For Kim Nearpass-Pollack, the most magical ski day at Copper Mountain involved a 40-minute solo hike along the rocky ridgeline that led to Tucker Mountain, where she was always rewarded with a pristine descent through untouched powder.
She’s afraid those days are over now.
This winter, Copper opens its newest chairlift—Three Bears—a fixed grip triple chair taking skiers from the base of Copper Bowl up to about 12,400 feet near the summit of Tucker Mountain and thus providing much easier access to some of the resort’s most desirable extreme terrain.
“Tucker Mountain has always been a special occasion kind of deal,” says Nearpass-Pollack, a Frisco local and long-time Copper Mountain skier. “Hiking along that ridge with Jacque Peak in the distance and ravens circling over your head, it was sort of a spiritual thing. It always felt like the backcountry. I was bummed to hear about the new lift. I get it’s about progress, expansion, and development, but I’m not a fan.”
Talk of a lift on Tucker Mountain has been happening for decades. Construction launched last spring, as Copper staff worked with the U.S. Forest Service to minimize the lift’s environmental footprint by logging and cutting while the area was still covered in snow (sparing the sensitive landscape underneath) and using helicopters to transport large pieces of material.
Ski patrol snow safety supervisor Max Tyler was one of many employees and contractors to spend nearly every day of last summer slogging heavy conduits and cable straight up the steep slopes on foot from the service road below. Depending on snow conditions, Three Bears chairlift is scheduled to open in late December.
“Tucker has been in the permit area since the early ’70s,” Tyler says. “You stare at it from across the way and as soon as you see it, you’re like, it’s built to be skied. Really, the unique thing about its trails is that they are natural avalanche paths. They are not cut runs. It’s been a secret stash for folks willing to put forth the effort to get out there.”
Other than hoofing it across the ridgeline from the top of Copper Bowl for 40 minutes to an hour, Copper patrol offered free Sno-Cat rides on the weekends, taking stuffed cabs (10 to 16 at a time) of passengers to the saddle between West Ridge and Tucker, effectively cutting the hike in half.
“We’d easily have 100 people there, two Cats running laps as fast as possible,” Tyler says. “People would go straight back there to wait in line on a powder day and a lot of times we were turning away huge groups of people at the end of the day.”
North-facing and historically snow-loaded, Tucker Mountain has always posed a challenge for avalanche control work. There have already been a number of early season slides on the double black-rated trails, which were renamed this season (“Denverite,” “Boulderado,” etc.) in conjunction with the new lift. In order to render the area safe for skiing, it takes hours and even days of mitigation work, largely comprised of skier compaction, which Tyler believes will become much easier with the new lift as well as the newly constructed, solar-powered patrol duty station on top of Tucker and an amplified patrol staff, including five added positions.
“For years, it’s been far and away our most challenging piece of terrain in terms of avalanche hazards,” he says. “The lift will fundamentally transform that whole area.”
For some long-time Copper skiers like Nearpass-Pollack, who always cherished Tucker’s opportunity to escape the crowds, the transformation will detract from her ski experience.
“My thing is to always find the least-populated area of the mountain,” she says. “One of the awesome things about Copper is how the mountain is divided by ability. You have Center Village for intermediates, the black East Village area, then you have—or had—that whole expert backcountry experience. Maybe Tucker will still provide that, but maybe it will step down a notch in terms of serenity and excitement. The snow will definitely get tracked out a lot faster.”
There is no denying that tracked out snow is a foregone conclusion with the new chairlift. Even Tyler, who has always reveled in skiing Tucker on his days off, admits to being a little sad about the loss of the backcountry-like hiking experience, but is ultimately looking forward to Tucker’s fresh, lift-served horizon.
“I really believe it’s still going to be a special place,” he says. “It’s always going to be kind of wild, even with a lift running up it. You’re still going to stand on that ridge with the wind whipping around you and even though there’s a metal lift to hurl you up there, it’s going to feel rugged.”