The dividing line is only clear to those on one side.Those on the other side don't know there is a line; and that they are on the less-desirable side of it.Such is the dynamic that exists between locals and gapers on the mountain.Confused?A better example may be this: If you are a gaper, you don't know what the word means. If you're a local - meaning the primary reason you are here is for the skiing or snowboarding - you are acutely aware of what the word means.Still reading, and still don't know what a gaper is? Self-consciously wondering that you may be one and what, in turn, that means about you as a person?Don't worry.To be a gaper isn't a necessarily a bad thing. It's hard to think of similar labels that aren't derogatory, but truthfully, "gaper" is a moniker that carries little, if any, ill will. "It's hard to say anything bad about gapers without being too offensive to our lifeblood here in the valley," says Edwards' Maia Chavez, a local of 13 years. "I don't think any of us here in the valley can really underestimate the value of the gaper - and when I say value I mean humor value, social value, and of course, the ever-popular monetary value."
The principle reason the gaper label isn't a bad one is because this place - and the people who live here year round - couldn't survive without gapers. The relationship between the two groups on either side of the line is a symbiotic one; an affiliation that is mutually beneficial.Or, detrimental, depending on who you ask. "I love them because they give me my paycheck," says Ethan St. Germain, a local since 1998. "But, I hate them when they almost hit me in the head with their skis walking up Bridge street. Or, if they're taking up the whole catwalk doing their big GS turns."
What is a gaper?"I guess you would quantify a gaper as someone from out of town who isn't very familiar with the mountain, or the mountain lifestyle," says Chavez. "It's someone who is in the wrong spot at the wrong time, all the time," says St. Germain. "Like always standing on the other side of a blind jump or taking up the whole catwalk when you're trying to get through."The etymology is simple. Gapers garnered their nickname because, while standing somewhere they shouldn't be, thus making them an accident-waiting-to-happen, the mouth tends to be agape."They're oblivious. They have no clue," says St. Germain.Adds Luke Eckenroth of Edwards, "They're the only people in the middle of the hill not moving."
The broader definition stretches further than just that of a once-a-year skier not knowing simple on-mountain etiquette. On-mountain attire is also something that distinguishes gapers to locals, meaning a liftie can pick out a gaper standing in a lift line, or a waiter can pick out a group of gapers having drinks during apres-ski."A lot of it's the clothing style," says lifetime local Hans Herner, 24, of Eagle-Vail. "Gapers like the bright, one-piece suits. They don't know that they're standing out, but they are."There are other indicators. If you ski in jeans, you're a gaper. If you wear a jester hat, or big, tinted aviator glasses on the hill, you're a gaper.If you still wear your ski outfit from 10 years ago, you're a gaper.Head bands. Neon. Rear-entry ski boots. Sports-team jackets (especially noxious, red Huskers jackets). They're all gaper red flags.Jeff Foxworthy could do a routine on the subject.Like Foxworthy's "You might be a redneck" bit, there is no definitive, consummate trait to distinguish gapers from non-gapers. It might be the clothes. It might be the skiing style. It might be both.Gaperdar (gaper radar) is not an innate attribute, but a proficiency which locals generally acquire over time."You learn real quick what gapers are," says Eckenroth. "If you're a first-time local, you are probably a gaper at one point."
The dividing line isn't necessarily always clear. There is gray in gaperdom. To group everyone with a one-piece ski suit into the gaper category is an error that some make, and it's a considerable one at that. A number of locals pay a lot of money for custom one-pieces sold by high-end local retailers. Pepi Gramshammer, a local who has the right to call almost every local a tourist, wears a one-piece ski suit. To call one of Vail's greatest ambassadors a gaper is sacreligious. Gramshammer, who moved to Vail in 1962, has a ski run named after him. He's enshrined in the Colorado Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame. His local restaurant and bar and ski shop is a local landmark."Pepi wears a Bogner one piece, and he loves it," says Patricia Ruiz, an employee at Pepi Sports in Vail. "People like them because they think it's warmer on cold days than the two piece. It depends on the fashion and all that. Usually, it's an older crowd that buys them. There's also a lot of people from Mexico who buy them, too. (Bogner) is an expensive brand and they love to have the best gear. They run about $800-2000."Becky Maclachlan, a retail manager at Gorsuch Ltd. in Vail, says that while one pieces are not as popular in ski retail as they used to be, there is still a demographic of customers who prefer the suits, and who assuredly are not gapers."When I sell a person a one piece, and if they come in and say, 'I know they're going out of style,' I say, 'You know sir, if you're comfortable in them and you've been wearing them for years, there's nothing wrong with it,'" Maclachlan says. "I say, 'Go for it.' The most important thing is that you're out there having fun."Appearances can be misleading. Spotting gapers isn't as clearcut as spotting mullets, or out-of-state license plates.
It's possible to pigeon-hole someone as a gaper, until a chair ride up the hill, or a short conversation can make you realize you are completely off the mark.Still, there are some true tell-tale signs."Working in a ski shop, you see all sorts of crazy stuff," says Herner, who works at Christy Sports in Avon. "Such as, people trying to put their tennis shoes in ski boots. You gotta deal with the gapers. Gapers keep the entertainment rollin'. I wouldn't say it's a love-hate relationship. I think it's more of a relationship to get in a good laugh."Then there are the ultimate gapers."One time," says St. Germain. "There was a whole group of Japanese folks that pulled into town the day after the mountain closed one year, walking up Bridge street with all their gear on. They didn't realize the mountain was closed. They were a day late."Staff Writer Nate Peterson can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 608, or via e-mail at email@example.com.Vail, Colorado