Wiest: Memories of Pepi and the old Vail days | VailDaily.com

Wiest: Memories of Pepi and the old Vail days

By Otto Wiest
Special to the Daily

It was the winter of 1964, my second winter in Vermont at Mount Snow working as a ski instructor from Europe. In those days when skiing became more popular in the United States, a European accent was a good addition for any American ski school. And also Austrian Skiing was a worldwide “trademark“ and well known.

Man-made snow had yet to be invented and we had a very bad winter in the East. Therefore, we had no snow and no work for a ski instructor. Instead, we were put to work cutting trees to build new trails and also just simply to keep us busy.

I was reading about the opening of Vail and got the information that they had perfect snow and that, if I could ski well enough, I would be welcome. For Bob Gratton, my Mount Snow director, it was also a good deal for him to not have to pay my salary any longer.

So, I sold my two pairs of skis to get the money for an $88 Greyhound ticket to travel to Vail. After three days, I arrived at about midnight in Vail — not too far away from Gasthof Gramshammer. Pepi Gramshammer was in those days a well-known name in European ski racing as one of the top Austrian ski racers.

For me, it was the ideal possibility to find a place to sleep.
When I entered the Austrian-looking bar, I saw an Austrian face with a pretty typical Austrian head and therefore I asked the guy: “Are you Pepi?”

He said, “Yes — and who are you?” He bought me a beer and I told him my story. The result was I got a free place to sleep, a pair of Head slalom skis, and the next morning Pepi walked with me over to Morrie Sheppard and his ski school.

Morrie did not talk too long — he told me he wanted to see my skiing and we went up to the top. The famous words “follow me” was all he said and we skied down the nice Vail snow. I was quite happy to get finally good skiing again, but Morrie did not see too much of his new visitor because every time he stopped I was just beside him.

In any case, this was good enough to start the next day with a beginner class at Golden Peak. Pepi helped me also to find a place to sleep. This was my way into Vail.

I write this because I never forgot what a nice friend Pepi was when I arrived. We often met later on Vail Mountain, especially when we had fresh powder in the Back Bowls. In those days, it seems to me it was snowing the whole of January almost every night.

We often laughed when I mentioned my arrival in Vail. Pepi never got his Head skis back. Like all those young kids I liked speed, and one day I was shooting down from the top of Zot to Mid-Vail. I had some friends to watch to make sure that nobody crossed my downhill line and I was pretty proud that it worked out well. So I just did it once more — but this was not a good idea as I had a horrible spill when I missed a jump over a bump.

I broke Pepi’s skis and my left leg into pieces. In those days there was no Vail Hospital and Dr. Steinberg had to send me down to Denver where Dr. Martin Anderson at the Presbyterian Hospital was busy to get all those broken pieces of my leg back into the right place.

After some painful weeks, I came back to Vail and learned to ski at Golden Peak with my cast and on one leg. I got an idea of how tiring it is to stand all the time only on one leg, but I got used to it.

When I walked through Vail, I had a lot of time, and so I got the idea that Vail will grow and grow and grow. In those days, I had the idea that it would be wonderful to be part of this ski world when I would someday be an old man. Then I wanted to ski simply every day for myself and for my own fun.

I found a piece of land at Bishop and Perry Real Estate where I had to build on it within two years, the rule in those days. It was far outside of the little town and I bought it with all the money I could find — from loans and what I’d saved. I never sold it — because I wanted to ski when I was an old guy.

Today, I am 84 years old and I have skied in the past 20 years every winter about 90 days, just for my own fun. This kept me healthy and happy.

My land is now in the middle of Vail between Lionshead and Vail Village. Pepi told me quite often when we met that I was a smart guy. 
Now at 84, I don’t ski any longer and Pepi has just finished his last run. What a wonderful life.

How did Pepi come to the United States and how did I come here? We had no car, no internet, no money — and we had a lot of adventures, just to master all those difficulties to get here. We helped each other and we had friendship and fun. And now we have our memories.

Dear Pepi — you and Morrie and Pete Seibert and Bob Jacobson and Bill Peterson and John Donovan and Johnny Mueller with Anne Marie, Rod Sliferand Ludwig Kurz, and all those other ski friends. You all are today an unforgettable part of my life.

Thanks for everything — it was a very special world what seems to me now doesn’t exist any longer. It now disappears piece by piece. Bye, Pepi — another part of my world has gone.

Support Local Journalism