Secrets under the snow: Vail celebrates 50 years

Photo courtesy of Vail Resorts

On the Friday before Vail celebrated its 50th anniversary, John Donovan got his season pass — his 50th season pass. Half a century ago, the then-Chicago-based trader went to his boss saying he wanted to relocate to an office with a ski area nearby. He was pointed toward the October issue of Sports Illustrated and a story about an upstart group of veterans who had picked a valley in Colorado to be home to a new ski resort.

“I read it and said, ‘I’m coming,’” he says. Three lodges and a ski shop were about all there was to the town when he arrived. Unlike so many other ski area towns that co-opted local mining towns, the Vail valley was an empty open range with just one house in the valley with running water. World War II army engineer Earl Eaton was from the area, though, and when he heard 10th Mountain Division veteran Pete Seibert was looking for a place to start a new ski area, he took Seibert on a seven-hour, trailblazing trip to the top of Vail Mountain to see the terrain and peek into the back bowls in 1958.

“The founders, particularly Earl Eaton, were about as far from glitz and glamour as you can get. He was a local boy, his dad was a subsistence farmer, logger and bootlegger in the ’20s when everybody was,” says Roger Brown, a documentary filmmaker who starting filming in Vail when he was making promotional materials for the ski area in the 1960s, and went on to make films to mark the 25th and now 50th anniversaries. “He discovered the area and showed it to Pete Seibert, who knew he had the right spot when he saw it. Pete was also rough around the edges, but because he was working in ski resorts, he met people with money and was able to persuade them to invest in the resort. But Vail’s always been a mixture of ski bums and millionaires. It’s never just been one or the other.”

Eaton and Seibert bought 500 acres for $110 per acre in 1958 and branded it as a fishing and gun club to throw competitors off. But their initial application for year-round recreational development to the U.S. Forest Service was denied.

“There were other areas getting developed at the same time and … the Forest Service supervisor for that kind of thing at the time thought there would be too much competition and he thought he’d have a lot of bankrupt ski areas on his hands,” Brown says. When final approval and permits came through in January 1961, it gave a restricted time period for development — construction started in January 1962, and at 9 a.m. on Dec. 15, 1962, Vail Mountain opened with two chairlifts, the lodge and the gondola, all installed that summer, and eight ski trails. Lift tickets were $5 apiece.

The money to start Vail was raised by selling limited partnerships that included the right to pick out a residential home site — but investors had to start construction within a year.

Rod Slifer was living and teaching skiing in Aspen when his boss, Morrie Shepherd, who would become the first ski school director at Vail, moved to Vail.

“He asked me if I’d like to come to Vail and, being single and having nothing to lose, I said, ‘Sure. Where is it?’ And in answer to that question, it wasn’t,” Slifer says. “I arrived here May 1 of that year and there was absolutely nothing here. It was previously a ranch and there was one house that was built the year before I arrived, and everything else we built that summer.”

Vail was a rough and tumble kind of place at first, stumbling through a period of rocky finances, chaotic development and builders who struggled to construct structures that could last in the wet, muddy conditions — all without doing so much as a market study to see if anyone wanted what they were doing.

“People came in and it was really a frontier town. There were no facilities of any kind except what was being built on the mountain, the lifts and so forth, and they were in the process of being built,” Brown says. Vail, in those first years, was “chaos, and to quote an old military expression, flying on a hope and a wing and a prayer.”

People who built early condos were just building a place for themselves to stay. It wasn’t about real estate development.

Photo courtesy of Vail Resorts

“The profit motive just wasn’t there, people just wanted to see and have a great time skiing and build a lifestyle in the resort, but it wasn’t an ambitious lifestyle. Those things happened later,” Brown says.

A year after Vail opened, Donovan and a business partner started the fifth business in town, a deli.

“It was small but it was wonderful, a wonderful life.

… The early years were so much fun. I mean we did whatever we wanted, there was no police,” Donovan says. There were baseball games played on skis, and farmers’ parties, hosted by ski patrol, that brought livestock into town, and a St. Patrick’s Day when snowcat drivers came down the run toward Vail Village spinning the cats and blowing green smoke out of their stacks. “There was no town, no nothing, just fun. It was a good life. And the skiing was wonderful, except the first year, like this year, was short on snow.”

