Colorado ski resorts celebrate 50 years

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Steamboat Springs, birthplace of champions, marks 50 years

By Linda Wommack

George Wren skied with a relay team from Morrison Creek into the Rock Creek area, to bring the mail back to Steamboat Springs. That was in the 1880s, when skiing was necessary during the winter months. His great nephew, Gordy Wren, made worldwide Olympic history in 1948 by becoming the first athlete to qualify in four events: cross country, downhill, jumping and slalom, placing fifth in jumping. The history of skiing is abundant in Steamboat Springs. But for most of the town’s citizens, it’s a way of life, just as it was for George Wren, more than a hundred years ago.

The high country of the Yampa Valley was ideal ranch land, yet winters were harsh and isolated. Permanent settlers were few until James H. Crawford brought his family to the area of the ancient spring waters in the spring of 1875, where they occupied an abandoned log cabin near Sulphur Spring. Crawford believed so much in the area, that he laid out a town site. Those who settled and stayed, names like Leckenby, Norvell, Schaffnit and Walbridge, considered skiing a way of life.

Steamboat Springs celebrates 50 years

Steamboat Springs celebrates 50 years

During the winter, cross country skiing was a Sunday family and social affair. Families, including the toddlers, skied to the stone quarry of Emerald Mountain, south of Steamboat, enjoyed a picnic lunch, played in the powder snow and skied back to their homes by late afternoon. Strawberry Park was another winter play ground, north of town, where parents bought their children there to play, ski and sled amidst the deep snow of the park. Soon, others had ideas and visions of a future for Steamboat Springs and its glorious snow.

It all started with a young man who earned medals and prestige in a new winter sport emerging in Europe. Carl Howelsen immigrated to America in 1904. A native of Norway, Howelsen grew up with skiing as a necessity, long before it became a sport, much like the natives of Steamboat. Yet skiing as a sport was indeed beginning to take hold in the Arctic areas of Europe by the turn of the century. By the time Howelsen came to America, he had emerged as one of Europe’s most accomplished skiers, winning the gold medal at Holmenkollen, as well as the cross country competition, the Nordic Combination (included jumping) and the Crown Prince Silver Cup.

Only a handful of American communities held any interest in the recreational sport. Within two years of Howelsen’s arrival, he had changed that thinking and Americans began to take notice. Howelsen’s American debut occurred at Hot Sulphur Springs, the site of one of America’s first ski competitions in 1911. Howelsen took first place honors in the first ski jump competition in Colorado.

In 1913, Howelsen arrived in Steamboat Springs and things really took off. Howelsen bought a small ranch north of town, but no one knows why, as he never spent much time there. Instead he could always be found in nearby Strawberry Park, where the “Wild Swede,” as he came to be called, performed the craziest ski stunts folks in the area had ever seen. But the kids hung around to watch, and soon Howelsen was teaching them tips and tricks that now made skiing fun. Howelsen taught the youngsters how to slick or wax their skis, often using soap. He taught them exercises to strengthen the legs, and especially their knees, and he taught them how to jump. By winter, Howelsen had not only prepared Strawberry Park by building a platform against a hill, but he had the kids and their parents, as well as most of the citizens, excited about Steamboat’s first “winter carnival.”

Skiing was an early social event in places like Steamboat Springs.Photos courtesy of Denver Public Library, Western History Collection

Skiing was an early social event in places like Steamboat Springs.
Photos courtesy of Denver Public Library, Western History Collection

People were stunned when Howelsen led off the mountainside, slid off the platform with his skis strapped to his feet and with gaining speed, hurled himself into the air and sailed more than 100 feet before landing and skiing to a stop.  No one had ever heard of such a thing, much less witness the event. Thus, ski jumping became a sport in America and changed Steamboat Springs forever.

Folks in Steamboat are a pretty close-knit group, so when thoughts of ski competitions worldwide took hold, the town banded together. The result was the complete backing of Howelsen and his ideas for winter sports competition. The Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club, the first in the country, was formed, while Howelsen built a bigger and better ski jump on a hill across the Yampa River, just west of town. That year, 1914, the North American ski jump record was set at 192 feet, on the mountain forever known as Howelsen Hill.

Since that historic jump on Howelsen Hill, history and legends have been made at Steamboat. Gordon Wren, the grand nephew of the pioneer mail carrier on skis, George Wren, won international fame after his historic four event Olympic showing in 1948. Records have been made and broken in Steamboat, from Alpine, to downhill, to jumping, since 1919. In 1950, a new record of 300 feet was set at Howelsen’s ski jump, as Steamboat’s own Gordon Wren soared through the air. Only moments later, the record was broken by a mere seven feet. The Steamboat audience was thrilled.

Buddy Werner was Steamboat Springs’ first champion. He died tragically in 1964.

Buddy Werner was Steamboat Springs’ first champion. He died tragically in 1964.

