Pete Seibert: A man and a vision
In what’s now commonly referred to as “the Vail Valley” – a growing resort community extending from East Vail, Vail and West Vail in the Gore Creek Valley to Eagle-Vail, Avon, Beaver Creek, Arrowhead and Edwards along the Eagle River – it’s sometimes difficult to imagine it all stems from a steadfast vision in the mind of one man: Peter W. Seibert.
From sheep ranches and lettuce fields to incorporated towns and exclusive, gated communities, many people can lay claim to certain aspects in the urban metamorphosis. But Seibert started it all decades ago with the dream and determination to create “the most beautiful ski resort in the world.”
“Pete had a clear vision, and he wouldn’t take “no’ for an answer. He made it happen,” Bill Grout of Mountain Sports Media, Boulder-based publishers of SKIING magazine and other winter sports magazines and books. “He would not be deterred no matter what.”
The young Pete
Peter Seibert was born Aug. 7, 1924, in Sharon, Mass., the first child of Edythe Loring Seibert and Albert Daniel Seibert. Life there was like “living in a Norman Rockwell painting,” he wrote in his book, “Vail: Triumph of a Dream,” published in 2000 by Mountain Sports Press, a division of Mountain Sports Media.
Edythe Seibert, a graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music, was a pianist, giving lessons to “half the children in town” during the day and playing Chopin and Liszt on the family’s grand piano in the evenings. She was also a great cook, her son wrote.
Albert Seibert was a “man of many talents,” ranging from painting and music to mining gold.
It was in Sharon, at 7 years old, that young Peter strapped on his first pair of skis – an old, used set of maple skis that had been custom-made for his mother.
“Never have I experienced a more complete sense of joy and adventure than when I first stuck my hunting boots into the leather toe straps and proceeded down the modest hills outside of town. My life changed completely,” Seibert wrote. “For the next couple of years, no one was happier than me as I progressed from shallow open slopes to steep, tree-filled ones and then to homemade ski jumps that sent me hurtling 15 or 20 feet through the air.”
Growing up during the Depression, however, young Pete Seibert could not afford to just ski. He worked a variety of jobs to help the family get by.
“I scarcely ever had a day off and never made more than 90 cents an hour,” he wrote.
The Seibert family later moved to New Hampshire, where Pete worked in the summer as a golf caddie at the Eastern Slopes Inn. The golf resort often attracted celebrities, the most memorable being Babe Ruth of the New York Yankees. In the winter, New Hampshire provided Pete with his first experience with a mechanized ski lift.
“In our back yard were wide-open slopes and a rope tow,” Seibert wrote.
By the age of 17, he was winning local and regional ski races throughout New England.
“My vision of finding and developing my own ski area first came when I was a little boy living in New England,” Seibert wrote. “In that part of the world, the mountains were smaller and the ski runs were shorter and generally covered with hard ice. I didn’t care. Any hill I could ski on became part of my imaginary resort.”
The Army years
In 1943, Peter Seibert joined the Army and volunteered for the 10th Mountain Division.
“With the help of the National Ski Patrol, the army was looking for good skiers. I was chosen for the division and went directly to Camp Hale.”
After two years of high-altitude training, including missions in blizzard-like conditions, the division was sent to Europe and its first major combat missions in the northern Italian Alps. Battles included the famous struggle for Riva Ridge, for which one of Vail’s most famous ski runs would later be named, and the battle for Mount Terminale.
It was on the Terminale, on March 3, 1945, as a platoon sergeant that Seibert was nearly killed by German mortar shells, which shattered both of his arms and severely injured his face and his right leg.
“I heard a deafening blast and saw stars in many colors, the predominant one being red,” Seibert wrote. “I was spitting teeth, gagging and choking on the blood in my mouth. … Two buddies came by, looked at me, and left without speaking. I wondered if I was already dead.”
Army doctors told Seibert he may never walk again – let alone ski. After 17 months of rehabilitation in various hospitals in the United States, he was released from the Army at 22 years old, determined to prove the doctors wrong.
“One way or another, skiing was going to be my life,” Seibert wrote.
Sharpening the vision
After the war, Seibert settled in Aspen, where he worked for the ski patrol and began to race again.
“I wanted to race again. I wanted to ski at 70 mph and make perfect turns,” he wrote. “To anyone else it may have been a pipe dream, but I thought I could make it happen.”
