Vail Mountain to revive retro ice bar for 60-year celebration

Bill Whiteford's infamous ice bar was only open for a short time in the 1963-1964 ski season, but it's legacy lives on

Ali Longwell
Vail Daily
Vail Resorts is staging a comeback of the short-lived Ice Bar from the 1963-1964 ski season, with the addition of two on-mountain ice bars at Eagle's Nest and Wildwood.
Colorado Snowsports Museum/Courtesy Photo

On Thursday, Vail Mountain fired up its first snow guns — a sign that ski season is imminent for the resort’s 60-year anniversary celebration.

According to the Colorado Snowsports Museum, the resort opened for its first season on Dec. 15, 1962, with one gondola, two chairlifts and nine trails. In the years since, the resort has seen significant transformation — now boasting two gondolas, around 30 lifts and 195 trails.

However, for all that has changed, the resort is looking to throw it back to its humble beginnings this season, at least somewhat, with its tribute to the now-infamous ice bar. The mountain is planning to construct two ice bars this season — at Eagle’s Nest and Wildwood — as a tribute to the original ice bar, constructed during its 1963-64 ski season.

“When we were exploring how to bring Vail Mountain’s 60th Anniversary to life, we really liked the idea of Vail’s unique après culture,” said John Plack, a spokesperson for Vail Resorts. “There are some really strong images from Vail Mountain’s early days that really hit us, and we want guests to be able to experience those emotions when they return for this milestone year.”

While the ice bar hasn’t been slinging drinks and food for nearly 58 years, it has become something of folklore and legend, said Jen Mason, the executive director of the Colorado Snowsports Museum, one of those things that has become more infamous in the decades since it was actually around. (In fact, Denver artist Olive Moya recently celebrated the ice bar in her mural in Vail’s transportation center.)

“I’m glad they’re bringing it back for the 60th anniversary because it was done in the days when Vail was really fun,” Mason said. “I think it’s great that Vail is celebrating and embracing its 60th year, and hopefully we can bring back some of the fun on Vail Mountain.”

According to the lore, the ice bar was the brainchild of Bill Whiteford — who Dick Hauserman calls a “lovable, incorrigible scoundrel” in his book “The Inventors of Vail.”

According to Hauserman’s book, Whiteford came to Vail and became one of its first investors in 1959. Whiteford contributed much to the creation of the mountain and village including the Gondola building and the Casino on Bridge Street. However, perhaps his most notorious contribution was the ice bar, something Hauserman called “a practical joke that everyone liked.”

Initially, he writes, Whiteford had proposed the ice bar — inspired by the “ambiance of the ice bars at the premier resorts of Europe” — at a board of directors meeting in January 1964 but was turned down.

However, as the “Baron Munchausen of Vail,” as Hauserman put it, Whiteford proceeded with the bar anyway.

The book describes it as “a thirty-foot diameter circular bar” constructed of concrete that was chest high and covered with watered-down snow. It opened in February 1964 with a full-service bar, pastrami sandwiches, corned beef, pea soup, milkshakes and “other goodies.”

“Bill wanted to show Vail that with a little more effort they could make the guests like Vail even more,” Hauserman wrote.

However, as reported in a copy of the Vail Trail from Feb. 4, 1972, in a section celebrating the mountain’s 10th anniversary, Whiteford’s Ice Bar had a “short life” during the 1963 to 1964 ski season.

“Bill Whiteford builds Ice Bar at Mid Vail. Is shut down by Forest Service (no permit), Health Department (no sanitation) and Vail Associates (no simpatico),” reads the caption. 

However, it wasn’t necessarily a simple, one-time shutdown.

While the bar was shut down “without a liquor license or permission from Vail Associates,” Hauserman wrote, Whiteford wasn’t deterred and re-opened swiftly, citing that he had the guests on his side.

“This went on for quite some time until the Forest Service closed him down for advertising foreign liquor on U.S. Forest Service land,” he wrote, adding that this “advertisement” was the Carpano (Italian vermouth) umbrellas set up at the bar.

In total, the bar was only open for two months on and off, Hauserman reports.

In celebration of this unique piece of Vail’s history, the mountain will be building two ice bars at Eagle’s Nest, at the top of the Eagle Bahn gondola, and at Wildwood, which will be serviced by two new lifts this season.

Different from the original concrete and snow design — as described by Hauserman — the bars will be constructed out of ice and snow, Plack said.

“Once we have that structure in place, our grooming team will continue to pile snow and re-sculpt the Ice Bars every time we get a storm,” he added.

Plus, in order to avoid some of the challenges Whiteford faced with the original bar, Plack said that the two bars will be co-located with existing food and beverage locations on the mountain.

The resort is optimistic it will have the bars open and operating in December — dependent on the weather and snow, Plack said — with the menu yet to be determined.

As part of the “vintage Vail” experience, the resort is planning additional events and festivities during the upcoming ski season. This includes a partnership with 10th Mountain Whiskey on two spirits (including one in honor of Henry the avalanche dog); reservable snow bungalows at Eagle’s Nest; a “new bar experience” at Cucina at the Lodge at Vail, which also opened in 1962; a hot chocolate cart; a birthday party; a mogul competition and more.

This upcoming ski season is currently scheduled to begin on Nov. 11 on Vail Mountain.

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