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A new plan for Colorado’s Cuchara Mountain, but this time it’s not about skiing and condos

Florida entrepreneurs want to develop an adventure hub at long-dormant ski area
Shayne Young takes a quick look at Lift #4 at Cuchara Mountain Park, where the co-founder of Moss Adventures hopes to revive the dormant ski area as a year-round destination. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun)

CUCHARA – Mike Moore was in the galley kitchen of his bed-and-breakfast last summer preparing eggs for his guests in this southern Colorado village, when he overheard a pair of visitors discussing their plans to develop a headquarters for their nascent adventure company.

The two, Jeff Moss and Shayne Young, were in town to look at a 130-acre parcel near Weston Pass. They wanted to build a one-of-a-kind adventure retreat, where their guests could learn about the outdoors and prepare for expeditions in Young’s customized Land Rovers.

“The next morning, he had all these maps laid out for us,” Moss said.

“I said ‘Let’s go for a quick drive,’” said Moore, a former accountant and ski instructor who moved from Vail to Cuchara in the early 1990s.

Moore, who has spent 20 years fighting to revive the dormant Cuchara ski area, pitched an ambitious idea, and Moss and Young tabled their plans to buy acreage up Weston Pass. Now, more than a year-and-a-half later, the two Florida entrepreneurs want to revive the community-owned ski area that has not turned its lifts since 2001, which would mark the first time in Colorado history that a ski area has been resuscitated with the same lifts after a sustained closure.

Since its inception in 1981, Cuchara Mountain has drawn a parade of Texas investors with big dreams. They promised new lifts and condos. They brought in professional sports teams, movie stars and orchestras. But not one of the deep-pocketed Texans could get around the fickle snow and blasting winds that challenged the southern Colorado ski area that last hosted lift-riding skiers in 2000.

A skier descends Cuchara Valley ski area in the 1990s. (Paul Smith/Special to The Colorado Sun)

“What makes us different is that we are not trying to turn this into a ski resort,” said Young, an Aussie whose adventures traveling the globe in a tricked out Land Rover inspires the pair’s Moss Adventures plan. “We know that doesn’t work. It’s already been proven time and time again: just a ski mountain is not economically viable.”

Expeditions, tents and skiing

The Moss Adventures plan is different from the ski-anchored real estate plays trumpeted by rich Texans since the 1980s. The two entrepreneurs want to revive the Moss Tents brand, started by Jeff’s dad Bill Moss in the 1950s with the first-ever lightweight backpacking expedition tent. And they plan to champion the legacy of Land Rovers, which Young has outfitted for long haul expeditions for several decades. And now they want to revive the abandoned Cuchara Mountain.

“The legacy of Land Rover. The legacy of Moss Tents and the legacy of Cuchara Mountain. It’s all coming together serendipitously,” said Moss, who spent 25 years in marketing building film, lodging and beverage brands.

The proposal looks something like this: Huerfano County leases the county-owned 47-acre park to Moss Adventures for $1 a month, to start, and helps Moss and Young pay utilities for the first year or so. They quickly pump about a million dollars into the place, starting with operating costs for a recently repaired 1982 Riblet double-chair that could – pending approval by the Colorado Passenger Tramway Safety Board – ferry winter skiers and summer hikers and bikers to the top of the park. They would build a magic carpet lift for beginning skiers and an army of winter and summer tubers. They would nestle six, maybe 12, 200-square-foot Moss tents on platforms around the park.

They would erect a larger Moss tent – for an event space and classroom – atop the old ski patrol headquarters and rehab the tired day lodge. Down the road, there’s plans to upgrade two other chairlifts. They want to build an amphitheater, an eco-farm, climbing walls and an ice rink. They want to develop a roster of nonprofit youth programs, a search and rescue training center and educational programs with free access for locals. They have a long to-do list.

Shayne Young, in driver’s seat, chats with a maintenance crew member, Jeremy Golnik, on Nov. 22 at the Cuchara Mountain Park. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun)

On a level patch of dirt between the dilapidated chairlifts and 1980s-era condos, a previous owner had erected a tent for a poorly attended orchestral concert. Young sees the spot as perfect for a hockey-sized ice rink. Maybe a bike pump track in the summer.

