Ridin’ with the originals
Earl Eaton, 78, who first hunted on Vail Mountain before World War II and later cut many of its ski trails, stole the show when he and a batch of the town’s original residents hit the slopes to celebrate the resort’s 40th anniversary.
“I’m having more fun now than I’ve ever had on snow,” Eaton said Saturday morning, as the group got ready to head up the Vista Bahn.
Ever the innovator, Eaton now skis sitting down – on a flexible mono-ski that he built. The nimble contraption can turn like a bicycle, and Eaton wears a mini-ski on each foot for better control.
Eaton, who said he doesn’t have a favorite part of the mountain, created Vail along with fellow World War II veteran and fellow Aspen ski bum Pete Siebert, who passed away in July. Eaton said he first met Siebert in Aspen, but didn’t tell his friend about Vail Mountain for about 10 years.
“I started getting dreamy about finding new ski areas,” Eaton said. “In Aspen, it didn’t take long to find out I wasn’t the only dreamer looking for new ski areas.”
The pair hiked up Vail, spotted the Back Bowls and the rest is the stuff that powder days are made of.
Eaton was joined Saturday by some of Vail’s first locals and weekend warriors. Widge Ferguson, whom Widge’s Ridge in Sun Down Bowl is named after, said she started skiing Vail in 1962, the year it opened. Her late husband was Pepi Gramshammer’s lawyer, she says.
“People don’t realize that they not only had to build a mountain, they had to build a village,” Ferguson said. “There have been a lot of changes since then, but it’s still beautiful.”
And the steep slope that bears her name?
“I don’t do it lot by myself, but I can’t get through a year without it,” she said. “It’s a cute little ridge.”
Cy Allen, 80, built one of the first houses in West Vail when the land where Safeway now stands was a field full of deer and elk. Back then, folks got all their groceries in Minturn, he said.
“We had an awful lot of fun in those years,” said Allen, whose son, Buck, is Vail’s longtime town judge.
The mountain was a bit more rugged than it is now, Allen added.
“We didn’t have nearly as many trails and the snow wasn’t packed,” Allen said. “When you had a race, you climbed the course and foot-packed it.”
Even more treacherous back then was driving to Vail over Loveland and Vail passes, before the Eisenhower Tunnel and before Interstate 70, Allen said.
“Getting up and down was a lot more thrilling than skiing,” Allen said. “We had a little parakeet that would chirp every time we got to the top of Loveland Pass.”
Allen led the way on Northwoods Saturday, followed by a batch of originals and admirers like Sarah Will who just wanted to ski with the men and women whose vision made the beautiful sunny day possible.
“They made a beautiful place for me to live,” said Will, who first came to Vail to train with the U.S. Disabled Alpine Ski Team. “It’s just an honor to ski with Earl. He had a great vision and he has such a zest for life that he knew people would come.”
Andy Franklin, who has been skiing Vail every year since 1963, says he came to make some turns with the founders and to thank them for creating the town where, in the legendary Donovan’s Copper Bar one night in 1977, he met his wife.
“I wanted to thank the founders for giving me a place where I’ve had so much pleasure and I wanted to thank John Donovan for having a place for my wife and I to meet,” Franklin said.
Also present Saturday was Vail resident Tom Steinberg, who was the town’s only doctor when he arrived a few years after the mountain opened. Because ski patrollers didn’t have radios then, they used to write his name on a chalkboard at the bottom of chairlifts if he was needed, Steinberg said.
“I would tuck from the top down to the clinic,” Steinberg said. “I could make it in six minutes and I remember thinking that I was the only doctor in town – what if I fell?”
Towering over all the originals on the sun-splashed slopes was Vail Resorts’ first photographer, Shorty Wilcox, who is 7-foot-1.
“The most amazing thing about Vail is that, while in some places the 40th anniversary wouldn’t be a big deal, Vail is always looking for an excuse to have a party and they always do it right and it makes news all over the world,” Wilcox said.
Vail may be fueled by parties these day, but 40 years ago there was a lot of work to do, Eaton says.
“I never did too much partying, though there was a pub crawl last night where I did a little elbow-bending,” Eaton said. “Back in the old days, everybody had to get with it. We had a lot of things to get done. We cut trails and built two chairlifts and the gondola in the first season.”
It was the dedication of Vail’s founders and original residents that made the mountain work, Eaton said.
“If there hadn’t been the right people here in the beginning, it wouldn’t have happened,” he said. “They brought themselves and their money with them.”
Though retired from the ski industry, Eaton is still a visionary.
“One of these days before too long, you’re going to be able to ski Vail and Beaver Creek on the same day without taking your skis off – though you’ll have to be a good skier if you want to do it,” Eaton said.
The lone snowboarder Saturday was Charlie Langmaid, whose parents, both alive and in their 90s, opened Vail’s first ski shop. He said he remembers a small town where everybody knew each other and helped each other out while trying to make their own businesses succeed.
“Everybody worked together to grow this place and saw each other everyday,” he said. “And we had a lot of parties, which were a little more formal then – all the men wore shirts and ties.”
Though the town has grown exponentially, life in Vail is still about the same thing, Langmaid said.
“It’s easy to complain about growth and development and the noise on Interstate 70,” he said. “But once you come up the mountain, it’s pretty much the same as it’s always been – the scenery, the snow and the joy of being up here.”