A look back at how Breckenridge Ski Resort transformed over 60 years
Breckenridge Ski Resort is getting up in age.
The resort is celebrating its 60th anniversary Thursday, Dec. 16. Skiers and snowboarders know Breckenridge as an iconic Colorado ski resort that attracts thousands of people daily and is owned by one of the largest ski resort operators in the business.
But Breckenridge had humble beginnings.
The early days
Breckenridge Heritage Alliance Executive Director Larissa O’Neil said the organization has put together an exhibit in celebration of the anniversary, and she shared the beginning of the ski area’s story.
“This gentleman named Bill Stark, who was a geologist, came out here in the late 1950s, and he was a miner. … And as he was out here … he looks around and just saw how beautiful this place is and some potential, certainly, and asked himself, ‘Who owns this land?’” O’Neil said.
Stark found that there were a lot of old, defunct mining claims in the area and a lot of land that could be purchased. He saw investment potential and needed capital, so he pitched an idea to Rounds and Porter Lumber Co. With the support of the company, Stark began buying up thousands of acres of land around Breckenridge.
Breckenridge Ski Resort co-founder Trygve Berge recalled the summer of 1960, when he took a job with the Rounds family building a lumberyard in Breckenridge. Berge and Bill Rounds were pondering what to do in the winter in the area when Rounds asked, “Do you think we can ski here?”
Berge said he and Rounds drove up Peak 8 on an old mining road in a Jeep to scope out the mountain above tree line. Berge determined it would make a good ski area as the slope was suitable for the majority of skiers. After driving back to the bottom of the mountain, they toasted to the new ski area and promptly applied for a permit.
Once momentum for a ski area began taking shape, The Vail Corp. pushed back, saying they were planning to open their own ski resort around the same time.
“Vail went to the Forest Service and said, ‘Wait, wait, wait, that’s not OK. We don’t think Breckenridge should be able to get their ski area before we get our permitting and our design and our ski mountain open first,’ and so there was this little battle between Vail and Breckenridge as to which mountain would open first,” O’Neil said, adding that Breckenridge was originally named Peak 8 Ski Area.
“Ultimately, it’s amazing how quickly … that Peak 8 Ski Area went from just being an idea to a reality.”
Breckenridge opened in 1961, a year before Vail Mountain opened in 1962.
But Breckenridge wasn’t an instant success. There was a week in early 1962 when there were only two paying customers on the mountain — a couple on their honeymoon. So the directors of the ski school — Berge and Sigurd Rockne, who also helped to found the ski area — came up with the idea of Ullr Dag to draw people to Breckenridge. The first Ullr Dag was in 1963, and the event continues today as Ullr Fest.
As for how popular the mountain has become, Berge said it simply goes to show that the founders had the right idea.
“It’s proof that we did the right thing,” Berge said. “Not that we were thinking that way. We didn’t know it was going to be that huge. … It’s just crazy what happened in these 60 years.”
Changes over time
Employees who have been with the resort since the 1970s have seen how the mountain itself has progressed over the years.
Doug Hamilton, senior manager of building maintenance, started his career at Breckenridge as a lift operator in 1974. He said one of the most important changes to the mountain was the introduction of the detachable quad chair.
“The quad detachable idea, although it developed in Europe, they wouldn’t allow them to build anything greater than a triple, so Quicksilver lift, the Doppelmayr, was the first detachable quad in the world, and that was a significant change in the way things happen in Breckenridge,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton said the new lifts made skiing more accessible by making it much faster to get up the mountain, which encouraged more people to try the sport.
Hamilton, who grew up in Como, recalled driving to Breckenridge in just 25 minutes.
“When I first came over here, there were maybe two buildings on my route to get to Ski Hill Road,” Hamilton said. “As time went on, it was quite obvious that (Breckenridge) was going to become a very integral part of the ski industry.”
Patti Ahern, who also started as a lift operator in the ’70s, moved to the area from Connecticut in 1976.
“Once I got here and I hiked up Peak 8 and checked out the town for a few days, I just knew this was where I wanted to be,” Ahern said. “I just really liked the funkiness and rusticness of the town at the time. Main Street was the only street that was paved. The sidewalks were still boardwalks.”
Ahern said the people she worked with and having her family in the area are what have kept her in Breckenridge. She noted that a big change for the mountain was the introduction of snowmaking.
“If we said we were going to try to open Nov. 9, snowmaking gave us a pretty good chance of doing that,” Ahern said.
Adam Pino, director of lift maintenance, came to the resort in 1999. He said Peak 9 was the busiest area when he first arrived. Nowadays, the addition of the gondola brings more people to Peaks 7 and 8, he said.
“Unless you knew the mountain, it was tough to get to Peak 8,” Pino said. “It was like everybody got stuck at Peak 9.”
Pino said the resort’s Imperial Express lift opened up the possibilities of high-Alpine skiing by providing lift-served access, whereas before, most high-Alpine skiing had to be hiked to.
The Breckenridge Heritage Alliance’s exhibit celebrating Breckenridge Ski Resort’s 60th anniversary opens Dec. 16 — the same day as the resort’s opening day in 1961. The exhibit will be open for the duration of the 2021-22 ski season, according to Kris Ann Knish, archivist and collections manager for the alliance. The exhibit can be viewed on the second floor of the Breckenridge Welcome Center at 203 S. Main St.
“The … title is ‘60 Years of Breckenridge Ski Resort History in 60 Objects,’” Knish wrote in an email. “It’s a colorful and eclectic mix of objects that each have their own unique (Breckenridge Ski Resort) story.”
This story previously published in the winter 2021-22 edition of Explore Breckenridge & Summit County magazine.
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