SI Vault
William Oscar Johnson
December 15, 1980
After nine years of wrangling and frustration, Colorado's spectacular Beaver Creek ski area will finally open next week, but the happy occasion may also mark the end of an era
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
December 15, 1980

This Could Be The Last Resort

After nine years of wrangling and frustration, Colorado's spectacular Beaver Creek ski area will finally open next week, but the happy occasion may also mark the end of an era

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4 5 6

Perhaps the single most influential force in producing the ski boom was the invention of a method for moving skiers up hills without climbing. A few Alpine areas were ahead of the game: Davos with its Parsenn railway (completed in 1933), Zermatt with its groaning old ratchet train nicknamed Grannie (1890) and Wengen with its Jungfraujochbahn (1912). These uphill-transportation systems were all built for use by summer visitors, but later proved useful for hauling winter vacationers, too. Thus these lucky towns became the first "in"—or, rather, "up"—ski resorts.

But it wasn't until 1932 that skiing's true revolutionary genius appeared. He was a Swiss engineer and weekend skier named Gerhard Müller, who also happened to be the owner of an old motorcycle. Müller invented and patented the world's first rope tow. It consisted of a length of one-inch hemp rope and parts from his motorcycle, geared and connected in such a way that a skier gripping the rope would be dragged uphill by the snarling motorcycle engine. The process was slightly less painful and a lot more frightening than climbing under one's own power. Nonetheless, Müller's invention was a success, and mountains and ski resorts have never been the same since.

In the U.S., the great-great-grand-daddy of Beaver Creek was born in 1934 at Woodstock, Vt. It was created by the unlikely combination of a former Dartmouth ski-team captain (colleges in northern climes had had such teams since 1909), the owner of a hostelry called the White Cupboard Inn, and a sawmill mechanic. They arranged to pay $10 to a farmer named Clinton Gilbert to rent a steep section of sheep pasture for the winter of '34. The place was called Gilbert's Hill and as John Jay wrote in his book Ski Down the Years, "Gilbert's Hill became the Kitty Hawk of the American ski scene."

The rope tow on Gilbert's Hill was an Erector Set arrangement of grooved wheels, wooden supports and thick ropes, all powered by a sturdy Model T motor that drove a tire-less rear wheel. The tow on Gilbert's Hill offered a 500-foot uphill pull that resulted in increasingly intense pain and fatigue the closer one got to the top. Use of the tow cost $1 a day and allowed the skier perhaps 10 times more downhill runs than he would've been able to make had he had to climb the slope unassisted.

Tows soon appeared everywhere—from Mount Rainier in Washington to Mount Mansfield in Vermont, from Norfolk, Conn. (where snow trains brought passengers the 140 miles from New York City at $2 a head, round trip) to Wilmot Hills, Wis., where a man named Walt Stopa put in no fewer than 11 rope tows, creating the then-famed "Alps of Chicago," which had a nice suburban vertical drop of 198 feet.

But all of this was primitive stuff, only the dimmest rumblings of the American ski-resort boom. It was, writes Jay, "a time when everyone yodeled and smelled like a tossed salad (pure olive oil was the thing for a tan)," a time when skiers rented beds in drafty New England farmhouses, where they slept "stacked like layer cakes in four-decker bunks...and lined up for everything from the bathtub to the rope tows."

