Summit County pioneers: Gene and Ina Gillis
Special to the Summit Daily News
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct that Arapahoe East did open for operation from 1972 to 1984.
KEYSTONE — Like many others attracted to Summit County, Gene and Ina Gillis came in 1971 for the great mountains and dependable snow. As avid skiers, they wanted to live in a place where the powder was sure to fall every year. They discovered Keystone in its infancy.
“We couldn’t even come to see our new house because there was this great big, fat beaver sitting right in the middle of the road,” Ina recalled while describing their move to Keystone. “He wouldn’t let us by. That’s how primitive it was.”
Gene met and married Ina while he was employed in Canada by Staedli Lifts, a Swiss ski lift manufacturer. She was his German interpreter. A common interest that drew them together was a passion for skiing. Ina grew up in Geneva, Switzerland, and had been introduced to the sport by the time she was 4. She moved to England and then to the United States with her family but went to Canada for college. Gene, too, had a European influence while he was growing up. He started skiing in 1927 and trained with a number of Norwegians and Swedes in Bend, Oregon. It was there that Gene learned how to stop, snowplow and jump. Jumping was a very popular activity then.
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His father had handcrafted Gene’s first pair of skis. Gene said that at the time, nothing differentiated Alpine from cross-country skis. They were all built as cross-country models with leather straps to offer greater mobility. They sometimes used door springs that hooked into the skis to hold the heel down. The Super Diagonal came later. These bindings were made of rubber, which had a spring and held the boot better than the leather had.
“Basically, the skis would break before the bindings released!” Gene said.
When Gene started racing, there were only the downhill and slalom events. He said the main difference in skis for each event was merely length. In 1947, Gene skied the U.S. National Championships on a brand new pair of skis that Gary Cooper had discarded. “We raced in everything,” Gene said while reflecting on his early ski racing days. “Clouds, rain, snow. It really made no difference.”
If needed, racers would sometimes add a burr to the edges to help control the skis on ice. Gene admitted that he loved figuring out how to best prep skis for the different conditions that racers encounter. Gene was on the U.S. Olympic Team in 1948 — “before television,” he likes to say — the year the Olympics were held in St. Moritz, Switzerland. Three weeks before competition, he was hospitalized for a diabetic condition and unable to participate. Later that same year, he ended up placing in the top 12 twice in competitions in Austria.
Building a legacy
Arriving in Summit County during its infancy, Gene was seeking a new professional challenge. He first worked for Larry Jump preparing a small ski resort outside of Denver called Arapahoe East. He then met Max and Edna Dercum and the Keystone Management Team, which hired him to develop Keystone Mountain much as he had done at various resorts around the country, including Stratton Mountain in Vermont and the Arizona Snowbowl in Flagstaff.
Max already had done a lot of work on the mountain, but he invited Gene to walk around North Peak and Jones Gulch to make recommendations on what to do next. At one point, he even thought it might be feasible to connect Keystone with Arapahoe Basin Ski Area.
Having previously been employed by Sno Engineering, one of the original companies to embrace snowmaking, Gene’s first course of action was to go to the Denver Water Board to check snowfall in the area. He informed them that snowmaking would be crucial to the fiscal health of the ski resort based on its snowfall figures. Once he received the go-ahead, Gene installed snowmaking at Keystone.
Snowmaking was first developed accidentally by a farmer in Massachusetts who feared an early frost would damage the fruit in his orchard. He rigged up a mister to spray his trees as protection. After being distracted by a lengthy phone call, the farmer walked back outside to check on his orchard only to discover a mound of snow beneath his apple trees.
Beyond snowmaking, Gene shared other insights with Max from his previous ski resort experiences. He showed everyone how to groom the snow properly in the winter months as well as how to prep the hillsides in the summer to maximize the conditions. He advocated seeding wildflowers and grass and removing all the tree stumps that were hazards to skiers. Gene also was at the forefront of an innovative concept called “snow farming,” which involved pushing excess snow into the woods on the sides of the trails for use later on in the season.
Growing the sport
In addition to being an aggressive competitor when he was younger, Gene had coached a great deal. He decided that Keystone could benefit from a bit of competitive instruction. In 1980, Gene got together with Bob Craig, attorney Bob French and Peter Witter to form the Summit County Race Team. Gene primarily worked with young Olympic hopefuls. He wanted to develop a system whereby potential racers could get together with various coaches and race in different places throughout the year. The racers would work with coaches from each of the Summit County areas and train on different terrain. To his students, he strongly emphasized the importance of good grades and often repeated a common refrain:
“There are four things that you need to do: You have to eat, you have to sleep, you have to do your schoolwork well, and you have to ski. In that order.”
Gene taught Ina how to instruct, first in Canada and then in Flagstaff. When they moved to Colorado, Ina was accepted by Max and Rolf Dercum to be an instructor on the Keystone Ski School. In 1985, when Phil and Steve Mahre opened one of their training centers at Keystone, Ina was one of the instructors introduced to their system of skills development. Soon after, she happened to give a beginner lesson to a young lady who told her that she was signed up for the very first Mahre Training Camp starting the following day. Since she was the only beginner, Ina was asked to coach her and worked with the Mahre Training Camps from then on, specializing in beginners and low intermediates. The rest of the winter, she was still part of the Keystone Ski School.
During her first summer at Keystone, Ina was asked to revegetate an area near the river that had been disturbed during the building of the Keystone Lodge. From then on, she spent her summers taking care of all the landscaping throughout Keystone Resort.
Even after more than 30 years living in Keystone, Gene and Ina never felt compelled to stray too far to pursue the sport they love.
“All you can do when you ski is turn left, turn right and go straight,” Gene said. “The way I see it, you can do all that here in Summit County.”
Ina nodded her head in agreement and jokingly replied, “I have no desire to go anywhere else. This is our home. Gene and I are going to raise pigs and chickens right here. Aren’t we?”
This story previously published in the book “Summit Pioneers,” which was printed in 1999. The book was written by Alison (Grabau) Pomerantz with photos by Bob Winsett in partnership with Wilson-Lass Creative Communications. It was published to raise money for The Summit Foundation. Read more about the history of Summit County at SummitDaily.com/news/history.
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