It may seem incomprehensible to today’s generation of skiers and snowboarders accustomed to ski resort conglomerates. But in the boom years of skiing in the 1960s and early ’70s, Colorado produced 12 new resorts, all of them independents. They were founded by dreamers with a passion for skiing.
Five are celebrating milestone anniversaries this winter. Vail, Steamboat and Eldora are marking their 60th anniversaries, while Copper Mountain and Telluride are celebrating 50 years. Yet another, tiny Hesperus in the southwest corner of the state, was started 60 years ago but has not operated continuously.
Four decades have passed since a new resort opened in the state. That’s all the more reason to celebrate these anniversaries and remember the spirit of their founders with vignettes on how their resorts came to be. All harken to a time when skiing was less of an industry and more of a lifestyle.
Pete Seibert in uniform in an undated photo. (Photo provided by Colorado Snowsports Museum)
Original gondola in Vail Village in an undated photo. (Photo provided by Colorado Snowsports Museum)
Skiers at Vail in an undated photo. (Photo provided by Colorado Snowsports Museum)
Scale Model Vail Village, 1960. (Photo provided by Colorado Snowsports Museum)
Vail before development in 1957. (Photo provided by Colorado Snowsports Museum)
Pete and Earl, "Kristi Kat" and Bob Fowler in an undated photo. (Photo provided by Colorado Snowsports Museum)
Vail ski patrol in an undated photo. (Photo provided by Colorado Snowsports Museum)
Vail, 1960. (Photo provided by Colorado Snowsports Museum)
Bridge Street, 1960s. (Photo provided by Colorado Snowsports Museum)
Renie and Dave Young in an undated photo. (Photo provided by Colorado Snowsports Museum)
Skiers wave to gondola riders in an undated photo. (Photo provided by Colorado Snowsports Museum)
Skiers at Vail in an undated photo. (Photo provided by Colorado Snowsports Museum)
Golden Peak, 1967. (Photo provided by Colorado Snowsports Museum)
Red Lion, 1963. (Photo provided by Colorado Snowsports Museum)
Opening of Lionshead community picnic, undated. (Photo provided by Colorado Snowsports Museum)
Beattie, Heuga, Kidd – American International Races Vail 1965. (Photo provided by Colorado Snowsports Museum)
Gerald Ford on a ski lift at Vail in an undated photo. (Photo provided by Colorado Snowsports Museum)
Roch Cup, Ben Duke. Undated photo. (Photo provided by Colorado Snowsports Museum)
A snowboarder at Vail in an undated photo. (Photo provided by Colorado Snowsports Museum)
Pete Seibert skis in an undated photo. (Photo provided by Colorado Snowsports Museum)
The late Pete Seibert, a veteran of the 10th Mountain Division ski troops who trained at Camp Hale for combat in Italy during World War II, returned from the war determined to start a ski area. First he had to spend 18 months convalescing in the hospital, recovering from combat wounds to his face, chest, an arm and a leg.
His son, Pete Seibert Jr., says doctors wanted to replace his shattered kneecap with a steel implant, but his father nixed that idea because he didn’t want to lose range of motion for skiing — even though it meant risking more damage to the unprotected joint.
“He said, ‘Let’s just go without, I want to be able to ski,’” his Pete Jr. said recently in an interview. “He went without one for the rest of his life.”
And Seibert kept skiing. He raced competitively, qualifying for the U.S. team in the 1950 world championships, which were held in Aspen. He worked on the ski patrol and ski school in Aspen. Later he managed the Loveland ski area.
In those years he also crisscrossed the Colorado high country looking for the perfect place to build his ski area. In 1957, prospector Earl Eaton led him on a hike up the mountain that would become Vail. When they got to the summit and gazed into what would later be called Vail’s Back Bowls, Seibert knew he’d found what he was looking for.
“My God,” Seibert said, “we’ve climbed all the way to heaven.”
Eaton’s role is often overlooked, but in truth he was a co-founder with Seibert.
“My dad used to say Earl was the finder and he (Seibert) was the founder,” Seibert Jr. said. “Vail wouldn’t be what it is, where it is, without Earl.”