The first American ski resort worthy of the name was built in 1936 on a sweep of sheep-ranching land at the foot of Idaho's magnificent Sawtooth Mountain Range by the Union Pacific Railroad, then headed by W. Averell Harriman. The name of the resort was Sun Valley, and its original reason for existence was to create a destination in the West to lure passengers onto the railroad. The Lodge at Sun Valley was as luxurious as any resort hotel in the world—equipped with a glass-walled, heated outdoor swimming pool and a dining room where the strains of Eddie Duchin's orchestra sounded nightly. The skiing was terrific and the slopes boasted the world's first chair lift, which was patterned after a banana-loading device used on docks in the tropics. But none of these attractions was as important to the success of Sun Valley as the mind of a public-relations genius named Steve Hannegan. His most notable previous coup was publicizing a bleak stretch of sand in Florida, which became a thriving settlement of waterfront homes called Miami Beach. A devout cold-weather hater, Hannegan denounced Sun Valley at first sight as "a godforsaken field of snow." He then went to work to make it seem to be something quite different. First he persuaded Harriman to name the place Sun Valley. Hannegan then created a famous poster that showed a young man skiing in the sun while stripped to the waist. He also arranged for Hollywood to discover the resort. Mountain scenes for She Met Him in Paris, starring Claudette Colbert, were filmed in Sun Valley, and from the moment it opened, the Lodge glittered with celebrities, including such high-voltage luminaries as Tyrone Power, Clark Gable and Gary Cooper.

Nothing quite like Sun Valley ever happened again, but the publicity that Hannegan generated for it spilled over everything that had to do with skiing. The sport suddenly took on a glamour that Model T-driven rope tows on farmers' hills simply couldn't give it. Although World War II forestalled the boom, no sooner was the war over than the ski business began to grow into a national industry. The postwar growth was nourished by 1) a vast supply of army surplus equipment, which gave thousands of people an opportunity to buy inexpensive skis, boots and bindings, and 2) a cadre of enthusiastic young civilian entrepreneurs recently mustered out of the elite 10th Mountain Division, America's only unit of ski troopers. They spearheaded the opening of some of the country's grandest resorts, including Vail, Jackson Hole and Aspen.

The power behind Aspen, Colorado's premier ski resort, was a 10th Mountain man named Friedl Pfeifer. With the money of an enlightened Chicago industrialist named Walter Paepcke as backing, Pfeifer & Co. built the "world's longest ski lift," a then-startling 13,800 feet in length, with a vertical drop of 3,295 feet. The lift opened for business in January 1947—and business immediately went from bad to worse. First the Rio Grande Railroad shut down the town's connection with the main line, a disaster for Aspen, which is even more remote than Sun Valley. Worse, the skiing proved far too dangerous to attract average skiers. Not only was the mountain breathtakingly steep, but another unnerving hazard was the mine shafts that appeared suddenly before unwary skiers and threatened to send them tumbling several hundred feet down a hole. The town of Aspen had once had a thriving population of 12,000 and an annual production of $15 million worth of silver from its mines, but by the time the world's longest ski lift opened, the place had only a few hundred residents. And there was no Steve Hannegan to promote it. But in 1950 Aspen attracted the Fédération Internationale de Ski world championships, and that same year Paepcke brought such superstar intellectuals as Dr. Albert Schweitzer, Thornton Wilder and José Ortega y Gasset to Aspen for the Goethe Bicentennial Celebration. These things put Aspen on the map, and the ski boom in Colorado at last began in earnest.

The 1950s saw new resorts in every part of the U.S., and the early '60s produced an all-out explosion in skiing. From 1960 to 1965, a total of 386 new areas opened, among them some of the nation's finest: Crested Butte, Steamboat Springs, Vail. Where previously there had been nothing but rocks and eagles and avalanches, there were now lift lines and fast-food cafeterias and people parading in new stretch pants. Ski-industry income ballooned from an estimated $125 million in 1960 to $750 million in 1970 and $3.5 billion in 1980. Downhill skiers increased at the rate of 15.4% a year in the 1960s, from a doughty handful of 2.1 million in '60 to 6.5 million in '70 and 15 million in '80. The proliferation of new areas continued at the stunning rate of more than 30 per annum well into the '70s. In 1972, a vintage year, 35 areas opened, including three superb major-league resorts—Copper Mountain in the Rockies, just 1½ hours out of Denver; Telluride in the San Juan Mountains in the southeast corner of Colorado; and Snowbird in the powder-packed Wasatch Mountains, 45 minutes from Salt Lake City.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5 6