Until quite recently an American ski resort was a cheerful but unprofitable venture operated by an Austrian with a dream, a businessman looking for a write-off or a couple of Dartmouth boys trying to avoid work. But now, with 2 million customers to draw on, prosperity comes with the first winter chill. The millions of dollars spent on fancy lodges and equipment has helped, but the main requirement is, of course, good snow. The best of the burgeoning ski areas, such as Taos, New Mexico (right) and those on the following pages, have plenty. They have something else, too—a certain esprit of their own that makes them as appealing as the most famous European resorts.
FUN OR MONEY FOR, ONE AND ALL
It has been traditional in America that when a man starts to build a ski resort, most of his friends and absolutely all of his enemies ask a single patronizing question: Why? Or express a single patronizing thought: Poor guy. Sympathy was the best such a sporting investor could hope for, and he rarely got that. "See, the ego's involved here," said a friend of John Reily, the brave man who put out the original stock, issue to finance a ski area at Alpine Meadows just over the hill from Squaw Valley, Calif. "Down in Los Angeles, John's just a milkman. [This is a California way of saying Reily is treasurer of the Carnation Company.] But up here," he continued, gesturing toward a new lift totally buried under several avalanches, "John sees himself as another famous ski pioneer, like Alec Cushing at Squaw Valley or Walter Paepcke at Aspen."
If such a comment sounds cruel or fatalistic, it is quite in keeping with the often cruel and unprofitable business of running an American ski resort. In the entire 33-year history of this baffling industry, since Peckett's Inn at Franconia, N.H. first hired an Austrian ski instructor named Sig Buchmayr and stayed open for the winter of 1929-30, only Aspen among major U.S. ski resorts has ever paid a dividend to its stockholders. Nevertheless, a great many businessmen have found the temptation to start a ski resort intolerable.
In most cases they swiftly discovered that the business was likely to be more intolerable than the temptation. At the grand opening of Sun Valley in December 1936 there was not one flake of snow in the valley. For the opening of the Mt. Mansfield chair lift in Stowe, Vt. four years later the lift broke down, leaving 49 newspapermen dangling in a blizzard for an hour. "I remember that very clearly," said Sepp Ruschp, president of the Mt. Mansfield Co., Inc. "We were pulling them down with ropes, like the Volga boatmen." On opening day for the Mammoth Mountain Inn near Bishop, Calif. an adroit plumber hooked the hot-water system into the hotel's electrical conduits. And there was that most disastrous debut of all, achieved at Squaw Valley in 1949. When the first guests arrived, the floor was not wholly laid. China was stacked in crates outside the lodge. The domestic staff was so short that Cushing's wife pressed into chambermaid service an old friend who was sitting out her Reno divorce. A guest backed a car over one of Cushing's Lhasa terriers, his daughter Justine broke her leg, and a seething line of people grew longer and longer outside the one functioning toilet. Through it all Cushing wrestled with the plumbing and placated his guests with such soothing remarks as, "Madam, come back in an hour and we'll be ready. Meanwhile don't bother me."
Under these dreary circumstances, the tradition of mourning for resort owners grew, and it flourished through most of the '50s as 540 new cable lifts went up at more than 200 resorts all over the country. In the past five years, however, amid all the usual wailing, some very untraditional smiles have appeared. At Stowe, Aspen, Mt. Snow, Sugarbush and Bromley, the management has been looking suspiciously fat and happy.
The fact is that in this period the U.S. ski business was not just growing—it was growing up. The smart operators were finding out at last how to run their business. They discovered that the old, hairy-chested Dartmouth Outing Club kind of skier had just about vanished. And with him went the willingness to rattle down any icy, rock-strewn excuse for a trail, curl up at night in a drafty attic, dine on soggy oatmeal and limp hot dogs and wait two hours in a lift line. The modern skier wanted the same kind of special atmosphere and service that other vacationers expected—a development well understood by the men whose new and /or fast-growing areas are shown on these pages. Each now has a resort with a distinctive flavor that adds up to the promise of success. Nobody need shed tears for the operators of these areas. They know exactly what they are doing.
The one who knows best is Pete Seibert, 38-year-old impresario of brand-new Vail. "I've been in the ski business in Colorado since I got out of the service," said Seibert. "I've fried hamburgers and taught movie stars to snowplow. I've studied ski areas and hotel and restaurant management in Europe. I've helped build two other Colorado ski areas—Loveland Basin and Aspen Highlands—and I've given advice on at least a dozen more.
"I wasn't doing it for fun. I needed two things: the experience and the right place to put it to work. The experience was just a matter of time. Finding the place was a matter of eliminating every possibility but the best one. There was never any doubt after I saw Vail."
Seibert saw it after a friend, Earl Eaton, came back from a jaunt through the high mountains west of Denver and said there was some mighty good-looking ski terrain just beyond the point where Vail Pass opens onto the western slope of the Rockies. Seibert drove out of Denver on Route 6 until he came to the proposed ski area. But all he could see was a medium-high, steep, timbered shoulder that might pass for a mountain in Massachusetts but is little more than a pitcher's mound by Colorado standards. Then he hiked up over the shoulder, and there, rising to the timberline, was a genuine Rocky Mountain, whose gently undulating summit slopes were surrounded by four beautiful ski bowls. "I turned my skis loose on three feet of powder," said Seibert, "and it made me giddy. One way or another, I was going to make this place go."