It was about this time that Wren, along with Al Wegeman and Marvin Crawford, brought the sport of skiing into the Steamboat Springs school system. They set up instructional facilities on Storm Mountain south of town.  Within 10 years, more than 70 skiers from Steamboat Springs went on to participate in the Junior and National Olympic events. One of the most successful at this time was Wallace “Buddy” Werner, a native of Steamboat, who started skiing at the age of 2. He competed in the Alpine events in the 1956 Olympics in Italy and became America’s favorite skier. When he died in a Switzerland avalanche in 1964, at the age of 28, Steamboat residents rose to the occasion by renaming their famous ski mountain from Storm Mountain to Mount Werner.

Steamboat Springs has been turning out quality athletes ever since Howelsen’s first jump, including Billy Kidd, who won a silver medal in 1964. Six American jumping records have been set at Steamboat. Steamboat made history again in this new century when Clint Jones became the youngest American ski champion in the history of the sport, taking first place in the 120K jumping competition in 2000 in his hometown of Steamboat Springs. He went on to become the youngest member of the U.S. Olympic team at age 17 at the 2002 events in Salt Lake City.

And so it goes…the splendor of champions in Steamboat Springs.

 

Vail Ski Resort turns 50

By Linda Jones

Both the Vail Ski Resort and town observed their 50th birthday on Dec. 15, 2012.  Vail, the town, unlike many of Colorado’s famed ski resort towns – Aspen, Telluride, Crested Butte and Breckenridge, for example – wasn’t born in the 19th century as a mining town. This village was designed as a European ski resort village.

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Vail Mountain is a nearly perfect skiing mountain, with 309 inches of snowfall annually in the town and more at the summit, and it is America’s largest ski mountain, offering thousands of skiable acres and an enviable 3,100 feet elevation drop. Vail is consistently rated the best ski area in North America by all national ski publications, based on reader surveys. Total skier days at Vail are double those of all Utah resorts combined.

Many of us remember when there was no Vail in Colorado. In the 1950s, the unnamed valley was home to ranches. A man born and raised in a nearby valley, Earl Eaton, grew up with a love for skiing and realized the potential of the unnamed mountain. When skiing became more popular after World War II, he tried to interest investors in creating a resort at the peak, but met with no success until he connected with Peter Siebert.

Siebert had served with the 10th Mountain Division in Italy, where he had lost parts of a leg, an arm and his face in the conflict, but he recovered and returned to Aspen to continue skiing. Coincidentally, Eaton had helped build Camp Hale for the 10th Mountain Division soldiers to train. When he took Siebert to the summit in March 1957 – with no lift, it was a seven-hour struggle up – and the veteran saw the immense possibilities for himself, he was hooked.

Siebert, Eaton and two Denver residents who had more financial resources formed the Transmontane Rod & Gun Club, a disingenuous name to disguise their plan, and began purchasing land in the valley for $110 an acre. (That same land under the town of Vail now costs a $1 million+ per lot.) When it was time to name the mountain, the ski resort and the new town, the men chose the name that had been given to the nearby pass to honor Charles D. Vail, a chief engineer for the Colorado Department of Transportation.

Vail Ski Resort opened on Dec. 15, 1962, with a capital expenditure of only $5 million. The early years were dicey financially. One morning in early 1963, Seibert counted all the people on the mountain – 38 paying guests, at $5 per lift ticket, and 50 employees. When the town wanted to incorporate in 1966, they found they couldn’t because of a Colorado law requiring 100 people to live within one square mile to incorporate a town. The fledgling town didn’t have that many property owners, so Vail Associates persuaded 20 people to go together and buy two lots at one end of town.

Now Vail – town and resort – are known around the world and a home in Vail is a status symbol. Vail Resorts is one of the largest employers in Colorado and owns four major ski resorts in our state: Vail, Beaver Creek, Keystone and Breckenridge.

This vintage photo shows Peter Siebert enjoying a day at Vail Resort. He was one of the founders of the ski resort 50 years ago. Photos courtesy of Vail Resorts

This vintage photo shows Peter Siebert enjoying a day at Vail Resort. He was one of the founders of the ski resort 50 years ago. Photos courtesy
of Vail Resorts

The history of this central Colorado valley began long before the ski area, of course. The Utes hunted here in the summer and called what is now named the Gore Range, the Shining Mountains. John Wesley Powell climbed a peak in the Gore Range, now named Mt. Powell in his honor, on his historic journey westward and described in his journal an encounter with three grizzlies lunching on grasshoppers on the summit.

The first homesteader to live year-around in the valley was Joseph Brett, a Frenchman. He first saw the Gore River Valley in 1878 and moved there the next year, making a living from trapping. On a trip to Red Cliff, he met and married a schoolteacher. In February 1884, the tough homesteader departed on a near-fatal hunting trip. He fell through the ice on some shallow ponds and soaked his feet. When the temperature dropped sharply, his feet froze in his boots and when he returned home, he thrust them into the oven, a bad mistake. His feet developed gangrene and he would have died had friends not pulled him 20 miles on a sled to a doctor in Red Cliff.

