Vail at 60: Stories from those who helped grow the ski resort |

Vail at 60: Stories from those who helped grow the ski resort

Earl Eaton and Pete Seibert, the co-founders of Vail, came from different walks of life to realize the same dream. Eaton had grown up in a ranching family downvalley from what later became Vail, while Seibert hailed from New England and fell in love with the high peaks of Colorado while training with the 10th Mountain Division at Camp Hale.
Colorado Snowsports Museum and Hall of Fame/Courtesy photo

Everyone, and every place, has to start somewhere. In Vail’s case, that start came with a big idea, subject to the whims of nature and the determination of those who thought a brand-new ski area at the base of Vail Pass in a sleepy valley would be a good idea.

Determination — and a great mountain — was about all Vail had going for it in its earliest days. That dream first took hold on March 19, 1957, when Pete Seibert and Earl Eaton, two World War II veterans, made the seven-hour trek up what would become Vail Mountain on skis for Seibert to first glance the Back Bowls for which Vail would later become famous.

Joe Staufer in early 1963 had to convince his wife, Anne, that this new place had a future. At the time, Vail Mountain could ski as well as the best in the world, but with only a gas station, the Vail Village Inn and the Lodge at Vail at the base. The fledgling resort didn’t even appear on car-rental maps.

Those who came in the next few years found a growing place with unpaved streets and a hardy core of people.

Looking at Vail today, it’s hard to imagine those early days. That’s why on the resort’s 60th anniversary we reached out to some of the people who helped build Vail from a wide spot in the road to a ski resort which was once the largest in the U.S.

Support Local Journalism

Here are their stories.

Beth Howard

Beth Howard arrived in Eagle County in 1985 on a college internship and hasn’t stopped working for Vail Resorts since.
Courtesy Beth Howard

Vail Mountain’s current vice president and chief operating officer, the first woman to lead Vail Resorts’ flagship mountain, arrived in Eagle County in the summer of 1985 after accepting an internship in Vail Associates’ food and beverage department while she was a student at the University of Northern Iowa. She’s fond of saying she never left — which is pretty much true. Howard did go back to Iowa to graduate, then came right back to Vail to continue working for a company where she has spent the last 38 years.

When I look back, it was so much smaller then. It was a smaller community. Everyone we socialized with was really who we worked with on the mountain each day. And so our work life really filled into our social life and we were just one big family. So those were fun days, and it was simpler times, and some of my best memories ever.

I had great mentors at the time. Paul Golden, who was our food and beverage director, really allowed me to grow through the ranks in food and beverage over those years. Paul Testwuide was a hero. He was running the mountain and bigger than life. Sarge Brown was here during that era. It was just a great time. George Gillett, too. It was just such an early time in our company and being able to grow with it has been fantastic.

I think the thread that runs through it is just the passion that everyone has for the town and for this valley, and just a love of the sport. I’ve stayed friends with so many people since I got here 38 years ago.

It’s one of the most beautiful places on Earth. Both mountains, Vail and Beaver Creek, are just world-class mountains. You have all the ingredients to work with and build upon. So it’s so much fun to have that as your backdrop and your foundation. And then we have the best talent here to really deliver a world-class experience and a community that supports it. Everything we do here is just based on excellence. That was the vision of Pete Seibert and Earl Eaton and I think we’ve been able to ground ourselves in that every day that we’re here.

Pete Seibert, Earl Eaton and Bob Fowler tour the mountain on a Kristi Kat during Vail’s early years.
Colorado Snowsports Museum and Hall of Fame/Courtesy photo

The fun is still there for me. I was out this morning and talking to all the locals and the regulars that come out. Snow was dumping. I see the smiles on everyone’s faces, and that’s fun for me. That’s my job. It’s our collective job to make sure that people get on the mountain and get that enjoyment.

