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Colorado's largest ski area turns 50
Vail arose from humble beginnings
VAIL • Call it that aha moment.
For Morrie Shepard, it was the first time he rode up from the empty valley that would become Vail and saw what would become known as the Back Bowls. That ride in a snowcat offered stellar views, limitless wide-open terrain and, most importantly, heaps of snow.
“All I had to do was look from one end to the other and I thought, ‘This is going to be fantastic because nobody had seen anything like this before (in a ski area),” said Shepard, who quickly accepted the job as the first ski school director at Vail.
Skiers have been experiencing the aha moment in the Back Bowls of Vail for 50 years. It’s the largest ski resort in the state and one of the more well-known in the world, an area that for many is synonymous with Colorado skiing.
How it got that way is the story of a small cadre of skiers and businessmen who built a town and ski area out of nothing, and generations of operators who kept pushing deeper into the mountains in an everlasting search for powder.
Photo gallery: Vail, then and now
Starting from scratch
Pete Seibert was many things — World War II veteran, businessman — but first and foremost a skier.
Shepard, a childhood friend, remembers their days in the Massachusetts backwoods, cutting ski runs on neighbors’ property and sweating to make six turns before the snow melted.
“We’d ski anytime we had a chance,” Shepard said. “At night with no lights, it didn’t make a difference.”
Seibert served in the 10th Mountain Division during the war and returned home with an even greater passion for the sport, working at Aspen. It was there he met Earl Eaton, who in 1957 took him for a hike on the slopes above Colorado Highway 6, an area drivers never saw.
here, Seibert had his aha moment.
‘’My God, Earl, we’ve climbed all the way to heaven,” Seibert said that day.
A fire had torn through the area at one point, leaving a winter playground that was below timberline, not exposed to brutal winds and devoid of trees.
Seibert quietly began buying marginal ranchland on the valley floor — the area was desolate and had few permanent residents — and seeking investors. An investment of $10,000 got you a plot for a home or business and a lifetime ski pass. Interstate 70 was on the drawing board and, while the exact route hadn’t been set, it seemed likely to run through the valley. In homage to the importance of highways, the area was named Vail for a past state highway official.
Envisioning a European-village feel, Seibert hired Pepi Gramshammer, a native Austrian and one of the world’s top ski racers, as his ambassador. Gramshammer enticed investors and reporters from around the world.
Seibert couldn’t always pay in cash, so he paid in land. He brought filmmaker Roger Cotton Brown to Vail and gave him a plot of land to produce videos. The land was worth $2,500 at the time. When Brown sold it a few years later, he received $300,000.
It would be worth millions today.
A ‘can-do’ attitude
Relaxing in the gondola last week, Shepard, at 87, was about to start his 79th season of skiing.
In a dry fall, the fact there’s skiing at all is a testament to Vail’s snowmaking prowess — something that’s been evident for decades now.
“We opened for business on Dec. 15 and, oddly enough, 50 years ago it was just like this. We hardly had any snow,” Shepard recalled.
In just one summer, after Seibert raised the $1.8 million he needed to launch, crews built a gondola to Mid-Vail, a chairlift to the summit and another into the Sun Down Bowl. They built 30 homes and several hotels and lodges.
Lift tickets were $5.
While disappointing, the lack of winter weather helped developers finish the infrastructure needed for the inaugural season. After Seibert invited the Ute Indians to perform a snow dance, winter finally arrived. So did the skiers.
“Vail, right from the beginning, was made up of ski bums and millionaires, and they both showed up at the same time,” Brown said. “They couldn’t get along without each other because the ski bums were the real workforce; they were the ski patrollers, the bartenders.”
Building a new town and a ski area was no small feat, and old-timers talk of a “can-do” community spirit that pervaded the early days.
Said Shepard: “I also was fire chief and building inspector, as well as director of the ski school. But that was common when we were building Vail. Everybody did everything, whether they knew how or not. They had to figure it out.”
When snow fell, people turned out to boot-pack the runs because that’s how it was done before grooming equipment. They did it without pay because of their love for skiing.
“We were all 50 years younger and much more enthusiastic,” Shepard said.
A growing concern
As far as Gramshammer is concerned, America’s best president wasn’t George Washington or Abraham Lincoln.
It was Gerald Ford.
Of course, he might be biased. They used to ski together, and Gramshammer was a pallbearer at the president’s funeral.
By the mid-1970s, Vail was expanding in all directions — both the town and the ski boundaries — but locals credit Ford with bringing it global acclaim. He skied there as a congressman, bought a condo and often returned as president, with reporters and Secret Service in tow.
Vail was chic, and foreign languages and accents became common on the grounds. The resort survived a gondola accident in 1976 that killed four people, though Seibert sold out of the resort in the aftermath. In 1988, Vail’s terrain more than doubled with the addition of four bowls, as skiers proved willing to search ever farther for powder.
But trouble came in the late 1990s when the resort sought to expand to Blue Sky Basin, the final achievement of Seibert’s dream.
“Pete always said, way back in ’62, ‘That’s Super Vail over there and that’s where we want to eventually go to complete the area,’” said Brown, the filmmaker. “Super Vail became Blue Sky Basin.”
Environmentalists claimed the expansion would ruin a migration corridor for endangered lynx, while others maintained it was an example of runaway development at Colorado’s ski resorts. When court battles failed, ecoterrorists in 1998 set fire to several buildings on the mountain, including Two Elk Lodge, causing $12 million in damage.
The lodge was rebuilt, members of the Earth Liberation Front were arrested and Blue Sky Basin opened in 2000, ushering in a wave of backcountry-style expansions at ski areas.
It takes 45 minutes of lift-riding and skiing to reach it, 7 snowy miles from town.
Skiers Back Bowled over
“The only problem was that damn snowboarder.”
The snowboarder in question was going too fast for Shepard, so he pulled to the side of the “white ribbon of death” — the man-made snow that tends to get icy — to let the young man pass.
Skiing isn’t as fun as it used to be for the 87-year-old, more work than pleasure sometimes. And while he still lives near Vail, the area doesn’t feel the same. The small village now stretches for miles, the noise of I-70 is a constant presence and the winter weekend parking nightmare is one of the bigger debacles associated with skiing. Cars are left illegally along roads for want of legal spaces, and legal parking spots have been known to sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“I loved the old Aspen and I loved the old Vail,” Shepard said. “It’s a mixed blessing to me to see the development and realize, especially with skiers, you can’t hold them back. They’re going to do it no matter what.”
Added Brown: “I-70 is very much a two-edged sword. It has overwhelming traffic. It’s noisy. It was a big plus for bringing skiers in and negative in some other ways.”
Like in other resort towns, the cost of living is high and real estate is astronomical. Brown has long since moved away.
Gramshammer, the Austrian ski racer, still lives here and runs the Gramshammer Hotel. High prices come with the territory, he said.
“It’s good skiing here, so people love to come here and have a good time here,” the 80-year-old said. “Good places are expensive everywhere. If you have one of the best places, you’ve got to charge.”
And it’s the skiing that keeps bringing the old-timers back.
“The Back Bowls are Vail’s most significant contributions to skiing. They’re very special, they’re wonderful,” Brown said. “I don’t think there are any bowls equivalent to that in the lower 48, particularly open terrain like that that is below timberline.”
Shepard has outlived most of the original founders. Few people know who he is, though his face is on a poster in one of the lift ticket offices.
He plans to keep skiing, even if it isn’t the same.
“If I didn’t have a really close parking spot to the new gondola, I’d be in Arizona playing golf,” Shepard said.