“We’ll have it nicely lit with lighting you can do from underneath,” he said. “We’ll probably put bleachers up there for the parents so they can watch their kids. That doesn’t take much to offer something no one else is doing.”

Moss and Young say that a lot: no one else is doing this. Where previous owners at Cuchara were following a well worn but ultimately doomed path – using skiing to sell condos – Moss Adventures plots a new tack, using a year-round adventure playground to sell what Moss calls “transformational experiences.”

The overarching plan is to develop Cuchara Mountain Park as a showcase venue to introduce guests to Moss Adventures’ “Grand Expeditions,” which will ferry paying clients in fleets of kitted-out Land Rovers on themed backcountry adventures. Their dream, which will debut at Cuchara, includes expeditions revolving around backcountry cooking, surfing, desert rock climbing, mountaineering, whale watching and wine tours in Mexico, fly-fishing, photography ... that list is also long.

Even further down the road, Moss Adventures hopes to secure a new permit with the U.S. Forest Service to access surrounding public land, where visitors can hike, ski or pedal to a network of huts built out of shipping containers. More Moss Adventures hubs could sprout in Utah, Montana and other remote locations.

The top of Cuchara Mountain Park’s #4 lift, seen on Nov. 22. The Riblet double chair installed in 1982 served skiers until 2001. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun)

But before anything happens, the two need to convince locals and Huerfano County commissioners that they can deliver. They say investors are waiting for approval and they have sketched plans to invest millions into the park. The locals, who have heard a lot of promises from big-dreaming out-of-towners over the decades, are largely on board. It’s been nearly 20 years since anything has happened in the valley that goes dark for several months every winter. And it’s been a while since anyone has offered new ideas at Cuchara.

‘Breathe life into something that is dead’

Mike Christian has lived in Cuchara with his wife Jacqueline for 28 years, raising a family and, most recently, opening Cuchara’s Higher Ground Coffee Bar. Since the 1990s, there have been a lot of owners coming to the valley “and blowing smoke,” he told the county commissioners last week.

“We bought into it many times and many times we’ve watched it die on the vine,” he said. “You get to the point where you feel like there’s no hope and you start moving on with your dreams.”

Jacqueline Christian said Cuchara wants to join economic progress she sees across Colorado.

“This is our opportunity with this group to bring in hope and bring futures to our young people and breathe life into something that is dead,” she said.

Moss and Young still need to convince the leaders of Huerfano County, which has about 6,900 residents; 20% of them living below the federal poverty line.

The Huerfano County commissioners, following nearly three hours of public comment last week that mostly supported the Moss Adventures plan, asked Moss and Young about the source of their funding for the project. Young said “a group of private investors” was ready to invest following an agreement with the county, calling the project “a flagship and proving grounds for our platform.”

Moss and Young repeatedly said they had no desire to accommodate big crowds like those seen at larger ski areas. Their plan is based on limited crowds, they said.

“This is a way to not turn it into a Disneyland but would make it more of a destination,” said Jimmy Baker, a former lift mechanic at Winter Park ski area who has spent two years volunteering in the rehabilitation of Lift #4. “This could change everything in the county and make things a lot better.”

Huerfano County Commissioner John Galusha, who was the county manager for 14 years until elected to the board in 2020, wants Moss Adventures to pay a $500,000 “irrevocable promissory note” before signing a contract with the county that would grow to $1 million as long-term plans unfold.

Jimmy Baker, a former lift mechanic at Winter Park ski area who has spent two years volunteering at Cuchara Mountain Park, vacuums the dust inside the engine room of the park’s Lift #4 on Nov. 22. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun)

Commissioner Arica Andreatta supported the idea of a security bond, expressing concern that Moss and Young were seeking help with utility payments in the first year as well as a $12-a-year lease. After hearing county residents’ worries about public access at the park, Andreatta asked the two entrepreneurs to better outline how their project will remain a community park while making money.

“What we hear sounds great but it’s not consistent with what we are reading in the proposal,” she said.

The commissioners, after asking for more details on investment and possible fees paid by Moss Adventures as the project developed, ultimately agreed to begin negotiating with Moss and Young.

One response to the call for concessionaires

Following the on-again, off-again history of Cuchara ski area and its rotating cast of seven Texas owners, the Forest Service yanked the ski area’s permit to operate on about 345 acres of federal land in 2002. Another Texas investment group tried to revive the ski area in 2004. A group of local investors tried again in 2010.