And it did happen, with Seibert ultimately winning one of Colorado’s biggest trophies, the Roch Cup in the winter of 1947-48. The next year, in the spring of 1949, he finished third in the combined event at the U.S. Nationals near Reno, Nev., qualifying for the 1950 U.S. Alpine Ski Team.
Bill Whiteford, an early investor who built the Casino on Bridge Street, recalled skiing with Seibert decades later.
“He was a great skier, with incredible edge control. He could wiggle down the Cat tracks and do extreme things on skis – even back then,” Whiteford said. “He made everything look so easy.”
Indeed, Seibert’s recovery from his war injuries and subsequent success again on skis solidified the determination he later would display in building Vail.
“Just a few years after the doctors said he’d probably not walk again, he made the men’s national team,” said Grout. “I mean, experts said it couldn’t be done – and he did it.”
Seibert’s days of racing in Aspen were numbered, however, and he ultimately decided to pursue visions of a higher order.
“The dream of building my own ski area was still in place, and I knew there was only one way to make it come true: Work at it,” Seibert wrote.
So in the spring of 1950, he returned to Europe to attend L’Ecole Hoteliere de Lausanne, an international school of hotel management in Switzerland. There he learned the fine art of running hotels.
Seibert returned to the United States in 1954, taking jobs first in Silverton and then in Aspen, where he met “a lovely young skier” named Betty Pardee. They were married in 1955.
“Her genuine love for the mountains and my own adventurous spirit seemed a good match,” he wrote.
Seibert soon landed a job managing the Loveland Ski Resort, what he called a “real live ski area, the first really developed skiable terrain west of Denver.”
Realizing the vision
While working at Loveland and living in Georgetown with Betty and their first son, Pete Jr. , Seibert met his “fellow dreamer,” Earl Eaton.
In 1957, the pair took a seven-hour climb to the top of what is now called Vail Mountain. “Beneath the brilliant blue sky, we slowly turned in a circle and saw perfect ski terrain no matter which direction we faced,” Seibert wrote. “We looked at each other and realized what we both knew for certain: This was it!”
Seibert and Eaton turned down the mountain for what most certainly was the first descent on skis, all the more determined to build their ski resort.
Seibert’s vision may have benefitted from just plain luck. Several men from the 10th Mountain Division had the same dream as he did about building their own resort.
“When there was training at Camp Hale, they took training missions all over the place on skis, and Vail’s Back Bowls were only a few ridges from Camp Hale. But none of those guys with the 10th Mountain Division saw them,” Grout said. “After the war, there were all kinds of people crawling around Colorado – and driving right by Vail Mountain without even seeing it.”
Dream becomes real
The first years of taking Vail from a vision to reality weren’t easy by any stretch of the imagination. Finding investors and persuading ranchers in the Gore Creek Valley to sell their land proved to be enormous challenges.
But by 1959, Seibert, Eaton, Bob Fowler and John Conway were able to cobble together a list of 20 original members of the Vail Corp. who invested $5,000 each for a feasibility study. Soon came the purchase of the Hanson Ranch property, followed by the Katsos Ranch, the Anholtz Ranch and, ultimately, the Kaihtipes Ranch.
Three years after the famous hike with Eaton up the mountain, on Jan. 9, 1960, Seibert gathered eight men together for the first meeting of the board of directors for what ultimately became Vail Resorts Inc.
“Pete Seibert was responsible for putting together the team that started the process of building Vail,” writes Dick Hauserman, one of those original board members, in his own book, “The Inventors of Vail.” “He had a natural feeling for what the development should look like and how it should be accomplished. … His instincts laid everything out, including the village.”
George Caulkins, an early investor and one of the original board members, agreed, calling Seibert “an amazing guy” with an enormous amount of confidence.
An oil executive who was instrumental in attracting other investors to Vail, Caulkins recalled a Seibert so confident that he invited people involved with the resort in Aspen to Vail for a look around.
“I remember Fred Islein (of the Aspen Ski School) and others saying it’s never going to amount to anything,” Caulkins said.
Whiteford said Seibert never stopped selling the resort, either, constantly taking potential investors to the top of the mountain – in a Jeep during the summer and in the famous “Kristi Kat” during the winter.
“Pete was an excellent cook and a great skier, too” said Whiteford. “But it was his persistence in getting money for Vail that did it.”
