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Old mining shacks are becoming backcountry ski huts in Colorado’s high country

The North London Mill preservation project in Park County aims to use a long-abandoned gold mill site for outdoor education as part of rural Colorado's shift from extraction to recreation

Skiers led by avalanche educator Abe Pacharz skin toward Mosquito Peak above the North London Mill where Jeff Crane, blue jacket, and his partner Kate McCoy are developing a backcountry ski base. (Zach Mahone, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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ALMA — As the skiers approached a century-old mining shack in a clearing, views of the wind-ravaged slopes below London Mountain and Mosquito Peak emerged through the trees. 

“Anyone see anything that concerns them?” asked ski guide and avalanche educator Abe Pacharz, waiting for someone to point out recent avalanches on the flanks of the peaks.

“That’s what I’m talking about,” said Jeff Crane. “We are all about education.”

Crane and his partner, Kate McCoy, are mingling historic preservation at the site of Park County’s North London Mill with recreation on their mission to restore the antiquated mining structures in Mosquito Gulch and manage them for backcountry travelers. It’s yet another Colorado example of mountain recreation being tapped as an economic pillar in regions where extractive industry has long dominated. 

The North London Mill started processing ore from dozens of mines bored into London Mountain in the 1880s and lasted almost 70 years before falling into disrepair. The monument to one of the richest gold strikes in the state is now a shell of creaking timber and stone, a relic of Colorado’s gold rush. 

But what remains from Colorado’s rich mining history are two lasting legacies: hundreds of miles of mountain tunnels spewing heavy metals into watersheds and even more miles of roads crisscrossing the high country, delivering access to remote peaks. Innovative approaches to both those legacies are on display below London Mountain.

Unmute the video above to hear narration from Jason Blevins.

On one side of the mountain, Crane and McCoy are deploying backcountry skiing and heritage tourism to protect the withering remnants of Colorado’s mining history. On the other side, an entrepreneur is mining water at the dormant and toxic London Mine to sate thirsty Front Range communities. 

MORE: Aurora spent $34 million on water from a toxic mine. It’s not as crazy as it sounds.

Biologist, chemist and metallurgical engineer Joe Harrington owns most of the land around the London Mine and North London Mill. He’s filtering water that tumbles from the dormant mine while tunneling into an underground aquifer so he can divert clean water into South Mosquito Creek before it can trickle through the mine’s toxic metals. Last year, the City of Aurora paid Harrington $34 million for rights to 1,400 acre-feet of his water, enough to serve 3,500 households. Another $80 million is on the table if he can deliver more from that aquifer.

“In many ways, Joe is mining water and we are mining water, too. Ours is just in a different form,” said Crane, a Denver native and ski instructor. 

The original high-country winter transportation? Skiing.

Some of the first backcountry skiing in Colorado was done on Mosquito Pass. Methodist minister Rev. John Lewis Dyer in the late 1800s often traversed the Tenmile and Mosquito ranges on his 10-foot wooden skis, delivering mail and preaching at remote mining camps.

Those old mining camps have given way to recreation across most of Colorado’s high country, with former hardscrabble villages like Telluride and Aspen evolving into playgrounds. The transformation continues today, evidenced by recent plans to build a gondola and village at Idaho Springs’ historic Argo Mill

“We are transitioning from mining natural resources in Colorado to mining a new resource in backcountry recreation and powder skiing,” said Parchaz, whose Colorado Adventure Guides has partnered with Crane and McCoy to provide guided tours and avalanche education courses at the site.  

The nonprofit North London Mill Preservation, Inc., group has gathered support from the History Colorado State Historical Fund and the Gates Family Foundation to begin renovation of the North London Mill office, which the group plans to convert into a backcountry hut for skiers. Future plans ponder the renovation of the mill, which began processing ore from hundreds of mines below Mosquito Pass in the late 1880s. (Zach Mahone, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Where Harrington is making big money, Crane and McCoy’s nonprofit North London Mill Preservation is relying on grants. They have received funding from the History Colorado State Historical Fund and the Gates Family Foundation to renovate structures, as well as support from the National Park Service’s South Park National Heritage Area and the Park County Land and Water Trust to provide summer history and archeology tours and improve access to the site. 

