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This article originally appeared in the convention 2018 issue of the NSAA Journal. Reprinted with permission of the National Ski Areas Association. 

By Carrie Click

Paul “Bear” Rauschke has a succinct way of describing ski area operations.

“We sell people tickets to go uphill,” he said. “Everything spins off from that.”

For Rauschke, ski area operations associate professor at Colorado Mountain College Leadville, “everything else” includes ski area design, slope and trail maintenance, mountain operations, lift management and more.

Those and other aspects of the ski industry are what Rauschke has been teaching hundreds of students over 30 years since he joined the college’s faculty in 1987. He retired in May 2018.

Paul Rauschke

Paul Rauschke spent spring 2018 – his last semester at Colorado Mountain College – on the hill, teaching ski area operations students here at Ski Cooper near Leadville. Photo Doug Stewart

“What we do is still the same,” he said. “It’s just that the $25,000 groomer we used to use now costs $300,000. And what used to be a fixed grip double is now a detachable six- or eight-pack, but the core business product is the same.”

History of CMC’s SAO program

Last year, Colorado Mountain College celebrated its 50th anniversary. In 1967, the college’s two original campuses at Glenwood Springs and Leadville first opened their doors. Founders at the Leadville campus thought a junior college there was in a prime spot for training workers for the Climax Molybdenum mine just up the road.

In 1970 the college introduced a new program to support a growing Colorado industry. The Leadville campus became home to one of the country’s first collegiate ski area operations programs.

The time was ripe and the location was ideal. Based at the campus situated at over 10,000 feet and within an hour of established ski areas such as Ski Cooper, Arapahoe Basin, Breckenridge, Vail, Loveland and Monarch, the college’s new program was directly relevant to prospective students. Dozens of other top areas in the state, including Aspen and Steamboat, were within easy driving distance, and new areas were opening close by, too. Keystone opened in 1970, Copper Mountain in 1972, and Beaver Creek came later, in 1980.

During those first years, Colorado Mountain College offered a year-long certificate that combined hands-on and technical training. Ski instructor Alf Tieze, son-in-law of legendary Colorado ski pioneers Max and Edna Dercum, was one of the first faculty members at the small campus in Leadville.

Other ski industry pros followed suit. Master snowcat operator Dave Montanari worked in lift maintenance in the early days of Telluride Ski Resort, then managed CMC’s ski ops program from 1977 to 1983. He literally wrote the book on lift operations. His textbook, The Ski Lift Operations Handbook, is still cataloged at the CMC Leadville library today. Later, ski ops professor Curt Bender headed up the SAO faculty, teaching over 700 students during his decades at the college.

Recruiting young skiers to study how ski areas operate required a novel approach. “Nobody knew what that looked like,” said Rauschke. CMC ski ops instructors would drive around in a purple bus to local areas, enticing potential students to check out the college’s program.

Today, certificates are still offered for ski area operations management, and for specific areas: electrical or mechanical ropeway technician, and slope and trail maintenance. A two-year associate degree in ski area operations is also offered. And students can turn that degree into a bachelor’s by adding on two years of studies in leadership and management.

Displaying his signature bear paw on his helmet, Rauschke taught his last CMC Leadville ski area ops classes this past spring. Photo Doug Stewart

First student, then professor

Rauschke was having what he calls an early midlife crisis when he arrived in Colorado from Illinois in 1984. He was 28 years old, having graduated in 1978 with a bachelor’s degree in sociology and a minor in philosophy from Illinois State University. Since then, he’d spent a few years managing an outdoor equipment store in Normal, Illinois.

Rauschke landed in Leadville, and began taking classes in the ski ops program from professor Curt Bender. While going to school, he worked at Ski Cooper just minutes from campus, moving through the ranks from lift operations to lift maintenance to lift operations supervisor. With the Associate of Applied Science in ski area operations he earned in 1986, he was offered jobs in lift operations at Breckenridge, Copper and Vail. He picked Vail and worked there winter 1986 and summer 1987.

