Two pioneers of Vail Mountain |

Two pioneers of Vail Mountain

Melanie Wong
Vail, CO Colorado
Photo courtesy of the Donovan familyJohn Donovan (left) chats with President Gerald Ford at the first Ford Invitational ski race in 1977. Donovan, a mountain tour guide and ski instructor, will be honored for 45 years of working with Vail Resorts.

VAIL, Colorado ” One has worked on the mountain before there were grooming machines, and the other literally helped build most of the lifts that whiz skiers up the mountain today.

John Donovan and Steve Bobson will be honored as longtime Vail Resorts employees and trailblazers on Vail Mountain this Thursday at a the company’s annual seniority banquet at Beaver Creek.

Donovan is a ski instructor and mountain tour guide, and will be completing his 45th year with Vail Resorts, making him the longest working employee. Bobson is a lift mechanic and will be completing his 40th year with Vail Resorts.

Donovan has been “longtime fixture of the Vail Community and the mountain,” said Steve Holland, general manager of the Vail Village Snowsports School.

Donovan started making history in Vail when he arrived in 1962 after reading in Sports Illustrated that a new ski resort had opened.

“I worked in the trade and securities industry in Denver, and I felt like a change,” he said. “I didn’t ski at the time. I just wanted to try a new place.”

He joined the trail crew in 1963. For a payment of two tickets a day valued at $5, his job was to “groom” the slopes by side-stepping up the steep runs. The next year he became a ski instructor and taught one of the resort’s first lessons on Golden Peak.

At the time Donovan arrived, what is now the town was a small village with three lodges. Donovan and a friend opened a deli on Bridge Street in 1963, the fifth business in town, and later owned Donovan’s Copper Bar, located at the current Vendetta’s space.

He said he enjoys his mountain job, and hopes he can “fit in another five years.”

“I enjoy being on the mountain and showing Vail Mountain to people from all over the world,” he said. “I take them on the finest slopes in Vail that have been groomed that day.”

And talk about come high profile skiing buddies ” Donovan has skied with President Gerald Ford, John Denver and the mayor of Melbourne, Australia.

And he left his mark on the town ” he served for years on the Town Council, Donovan Park is named after him in honor of his efforts to preserve open space, and he is the owner of the town’s waste management company, Vail Honeywagon.

While he looks wistfully back at a time when the town was smaller and less crowded, he said he is proud to have been a part of structuring the future of Vail and fighting for open space in the town.

Donovan still lives in Vail with his wife Diana, and three children, John, Matt and Kerry.

“I’ve never considered leaving. I love the lifestyle here,” he said.

Hop on a lift almost anywhere in Vail or Beaver Creek, and you’re probably on a route that Bobson first blazed.

The lifetime Gypsum resident helped build 15 of Vail’s and Beaver Creek’s lifts and gondolas.

Bobson ” who doesn’t ski himself ” first came to work at the resort as a lift operator in 1968 while in high school.

“When I first started working, the crew mostly came off farms and ranches nearby, and there were a lot more older guys who worked on the mountain,” he said. “Also lift operators would come back for years and years.”

After trying out computer programming and deciding it wasn’t for him, Bobson began working as a lift mechanic’s helper. He and a group of about 25 men began working to construct Vail’s lifts, digging foundations for towers, erecting the towers, building terminals and stringing the cable.

He worked on lifts including the first Game Creek Bowl lift and the Eagle’s Nest gondola. When Beaver Creek was set to open, Bobson was one of the crew that built six of the mountain’s lifts over the summer season.

Being part of that crew is one of his proudest accomplishments, he said, because everyone said that six lifts in one summer “just couldn’t be done.”

Not only was it tough work ” it could be dangerous, too.

Bobson remembered one harrowing experience while building Beaver Creek’s Chair 7, now the Rose Bowl lift, in Vail. While using a rope to haul up the main cable of the lift, the line broke, causing the heavy lift cable to go snapping all the way down the mountain.

“Once it broke, that stuff just went all the way down the line, and there were people standing on the towers and all,” he said. “I was right in the area where it happened, so I saw the whole thing. Amazingly, no one got hurt.”

Bobson still lives in Gypsum and has two sons, Tyson and Clint.

Staff Writer Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2928 or

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