Vail at 60: More memories from longtime locals as the resort celebrates six decades
The surprise about Vail Mountain’s 60th anniversary isn’t that so many people have been involved, but that so many have stayed.
The resort, and the town, have had good and bad years, but through it all have been the people who have remained dedicated to the community. Here are more stories from longtime Vail locals. Asked why they stay, all have essentially the same answer: Why would I want to be anywhere else?
Rod Slifer may be the last of those who were in Vail for the first Opening Day. He also skied the other day from the top of Vail Mountain to the base, at 88 years old.
After working in Aspen for a couple of seasons, Slifer came to a brand-new resort at the western base of Vail Pass at the invitation of Morrie Shepard, who had been hired from Aspen to run the new ski area’s ski school. So Slifer loaded up his Volkswagen and headed to the new resort — which didn’t yet have a name — in the summer of 1962.
As Slifer drove past Minturn, he found a dirt road, followed it, and found a small complex of three trailers. One had a kitchen, the other had dining tables and chairs, and the third was where Slifer bunked with Shepard and resort co-founder Pete Seibert. Seibert got a bed. Shepard and Slifer had cots.
Support Local Journalism
That summer before opening was a busy one, and work continued into the fall. The early winter of 1962 didn’t have much snow which prompted the resort’s founders to seek out members of the Ute tribe for a snow dance. It was actually a rain dance, but the Utes figured that could work.
Slifer said it’s actually a good thing the snow came late that year.
“We might not have finished until March if it (snowed early),” he said.
After the mild fall, January was brutally cold. Slifer spent that winter in a place in Minturn and recalled that his car wouldn’t start one particularly frigid morning. A passing worker offered to pull-start the car, but the wheels had frozen up, so it just dragged across the ice.
Slifer noted that in the first season, there was just open space between the Lodge at Vail and the Vail Village Inn, so Vail Associates ran a horse-drawn sleigh between them. The sleigh was replaced by a buggy in the summer.
Vail has always tried to attract summer visitors. That started after the first ski season.
“We needed jobs year ’round; otherwise everybody would have left,” he said.
People come and go in ski towns. Slifer stayed because “I was single … I had nothing to lose and it was a job. I said, ‘If it works, we’ll see how it goes.'”
Everyone knew everyone in the early days. That was both good and bad, Slifer said. “If you did something wrong, everybody knew about it. You couldn’t go on a date with somebody’s wife.”
Slifer was early to enter Vail’s real estate business. Today, that firm, Slifer Smith & Frampton is the valley’s biggest real estate company.
But success didn’t come easily, or consistently.
“There were a lot of years when we just struggled,” he said.
“Vail is now turned into a community,” Slifer added. “It’s a really fun place to live. We used to have to drive to Denver to get anything. We now very seldom go to Denver … And we have some families with three generations living here.”
— Scott Miller
A call from Colorado came in late 1962, as Joe and Anne Staufer were on their way to Santa Barbara, California.
That call, placed to Bermuda, where Staufer was in the hotel business, touted a brand-new ski resort called Vail.
“I said ‘I already have a job accepted,’” Staufer said. “But he kept talking and talking.”
Staufer finally agreed to check out the new resort, so he and Anne in January flew to Denver, rented a car and headed west. The clerk at the rental counter said, “there is no Vail — we can rent you a car to Avon or Minturn.”
Minturn was the closest actual town to the new resort. Avon was little more than an outpost with a post office.
The Staufers stopped at a little cabin along U.S. Highway 6 where Vail Mountain School is now and asked about the new resort, just a couple of miles down the road.
Staufer was born and raised in Austria, but had never felt January cold like Vail had that first winter. He was out to look at the manager’s job at Mid-Vail, so Vail Associates put up the young couple at the Avon Country Store. The upstairs room, lit by a single, bare bulb, was a far cry from the cottage in Bermuda that had been the couple’s last home.
That upstairs room was the first of 11 places the Staufers lived in that first season. The rental car had a clothes hangar across the back seat, and Staufer recalled that they just left their clothes hanging in the car that first season.
