50th anniversary Vail Tales: Vail remains Earl’s world
December 16, 2012
VAIL – If there is a Vail original, it’s Earl Eaton.
Decades before Vail was Vail, Eaton knew the mountain west of Vail Pass would make a good ski area.
He grew up near Squaw Creek in Edwards and found his way to the top of that mountain because he could, and because it might be fun. Some stories have him prospecting for uranium. That’s not true. He was hunting as a kid with his dad and brothers, Eaton said years later, but he didn’t correct it because it’s a great story.
What he found was white gold.
There are lots of versions of how Earl found the place and how he told Seibert about it. We like this version.
Eaton and Seibert met in 1947 in Aspen, where they were working and skiing at the time. The Aspen ski area opened in 1946.
When they weren’t earning a living, they were searching for the perfect ski mountain.
During the next decade, they checked out a dozen or so mountains in almost as many Western states, but none had what they were looking for.
In the winter of 1957, they were both working at Loveland ski area, or “Hemp Hill” as the rope tow-served hill was known – Seibert as the ski area manager and Eaton in maintenance and ski patrol.
One night around the potbelly stove in Buckley’s Store in Silver Plume, Eaton whispered to Seibert that he may have found their mountain.
What Eaton actually said was that it was the “damndest ski mountain” he’d ever seen.
“I knew it would be a success when I told Pete about it,” Eaton said. “He was a dreamer just like me.”
Before dawn on March 19, 1957, they parked their jeep on the shoulder of Highway 6 in the Gore Creek Valley. The climb was long, the snow was deep and Seibert began to wonder whether it would be worth it.
What Seibert said was, “I hope we’re not wasting our time.”
What Eaton answered was, “Hunting for a good ski mountain is never a waste of time.”
Eaton didn’t talk much about early Vail’s cast of characters. What he remembered best is building the first gondola and the lifts.
“It didn’t rain much that summer before we opened,” Eaton said. “Good thing because it would have slowed us down.”
Eaton was at his best when he was building and repairing things, making equipment work just a little longer when it should have died long before.
He invented the world’s first grooming machine out of a piece of culvert and some scrap lumber.
He developed and built a snow-riding gadget he called the Ee-Z Ski. You ride it like a short bicycle with skis on it. The old prospector in him rescued a pair of shaped skis and a bike frame from a recycle bin.
He was riding his Ee-Z Ski on the last day of a ski season about 10 years ago, his best day on snow, he said. It was one of those crud snow days that send the faint of heart running for the bar.
“I went down the lift line in China Bowl,” he grinned. “Everyone on the lift was cheering and I was cheering back at them. I was having the most fun I’ve ever had on snow.”
After that he went over and skied the bowl named after him – Earl’s Bowl.