That first year, skiers took the gondola to Mid-Vail to meet the snow, then skied off the lifts from there on chairs four and five. The roads were so dry, in fact, Slifer drove his car to Mid-Vail in early December.

“In hindsight, if it had snowed early and been a normal year, the construction and everything that was built probably could not have been completed,” says Slifer. Stepping up to do what needed to be done had Slifer doing a lot of touring investors around potential building sites — enough that he was encouraged to get his real estate license, and three years after Vail opened, he quit teaching skiing to work on developing real estate full time.

Donovan was there before the covered bridge and the clock tower opened. And before the time that Seibert called Southern Ute Indians to come perform a snow dance (two days later, they got almost two feet of snow). He was there during cloud-seeding operations that consisted of pouring table salt out of plane windows. He was there when the town was incorporated in 1966, and would become a member of the town council soon after.

So why’d he come, and why’d he stay?

“I liked it, how’s that?” Donovan says, settling in to a corner table in the remodeled section of Vendetta’s, the bar that now occupies the space Donovan’s Copper Bar did for 16 years. It was his second business venture in Vail, bought in 1966. It joined three lodges and a ski shop. Donovan’s Copper Bar had one of few liquor licenses in town, and for years, the only beer on tap at the bar was Budweiser. The 19 refrigerated keg holders were restocked two or three times a week, and on St. Patrick’s Day one year, he says, he went through 35 kegs of beer. It was busy from when the lifts closed at 4 p.m., often crowded with ski patrol and ski instructors, until about 7 p.m., and closed by 9 p.m.

Every Sunday night there was a party at the bar, he says, and everyone came.

“We’d go somewhere and have a little get-together, and I mean everyone,” he says. “It was very friendly, one little family.”

When he announced he was getting married, it was at a ski patrol end-of-the-year party at his bar. And when he and his wife Diana had their wedding in 1967, he put an invitation in the Eagle paper and invited everyone in the county — and most of them showed up, he says — people on horseback, sheep herders and ranchers alike. After a ceremony in Minturn, they held a reception at Manor Vail — it was the only place large enough for the crowd of a couple thousand people.

Asked why host a party for the entire county, he says, “I knew everyone,” and laughs. “I don’t know. I figured, why not? What the hell?”

John Donovan | Photo by Elizabeth Miller

Because the people who came to Vail stayed, and a core group of people committed to Vail, it grew into a town just a few years after the resort opened, founding a library, a hospital.

“Every big investor that came in and bought Vail all loved the place, and it was not so much a money-maker as a dream for them,” Brown says.

When Westin resort, now Vail Cascade, the only ski-in, ski-out resort in Vail, opened in 1982, Denver resident Paul Esserman booked a room for opening weekend to celebrate his 40th birthday. He’s been coming back every year since, booking the same room for most of the winter season. The hotel stores a box of his family photos and personal items to decorate his room with before he arrives.

Before former President Gerald Ford became president in 1974, he had a house in Vail, and he helped draw attention to what a growing number of skiers knew — that you could ski Vail and ski some of the best terrain in the world under sunny blue skies and without having to fly to Europe. After Ford became president, Donovan would get calls from the Secret Service.

“They’d say, ‘Would you mind if the president came in?’ and I’d say, ‘No, I wouldn’t mind at all,’” Donovan says. “He’d be talking with me and there’d be a few people in the bar and they’d look down and they’d almost fall off the stool to see the president of the United States sitting down there having a beer. He was wonderful. And he was such a wonderful person, a wonderful person and a damn good skier.”

So were the Kennedys, he says — they were just nice people from Washington who put their kids in ski school along with the rest of the children around.

What Ford put on the map, I-70 had made accessible. When the Colorado Highway Department was planning the interstate, Seibert’s friend, Jack Tweedy, campaigned to get I-70 routed through Vail, instead of going through Steamboat Springs, Brown says.

Then Bob Parker, another major player in Vail’s early years, fought to keep the highway out of the Gore Range wilderness areas, touring highway engineers through Red Mountain Canyon and showing them 40 avalanche tracks as evidence that routing a highway there would be a bad idea.