It’s an honor to be in the COO role for Vail Mountain. It’s our flagship resort. There haven’t been many COOs before me, whether men or women, so I just see it as a real honor and privilege to be at the helm of our flagship resort. A decade ago, I would have never said I would be the COO at Vail Mountain. I thought I would still be in a food and beverage role. I’m optimistic that we’re going to continue to build on this incredible world-class brand. And I think it’s a mountain that can endure so much, and it has, and it only gets better. So I’m optimistic for the next 10 years.

I’m most excited this season to bring back the legacy and the fun of the early years on Vail. And you’ll see that in some of the activations like the ice bars. And, of course, we got two brand new lifts coming on board. We’ve got an incredible early season footprint that Mother Nature helped with this year with incredible snow. There’s a lot to be excited about and I think people are going to enjoy what they see once we get going here and the snow keeps falling. It’s not hard to be excited when we have an early season like this.

— As told to Nate Peterson

Kim Langmaid

Kim Langmaid is currently the mayor of Vail, following in the footsteps of her grandparents and parents before her who helped found and shape the town.
Kim Langmaid/Courtesy Photo

Vail’s current mayor grew up at the foot of the mountain where her grandparents, then her parents, settled to help build the fledgling town beneath the new ski resort.

My grandparents, Joe and Bunny Langmaid, were ski buddies with Dick and Blanche Hauserman, and they came here together to just have fun and start the town. They moved here when they were about 50 years old and they just saw this as an opportunity for a new adventure. They loved skiing and that’s really what later on brought my parents to the valley and what brought me to the valley.

They worked hard and they played hard. I was reading my grandmother’s diaries from the first year, and there was a short entry for every day in that first year. And I think every afternoon they had cocktails at the Slifers’ house.

It was a small community, and everybody got together, everybody pitched in. It seems like every afternoon or evening they went to somebody else’s house for dinner and really gave each other that company and sense of community. And they really had very close-knit friendships with the core group of people that were here, working to make Vail a reality.

They were among those people who were able to get a lot on Beaver Dam Road for $10,000 that came along with two lifetime ski passes. My grandparents had built a home on Beaver Dam Road and then later my parents were able to build a home on Beaver Dam Road as well. It was very low-key, nothing like it is right now. These were all like small cabins and A-frames and ski chalets, very small, modest types of things.

They were outdoor people and just shared their love of the outdoors with me as I was growing up and so taught me how to be an outdoors person and how to ski.

My grandfather opened Vail’s first ski rental shop and during the first ski season of 1962-63, his total ski rentals were $17,500. He also had waxing, storage, repairs and merchandise, so his actual, total end-of-season business was $27,000.

It was an amazing experience growing up in town. For the kids in town, the whole town was really our playground, and so we were either skiing, sledding, playing in the snow, or riding our bikes or skateboards all around town.

Kim Langmaid skis in the early days at Vail’s Gold Peak.
Kim Langmaid/Courtesy Photo

I grew up over at Gold Peak and remember the rope tow and the Poma lift over there. Even before that, there’s a teeny little slope right behind where the Pirate Ship Park is now, and that was probably my first time on skis, just on the backyard ski slope.

Later on, each holiday season, a lot of the kids in town would work for the businesses during the busy season because there weren’t enough employees back then even. So, we would work in the back of the shop doing all the gift wrapping, or they’d set us up at the counter to help people. It was all hands on deck in those early days, just like it is now.

I know it’s become a busy place, but we’re so lucky to be surrounded by two pretty, relatively pristine wilderness areas with all these public lands. It’s a pretty precious place, and I hope to see that that aspect of it can be sustained and cherished just as much as it has been over the past decades.

It was just a simpler place. But I don’t compare today to then; we live in a different world now, so we have different challenges. But that spirit and that sense of community and connection to place, it’s still available.

I know it’s a challenging place to live now, so I hope that we can address some of those challenges and move forward so that the next upcoming younger generations have the same opportunities to experience the mountains and the skiing in the same way that I was able to.