Colorado Mountain College wasn’t through with Rauschke, though. Two weeks before the start of fall semester in 1987, a teaching position suddenly became available and the SAO program had a position to fill – fast. Rauschke was back at CMC, this time as an instructor.

“I had no intention of teaching,” Rauschke said. “It was never on my radar.”

Looking back, that unintended career choice was apparently a good call, though he continued to stay involved in the ski business. Through the years, he’s been a professional ski patroller; a member of the National Ski Patrol Board of Directors; and president, chair and educational liaison of the Rocky Mountain Lift Association. He worked at, and brought students to work at, the World Alpine Championships in Vail in 1989 and 1999. And he has redesigned the Ski Cooper Ski Patrol – all while teaching at CMC.

“Paul is loved by the students,” said CMC Vice President and Leadville Campus Dean Rachel Pokrandt. “I have had many students this year say that they know Paul is retiring, so they want to spend as much time with him as possible before his departure. The students truly recognize what an amazing resource of knowledge and mentoring they have in Paul.”

A legacy – around the world

Colorado Mountain College’s ski ops alumni reflect the program’s effectiveness. There’s Neil Jackson, senior vice president at Resorts of the Canadian Rockies in Calgary, who graduated with a 4.0 GPA in 1985. Jeff Thompson, longtime Beaver Creek ski patroller, avalanche dog trainer and handler, and trails supervisor and forecaster for the U.S. Forest Service, is a CMC ski area ops alumnus. So are Geoff “Salty” and Allison Kohn Marriner, who recently finished working the Winter Olympics and the XII Paralympics in PyeongChang, South Korea – Geoff as the mountain operations manager at Jeongseon Alpine Centre, and Allison as a snowcat operator.

At times, studying ski area operations with Rauschke has led to rewarding careers off the mountain. Alumni Chris and Hannah Sutton both worked as ski patrollers and trained rescue dogs at Copper Mountain and Beaver Creek after CMC. Today Chris is a battalion fire chief and Hannah is a certified flight registered nurse in Oregon.

“Paul used to say, ‘It’s SAO time,’” Chris said. “He’d say, ‘If you’re on time, you’re late. If you’re early, you’re on time.’ The program gave structure to my life.”

Jason Gusaas, SAO assistant professor at Colorado Mountain College, has seen firsthand the effect Rauschke has on his students.

“I have heard students say things like, ‘I wanted to take classes from Paul because I’ve heard how tough he is and I wanted that challenge and quality education,’” said Gusaas. “Bear has always held high standards in the classroom and has helped mold numerous employees to the ski industry. He is hands down the most knowledgeable individual on the subject of ski area operations that I have ever met.”

What’s next?

Rauschke retired at the end of spring semester this May. What is next for him, and for the program he’s shaped for so many years? He is planning to do some work for nonprofit organizations, consult on a limited basis, travel on and off his motorcycle and, “after too long a hiatus,” he said, return to playing the bass. And Colorado Mountain College is searching to fill Rauschke’s position.

The program operates with two full-time ski area ops professors, supplemented by a number of adjunct faculty that round out the curriculum’s demands. The college is searching for ski area industry professionals with EMT certification, on-mountain experience and PSIA level 8 skiing/riding ability who also have at least one year of teaching experience. The position begins in August 2018; information is available at coloradomtn.edu.

There’s no question Rauschke’s position will be a challenging one to fill. Terresa Herbst, Colorado Mountain College Leadville assistant dean of instruction, said that Rauschke’s teaching style has served the SAO program well.

“Paul is always trying new things,” Herbst said. “He thinks about how students will understand information and changes up the delivery.”

“Bear has guided my career and purpose in life,” said alumnus and fire battalion chief Chris Sutton. “Whether it be the ski industry, our fire district or our nation on disaster incidents, it’s a desire to serve, and to leave things better than you found them.”