Anne wanted to follow U.S. Highway 6 the rest of the way to California, but Joe’s mind was made up after either Pete Seibert or Earl Eaton — he doesn’t remember which — took him on a snowcat tour of the mountain.
After the tour, Anne asked “Are you ready to go?”
The answer was a quick no.
“If this doesn’t make it, nothing will,” he remembers saying. “I’m not a skier, but it was just the mountain, that was unbelievable.”
After that first season, Vail Associates was going to close the Lodge at Vail for the summer, due to losses incurred over the winter.
Staufer convinced his bosses to keep the place open. Taxes and insurance bills don’t stop coming when the lifts close, he told them.
That summer wasn’t easy, at least at first.
“We had a huge kitchen facility I couldn’t afford to open, so we did the cooking in the fireplace,” he recalled. “People loved it.”
After a slow start, the hotel was soon busy nearly every Saturday. A package that included a room, a gondola ride and other amenities — priced at $50 per person — proved popular.
After 60 years of ups and downs — Staufer once chartered a bus to Loveland for guests on a low-snow Thanksgiving — Vail is firmly in the Staufers’ blood.
“This is my home,” he said. “I wouldn’t be anywhere else.”
Elaine Kelton, then Elaine White, and her then-husband, Gerry White, arrived in Vail in October of 1964, just before Vail Mountain’s third season.
The couple had grown up in Philadelphia, but Gerry wanted to live in the West. He soon owned an outfitting and guiding business in Livingston, Montana. It wasn’t great.
“Livingston, Montana, in January, is very gray and very cold,” she recalled.
Some of Gerry’s friends recommended a new resort in Colorado. “There’s no better place in the world to learn to ski,” she recalled them saying. Neither Gerry nor Elaine skied at the time.
So the Whites loaded up their Volkswagen bug and headed south.
They arrived at night, but the lights were on at the Vail Village Inn, where there was a wild game dinner to raise money for the community’s fledgling school.
“We walked in, and people were incredibly friendly,” Kelton said. The couple found lodging that night in the honeymoon suite of the Lodge at Vail. That room was the only one on the property next to the building’s elevator, she recalled.
The next day, the couple met Bob Lazier hammering shingles into the roof of what became the Wedel Inn. That led to further introductions and housing in the small trailer park that once occupied the Sandstone neighborhood.
Gerry worked at the lodge in roles including bellman and cook. Elaine was hired as the social director.
There was no TV, and Monopoly games in various hallways quickly got old, so she brought in movies to show on Saturdays at a bar called the Golden Ski.
The Whites met Rod Slifer — then assistant director of the ski school — in a typically early-Vail way.
The couple decided they could simply learn by doing, and ended up in a heap a bit downhill from the lift to Swingsville. Slifer asked if they needed some help.
During the summer of 1965, the Whites negotiated a deal for a parcel on what was then the outskirts of Vail Village, far from the gondola.
But during that summer, Vail Associates rerouted a run to come down at the back door of what became the Rams-Horn Inn.
All these years later, Kelton and her husband, Art, are still in love with Vail.
“Vail’s wonderful,” she said. “The community is family, and we have a cultural base. I don’t know of (another resort) that has a health system like ours. As each of us ends a year with more birthdays, that’s important.”
Dr. Jack Eck
Dr. Eck was the third doctor to ever practice in Vail, moving to the valley in 1971 after returning from military service in Vietnam. He helped lead the development of medical and paramedic services in Vail as it grew from a small clinic to the state-of-the-art institution that we know today.
When I first came to Vail, I had just returned from Vietnam and it just seemed like a place to sort of go and calm down, because that wasn’t a very good experience. Early on there was a lot of controversy in the country, things were difficult to manage, but the fact that we had the facilities here that we had, even early on — though they weren’t as sophisticated — it gave us an outlet for fun and to forget some of the awful things that had gone on over there in Vietnam.
It was a fun place to grow up — I say “grow up” facetiously. There wasn’t any parking structure, there was just a field in the same place, hotels were coming along gradually, one at a time.