— As told to Ali Longwell

Sheika Gramshammer

Sheika Gramshammer and her husband, Pepi, shared the Vail Valley Citizen of the Year honor in 1989. Sheika was awarded the honor for the second time in 2021.
Special to the Daily

Owner of the iconic Gasthof Gramshammer hotel and restaurant since 1964, Sheika and her late husband, Pepi, have been two of the most defining faces in the Vail community since its opening season.

I came on Thanksgiving in 1962 to Vail, and I stayed in the Lodge. (The resort) was just opening a week or a couple of days before that. It was more just parties at the Lodge at Vail, with the original locals, Denver people, the owners, the stockholders. It was just a small group, I would say 50 people, not more than I can remember.

January of ’63, that was my first day of skiing up there. There was just the front open there, and at the time I didn’t ski. I wouldn’t go anyplace else, just Swingsville, until I knew what I was doing. That was the first run I came down on.

I would say for 10 years, it stayed pretty much the same. New buildings came in and little things like that, but the atmosphere and the people, the friends — it was still the same kind of potluck dinners in the summer.

Sheika and Pepi Gramshammer hit the slopes during Vail’s first seasons.
Special to the Daily

In the 70s, that’s when the big changes came. We didn’t know it was going to be that popular because there were still people in the Aspen crowd and the Sun Valley crowd and all that, but then with President Ford in 1969 coming to Vail as a congressman and then coming as a vice president and then as a president, with every step he did that brought more changes, more people.

Then we realized how beautiful the Back Bowls are, and opened up more terrain. Our snow conditions were always reliable, they were fantastic. We used to have snow in November, no problem, and we always had good snow conditions over the Christmas holidays. I think that’s what started to get people to come here.

I don’t think Vail would have been what it is today if we would not have had the foundation put down by the people who were the founders of Vail and by Vail Associates, by people like Pete Seibert and Rod Slifer and all the people who came and originally supported Vail. I think it is because the foundation started out on the right foot with nice people, with wonderful people, who love skiing and enjoyed the beginning of Vail and the simplicity of Vail at that time.

— As told to Carolyn Paletta

Kathy Chandler-Henry

Eagle County Commissioner Kathy Chandler-Henry.
Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily

The Eagle County Commissioner who grew up in the valley and has watched the county grow alongside the resort, is now working to protect and preserve its future.

We have a great picture of my two sisters and me and my parents standing in front of Mid-Vail during the opening season. It was very exciting to have a hometown ski area. We used to go to Leadville or to Redstone or to Aspen, so we jumped right on it when Vail opened. It was great to ski close to home.

It has changed (the county) in some ways, but it’s still reliant on our natural resources — clean air and clean water and being outdoors. I think a lot of the values are the same, even though it’s a tourist-based economy for the most part instead of an agriculture-based economy. The love of the great outdoors and fresh air and exercise are still the values of people who live here. It’s much bigger, but it still in many ways feels like that small community that it was in 1962.

Vail’s famed Back Bowls.
Colorado Snowsports Museum and Hall of Fame/Courtesy photo

I think the challenges are going to be climate change and trying to figure out what we can do to keep the snow on the ground and also to protect our resources. We welcome the tourists and the visitors, but they do have an extractive effect on all those resources that we have and our challenge is going to be figuring out how to protect that.

I think that we have great times ahead with the county and the resorts for the next 60 years, and that’s pretty exciting.

— C.P.

Merv Lapin

Merv Lapin arrived in Vail in 1966, at age 25, when he decided to take a year off from his job in New Jersey.
Courtesy photo

Merv Lapin has been involved in Vail’s civic life for decades, but his arrival in town was a modest one.

Merv Lapin was on his way to Aspen when he stopped for gas in Minturn. He never made it to the Roaring Fork Valley.

Just before the 1966 ski season, Lapin, then 25, had decided to take a year off from his job in New Jersey, managing an aerosol packaging plant. He’d skied perhaps a dozen times while attending school in New England.