Keith Brown, an attorney from Sterling, Ill., and one of the 20 original members of the Vail Corp., said most of the early investors ultimately made quite a bit of money off their real estate options. A Mill Creek Circle lot on which he purchased an option in 1962 for $100, for example, sold in 1993 for $5.5 million.
“But that original group took all the risk,” Brown said. “And it was a hell of a risk.”
There were 192 original investors in Vail. From a low of $1,250, the list includes names from the world-famous to the obscure. For example, former President George H. W. Bush bought into Vail with $2,500; and the largest investment, $35,000, came from Vail’s unsung hero, the late John D. Murchison. The total investment to begin building Vail: $1.6 million.
Joe Staufer, who came to Vail in 1962 on the way to California with his wife, is one of thousands of people who’ve made their fortune in Vail since coming here when it was a fledgling operation under Seibert’s command.
“Pete took me up the mountain, and here I still am,” Staufer said.
Staufer wound up managing Mid-Vail, as well as the restaurant at the Lodge at Vail. Ultimately, the Austrian became owner of the landmark Vail Village Inn, which he sold in the late 1990s for $7 million.
“He was an incredible visionary. I remember one day, when we had the old gondola and two lifts and Pete remarked about how Aspen had 18 lifts. Now we have about 40 lifts. … The whole area here will never forget Pete.”
“We all have a lot to thank him for,” Staufer added. “I’d be dumb-founded to know how much money was made on his vision. He started it all.”
Battles in the building
Bill “Sarge” Brown, the resort’s operations manager for 25 years, said Seibert’s determination carried Vail through endless encounters with the U.S. Forest Service. With Aspen first in the planning process, the agency often ruled in favor of that resort.
“The only times I ever saw Pete mad were when the Forest Service said we couldn’t do things,” said Bill Brown. “But if the Forest Service had their way, there would be no Vail. He fought it all the way through.”
Seibert remained Vail’s chief executive officer until 1977, seeing corporate takeover attempts, the incorporation of the town of Vail, and a host of structural changes with in company, which went public in the early 1990s.
“I never thought of a small ski resort. I always thought of a large development,” he said in April. “But I’m sorry we went public. It takes away from the family atmosphere.”
The legend lives on
Throughout the ski world, Seibert was famous, rating as one of the 25 most influential people in the history of the sport in America by SKIING magazine.
“I’ve always done everything I’ve wanted to do with gusto,” he said.
In addition to “Vail: Triumph of a Dream,” Seibert was working on a second book, “For the Love of the Mountains,” a history of the 10th Mountain Division, the men who trained at Camp Hale and fought together during World War II, some whom went on to build ski areas themselves. He was collaborating on the project with Aspenite Jay Cowan. Just this spring, Seibert said he expected his second book venture to be completed in 18 months.
Gabriella Warmnenhoven, Seibert’s personal assistant Vail Resorts since September 2001, said he wasn’t able to finish the book, however.
“When he was diagnosed with cancer last year, he said he wanted to go full-steam-ahead. That’s the type of person he was,” Warmnenhoven said. “There’s plenty there for a book, and some people feel it should be completed.”
“Vail: Triumph of a Dream” will be serialized in the Vail Daily beginning at Christmas and running through the ski season, when Vail, the resort Seibert founded, is in full bloom.
“That would be best for Vail,” Seibert said in April.
In the book’s forward, skiing legend Jean-Claude Killy said he could always see that Seibert was “very proud of Vail, as he had good reason to be.
“A world-class ski resort had grown up on this mountain that Pete had discovered,” Killy wrote. “But in those days I didn’t know the whole story, how Pete had had a dream of building his own ski resort since he was a boy … and how, with the help of many others, he made his dream come true at Vail. This book tells the whole incredible story.”
Upon hearing of Seibert’s death Monday, it was Hauserman who provided perhaps the most touching farewell to the man whose vision created Vail, what many people consider the world’s greatest ski resort.
“Pete was a most engaging person. He had many contacts in the ski world and beyond. When he needed support to start the fulfillment of his dream, his friends gathered around,” Hauserman said. “Endowed with many talents and much determination, Pete could easily envision what Vail should look like – the runs, the lifts, the village. His time spent in Europe gave him the ideas for the village’s character and guest experience.
“Pete bought us all together, and we are grateful. He was a real icon in the ski world. We will miss him.”
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