Last summer they hired historical renovation engineers and architects to rebuild the foundation and interior of the North London Mill’s 1883 office. They jacked up the building, replaced the foundation and rebuilt the interior, which will eventually be a backcountry hut with indoor plumbing and bunks for as many as 10. A second round of funding will pay for windows and roof work on the office, which will be left with only its original beams and framing once the project is complete. 

Crane and McCoy are fundraising to match $25,000 provided by the Gates Family Foundation and waiting to hear about an application for a second round of support from the State Historical Fund. And they are planning more renovations, hoping to create a backcountry destination that could host as many as 25 travelers a night.

Crane and McCoy have surveyed the mill’s former assay office, which is now among the restored and reconstructed exhibitions in Fairplay’s open-air South Park City Museum, and they plan to rebuild a replica of the assay office on its existing foundation at the mill site. That will be a smaller hut, maybe for guides or a skiing couple. A former bunkhouse near the office could be converted into another hut.

Jeff Crane, left, speaks with Craig Dostie, right, inside the partially renovated office of the North London Mill, where Crane and his nonprofit North London Mill Preservation Inc. hope to soon host backcountry skiers as part of plan to protect the mill site’s antiquated structures through recreation. (Zach Mahone, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety has secured federal funding to stabilize the 1892 mill with work scheduled to begin next summer. Eventually, Crane envisions a complete rehab of the giant mill. 

Crane and McCoy have partnered with Pacharz’s Colorado Adventure Guides to offer avalanche education, rescue and backcountry skiing courses, as well as backcountry tours on the low-angle slopes above the mill. 

Pacharz said Colorado Adventure Guides is seeing increasing demand for avalanche education. 

“Especially with the historic winter we had last year,” he said. “Busier ski areas, a parking lot on I-70 and a growing population in the Front Range is pushing more people into the backcountry.”

And the slopes beneath Mosquito Pass offer ideal teaching terrain, with plenty of visible avalanche danger on steep slopes, but a wide valley that allows for safe travel with little exposure to snow slides. 

“We want our students to look at a map and identify the avalanche terrain and create an approach route that will avoid it. This is a great spot for that because we can see it, we can avoid it and we can still get up to some skiable terrain. So we are creating safe access,” said Pacharz, huddling in the recently rebuilt office after a short skin from the trailhead along Mosquito Creek. “It’s a great place for problem-solving and decision-making exercises. Just plenty of teachable moments up here.”

Colorado Adventure Guides Abe Pacharz likes Mosquito Gulch as a venue for backcountry skiing and avalanche education because the wide valley offers views of avalanche terrain without exposing students to the threat of avalanches. Jeff Crane, seen to the left, hopes his nonprofit group’s conversion office of the North London Mill into a backcountry ski hut helps spark further renovation of the mill’s structures. (Zach Mahone, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Crane knows that already. In three years since he and McCoy approached the water-mining Harrington with a plan to offer recreation on both his land and Forest Service land, their plan has evolved. The idea of a pure backcountry ski area was dashed by the vicious winds that lash the peaks, making travel difficult and raising avalanche hazards on the high slopes. As they studied the area more, they recognized the need to protect the North London Mill’s historical, yet fading, structures and identified a better business model that blended preservation, education and recreation. 

Park County planner John Deagan said he hopes the North London Mill project lures visitors who may return to explore more areas of the county and could “serve as an example for other entrepreneurs.”

When Crane and McCoy first proposed their plan in an area zoned for mining, county rules limited development to businesses like a museum, a private home or a bed and breakfast. The county recently changed its regulations to allow outdoor recreation businesses in mining zones.   

“Without that change,” Deagan said, “what Jeff and Kate want to do would not have been possible. We’ve received a few inquiries about their sort of business over the past couple of years.”


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