Vail loses a legend: Pepi Gramshammer dies at 87
The ski racer turned hotelier who was close to President Ford embodied the soul of Vail for nearly 60 years
- The Vail Daily is compiling tributes to Pepi Gramshammer for a special edition of the paper and an online section. Tributes should be no longer than 500 words. Send your thoughts and remembrances to email@example.com.
VAIL — Many professional skiers have called Vail home. Pepi Gramshammer was the first.
Gramshammer died at age 87 on Saturday at Vail Health Hospital in Vail.
“He was in a beautiful room with a view of Riva Ridge,” said Sheika Gramshammer, Pepi’s wife. “The first thing he said when they rolled him in … ‘Look, Riva Ridge, my favorite run.’”
Gramshammer had several strokes and a seizure in recent days, and had been spending time in a hospital in Denver.
“He was so excited, and so happy to come back home again,” Sheika said on Saturday. “He had a hard time talking, but when he saw Riva Ridge, his eyes just lit up, and he pointed at it.”
A native of Austria, where he was a member of the national ski team, Gramshammer was courted to Vail in the fall of 1962 by Dick Hauserman, Pete Seibert, Morrie Shepard and Bob Parker, who wanted to see a professional skier call Vail home to add legitimacy to the new ski area. Gramshammer agreed, but spent the early season in Aspen training for ski racing. He met Sheika there.
On Saturday, his last words were to Sheika and their daughters, Kira and Sheika.
“I love you,” he said.
Athlete and businessman
Gramshammer used race winnings and sponsorship money to start the Hotel Gasthof Gramshammer in Vail in 1964, which became a top employer in the area and remains an iconic Vail business to this day.
On Saturday, many of Gramshammer’s former employees from the early days took to social media to remember the man who got them their first job in Vail.
“I had been at (Pepi’s) ski race camp in Red Lodge,” recalled Buzz Schleper. “When I got to Vail that fall and went into Pepi Sports for a job, the employee on duty told me they were full. Well, Pepi happened down the stairs and remembered me. We talked racing and then I told him that I came in for a job but was turned away. Immediately he found his manager and told him to hire me.”
Patrick Quigley said after arriving in Vail in 1966, Gasthof Gramshammer was the first lodge he saw.
“I walked in and out of the kitchen door in the bar walks Pepi with a white apron on,” Quigley recalled. “I didn’t know who he was but told him I was looking for a job. He immediately took the apron off and handed it to me (he had just lost his dishwasher). Told me to get to work and check in after a shift.”
Gramshammer was known to ski with his employees; Quigley was lucky enough to appear in a ski film promoting Vail with Pepi and Sheika.
Ernie Crates, who worked for Pepi in the 1970s, said he loved to see the beauty of Pepi’s turns when they could sneak away from work.
“What was the best about Pepi was he loved to share the mountain,” Crates said.
In addition to the common folk, Pepi showed the powerful around Vail as well. He was known as President Ford’s escort around the mountain, and the Gramshammers were rumored to have a direct line to the president.
Pepi loved skiing into his later years, and could be seen hitting the slopes in his 70s amid health challenges.
“Seeing him walk to the gondola with his walker to ski was so inspirational,” Quigley said.
Singular sense of humor
The run “Forever” on Vail Mountain is a quote from Pepi, who skied it before there was a lift, saying it took “forever” to get back out. On Dec. 10, 2010, amid Vail’s best season on record, he and Sheika were at the top of that run in full ski gear for the dedication of Chair 5’s upgrade to a four-person chair. Never one to hold his tongue, Pepi — in a speech to a crowd —said at first he wasn’t in favor of the decision to make it a high-speed chair.
“I said don’t put it here because more people will ski down now,” he said.
A nervousness was felt among the pro-upgrade attendees before Pepi added: “Now I’m glad they did it … You will get more ski runs!”
A statement from Vail Resorts issued Saturday said there are few people as synonymous with Vail as Pepi Gramshammer.
“He was a force for Vail from its inception and an inspiration to all of us,” the statement read. “His contributions to the sport of skiing and to the Vail Valley, combined with his incomparable energy and passion for the mountains, will be forever missed and will continue to live on in spirit.”
Pepi was also present in June at the bottom of another one of his namesake runs, Pepi’s Face, for the Pepi’s Face Off running race. He enjoyed the event immensely, finding it hard to believe the run is taking on a second life in the summer as an attraction that people challenge themselves by running up.
“I’d rather ski down,” he said.