Jeff Moss, right visits with locals in a renovated base area building at Cuchara Mountain Park on Nov. 22. (Jason Blevins/The Colorado Sun)

Today, the village a few miles from the ski slopes, which bustles with thousands of visitors every summer, shuts down for winter. In 2017, a group of local residents with the Cuchara Foundation raised $150,000 from part-time residents of the valley to give to Huerfano County to buy 47 acres at the base of the former ski area, which created the county-owned Cuchara Mountain Park.

The foundation, and the nonprofit Panadero Ski Corp., have continued to raise money to pay for lift repairs. A small crew of volunteers has shepherded the resurrection of the Lift #4, which climbs about 200 vertical feet to the top of the park and reaches five trails. But the county and nonprofits always planned on having a private concessionaire run the skiing.

When the county put out a request for proposal to possible operators of the mountain park in July, they received one response. From Moss Adventures.

“We’ve spent more than 17 years looking for these guys,” Moore said.

The Moss Adventures plan follows the recommendations in the Cuchara Mountain Park Master Plan, which was created in 2018. That master plan calls for revamping the day lodge, building a cafe, carving an amphitheater into the hillside and developing other amenities like an outdoor classroom, bike trails, winter and summer tubing, canopy tours, yurt camping, climbing walls and playgrounds. The plan details the business models for several community ski areas, including Leadville’s Ski Cooper, Silverton’s Kendall Mountain and Steamboat Springs’ Howelsen Hill, all owned by local governments.

“Few community ski areas are profitable or break even and many rely on government subsidies to operate,” the master plan reads.

Jim Littlefield, a longtime resident and member of the Cuchara Mountain Park’s advisory council said the Panadero Ski Corp. has plowed about $10,000 of donated money into Lift #4 and the group is “about out of funds ... we have no working capital to hire or pay the bills.”

Three chairlifts at Cuchara Mountain Park were installed in the early 1980s and last carried skiers in 2001. Investors hope to use the chairs for both summer and winter activities. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun)

“Our volunteers are tired and few in number,” he told the commissioners. “Let’s get on with this.”

Skiers, tubers, expedition vacationers drive revenue projections

Moss and Young have spent five years dreaming up their vision of an adventure expedition company using Young’s customized Land Rovers. Young and his wife have traveled the world in Land Rovers and developed a chain of mechanics shops that specialize in rehabilitating the storied British trucks.

The Moss Adventures idea includes reviving Moss Tents. Moss’ father, Maine fabric artist and designer William Moss, created the first-ever freestanding, backpacking tent in 1956, with fabric stretched over thin, bent poles. His designs replaced historic canvas-walled tents erected with rigid poles and ropes.

Moss and Young are optimistic in their financial projections. In their first winter of operation, they estimate 650 skiers and 1,250 tubers a week will generate about $1.3 million in revenue from tickets and gear rental. Visitors in the summer could generate more than $1 million. After expenses the pair estimate making $1.5 million in net income in their first year. By their fifth year, more than 18,000 skiers – and more than 95,000 paying wintertime tubers and warm-weather slip-and-slide riders – will drive revenues beyond $5 million a year. (Those seemingly ambitious tubing numbers come from the Cuchara Mountain Park Master Plan, which suggests 10,000 to 40,000 tubers every winter could spend up to $1 million.)

Moss and Young estimated the cost of getting up and running at $2.2 million, which included $835,000 in lift work and snowmaking systems, $360,000 for a dozen tent sites and $170,000 for 10 Land Rovers. If the plan unfolds to script, Moss and Young expect to employ 50 year-round workers and spend about $1.7 million a year on operations.

Moss Adventures co-founder Jeff Moss stands outside the lift shack atop Lift #4, which soon begin spinning after 20 years at Cuchara Mountain Park. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun)

Chris Smith and Donna Van Treese bought the two base area buildings at the bottom of the ski slope in 2018. Squatters had been living in the former restaurant and lodge for many years. For sport, they had hurled hundreds of dining plates against a cafeteria wall. They had slowly begun ripping boards from the sprawling deck for firewood.

“Wow, was it a mess,” said Van Treese, who moved up from Oklahoma with her husband, Smith, to begin work on the buildings three years ago.

