New pictorial history spotlights Vail’s skiing past
Ryan Summerlin November 1, 2012
At first glance, the image adorning the cover of “Vail: The First 50 Years” (Images of America) by Shirley Welch seems quintessential Vail – well-heeled gentlemen and ladies enjoying a spring picnic lunch in the snow on Vail Mountain as they take a break from skiing. One man wears a classic ski sweater and reclines comfortably with a bottle in hand; another wields an accordion and top hat, snappy sunglasses and an amused grin.
Vail is known for expensive tastes, but the history of the town and mountain run much deeper – from the indigenous Ute people, early sheepherders and homesteaders to the military’s training center at Camp Hale to the south, and later, to the high jinks perpetrated upon town and mountain by the ski patrol.
The town’s skiing history starts with Camp Hale. Active for just three years from 1942-1945, the camp hosted 16,000 soldiers at its peak, producing the elite 10th Mountain Division, a corps trained in skiing, mountaineering and winter survival to fight in World War II.
It was after the war, however, that Camp Hale builder Earl Eaton enticed war veteran Pete Seibert to ascend 3,000 vertical feet up what he called “No-Name Mountain,” in hip deep snow, to see the treeless back bowls. There, the two men discovered what would later become Vail Mountain, drawing adventurers from around the world for what, in those days, represented endless lines through untracked, champagne powder.
Once a hardscrabble town of dirt streets lacking a grocery store and pharmacy, the town of Vail grew up with the mountain, attracting residents from “confirmed ski bums” to “Boston blue bloods, cowboys, bankers, lawyers and CFOs of huge companies,” Welch writes. “In the early years, newcomers arrived for a few ski days and stayed for a lifetime.”
The book chronicles the stories of Vail’s early residents and their passion for skiing and shenanigans. In one incident, 1960s ski patrolman Dozer Johnson drove his Jeep off the China Bowl wall in summer to prove it was possible – and lived to tell the tale.
The author recalls, too, the annual softball game at Golden Peak between ski school and ski patrol, where “beer drinking was required.” The accompanying picture shows that the games took place on skis – which, in the 1960s and 1970s, were long, stiff planks.
As in other books in the Images of America series, the pictures carry the story in “Vail: The First 50 Years,” though informative captions and chapter introductions help to complete the picture of the town’s early days. Other local books in the series include “Summit County,” “Frisco and the Ten Mile Canyon,” “Dillon and Silverthorne” and “The Eagle River Valley.”
“Vail: The First 50 Years,” $21.99, is available at local retailers, online bookstores or Arcadia Publishing at www.arcadiapublishing.com or (888) 313-2665.