Vail’s first opening day "not auspicious’
As Rod Slifer would say later, we were so busy putting the finishing touches on everything that “there was no time to stop and congratulate each other.” He also said the day made so little impression on him that he didn’t even remember the exact date.
I remember the date – December 15, 1962 – but it certainly wasn’t a day of unmitigated triumph.
As June Simonton wrote in her book, Vail, Story of a Colorado Mountain Valley”:
“So Vail began with dust in its streets and the snow at its crest only ankle-deep. Peter Seibert, who made all the right moves on the long road from dream to reality, had the last vital decision taken out of his hands. He could not make it snow.”
In fact, there was so little early-season snow that I had been able to drive my 1958 Volvo sedan to the summit on Dec. 6.
Bob Parker had arranged for a U.S. Olympic team training camp a week after the official opening. It still hadn’t snowed much, and the team formed bucket brigades to bring snow out of the woods and pack it on their racecourses. Parker had also made sure the press would be on hand to cover the Olympians and report on the new mountain, which already had received some national publicity.
A story in Sports Illustrated a few months before we opened quoted University of Denver ski coach Willy Schaeffler as saying Vail would never be a success because the mountain was too flat, with not enough steep runs for your average expert skier. Some of our board members were appalled.
“You guys wait,” I told them. “This will be the best thing that ever happened to us.”
Our phones rang off the hook. Negative though it seemed, that report sounded just right to hundreds of non-expert skiers who had been frightened by some of the steep and icy runs at Alta, Sun Valley and Aspen. Everyone was making reservations at Vail for its “comfortable” skiing.
That didn’t mean we were overwhelmed with skiers, however. We had only three lifts that first winter: the gondola from the village; one chairlift out of Mid-Vail; and another chair out of the Back Bowls.
The slopes were nearly empty, and sometimes we could still find untracked powder on the mountain three days after a big dump. On weekdays there were so few customers the eight ski instructors often had no one to teach.
The worst day of all for income came in January, when I counted 12 skiers who paid $5 each. On another day, later in the season, I took a head-count of everyone on the mountain: 50 employees and 38 paying guests, scattered over 7 square miles.
Our early capacity was 1,500 skiers on the mountain. We had reached that number only six times by the late winter of 1964.
Then, on the Saturday before Easter that year, a brilliant day with a dazzling blanket of new snow, crowds rushed to our mountain like nothing we had ever seen or dreamed of before. No fewer than 1,976 people paid to ski, and to our disbelief, they were forced to wait to board the gondola for up to 20 minutes.
It was a resounding embarrassment, but as had already happened in Vail’s brief history, a seemingly negative episode became a positive one for us. On that same sunny Saturday I was in a meeting with our board of directors and our bankers, discussing whether or not we had enough capital to build three new chairlifts the following summer. The mood was skeptical, and the pending vote looked to be a “nay.”
Just then word came from the mountain: Four college boys on their spring break had tired of the “long” lines and decided to drive on to Aspen. They had demanded that their money for lift tickets, meals and rooms be refunded immediately, and it was.
I signed the requisition for the cash on the spot. And the board voted “yes” to the three new lifts.
Editor’s note: This is the 45th installment of the Vail Daily’s serialization of “Vail: Triumph of a Dream” by Vail Pioneer and Founder Pete Seibert. This excerpt comes from Chapter 9, entitled “Let it Snow.” The book can be purchased at the Colorado Ski Museum, as well as bookstores and other retailers throughout the Vail Valley.