"Vail is built on dreams’
Those who follow them are among the most powerful people.
Before there was Vail, there was the dream. A dashing young Austrian ski racer dove full-length into the dream and didn’t look back. Not long after, his stunning fashion model wife embraced both the ski racer and the dream.
And so it was that Pepi and Sheika Gramshammer became one with Vail, and one another.
Pepi Gramshammer landed in Vail on April 17, 1962, the spring before Vail opened. Sheika wasn’t far behind. They met in Aspen, and if it wasn’t love at first sight for Pepi, it sure came on pretty fast. As far as Vail knows, there has always been Pepi and Sheika, one with the other and no other way.
Forty years later, Vail has made it, and so have they.
“It wasn’t easy, but somehow we made it,” says Pepi Gramshammer .
Pepi and Sheika Gramshammer are among Vail Village’s only original business owners. Most of the others have been bought and sold several times. The Gramshammers took a chapter from the Red Lion’s Marge and Larry Burdick and built an apartment above the store. It’s a great store. Forty years later, they still call it home.
“Most people don’t know what it’s like to build something from nothing. Vail is designed to be exactly what it is, and that’s why it works so well. People who come now don’t understand that people here not only put their life’s savings into their dreams, they also put their life’s work into it,” says Sheika. “Vail is built on dreams.”
The Gastof Gramshammer was one of Vail’s four original hotels, along with the Vail Village Inn, the Red Lion and The Lodge at Vail.
As the Gramshammers scrambled to open the doors, Marge Burdick of the Red Lion and other local business people were there to help in any way they could.
“It was different in those early days,” says Sheika Gramshammer . “Everyone worked together, everyone supported each other. We had one goal: to make Vail successful.”
Out to pasture, into the fray
From the powerful Austrian national ski team and a successful professional ski racing career, Pepi Gramshammer literally put himself out to pasture.
Pepi arrived in Vail for good on April 17, 1962, when the place was little more than pasture.
In the winter of 1962 he was the top pro ski racer in the United States, and Vail came looking for him. Dick Hauserman showed him a film of the proposed ski area, and told Pete Seibert about it. Seibert told Bob Parker, and they triple-teamed Pepi Gramshammer during a pro race at Loveland on a winter Saturday afternoon.
They didn’t exactly kidnap him, but they did manage to get him to the Gore Creek Valley the next day. They spent the night in a hut at the top of the mountain. When they climbed to the summit the next morning and looked over into the Back Bowls, Pepi exclaimed the same thing then that he exclaims now – “Wow!” – which is how the run was named.
Through 40 years of both plenty and pain, Pepi and Sheika Gramshammer say they never thought Vail would fail. But they didn’t think it would get this successful, either.
“I thought it would get famous, but not this big,” says Pepi Gramshammer. “Bob Parker told me that someday Vail would host 17,000 skiers in one day. I laughed and told him that would never happen. I’m glad I was wrong.”
The Gastof gets going
The launch of the Gastof Gramshammer is a tale of what’s now called “networking” by high-priced business consultants.
Pepi Gramshammer skied with a New York attorney who played football at Yale with Denver attorney John Ferguson. The guy called Ferguson, who put together the 1963 contract for the Gramshammers to buy the land and build Gastof Gramshammer. During one of his many trips to promote Vail, Pepi Gramshammer walked into the New York attorney’s office with $5,000 in his pocket to pay him for his time. The guy said he’d never received a bill from Ferguson, who did the actual work. A week or so later, Pepi Gramshammer walked into Ferguson’s Denver office with those same $5,000 in his pocket to pay Ferguson. Ferguson said the New York attorney had already paid him.
To this day, neither Pepi nor Sheika Gramshammer know if anyone got paid, and no one is telling them.
Not long after, U.S. Ambassador Keith Brown called Pepi Gramshammer to sponsor him for his green card. After all the help, that’s the day Pepi Gramshammer became “Superpatriot Pepi.”
“We decided this was a great country to do business in,” says Pepi Gramshammer. “We still feel that way.”
They originally wanted to open a clothing and ski shop, which would have fit their individual talents like a glove. Sheika was a fashion model in New York, and Pepi was the most successful ski racer in the U.S. But Hauserman’s Vail Blanche had an exclusive five-year deal with Vail Associates.
“I didn’t know what we were going to do,” says Sheika. “Then I figured I could cook and make beds, so we’d open a classic European guest house.”
When five years were up, they added their ski and apparel shop to the operation. It was successful right away. It still is.
The Vail system
Like everyone else, it was a little lean for Gastof Gramshammer in those early years. She ran the hotel while he spent most of the winter on the pro ski circuit. They lived on his winnings, and he was even successful enough for them to take a vacation back to Europe. He was also high-profile enough to charge $100 a day – huge money in 1964 – to take people skiing.
Everywhere he went, he sang Vail’s praises. It’s a song they both still sing, although in the early days not many ski industry insiders were singing along.
“Everybody told me, “You’ll never make it there,'” says Pepi Gramshammer. “I had been all over the world to ski race, and I’d seen all kinds of ski resorts. I knew better. The land and the mountain were here, great snow, and it had access to a large city in Denver. I knew this was going to work.”
“The people who were here supported each other,” adds Sheika Gramshammer. “We had potlucks; we encouraged each other. When someone was having business troubles, we’d go eat in their restaurant.”
Before Gastof Gramshammer opened, The Lodge’s Jim Wiggin set up their inventory and bookkeeping system. In the four ensuing decades they’ve added computers, but they still use that old system.
And still, once a week, Sheika goes to Denver to buy liquor and groceries for the restaurant and bar.
As Vail grew, so did its philanthropy. For years, Sheika ran the Crystal Ski Ball, an annual event that pumped more than $1.5 million into local charities. She still has the Crystal Ball Foundation.
“It’s still in the closet,” she said. “If the need arises, I can get it out.”
Before 1967, when Sheika Gramshammer went on early buying trips for Pepi’s Sports, she had to explain where Vail was. That year, John King brought Michigan congressman Gerry Ford and his family to Vail for a ski vacation. In the spring of 1974, Vice President Ford bought a place in Vail. That August, President Richard Nixon resigned and Ford was sworn in as President of the United States. Vail became the Western White House. The international press corps that chronicled his every move beamed pictures of Vail into living rooms all over the world, and Vail was on the world map.
When Sheika went back to New York that January for another buying trip, everything was different – everyone knew Vail.
Pepi Gramshammer says Seibert fueled the dream, transforming it from fantasy to reality.
“Pete Seibert was the perfect person to do this,” says Pepi Gramshammer. “And Bob Parker (Vail’s first marketing director) was worth his weight in gold. There were always newspaper, magazine and television people here. They came from everywhere.”
Among Parker’s best deals: The New York Times published a long piece about Vail in Nov. 1962. Ann Taylor convinced Town and Country magazine to run a pictorial spread on the beautiful people of Vail in early 1962, before there ever was a Vail.
“I don’t think anyone will ever again create anything as magnetic as Vail,” says Pepi Gramshammer. “Everything was drawn to it.”
The magnetism was global.
Beginning in 1971, Pepi Gramshammer worked tirelessly to help bring the world championships to Vail. His work, along with dozens of others, finally culminated with the 1989 World Alpine Ski Championships. The Gastof Gramshammer hosted the Austrian ski team Pepi Gramshammer had skied with. The success of that event, the first world alpine ski championships since 1952 to held in the U.S., paved the way for Vail’s 1999 World Alpine Ski Championships, making Vail the only resort to ever host it twice.
“Vail is a beautiful place,” says Pepi Gramshammer. “We always knew it, and now the world knows it, too.”