Seibert a major but humble player
Pete Seibert left behind a ski industry he helped transform and one in which, as an entrepreneur, he no longer fit. He also created what now is an internationally acclaimed resort town at the base of the mountain that fueled his dream.
Yet Seibert was that rare humble man who happened to find the public spotlight by following his dream. Many feel this blunt-spoken yet eminently likable man did not get the credit he deserved.
“Peter was a great visionary,” said friend, 10th Mountain comrade and employee Bill “Sarge” Brown. “Peter took a mountain and built it to what it is today. He had the greatest impact on skiing of anyone in North America. He never did get enough credit for what he did.”
Seibert’s vision included what is now Blue Sky Basin and even Beaver Creek Resort.
Today Vail Mountain hosts 1.6 million skier days annually. The town at its base is also developing into a warm weather destination resort. Beaver Creek hosts nearly 700,000 skiers. It all started with Seibert’s dream.
“Pete ranks right up there with Averill Harriman and Sun Valley,” said ski filmmaker Warren Miller. “He was right up there at the top. Everybody always said, “Why would you want to put a ski area in next to an interstate when Aspen is already there?’ He proved them all wrong. He was the guy who said, “Hey!'”
His passing, too, is punctuation on a period in skiing when it was entrepreneurially driven but is no more.
“It’s the end of an era where a guy who did it from the ground up and did all the disciplines himself,” said resort industry consultant Ford Frick of BRC in Boulder. “He was a guy who personified a ski area. There just aren’t those kinds of figures there any more, and they aren’t building ski areas, either.”
“He was one of the most important people to mold the ski industry after World War II,” said ski industry consultant and developer Jerry Jones. “A few guys stood out in that area, and he was one of them.”
Bob Parker was there virtually from the start. He was Vail’s initial vice president of marketing and publicity and assistant general manager. He described Seibert as a focused dreamer.
“He was a giant,” said Parker. “Some people have suggested the discovery of Vail was fortuitous. It wasn’t. It was the result of a long, hard search for the right mountain and the right situation.”
That right situation was a mountain that was challenging, but not too challenging. It has mass appeal.
“That was Pete’s genius. He understood, as a ski instructor and wounded war veteran, that most people did not enjoy being really challenged on skis or any other sport,” Parker said. “That’s what Vail was all about.”
Ski industry publisher Bill Grout noted that Seibert bucked the so-called experts when he built the mountain and the village.
“The key thing Pete did was decide to build a ski area on a mountain many experts considered too easy,” he said. “There were a lot of naysayers in the design of the village, too. He copied Zermatt, St. Anton. A European pedestrian village is what he wanted. He proved them all wrong.”
Among those was the U.S. Ski Hall of Famer Willy Schaeffler. In a Sports Illustrated article published right before Vail opened, Schaeffler predicted Vail would fail because the skiing public would not be challenged enough by its slopes, Parker remembers.
“Pete said that he couldn’t have said a better thing,” Parker said. The phones began to ring when people found they could enjoy themselves at Vail.
Ski magazine editor-at-large John Fry noted how Seibert’s hospitality and restaurant training melded itself into his vision for Vail.
“He wanted to marry the sun and powder of Colorado with the ambience of the Alps, and he succeeded,” Fry said.
But Vail also had something few other ski resorts had: the Back Bowls.
“Nothing like the Back Bowls existed anywhere in Colorado,” said Grout. “He opened that terrain up to the average skier.”
The current CEO of Vail Resorts, Adam Aron, said Seibert’s contributions to the state’s skiing industry in general and Vail specifically were huge.
“His impact on Vail is of staggering proportions,” Aron said. “His vision and his inspiration created the best and most visited ski resort in the U.S.”
But beyond that, Seibert and his dream wrought a broader impact, said Aron.
“Since Vail has been a leader in the ski industry for four decades, his impact on the industry has been enormous,” Aron said.
Although Seibert possessed plenty of vision, making money and the day-to-day operations of the ski company were not among his strengths, his friends and industry peers acknowledged.
“Pete was something, but he was not a businessman,” said original Vail investor George Caulkins. “He wasn’t interested in raising or making money. If Peter and Parker had had their way, they would have opened Vail free to all the kids in Leadville. His vision was the thing.”
And Seibert didn’t get rich from his mountain.
“We were always short of money,” said Brown. “When we built the Lionshead gondola, we didn’t have any money.”
But that never deterred Seibert, Brown recalled.
“If Peter had an idea, he never wanted it to be defeated. He went ahead and did it,” he said.
While Vail was developing, in Lionshead things were rough, recalled former board member Tom Corcoran, who now is the chairman of the board of New Hampshire’s Waterville Valley ski resort. The company, Vail Associates, was struggling, and there were concerns it would be subject to stockholder lawsuits.
“It went down to the bottom, and I supported Pete,” Corcoran said. “I felt the fundamentals of the company were good. He understood what makes a resort work and what makes it not work.”
Corcoran and Seibert met while Corcoran was training for Aspen’s Roche Cup and Seibert watched him struggling while running jumps on a downhill. Seibert taught him how to prejump. “Probably saved my life,” Corcoran said. “He was a humble guy and a very kind guy. If he liked you, he would give you the shirt off his back.”
Seibert was encouraged to explore Vail Mountain by Eagle County local Earl Eaton. In 1957 they slogged seven hours to the summit through deep snow. Once there, Seibert’s grin said it all.
“I met Pete in Aspen while cutting trail on Ruthie’s run on Aspen in 1948,” Eaton said. “Half the people in Aspen wanted to put in a ski area. I was one of them. He had a dream to do something, and he got it done. It seems like yesterday.”
Filmmaker Miller would like to see Seibert’s impact quantified – difficult though that may be.
“How many people’s lives were changed by Pete and Earl’s idea?” Miller said. “In today’s moneybag era, it could be measured in billions of dollars.”
Seibert and other entrepreneurs rode the demand for recreation created by the swelling population of post-World War II Baby Boomers. The entrepreneurs also benefited from new technology brought to the ski industry that made skiing easier, safer and more fun,” said Parker.
“There were a series of serendipities in those years,” Parker said. “The plastic boot was being developed by Lange, the metal Head ski, release bindings, and warm down jackets were marketed.”
When Colorado passed a condominium law, it provided ski resorts like Vail with beds for destination visitors, Parker said. Airlines realized there was a potential skier market and began to serve airports close to slopes.
“All these serendipities were occurring about the time Vail was getting ready to open in 1962,” said Parker. “Vail rode these serendipities.”
“Pete was a wonderful guy,” Parker said. “He had his detractors. It’s true that Earl brought him to the mountain. But it was Pete’s genius and his know-how and ability to conceive in advance of what things could be and pulling people together to make an operating team that created Vail.”