Thompson: Happy birthday, Vail
“It was an hour before morning light on Tuesday, March 19, 1957, when Earl Eaton and I parked my army-surplus Jeep on the snowy shoulder of U.S. Highway 6 and prepared to climb a mountain that had no name.”
When you read Pete Seibert’s description of skinning uphill that day for seven hours in deep powder, you can’t help but be amazed at the discovery. The dream of that one man became a paradise for thousands and thousands.
Pete and Earl skinned up old logging roads that were buried in 3 feet of beautiful powder snow. “It was tough going from the start, deep and steep.” But according to Pete, “Hunting for a good ski mountain is never a waste of time. We were looking for a mountain that might someday be turned into a splendid new ski area, a mountain with vast rolling slopes — some steep, some gentle, some wooded, some wide open — all running down three or four beautifully falling miles to the base from a suitably snowy summit.”
Earl said that “the only reason someone hadn’t already discovered this mountain was because no one could see the top slopes or the miraculous Back Bowls from the valley below.” Miraculous Back Bowls … Boy, was he right! How many times have we skied those wide open bowls of powder that seem to run forever.
After four hours of slogging uphill, “we broke out into sunny open terrain and faced a vast landscape consisting only of sun-splashed snowy slopes, dotted here and there with perfectly sculptured spruce and fir trees, rolling up the hill almost as far as the eye could see. I didn’t know it then, but this place would become Mid-Vail … We decided to stop for lunch … It was a moment of pure bliss.”
Pete told Earl that he thought they had climbed to heaven. Earl replied: “It gets better.”
After lunch, they climbed two more hours up to an open ridge that today leads skiers to Vail’s two most famous runs: Riva Ridge and Prima, both named in memory of Pete’s days in Italy with the 10th Mountain Division.
After seven hours of uphill skinning, they finally reached the summit. They had climbed 3,050 vertical feet, covering about 8 miles.
“In all of our backcountry explorations, we had seen nothing like this.” Turning in a full circle, they saw perfect ski terrain in all directions. To the south “a series of bowls stretched to the horizon, a virtually treeless universe of boundless powder, open slopes, and open sky. It was an effort to relate to the staggering size of the bowls.”
March 19, 1957: This no-name mountain was about to become one of the most famous mountains in the world.
Pete Thompson is a longtime local and a veteran who teaches for Colorado Mountain College.