1969 – Simba dedicates Lionshead | VailDaily.com

1969 – Simba dedicates Lionshead

Peter W. Seibert
Special to the Daily/Courtesy Vail ResortsFor the dedication of the new Lionshead gondola in 1969, Vail Associates hired a lion named Simba to add some majesty to the proceedings, with Pete Seibert lion tamer for a day. Lionshead was named after a rock outcropping above the neighboring town of Minturn; a ski trail above Lionshead was named after Simba.

We built a second gondola, cut new cruising trails on the front side – Simba, Bwana, and Born Free – and opened Game Creek Bowl on the back side of the mountain. That gave us a total of seven chairlifts, two gondolas, four beginners’ lifts, 28 restaurants, 4,500 beds and a ski school with 70 instructors – all when an all-day lift ticket was only$8.

For the dedication of Lionshead, Bob Parker had the brilliant idea of importing a real lion. An animal named Simba arrived, accompanied by a suspiciously nervous trainer. Simba climbed the steps leading to the new lower gondola terminal. Just as he entered the door, Simba brushed against a loose wire in a string of Christmas bulbs and received an electrical shock. He leaped into the building, yanking the trainer along on his chain leash, and made several lunges at people before settling down.

Parker wanted me to pose for pictures in a gondola car with Simba, and I agreed reluctantly. The lion got in with me, then made a guttural sound in his throat. I interpreted it as a threatening growl and jumped out. Other people within earshot claimed it was only a gentle belch, but I’ll stick with my interpretation. After all, I was the one with my arm around his neck.

Of course, not everything happened the way we wanted it to. In the late 1960s the face of the valley changed forever when the state condemned 110 acres of Vail Associates property and began to transform quaint, twisting U.S. Highway 6 into high-speed, high-capacity Interstate 70.

I told Charlie Shumate, director of the state highway department, that he could put his new interstate highway in some other valley – I didn’t want it.

After all, if Aspen didn’t suffer from being at the end of a circuitous road, neither would Vail. But Charlie saw his highway as a blessing for any community it went through, and, of course, we really had no choice in the matter.

We did manage to get more cash from the state for our 110 acres than was originally offered, but we had to go to court to do it. The initial offer had been for $298,000; after a lengthy court case we settled for about $850,000. But I still wish I-70 had been built somewhere else.

We always had wonderful press coverage in those early years, due in large part to the fact that Bob Parker was extremely well liked by journalists. In 1964 Sports Illustrated’s cosmopolitan ski editor, Fred Smith, delivered a hugely enthusiastic report:

“Today, in the vicinity of Gore Creek, where not even a mining shack existed before, a dozen saunas now flourish. Smoke escapes the chimneys of 72 houses, ranging from a ski chateau with walls painted in trompe l’oeil to simple, rustic cottages. Liquor stores are stocked with Western-sized bottles of Beefeater and with Pommard and muscatels that would do a Madison Avenue vintner proud. Blanquette de veau is served in a downstairs boîte called La Cave where University of Colorado students in jeans dance a Wild West version of the Watusi and Long Island ladies in long skirts do genteel versions of the frug.

“The chalets, the saunas, the Pommard and the frug are the appurtenances of ski areas around the world. But never in the history of U.S. skiing have they all come so quickly; never has a bare mountain leaped in such a short time into the four-star category of ski resorts.”

The following is the 50th installment of the Vail Daily’s serialization of “Vail: Triumph of a Dream” by Vail Pioneer and Founder Pete Seibert. This excerpt comes from Chapter 10, entitled “The Glory Years: 1963-1976.” The book can be purchased at the Colorado Ski Museum, as well as bookstores and other retailers throughout the Vail Valley.

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