Four men held him down while the doctor there cut off both his feet across the instep. By April, he was well enough to return to his ranch, wearing hoof-shaped boots he made himself. With his special boots, he not only walked but was able to do the necessary chores and make a comfortable living by turning his ranch into a resort for wealthy Leadville businessmen who came to fish and gamble.

The next homesteader was John Wesley Phillips, a teamster originally from Georgetown. When his wife died, leaving him with seven children to raise, he rode back to Georgetown to find a housekeeper/nanny. He hired 15-year old Mary Avery and soon married her; she bore him seven more children. A wonderful story is that one fall, Phillips bought a whole bolt of red and black flannel on sale in Leadville and Mary spent weeks turning out nighties, shirts, skirts and rompers.

Lettuce was grown throughout the Gore Creek valley, as it was then called, in the early 20th century; the vegetable was shipped in railroad cars to Denver, where it was prized by restaurants and hotels. In the 1930s, the valley was purchased by Greek sheepmen who established ranches along its length.

The fertile valley has provided a living for many families through the years, and today it continues that tradition, as the population of Vail at latest count was 5,305 residents.

 

Eldora Mountain Resort celebrates 50 years

By Linda Jones

The family-friendly, Eastern slope ski resort known as Eldora opened in 1962. Sometimes referred to as “Boulder’s ski area,” Eldora is only 21 miles from the university town and a mere 47 miles from Denver –off the I-70 corridor – and is the only ski area in the state with direct RTD bus service from downtown Denver to the lifts.

The ski season of 2012/13 started slow for Eldora, as it did for all Colorado ski resorts, but Jim Spenst, general manager of the resort, says their Christmas numbers were very good.

“I’m excited to get some projects going that have been in our Master Plan,” Spenst said.

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These include replacing three existing lifts with two new lifts and adding six or seven more trails with snowmaking capabilities. Also the resort will expand by an additional 74 acres already permitted by the United States Forest Service. Skiers should see these additions and upgrades in the 2014/15 season.

Five men developed the Eldora Ski Resort in 1961 after purchasing 480 acres of private land and winning a USFS Special Use Permit for an additional 480 acres in Roosevelt National Forest. Many skiers associate the resort with the Ertl family because Dr. Tell Ertl, a geologist, purchased the resort in 1967. Although the Ertl family sold it in 1985, they were forced to foreclose on the resort two years later and Rett Ertl, Tell’s son, operated it for several years after that.

The resort offers snowboarding, Nordic skiing and show-shoeing trails in addition to Alpine skiing. The Eldora snowmaking system covers 100 percent of the groomed area and is reputedly the “best in Colorado.” The skiable terrain covers 680 acres and includes a three-mile long run. The base elevation is 9,300 feet; summit 10,800 feet. Even expert skiers are challenged by the famous Corona Bowl, a double black diamond, and the area is popular with racers, experts and beginners.

The resort emphasizes their family skiing amenities: their kids’ programs, rentals and a new lodge.

Photo courtesy of Eldora Mountain Resort

Photo courtesy of Eldora Mountain Resort

Rett Ertl succinctly noted, “One of the assets [the other being proximity to the metro area] is also a liability – the small size. People are not afraid of letting their teen-aged children take the bus up to the resort because it is truly a neighborhood resort. And it is perfect for families. Parents can ski on more advanced terrain while their children take a lesson and not have to worry about finding their kids for lunch.”

The neighborhood feeling was never truer than in mid-March of 2003 when more than 200 people were stranded in the resort for three days and two nights. A record-breaking snowstorm dropped eight feet in two-and-a-half days, causing massive snow slides that closed the shelf road to the resort late on the first day. Although some skiers had already left, 250 skiers and employees were caught on the mountain.

Rob Linde, marketing manager, said, “Thank goodness the kitchen staff was snowed in. They were very creative and managed to serve three meals a day to everyone. That last day, the National Guard flew in and dropped lunches.”

Linde remembers everyone being resourceful in locating bedding also.

“Some made beds from their skiwear. A surprising number carried sleeping bags in their cars. We handed out employee jackets and restaurant linens,” Linde said.

Fortunately the phone lines and power lines were unaffected. When the snowstorm broke about mid-day on the third day, a Colorado Department of Transportation helicopter surveyed the road and dropped charges into potential slide areas. Boulder County then sent road equipment, but it was inadequate for the huge amount of snow on the road, and it was the ski area’s equipment that finally cleared the entrance road.

The adjacent Nordic trails (on leased Ertl land) are heavily used by both classic Nordic skiers and skaters. These trails are well planned and picturesque, cutting through spacious glades and thick forests. The 40 kilometers of trails are mostly groomed, with a few left natural for the purists.

To sum up, Eldora is an attractive resort, offering backcountry skiing, rentals and lessons just a few miles from Boulder. The resort’s Indian Peaks Lodge frames a magnificent panorama in its windows and hosts many wedding receptions in its 5,000 square feet in all four seasons.

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