Vail didn’t have a hospital at the time, it was just a clinic, and we had three doctors the first year I came. I’d go back (to Denver) and do a residency in internal medicine and more sophisticated things as the community would grow, and I decided this is the place to stay so I could get all the issues that were bothering me after the war, and I was welcomed by the community.
It was quite a privilege to become the third doctor. We would set bones from skiing and provide comfort to folks, and we took care of folks here unless they had some complication, then we’d either send them to Denver or Glenwood. But now we are just so lucky — where we are, we just have one of the most sophisticated and unbelievable hospitals you can imagine. We started small and look where we are today. It’s just amazing up here.
It just means that we had something that a lot of people got behind. We were able to raise some funds and a lot of people stepped forward and made it possible to have what we have today. There are a lot of very sophisticated people who lived here, moved here, and they supported us and it was really collegial seeing how we all interacted together.
Then other things spun off from that. People started new restaurants, and look how sophisticated they are now. We have music that came in, and the New York Philharmonic and all of that stuff, you can go on and on. Behavioral health is the newest thing now, mental health is big here, and it’s something that we can be proud of that we’re helping all people in all different arenas.
We have good, good quality people here who care, and they care about each other, and I think that really helps.
— As told to Carolyn Paletta
Packy Walker remembers the day he came to Vail: Sept. 12, 1967.
Then 22, Walker had been in Denver, and his brother had told him to leave. So Walker borrowed his brother’s Volkswagen and headed west. It was the end of San Francisco’s “Summer of Love,” and Walker wanted to head to the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, then the epicenter of hippie culture. Walker’s brother said Vail would be a better choice.
On the way west, Walker missed the new outpost: “There was nothing there … I had to turn around when I got to Minturn,” he said.
Walker went to work for Bob Lazier, as so many others did at the time. That first job was digging ditches for what became the Arcade Building on Vail’s Wall Street.
That ski season, Walker, with no experience in the lodging business, became the front office manager at the Lodge at Vail.
Summers were quiet. Walker recalls that a group of firefighters was welcomed to the lodge, but that the off-duty group did cause a commotion.
After moving back to his native New York for a while, Hermann Staufer called Walker and asked him to return to Vail. He jumped at the chance.
Vail, he said, “Was just me. I love to ski and this is great skiing, especially compared to the East … It wasn’t a big city … It was just a marvelous place to grow up.”
Vail was a perfect place to explore the outdoors, Walker said. There were only a few people, and most locals had some kind of Jeep or other four-wheel-drive vehicle.
“We’ve drive over Mosquito Pass (between Loveland and Fairplay), or drive down glaciers,” Walker said, adding that remarkably, no one died on those excursions.
In the days before Interstate 70, a trip to Eagle was also an excursion. Walker and his friends would venture to the Diamond J bar and restaurant, home to what he called “the best steak you’ve ever had.”
The trip back could be a bit more challenging than the trip downvalley. The Diamond J was a bar, after all.
Asked when he felt he was in Vail to stay, Walker brings up another exact date: March 12, 1972. That’s when Lazier sold Walker a few units at the Lifthouse Lodge in Lionshead.
“It was a brand-new building and took it as my own,” he said. That sense of ownership extended to installing a new hot tub at the property. There was no way to get machinery back to the site, so Walker dug the hole — thankfully hitting a vein of sand instead of rocks — plumbed the tub and hooked up the electricity.
Over the years, Walker has been known for his offbeat sense of humor. When Vail residents in the 1970s voted on an aquatic center, Walker went to vote wearing a wet suit, fins and a mask. His costumes for the Vail America Days are too numerous to mention.
Perhaps his greatest moment of infamy was when his team won Vail’s Great Race, a season-ending bacchanal. Walker’s photo was splashed on the front page of The Vail Trail, wearing nothing but an athletic supporter.
Former Trail owner Allen Knox once noted that he could track the delivery of that week’s paper by the calls that came to his office. The callers weren’t happy.
Walker recalled that he high-tailed it out of town for a postseason vacation the day after that issue hit the streets.
Walker, now 77, said he has no plans to live anywhere else.
“All my friends are here,” he said. “I plan to die here. I’ve done an extensive amount of traveling, and there’s no better place in the world than Vail.”