Born in Austria, Pepi Gramshammer became a classic American success
Vail's first ski ambassador and the fledgling resort became iconic together
VAIL — Pepi Gramshammer was many things in his long and colorful life.
Husband and father, professional ski racer, a pioneer of a fledgling ski resort, business builder … and a classic American success story.
Pepi said early and often, “I could never have done this in Austria. You can’t believe how lucky I am. No one is luckier than I.”
Luck, of course, lives at the intersection of work and opportunity. For Pepi and his wife, Sheika, that’s also the intersection of Vail’s Bridge Street and Gore Creek Drive where they built Hotel Gasthof Gramshammer.
Pepi was born in Kufstein, Austria, in 1932, and worked as an apprentice cheesemaker. But he was born to ski race and battled his way onto the powerful Austrian national ski team.
He left war-torn Austria for the United States in 1960 to seek his fortune. He embraced that fortune and so much more. He landed in Sun Valley, Idaho, to teach skiing and be a professional ski racer. Among his students were jazz legend Louis Armstrong and actor Peter Lawford.
In early winter 1962, he met his soon-to-be wife and fellow Austrian Sheika Moser in Aspen. He was training to defend his pro skiing title, while she was visiting from New York City where she worked as a model. Years later Pepi grinned that if it wasn’t love at first sight, “it came on really fast. She was the best. She still is.” They were engaged a few weeks later.
To be a true business success you have to own something. Pepi and Sheika instinctively understood that. When he landed in Vail, Pepi spent most of his time as the resort’s ski ambassador, showing guests around the mountain. As that first season wound down, Pepi decided to plant his flag and make Vail home.
Pepi was told it would take a lot of money to build the hotel he envisioned. Pepi had saved a lot of money, and with help from other Vail pioneers, pulled together some investors. He and Sheika set about building Gasthof Gramshammer on Vail Village land they bought for $2 per square foot. It’s the only Vail Village business still owned by its builders. Pepi and Sheika opened the doors to their dream in 1964. By the way, 1964 was a big year for Pepi. He and Sheika were married earlier that year.
They made Vail home and never left.
“Vail became what I never had before — a home. It’s my home, the only home I ever had. It opened its arms to all of us, embraced us with such a force, and such love that you cannot help but being happy and in love with this town,” Sheika said.
Before Vail was Vail, Pepi skied here. He was a huge star in international ski racing, talented, young and good looking — a hot commodity.
Sponsors gave him equipment and cars, and he helped ensure success for the International Professional Ski Racers Association.
That’s how Vail pioneer Dick Hauserman found him. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Hauserman was like a traveling revival preacher and Vail was his promised land. Hauserman showed Pepi a short film about the new ski area, the one Hauserman and others showed potential investors.
A decade and a half before Interstate 70 was built, Vail was a wide spot on U.S. Highway 6. Pepi was recruited away from Sun Valley to help promote the fledgling Vail ski company.
He immediately caught the vision. Pepi agreed to ski Vail on April 17, 1962, eight months before the lifts were built and the resort opened, and two days after winning the season’s final race at Loveland and the professional ski racing season title. Roger Brown drove Pepi from Loveland to what would become Vail in Brown’s Volkswagen van.
“Lots of dirt and one snowcat was about all they seemed to have,” Pepi said on the 50th anniversary of that legendary run. Pepi climbed into that snowcat with Vail Pioneers Pete Seibert, Bob Parker, Brown and Morrie Shepard. Seibert drove.
“I had never seen so much snow,” Pepi said. “It was the most beautiful day we’ve ever had in ski country.”
They launched themselves down that south slope. Pepi didn’t stop until he hit the bottom, his first tracks now followed by millions of others. What goes down must come up, and Pepi had to hike.
“That took forever,” he said smiling when he climbed out, and that’s how the run “Forever” was named.
Sun Valley was out and Vail was in, with Pepi calling it “the best move I have ever made in my life.” OK, maybe one of his two best moves. Sheika has to be the other.
Pepi tapped his contacts to help bring World Cup racing to Vail in 1967. He kept tapping those contacts to help bring the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships to town in 1989, 1999 and 2015.
Pepi took Michigan’s junior congressman under his wing when Jerry and Betty Ford started making regular sojourns to Vail with their children during the late 1960s. Jerry Ford did not attract much attention in those early years.
However, when he ascended to vice president and the presidency, Ford’s Secret Service detail took a dim view of the President of the United States skiing close to the trees because, late in the day, that’s where all the good snow was. Legend has it, Pepi did nothing to discourage President Ford, reasoning that if the president could lead the free world, Pepi could lead the president toward good snow.
On the balcony above Gasthof Gramshammer’s iconic deck, Jerry and Betty often joined Pepi and Sheika to enjoy Vail’s July Fourth parade. Paraders and spectators waved. Pepi and Sheika, Jerry and Betty always smiled and waved back.
When Ford was named president, he and Betty returned the favor and invited Pepi and Sheika to the White House.
Pepi and Sheika hosted Vail’s Crystal Ball, now known as the Black Diamond Ball, a black-tie fundraiser. They raised millions for ski-related organizations and programs.
Pepi launched his Wedel Weeks ski training program in 1985, encouraging others to be as enthusiastic about skiing as he was. He was also instrumental in launching the American Ski Classic in the 1980s. It was his idea to add ski legends to the event.
Pepi’s Austrian roots circled back to him in 2005 when Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schussel honored Pepi for his achievements in the United States. It happened to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the creation of the Austrian Ski Federation.
Pepi’s birthday is August 6. Vail declared Pepi’s 80th birthday, August 6, 2012, as Pepi Gramshammer Day. Then again, if you love Vail like he did, every day is Pepi Day.
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