It wasn't until the late 19th century that someone started putting names on the map, and the two men who came to figure most prominently in the nomenclature of the region—Gore and Vail—were strange choices. Sir St. George Gore apparently never set foot in the mountains, the creek or the valley near Vail that bear his name. Why anyone would even name an alley after him, let alone some of nature's best scenery, is a wonder. Lord Gore was a drunken Irish baronet, boorish and filthy rich, a rapacious hunter who spent three years—and $250,000—slaughtering animals throughout the West in the 1850s. His caravan included 100 horses, dozens of servants and guides, and gallons of liquor as well as a green-and-white silk tent for his lordship furnished with a brass bedstead, a bathtub and a commode with a fur-lined seat. Gore and his party butchered countless elk, deer and buffalo, taking only trophies and leaving all else to rot where it fell.
Then there was Vail. That would be Charles Vail, chief engineer of the Colorado highway department from 1930 until his death in '45, a civil servant who spent his life supervising the paving of roads. He was known by his friends as Charley, but not everyone was his friend, for he could be a stubborn cuss. In '39 Vail ignored the wishes of the residents of the Rocky Mountain town of Salida and built a highway over a pass at a point they didn't favor. They couldn't do much about the road once it was finished, but when they heard that the pass was going to be named after Vail, they got mad. They petitioned the governor to get the name changed, and they painted out the P on every sign that read VAIL PASS. The governor quickly changed the name to Monarch Pass. Vail got a different pass, but it was located at an obscure spot far from Salida—at a place formerly known as Black Gore Pass.
Twenty years later the founders of a ski resort in the vicinity of Vail Pass were kicking around ideas for a name for their new enterprise. Someone suggested Shining Mountains—the name the Ute Indians used for the Colorado region. But the president of the new operation, a former ski trooper from the 10th Mountain Division named Pete Seibert, rejected that idea. "When mountains shine," he said, "it means they're icy." And so, without much further ado, the resort was called Vail.
If anything, it should have been named Mount St. Peter, or Ski Seibert, or Pete's Peak, for no one did more to force Vail into existence and then push it into prominence than Seibert. He is now 64 and was long ago ousted from Vail Associates, the resort corporation created by him and his hell-for-leather skiing friends and his pals from the 10th Mountain. Though he has lived in Colorado. Utah or Switzerland for nearly all of the past 45 years, the Down East inflections of Seibert's childhood hometown of North Conway, N.H., still tend to do funny things with r's. So when he confessed recently, "I've always had a bit of a messiah complex," the word came out "messiahr." But the meaning was clear and, truth is, with anyone less than a messiah at the controls, it's doubtful that Vail would have been created at all.
Seibert came to Colorado early in World War II when he joined the 10th Mountain Division at Camp Hale, which was located about 20 miles from Vail Mountain. In 1945, Seibert saw combat in the Apennine mountains of northern Italy, where he was hit by small-arms fire and two mortar shells, one of which blew off his right kneecap. Doctors told him he might walk again, but he would surely never ski. Of course, messiahrs don't believe in bad news. By '47, Seibert was a ski instructor in Aspen. He was a member of the U.S. team in '50 but did not race in the championships, because he tore ligaments in an ankle just before the competition. In Aspen he met a man named Earl Eaton, a lifelong skier and sometime uranium prospector who was born on a homestead not far from Gore Creek Valley. Like just about everyone else living in the Colorado mountains during those booming postwar years, the two of them began making plans for a ski resort. As Eaton told Simonton, "Everybody in Aspen would talk about going out and finding a ski area—the ski instructors and the ski bums—everybody had big ideas."
For Seibert, these big ideas were more than a matter of casual daydreaming. "I had first started thinking of running a resort when I was 12 years old," he says. "In the early '50s I went to the Hotel School in Lausanne for three years. There was nothing I wanted more in my life than to start a ski area."
In March 1957, Eaton, who had scoured many mountains over the years in search of uranium, led Seibert to a mountain he thought had all the aspects of a perfect ski area. No would-be ski-area entrepreneur had considered it before because its bulk wasn't visible from the valley. The two of them climbed in deep snow for seven hours to reach the summit. Once there they stared in awe at the vast bowls below them and the stunning peaks of the Gore Range beyond. Seibert says, "It was as good as any ski mountain I'd seen."
From there, the hard part began—cutting red tape and meeting the stiff requirements of the U.S. Forest Service to gain permission to lease the mountain from the government; raising money from frugal friends and suspicious strangers; buying land from ranchers in Gore Creek Valley and building a village. "Everybody else thought we were crazy," says Seibert, "but we were convinced we could do any damned thing we decided to do." Ultimately they did do every damned thing they decided to do, and the cost for all of it—three lifts, including a gondola; trails; buildings; snow-grooming equipment; salaries; interest on loans—came to $1,550,000. That was big money in those days, but it is just one third the price of a single high-speed quad chair lift today.
Among the 10th Mountain Division pals Seibert recruited for Vail was Robert Parker, a former editor of Skiing magazine. He was Vail's first director of marketing and became a legend in the business before his recent retirement from Vail Associates. Over the years Parker was in on the creation of some of the ski industry's best promotional ideas, including the brilliantly successful Ski the Rockies campaign, which promoted ski packages with airlines and travel agencies, as well as an early 1960s series of international ski races that ultimately developed into the World Cup circuit. Parker was also a talented publicity man, and, thanks to his press releases and personal contacts, ski journalists and industry flacks everywhere were pounding the drums for Vail long before the first lift ticket was sold.
Still, success was anything but guaranteed. Vail opened on Dec. 15, 1962, precisely on schedule, but there was no snow in the valley, and it was just ankle-deep on top of the mountain. Some curious cowboys and their wives turned out to ride the lifts up and down just for the hell of it, and there were a few skiers. Seibert was asked recently if there ever was a time when he had doubts about Vail's future. He didn't hesitate: "Yes. It was January 10, 1963. We collected exactly $60 for lift tickets. Twelve skiers were on the mountain at $5 dollars a piece."