After driving his Austin-Healey Sprite — a tiny, two-seat sports car — over the two-lane roads over Loveland and Vail passes, it was about 10 p.m. when Lapin pulled off U.S. Highway 6 in Minturn for a gas stop. He needed a restroom break as well, but the station’s facilities weren’t open. The closest restroom was back in Vail, at the Vail Village Inn.

Lapin went back to the fledgling ski village, and started chatting up a young woman at the front desk. She told him the hotel’s night auditor was quitting that night. Lapin was hired on the spot, and he stuck.

Lapin pulled a tiny trailer behind his tiny car, thinking he could spend the winter in that.

Then, as now, housing was tight, although Lapin said employers in those days did a “much better job” of trying to house their workers. With savings from his job in New Jersey, Lapin was able to put some money down on a three-bedroom home in Matterhorn. He lived in one bedroom and rented out the other two, which handled the mortgage payment.

While Vail then was on a main road west of Denver, it was a two-lane highway. When Lapin arrived, officials were still trying to track the best route for Interstate 70.

The original Vail logo from 1962.
Colorado Snowsports Museum and Hall of Fame/Courtesy photo

The road to Denver could be slow in the winter.

“If it was snowy, it was a good four hours” to make the trip, Lapin recalled.

But the community — then only around 200 to 250 full-time residents — was tight-knit, and lasting friendships were formed.

It’s those friends, and family, and the fact that Lapin still lives on Meadow Drive, where he bought a lot in 1979, that keeps him in the community.

“I’m really the only local left on this street,” he said. “Everyone else is a second-home owner.”

— Scott Miller

Bill Jensen

Bill Jensen led Vail mountain in the early 2000s.
Cheryl Jensen/Courtesy photo

Bill Jensen ran Vail Mountain as the chief operating officer and president of Vail Resorts Mountain Division for just under a decade between 1999 and 2008. He recently received the 2021 Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Ski Areas Association for his leadership in the ski industry. After retiring from a career at the helm of many of North America’s greatest ski resorts, Jensen has made Vail his permanent home.

From the time I was a young man, I always hoped, dreamed, that Vail would be the place where I could end up and spend my life. I see the mountain as the constant and the community as evolving.

The 60th anniversary reaffirms Pete Seibert’s dream and the founding families of Vail’s vision for a world-class ski mountain and community. The anniversary also celebrates the thousands of individuals who, over time, followed in the footsteps of the founders with a passion to preserve Pete’s dream.

What we’re seeing across quite a few resorts with these anniversary celebrations is the influence that the 10th Mountain Division had on the sport in North America. Whether it’s an Aspen or a Vail or many other places in Colorado — Breckenridge, Steamboat — we’re seeing the impact that the 10th Mountain Division had on the sport and our communities.

— C.P.

Diana Donovan

Diana Donovan fell in love with Vail, then fell in love with her husband after sharing a gondola ride with him on the last day of the ski season in 1966.
Courtesy photo

Diana Donovan has three sisters, so she wasn’t keen on a January 1965 offer of a babysitting job in Vail. But she came.

The offer came from Barbara Parker, the wife of Bob Parker, Vail Mountain’s first marketing manager. The Parkers and Diana’s parents, the Mounseys, were friends from their days in the U.S. Army. The offer was to babysit for the Millers, who ran the Night Latch, a lodge that sat where the Mountain Haus is now.

But then-Diana Mounsey came from Minnesota in her 1955 Chevrolet and ended up doing a bit of everything at the lodge and around town.

“I wasn’t out in the social scene,” Donovan recalled, noting that she did alterations for the clothing shop that preceded the Gorsuch store, and did eventually take on some babysitting work for the couple who ran the Lodge at Vail.

In the spring of 1966, John Donovan finagled a way to share a gondola ride with Diana on the last day of that ski season. A romance soon blossomed, and the couple married in 1967.

