56 years in, Vail will close as it always has — with celebration
VAIL — When Vail’s Founders closed the books on its first season in April 1963, they did the same thing we still do on closing day — celebrate a little, laugh a lot and ski in between.
The good stuff never changes.
“We came down the mountain and had a couple kegs of beer by the gondola,” recalled Rod Slifer.
Everyone in town was there, homeowners, second-home owners, lift operators … everyone, Slifer said.
“When I say everyone, I mean everyone. We needed everyone to make a crowd,” Slifer said smiling.
There will be more people at the top of Vail’s Chair 4 Sunday than were in all of Vail at the end of that 1962-63 season.
Neither rain nor snow
Prior to that first 1962-63 ski season, Vail’s founders kept an eye on the sky looking for clouds and snow. Neither showed.
After working for months, they had some lifts built, the Red Lion and Lodge at Vail were operating. All they needed was snow, which was slow to arrive.
“There was no snow,” Slifer said.
Finally the snow came, Vail opened on Dec. 15, 1962, and the snow kept coming. There were some bumps along the way, like that sub-zero day a month later, in January 1963, when the resort sold eight lift tickets at $5 each. But Vail survived and so did its early founders.
Vail’s final run of the season, down any route you choose from the top of Chair 4, eventually evolved into the Chinese Downhill. Get to the bottom as fast as possible. The first one at the Red Lion with a tall cold one was the winner. In 1963 it had to be the Red Lion. It was one of the only clubs open and in those days you could ski to the front door. After the weather warmed you could also ride a horse to the front door.
Vail’s first ski school director, Morrie Shepard, drove to Vail from Aspen on May 1, 1962. That same day, Slifer made the move from Aspen to Vail to help handle the millions of details that go with building a ski area from the ground up. For that, Slifer was paid the princely sum of $500 a month. He laughed and said it’s more money than he had ever made before.
That first year Slifer lived in a trailer 8 feet wide and 32 feet long, with Pete Seibert and Shepard.
“It was cozy living,” Slifer said.
Slifer met Shepard when they were both working in Aspen. They taught skiing in the winter and painted houses in the summer.
“You paint houses together all day long for a couple years, you get to know each other,” Slifer said.
In the early days they also did what people still do when the mountain closes. They left, said Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Roger Brown, another of Vail’s founders.
“In the early days of Vail we used to head for Mexico as soon as the season ended. Back then we drove. We couldn’t afford to fly,” Brown said.
Baja and the beaches was their favorite destination.
“Baja was undeveloped. We had some beaches all to ourselves; miles of white sand and shallow water, really nice, and some good fishing,” Brown recalled.
They also worked. One spring Brown stuck around to work on a house he was building, or filmed construction: clearing trails, building mid-Vail, putting up lifts and some of the buildings in town. Sometimes he and Bob Parker would edit films he shot during the winter.
In April 1961, Bob Parker, Pete Seibert, Pepi Gramshammer, Shepard, Brown and a few others rode to the top of what is now Chair 5 in Earl Eaton’s old snowcat, and Brown filmed everyone skiing in the Back Bowls. “There were no Bowls lifts back then. We had to hike out after each run,” Brown said. “That’s how ‘Forever’ got its name.”
Pepi, a professional ski racer in those days, took off and skied all the way to the bottom. When he climbed out, he said it took “Forever” to climb out.
“It’s also when Pepi fell in love with Vail; vast terrain, great spring snow,” Brown said.
All years are good
Years come and go. You remember them all, but especially the good ones.
“This year’s snow was as good as it has ever been. There is not a patch of dirt anywhere,” Slifer said.
Weather data is also more reliable than it was in 1962. There used to be a stake outside mid-Vail, on your right as you got off the lift. According to Vail legend and lore, Seibert would pile new snow around it every morning.
The legend is true, Slifer said laughing.
“We are so lucky,” Slifer said of life in Vail. “The smartest thing I did was that I never left.”
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and firstname.lastname@example.org.
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