Vail Village was a tiny cluster of buildings when the area opened on Dec. 15, 1962, with $5 lift tickets. There was a gondola from Vail Village to Mid-Vail — the first gondola in Colorado — and two lifts at Mid-Vail. Pete Jr. was just a few days from his seventh birthday that opening day. Now he misses the way skiing was during his youth.
“I count myself really lucky to have watched all of the things transpire with Vail, and with skiing in Colorado,” Seibert said. “The people who were there at all these places, including Vail, were there because they had a passion for skiing. They were determined to make it work, and they were successful because they all shared that same love of skiing and love of the mountains. Somehow, later on, it became an industry.”
James Temple was born in 1927 and grew up on a ranch near the Wyoming border, 50 miles north of Steamboat Springs. He skied on wooden skis his father made, honing his skills at a hill on their property. His family often drove down to Steamboat to take part in the annual Winter Carnival, an event that dates back to 1914.
“He loved to ski,” one of his sons, Jeff, said last week. “He wanted to learn a lot more about it, and he immersed himself in it. He went to Sun Valley (Idaho) and was on the ski patrol for seven years.”
Sun Valley was America’s first famous ski resort, dating back to 1936.
“It was perfect training to allow him to work on a new ski area in Colorado.” Jeff Temple said.
The first base lodge at the Steamboat Resort was this classic A-frame building as it appeared when the ski area originally opened in 1963. It was then known as the Storm Mountain Ski Area. (Provided by Steamboat Resort)
Ski jumpers who participated in the annual Winter Carnival Sunday at Steamboat Springs, Feb. 16, 1954. The men, left to right, are Gordon Wren, Steamboat's fine ski instructor; and Wiburn Rasmussen, Ralph Bietila and Joe Perrault, all of Ishpeming, Mich. (Photo by Albert Moldvay/The Denver Post)
Champion In Action. This photo of Gordon Wren, nationally known ski champion, was taken at Steamboat Springs, Jan. 6, 1952. (Photo by Floyd H. McCall/The Denver Post)
Temple decided to build his ski area on Storm Mountain on the eastern outskirts of Steamboat Springs. The town, long ago nicknamed Ski Town USA, already had a strong ski tradition through the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club at Howelsen Hill near downtown — Colorado’s oldest continuously operating ski area dating back to 1914. In the 1950s alone, Steamboat produced nine Winter Olympians.
Temple, who died in 2009, explored Storm Mountain by horseback in summer and began leading ski trips for locals via the primitive snow cats of the period.
“On one of the snow cat trips over the mountain with Winter Sports Club skiers, I looked across from one bald spot as they skied down the other,” Temple said in a mini-documentary produced by son Jeff in 2008. “It was so beautiful and I thought right then, ‘I have to start this ski area.’”
Temple formed the Storm Mountain Ski Corporation in 1958 and began clearing trails that summer. Environmental scrutiny was not what it is now. A “cat skinner” was hired to knock down trees with a D7 bulldozer, which were pushed into piles, doused with kerosene and burned.
Public skiing began at Storm Mountain with a surface lift in 1961, but the official opening date for the resort is considered Jan. 12, 1963, when a two-person chairlift went into operation. Storm Mountain was renamed Mount Werner the following year after Buddy Werner, a beloved local who was one of America’s first great ski racers, was killed in an avalanche shortly after the 1964 Olympics.
Well before the ski resort opened 50 years ago this month, skiing was a passion for locals in Telluride, a mining town dating back to the late 19th century. The Telluride Ski Club was founded in 1924, and rope tows helped skiers get up the mountain over the ensuing 40 years. Johnnie Stevens, a local who was one of the first employees of the Telluride ski area, fondly remembers the ’60s when he was a teen.
“It was the pure love of skiing, and it was a community event,” said Stevens, 76. “We would have the rope tow running by the town park on Sunday afternoons. The old miners would come over and watch us kids doing jumps and stunts. It was a lifestyle and a culture.”
One of the rope tows ran off the axle of a jacked-up car.