A photo of Diana Donovan in 1965 that was used for her first ski pass at Vail.
Donovan family/Courtesy photo

“We were never concerned about the amount of money we had,” Donovan said. She once asked John how much money the couple might need.

“Just enough to be happy,” he replied.

That wasn’t hard in the small ski town.

“Everybody knew everybody, and cared about everybody” she recalled. Monday nights would see community members get together at one home or another, sharing a spaghetti dinner. Nobody had many chairs, so a lot of folks had dinner sitting on the floor.

“Everybody was equal — it was nice,” she recalled.

“It was so comfortable, you could walk out your back door into the woods,” she said, adding that as the kids grew, those backpack trips turned into ventures on horseback.

Donvan had a simple answer when asked why she and John are still here: “It’s home.”

But, she added, “I’m frustrated because I think we’re losing what makes Vail good.”

— S.M.

Pete Seibert Jr.

Pete Seibert Jr. currently sits on the Vail Town Council, forging a path for Vail’s future, which his father started with the mountain’s founding in 1962.
Vail Daily archive

Currently a Vail Town Council member, Pete Seibert Jr. first came to Vail in 1962 when his father founded the ski area.

I was in second grade when they opened the mountain, so I had this kind of Huck Finn sort of childhood where you were playing in construction sites and running around town and playing in Gore Creek, and you had the run of the mountain. Even in third grade, we were just going out and we had to ski with a buddy and we were supposed to stay on the right side of the ropes.

Everybody knew everybody so the village was so much fun.

As kids, we spent more time actually on Gold Peak and Giant Steps and International running gates and skied a little bit. In order to get our ski pass for the ski club, we’d go up and two step. I can picture two-stepping the slot to pack it down top to bottom and two-stepping Prima down Brown’s Face as soon as it gets steep there. So we’d go out and do those things on the rest of the mountain and once in a while, we get a chance to get out and ski around, mostly in the springtime after the races were done.

In the early days, skiing was a sport and a way of life that provided enough business for everybody to do well enough to raise their families here. When you think about the sport and the camaraderie, it’s as simple as getting on a chair with a couple of strangers and talking about what you skied and what you’re going to ski or ride. That’s where it all comes from. It’s a very personal thing and it’s all about freedom and going where you want to go.

I had the good luck to work on patrol for three years after college, right after my dad had left the company. The timing was right and instead of going to law school, I got on the ski patrol and that changed my life forever.

Pete Seibert Jr. races in Vail’s early days. Seibert said the early Vail Standard Races brought out the whole town.
Pete Seibert Jr./Courtesy Photo

If you hike up to Ptarmigan Point above Ricky’s and look over east, the terrain and the way that the bowls are so wide open, and looking all the way over to Blue Sky, it’s very close to what Pete and Earl saw when Earl took Pete up there the first time. That’s the best part of the mountain.

My dad’s favorite quote was, “If you really want to know the mountain, when you get to the top, keep climbing.” And it came from a French mountain guide. To me, it speaks to the excellence that Vail was always aspiring to; and that’s something I hope we continue to do, winter and summer.

We’re somewhat unique here because unlike the other most of the other ski places in Colorado that were mining or ranching towns, we’re a ski town. That’s what we started as and that’s what we’ve been. And I think in the early years there was always some question as to authenticity, but now it’s been 60 years. This is who we are. We’ll be like St. Mortiz, we’ll have a 150th anniversary like they had, and we will have been a ski town the whole time.

We have something really special here that we’re going to be able to build on for a very long time.

— A.L.

Jim “JC” Clarke

JC Clarke with a copy of “Triumph of a Dream” by Pete Seibert.
John LaConte/Vail Daily

Before joining Vail Ski Patrol, JC Clarke worked as a liftie at A-Basin, worked for the Forest Service performing avalanche control work, and worked for Breckenridge as ski patrolman. After a long career on Vail Ski Patrol, he went on to work in mountain planning and helped plan Beaver Creek, Arrowhead and China Bowl. He now lives in Avon.

