Morrissey. Representatives from the snow gun company were in town earlier this week to help with the test run of the two new system – a moot point for now. “Obviously, things have changed dramatically,” Morrissey said, adding this is the most snow he’s seen this early in the season in his 10 years at Chapman.

The Durango parks crew will be responsible for snowmaking operations. In addition to the main line on the ski hill, a water line was also run to the sledding hill to the north of the skating rink. Although there is no plan to bring snowmaking to the sledding hill right now, the capability exists for future use, Morrissey said. “Right now, we’re just trying to get the sledding hill open with natural snow,” he said.

In addition to the $500,000 snowmaking system, Chapman Hill also procured a used Bombardier snowcat this fall for $115,000. The winch cat, which will replace the hill’s current 1973 snowcat, is expected to arrive in the next couple of weeks. Rawles said the snowcat is as important, if not more, in maintaining the ski hill base than the snowmaking. “With the weight of the cat packing down the snow, and the density of the manmade, it’ll keep the hill in better shape, longer,” said Rawles. “We anticipate going until mid-March.”

He said the extended hill time will benefit DWSF skiers, who head to Junior Olympics in New Hampshire in March.

In the meantime, Rawles and ski team members and coaches were out boot packing the hill Tuesday. “With the natural snow, we can fill in the blanks and stomp down a good base until the cat gets here.”

With cold temperatures forecast for the next few days, Rawles said it should provide good conditions to test the new snowmaking system and work out some kinks. However, he admitted there will likely be some trial and error this year. Nevertheless, he sees the 2009-10 season as the tip of the iceberg for Chapman Hill’s propects. “We’re developing a winter sports complex in the middle of town, the potential is great,” he said, adding there was even talk of incorporating the nearby Gun Club for Nordic biathlon practice. “You never know, we could have two more Olympians in biathlon.”

Morrissey said after several years of a sometimes-uphill battle getting the ski hill going, this year’s outpouring of help has been a welcome relief. “The Sports Foundation has been more than extraordinary with their effort,” said Morrissey. “It’s exciting. For the first time, it’s more than just a few people wanting to get involved.” •



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