“I think it was a 1938 Chevy,” Stevens said. “The way we accelerated (the tow), we took a stick, put notches in it and wedged the stick between the accelerator and the seat. When the little kids were there, you’d put it on the low-speed (notch). But in the afternoon, when there was a few of us left, we would press that accelerator further down. Hell, you’d shoot up the mountain at 20 mph.”
They also used cars to tow each other on snow-covered roads.
“One time a guy towed me to Rico and back,” Stevens said. “That was 40 miles behind a car. They didn’t plow the roads, so I was skiing powder. There were no markers on the side of the road. You’d go out of town three or four miles and do 40, 50 mph.” Did he wear a helmet? “Hell, no.”
The Telluride ski area opened on Dec. 22, 1972, with five lifts. Five decades later, Stevens remembers the joy of that day.
“It wasn’t only that you were skiing down the mountain you were raised on, it was that you weren’t taking eight hours to climb to the top of it, or riding a snowmobile,” Stevens said. “We knew the mountain, but riding the lift, I just can’t tell you the emotion, to know that we were finally a ski area.”
Copper was a natural.
“If there were a mountain that had terrain created for skiing, it would be Copper Mountain,” the U.S. Forest Service concluded in a 1970 report evaluating the area’s potential for development as part of the approval process. What especially impressed the forest service was the mountain’s topography of progressive steepness which naturally segregates skiers by ability — beginners on the west side, experts on the east, intermediates in the middle.
The late Chuck Lewis, who founded the ski area, discovered that potential after hiking the mountain in 1968, and he set out to make it happen. Just one problem. The area along West Tenmile Creek, where the base area would go, had some wild residents that needed to move.
“In 1968 and 1969, Copper had one of the most successful and most extensive sets of beaver ponds, and one of the largest populations of beavers, of any place in Colorado,” said Chuck’s son, Randy, at a recent anniversary celebration for Copper VIPs and oldtimers. “The first thing was, the beavers had to move out of the way. That took the better part of two years, to get them to move across the highway.”
The Lewis family lived in a doublewide trailer on the property as the ski area took shape. It was a fairly remote existence.
“In 1972, to go get groceries, you either had to drive to Leadville or to Vail,” said Andy Daly, who went to work at Copper Mountain on the ski patrol a month before the resort opened on Dec. 5, 1972. “There wasn’t anything in Frisco. The only thing in Silverthorne was the Old Dillon Inn.”
Copper officially opened on Dec. 5, 1972, with five lifts and 22 trails.
The man who identified Eldora as a worthy site for a Front Range ski area was a Hungarian immigrant who fled after Soviet troops suppressed an uprising in that “Iron Curtain” country in 1956. Gabor Cseh (pronounced Check) was a former junior national ski champion who had a dream to start a ski area, and he set out to do that when he arrived in the U.S.
“Gabor is one of the most unlikely and old-school founders of the ski resort business in Colorado,” said longtime ski journalist Andy Bigford, who co-authored a book about Eldora to mark its 60th anniversary. “With his wife Eva, who was 15 years younger than him, he made it to the United States and ended up on the East Coast. He was told that the best skiing was in the Rocky Mountains, so they got on the California Zephyr and came to Denver. He was penniless and had a bare grasp of the English language, but he had his skis and his backpack.”
Cseh searched the eastern slope of the Rockies in proximity to Front Range cities, settling on a mountain near Lake Eldora, five miles west of Nederland. George Sweeney, a Denver accountant, arranged funding and is considered the co-founder with Cseh. The ski area opened on Jan. 5, 1963.
Cseh had a 10-year contract as general manager with a lifetime contract to run the ski school, but he had never managed anyone and had difficulty communicating with employees. He was fired after one season.
“He didn’t have a good relationship with employees,” Bigford said. “He was gone after one year, but if it weren’t for him, it’s unlikely there would be a ski area there.”
A run just above the Eldora base, Gabor’s, is named in his honor. The book by Bigford and co-author Rett Ertl — Eldora, Six Decades of Adventure — is available at Eldora retail shops and through the resort website.
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