I was hired by Don Almond, Vail’s first Ski Patrol director, in December of 1962. Because I was working as a ski patroller at Breckenridge at the time, I had to give two or three weeks notice and didn’t start at Vail until January. 

My first day on Vail Ski Patrol was Jan. 19, 1963, and that was the same day as the official grand opening party for Vail. We all know, of course, that Vail opened up on December 15, 1962, but they had a Grand Opening on Jan. 19, 1963, with the governor, chief of the Forest Service and others. It was a big shindig.

It was also 20 below zero that day. All the gondola cars were frozen, and they couldn’t get the gondolas out of the terminal. They had to get everybody up to MidVail for the party at noon, so they heated up the gondola wheels with blow torches and finally got the cars moving. 

JC Clarke as a young skier, doing his best impression of Stein Eriksen.
Courtesy image

When Vail opened in the 62-63 season, it already had a chairlift on the back side, and that gave Vail the ultimate in powder skiing. We skied untouched, unbroken powder for days and days before a mogul would appear on the backside. 

The first area to start to see moguls was in the Sun Down Bowl, Ricky’s Ridge. It would get moguled because everybody skied it, and everybody loved it. Today it’s the same way, only those moguls start to appear just a little earlier.

— As told to John LaConte

Jonathan Staufer

Jonathan Staufer said everyone in Vail’s early years worked hard and played hard, something that’s still true to this day.
Courtesy photo

Jonathan Staufer was among the first generation of kids in Vail, having been born and raised in the town. In 2021, he joined the Vail Town Council, following in the footsteps of his father Joseph, who served on the council in the 1970s. Staying true to his family’s history in hospitality, Staufer currently owns Grappa Fine Wine and Spirits in town.

Well, it was, and hopefully still is — because I’m raising my own daughter here — an absolutely incredible place to grow up. The community was always tight-knit, and you may not have known who you were talking to, but they always know who you were, so you made sure you were polite. It was a small group of people growing up here, so we all, despite whatever school you went to, we all knew each other, and we all got along and had a good time together.

The mountains were our playground, and they still are.

I was educated in skiing by the same person who educated most of us, and that was Jebbie Brown. And Jebbie was an institution unto herself. She taught skiing in the winter and swimming in the summer. She laid down the law pretty sharp, so you weren’t messing around. And on a day like this, we’d all be freezing our tokuses off. You’d be up (on the mountain), and she’d be: “No, we’re taking another run, then we’ll go and get hot chocolate.”

My parents and the adults had a hard time, adulting; they worked hard and they played hard. In the late ’80s when I was in college, I called from school every Sunday morning. And one Sunday morning, they were in the throes of a party from the night before still, I think there were a dozen people there or so. And one woman was out in the kitchen trying to make breakfast, but there was nothing to make breakfast with, so I called Village Market and asked them very kindly to send up two dozen eggs, some bacon, and some toast, and they’d do it happily. Working hard and playing hard was definitely something that the folks that built this place thrived at.

I don’t think there’s a person in this town or who works on that mountain who doesn’t want us to be the best.

Ultimately, skiing is a romance. There’s no reason in the world you have to do it. And if we lose that romance both down in the village and up on the mountain and in the surrounding mountains, then we’ve lost what the whole thing is all about. So I think Vail has to maintain that — you want to feel like you’re in the mountains when you’re here.

At the end of the day, being able to look down Gore Valley Drive and see the Gore Range and being able to go out to East Vail and see a native herd of bighorn sheep, I think these things matter to people, and they certainly matter to me. Otherwise, we’re just like everywhere else.

There’s nothing else like (Vail) anywhere in the world. The ability to make a living here and enjoy what we enjoy and sometimes take for granted — i.e. the skiing, i.e. the mountain experience, i.e. Bravo! Vail, the Dance Festival — all of these things that other places don’t have. The whole package is pretty incredible.

— A.L.

Support Local Journalism