Vail’s heart lived in pioneers like Lorraine Higbie
Lorraine lived a lifetime of firsts while helping found Vail
Lorraine Nichols Higbie, who died earlier this month, was a Vail original in all sorts of ways.
She and husband Harley Higbie invested in Vail before it was Vail in the late 1950s, back when Pete Seibert and Earl Eaton called their dream the Trans Montane Rod and Gun Club, afraid that someone would steal their ski area idea. Lorraine and Harley caught Pete’s vision and invested more than money. They invested their lives.
The couple built the first house on Mill Creek Circle, an upscale address now but the edge of town back in the early 1960s when Vail was a rough-and-tumble place with dirt streets.
“The Trailways buses went through here on Highway 6 on their way to Aspen,” Lorraine once said in an interview. “We could look out the window to see the buses, then run over to the other window to see if they stopped. If they stopped we knew we had some customers.”
First store, first stories
Lorraine and friend Gretta Parks opened one of Vail’s first stores, the Gondola Boutique, with a hair salon in the back.
As a Vermont native, Lorraine brought cross-country skiing to Vail. Their Gondola Boutique was the first Vail store to sell cross-country gear.
“Cross country allowed mom’s exploration of Vail to extend far beyond where the ski lift could take you – cross country to Minturn, over Shrine pass … summer hikes up the Gore Range. She had an excursion every almost every weekend,” Lorraine’s family said.
As Vail grew, Lorraine held to her place in the woods and fought for her view of the Gore Range as Vail grew around them.
Even after living in Vail for years, she would come home after a day of skiing on her own, full of enthusiasm over the beauty of her day on the mountain. Her love for Vail’s mountains and skiing were never obscured by Vail’s growth, her family said.
Her native Woodstock, Vermont, was home to the nation’s first ski lift, invented in 1934. Someone strung a rope around the back wheel of a Ford Model T and a pulley at the top, and up they went. Learning to ski was part of the living there.
In Vail, she hosted a New Year’s fondue party every winter and invited the whole town to a July 4 picnic every summer. She was an early and passionate supporter of Bravo! Music Festival, the Vail International Dance Festival, helped create the 10th Mountain Division Hut System and the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens.
She knew all the flowers and loved to take friends and guests on walks through the Alpine Gardens, identifying each one.
Vail’s “we’re-all-in-this-together spirit” was on full display on April 1, 1964, when a 14-year old boy skied into then-undeveloped Game Creek Bowl and didn’t come out. Like much of Vail at the time, Lorraine Higbie spent most of the night on the mountain looking for him. He was found the next morning.
“I’ll never forget that night. It was a reflection of the community. It was about working together. It was not about making piles of money,” her daughter Lorraine Fairmont said.
A Vail Love Story
Lorraine and Harley met skiing, as it should be. Harley was one of four guys on a ski vacation in Europe when the group spotted Lorraine and offered her a ride down the mountain.
It might not have been love at first sight, but it came on pretty fast.
They met in March, were engaged in September, and were married in October in her native Woodstock, Vermont.
Harley reached a fork in his career path with two job options — one in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, his hometown, and one with George Caulkins and Caulkins Oil in Oklahoma City. They decided that Oklahoma would be OK, but they loved to ski, as did George Caulkins.
During the mid-to-late 1950s, Lorraine and Harley drove from Oklahoma City to Aspen to ski. When they’d head back to Oklahoma, Lorraine got a kink in her neck from looking backward at the mountains they were leaving behind.
They first heard about Vail in 1958 when Caulkins returned to Oklahoma City from a ski trip to Aspen and announced he was getting involved with building a new ski area in Colorado.
In 1959 when Caulkins moved his oil company to Denver, Lorraine and Harley moved with it.
Denver attorney J. Robert Fowler was Vail’s original attorney and created the Trans Montane Rod and Gun Club. The Higbies lived next door. Being neighbors, raising children together and manifesting the dream of Vail with the community of founders — was their raison d’être.
One day Pete said to Lorraine and Harley, “C’mon, I’ll show you the mountain.” They drove a beat-up yellow jeep to the top of what is now Vail Mountain. Lorraine and Harley looked across that massive expanse of bowls, broke out their checkbook and wrote their names into the rollercoaster ride of their lives.