Dolph Kuss laid the foundation for recreation in Durango well before it was at the core of the economy and everyday life.
Kuss, 87, taught thousands of people to ski, helped develop Chapman Hill and Purgatory Resort, and coached two U.S. Olympic ski teams.
“He is really the patriarch of skiing in Durango, there is no doubt about it,” said Mike Elliott, Kuss’ longtime friend and former member of his ski team.
Kuss is best known as a ski racing coach. But his interests and expertise span a variety of outdoor sports. He taught gymnastics, swimming, backpacking, rock climbing and other sports. His legacy includes co-founding Outdoor Pursuits, which teaches Fort Lewis College students about environmental awareness, helps their personal development and builds community – through experiences in the wilderness.
The college will celebrate the program’s 40th anniversary this weekend with a “Dolph Kuss Ski Day” on Saturday at Purgatory Resort, among other events.
Programs designed to introduce students to the outdoors are common at colleges today, but decades ago, they were found mainly at Ivy League schools. John Byrd, co-founder of FLC’s outdoors program, said a similar program at Dartmouth College, in New Hampshire, inspired Kuss.
“Dolph was ahead of his time,” said Chris Nute, who was director of Outdoor Pursuits for nine years.
The program is open to all students and allows them to check out gear for outdoor sports. About 25 to 30 percent of the student body participates in the program, according to FLC.
The program provides experiences that teach students practical skills and self-reliance, Nute said.
“There’s enormous value in being in the out of doors. … You need to be really honest with yourself about what you’re capable of,” Byrd said.
Josh Kling is one of many students who benefited from Kuss’ idea. Kling came to FLC in 2000 because he loved mountain biking, but he soon discovered there was more.
“I just got sucked into the program and all the offerings,” he said.
The experience helped prepare him to start his own business, Kling Mountain Guides, which offers rock, ice and alpine climbing trips.
Elliott, a celebrated skier in his own right, also gives Kuss credit for Durango’s larger transformation from a mining and agricultural town into a destination for outdoor activities.
Kuss served as Durango’s parks and recreation director for about 10 years, and later, FLC hired him to develop the ski team and teach nontraditional classes, such as rock climbing, skiing, camping and kayaking. His skiing classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays were so popular, it was tough for the college to hold other classes during the same time.
Kuss is modest about his role in creating Outdoor Pursuits and developing Durango’s athletic culture.
“There were so many people involved in all these things,” he said. “I didn’t do this by myself.”
But it was his charisma that attracted volunteers and convinced people to donate money to improve recreation opportunities in town, Elliott said.
Kuss moved to Durango in 1953 to run recreation programs jointly supported by La Plata County, city of Durango and Durango School District 9-R. He left his master’s program in education at Western State in Gunnison to take the job. He later completed it to teach physical education at FLC.
“It was really a farming community,” he said of Durango at the time. “A lot of times, I had to be careful not to schedule events during the haying season because (residents) didn’t want their children to be playing when they should be home working.”
Chapman Hill, the in-town ski hill on Florida Road, was already established when he arrived, but the lift was made from components of an old elevator, and skiers would use wrenches or pieces of metal to latch on to the frayed steel cable to take them up the hill.
So Kuss, using money raised by the Rotary Club, purchased an old tow rope lift from Camp Hale in Leadville and brought it to Durango in a dump truck, he said. To expand the terrain, he organized kids in town to help clear the brush.
In the early 1950s, he was the only downhill ski coach in town for a while. He also coached Nordic skiing, a sport he was introduced to by Sven Wiik, an immigrant from Sweden who taught at Western State and coached Olympic teams.
Nordic skiing was a fairly unknown sport in the U.S. when he arrived to town, so Kuss had to import the necessary gear.
As a coach, Kuss was tough on his skiers and used the sport to instill value in what they were doing, said his longtime friend “Dirty” Don Hinkley.
“He always expected those people who were on the team, or trying out for the team, to give it everything that they had,” he said.
But he always had a smile, whether he was happy with you or not, Hinkley said.
“He would look at you with that smile. And that smile simply meant, ‘Well, you better try again,’” he said.
Kuss worked for FLC for about 30 years. He retired in the late 1980s, but he didn’t slow down, continuing to compete in ski races. He tackled tasks on his “bucket list,” such as climbing major peaks, including Chimborazo in Ecuador.
Longtime friends and FLC alumni hope this week’s celebration of Kuss and Outdoor Pursuits reminds the college of the benefits of outdoor education and its ability to recruit and retain students, Byrd said.
Byrd and others see the beautiful surroundings and outdoor education as the school’s natural strength.
“I think there’s all kinds of neat opportunities for Outdoor Pursuits to flourish,” he said.