“So the highway was put over Vail pass, and it’s 15 minutes longer than it would be otherwise,” Brown says. “It changed everything, it’s one of three major highways in the world and a lot of traffic goes through there.”

Ask Donovan about the changes, and he talks about the mountain — the additions that have made a big difference in the acreage and terrain available, like China Bowl, which opened in December 1988, and Blue Sky Basin, which opened in 2001.

And yes, OK, there have been changes since the ski area was purchased by the Vail corporation, and the frontier spirit that characterized those early trailblazers — the perpetual optimism that an upstart resort in Colorado could succeed, the commitment to skiing that would have you doing it in lace-up boots that froze to a tangle over the course of the day.

“Vail, starting in 1962, and I always say the stars were aligned,” Slifer says. “To think about trying to do it today, you couldn’t do it.”

The environmental reviews and the tiers of approval and opposition to building a new ski area would put an end to a project like Vail now, he says. “I think it’s great, to go from nothing to a, first of all, a great ski mountain and now really a great year-round resort because our summers are terrific, you know, with a lot of music and culture and all the things you do in the summer, hiking, biking, fishing, all those things. And it’s become not just a resort but a community.”

Yes, Vail is an international skiing destination, and your time in the chairlift maze could be peppered with snippets of conversations in a barrage of languages. But you could also find yourself sharing a gondola with someone who has memorized the trail map and knows where to duck the long lift lines and what runs are likely to be wide open.

Donovan, who taught in the ski school for a while and worked on the trail crew, earning two lift tickets, a $10 value, for spending hours side-stepping runs to pack the trails down, still works on the mountain, now leading “Meet the Mountain” tours, a guided ski tour that familiarizes newcomers to the terrain.

“When I take off with these people, and we ski three and a half hours, they better be able to ski damn good or they’re going to be gone, because we’re going to go fast. And we’re going to go on slopes where no people are, and we’re going to go fast for me, which is fast for them,” Donovan says. “If I can’t out-ski them, I have to able to at least outlast them.”

Fireworks at Vail’s 50th Anniversary Party | Photo by Leota Sweetman-McPeek

Though powder days still hold their temptations, he says, it’s not really about the skiing at this point.

“There’s nothing in skiing that excites me anymore. It excites me being with good people and talking to people, people who’ve never been here, people who are amazed at the skiing we have here,” says Donovan, who is now 76 years old. “Vail has 65,000 acres of skiing. That’s bigger than everything else on the Western Slope put together.”

When Brown was doing interviews for his book Requiem for the West: A Collection of Stories, Essays and Photographs from Forty Years of Living in the Rocky Mountains, he interviewed Eaton.

“He said to me, ‘When we built Vail, we weren’t worried about it getting too big because the valley was so narrow.’ Then he kind of smiled and said, ‘But we weren’t thinking about how long it was.’ You can’t maintain a tiny private ski resort on Forest Service land on I-70, it would be a political impossibility, so they had to grow.”

In five decades in Vail, Donovan also started a garbage collection business his son now runs, and served on the Vail Town Council for 14 years, where he instituted a program to use a real estate transfer tax to fund open space, creating the capital to build the Gerald Ford outdoor amphitheater; co-founded the Eagle River Scholarship Fund; and started an annual town clean-up day. The park named in his honor, the John. F. Donovan Park and Pavilion, was completed in late August of 2003.

He also bought his own chunks of land in the area, first owning a portion of what eventually became Arrowhead Ski Area, and now a 400-acre ranch up Squaw Creek near Edwards. He and his wife, Diana, live there in the summer months.

In the winter, he drives up each morning, tosses six bales of hay into his tractor and drives out to feed his 31 Scottish Highland cattle, four mules and five horses.

For Vail’s 50th anniversary, celebrated the weekend of Dec. 15, he went to parties (nothing that required getting more gussied up than his ski sweater, though) and a screening of Brown’s film on Vail’s 50th anniversary, which will also screen on PBS on Jan. 3, and enjoyed a mini-reunion with a lot of those original personalities who are still around town, like Brown, Slifer and Seibert’s son, Pete Seibert Jr.

“This comes around every 50 years,” Donovan says. “I don’t know if you’re going to be around for the next 50. I plan on being here.”