They’ve cleaned up most of the buildings, which now include a mercantile and event space where the couple hosted 12 weddings this summer. They’ve rehabbed the rental shop and are planning to develop hostel-style dorm rooms. Van Treese and Smith haven’t really gone public with their plans. They’ve been too busy repairing buildings that were abandoned 20 years ago.

Volunteers at Cuchara Mountain Park have rehabilitated Lift #4, which could soon begin spinning after 20 years. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun)

“That’s what I like about these guys,” said Van Treese, as she organized snacks and cheese platters in her base area cafeteria for dozens of local residents who gathered to hear from Moss and Young last week. “They came in and listened. They didn’t bring that huge hype that has always happened in the past.”

Last week Moss and Young met with several dozen local residents in Van Treese’s timbered cafeteria. The two spread out glossy photos of outdoor activities and Moss tents. During a long Q&A, the investors answered questions about public access, plans to work with the local community and long-term plans.

“These guys will bring our community a rippling effect,” said Charity Baker, who helps the county promote safety at Cuchara Mountain Park. “They will give us an opportunity. Let’s give these guys a chance. That’s all we really need is a chance.”

‘Avengers of Adventure’

The San Isabel National Forest has been notoriously reluctant to renew talks about a new permit at Cuchara Mountain. The chairlifts remain on federal land, but they are in disrepair and need close to $1 million in repairs. The previous district ranger for the forest’s San Carlos district, Paul Crespin, tempered the expectations of outside investors eager to bring skiing back to Cuchara, reminding them of the troubled history of owners at the ski area. When the Forest Service revoked the ski area’s permit in 2002, Crespin warned locals that any new plan would have to prove a sustainability that had evaded previous owners.

The Forest Service wants to see traffic to warrant an expansion of ski terrain at a ski resort. Ski areas with proven pressure from growing numbers of skiers, like Breckenridge, Arapahoe Basin and Copper Mountain, have secured federal approval for adding acres of skiable terrain. The agency does not tend to approve expansion proposals from resort operators who hope additional terrain will lure more crowds.

San Carlos District Ranger Destiny Chapman said the forest would screen any proposal from Moss and Young and conduct an environmental analysis of any development on public land.

Moss Adventures’ Jeff Moss and Shayne Young chat from the top of Cuchara Mountain Park on Nov. 22 in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun)

The Moss Adventures plan to offer year-round activities with less reliance on skiing “is a different approach than prior operators at Cuchara who focused entirely on lift-served skiing,” Chapman said.

Moss and Young know they will have to prove their concept before proposing a new special-use permit with the Forest Service. They have met with officials from the San Isabel National Forest and, if they secure an agreement with the county to operate the park, they do plan to eventually pursue a permit to access federal land around the park. That would require review under the National Environmental Policy Act, which is not quick.

They want to present the Forest Service with every possible use of federal land that might happen at the park. They said the agency does not want a piecemeal proposal, where they submit new proposed uses every year or so.

“They want to see our whole plan,” Young said.

Moss and Young were dejected after the commissioner hearing in the 1904 courthouse in downtown Walsenburg last week, where the real estate boom that seems to be sweeping across every corner of Colorado has yet to reach. Moss and Young wondered if the obstacles of working with a county and a nonprofit may be more challenging than if they were simply purchasing land from a private owner.

The lifts stopped turning at Cuchara Valley in 2001 and following a history of closures at the southern Colorado ski area, the Forest Service pulled its permit to operate on public land in 2002. (Paul Smith/Special to The Colorado Sun)

They are adjusting their original plan to accommodate the needs of the county and the locals. They like the idea of having nearly turnkey nonprofits ready to provide access for local school kids, which is a tenet of their entire business plan. When asked why they don’t just go out and buy a parcel and build from scratch, Moss said: “We ask ourselves that every day.”

But, Moss said, they have an obligation to the army of volunteers who have spent nearly two years working with them to craft this plan.

“They are counting on us to do this and help them with incomes so they can build their dreams,” he said.

Moss and Young regrouped after the meeting and honed a plan for negotiating with the county, which wants to see Moss Adventures meet certain metrics before forging a long-term plan that would help assuage their investors.

“The wind is back in our sails,” he said, before repeating a name for Moss Adventures that a supporter used during the meeting with the commissioners. “We are the ‘Avengers of Adventure.’ I like that.”

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.