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Suffice it to say, business never got worse. However, that day in 1963 wasn't the low point in Vail's history. That was to come on the cold, sunny morning of March 26, 1976, when four skiers died and eight were injured, some seriously, as two gondolas plunged 125 feet to the ground. At the time it was the worst ski-area mishap in U.S. history.
The cause of the accident was a frayed cable that tangled in the workings atop a lift tower. This bounced and buffeted the cars passing that point until two were flung loose from the line and the whole lift jerked to a stop. After administering to the victims on the ground, ski patrolmen clambered up lift towers and worked their way along the cable to lower to safety no fewer than 176 skiers who were trapped in the 31 other cars.
There were many heroes that day, but then came the lawsuits, demanding more than $50 million in damages. In the long run these caused more trouble and upheaval at Vail than the tragedy itself. Seibert says, "The gondola accident and the high exposure to litigation facing the company were a major reason the board decided to sell the company in the next few months. We had gone public with the stock in 1966. I was still chairman of the company, but I had lost control. When it came time to consider some offers to sell out, the board made its decision because it was afraid of the liability we might incur as a result of the accident."
Later in 1976, Harry Bass, an autocratic Texan whose money came mostly from his family's ownership of a firm called Goliad Oil and Gas, purchased a controlling interest in Vail Associates for about $13 million. "I personally didn't favor Harry Bass," says Seibert. "In fact, Twentieth Century Fox was very interested in buying Vail. But the studio hadn't released Star Wars yet and came up short of Bass's bid. So, Vail went to him, much to my disappointment. If Star Wars had been out, maybe things would have been different."
Bass's takeover of Vail quickly led to Seibert's ouster. "Harry and Pete had a personality clash that wouldn't let them be in the same state together at the same time," says one observer. Looking back at those bitter times, Seibert recalls, "When I started Vail, I didn't necessarily plan on its being a lifetime commitment. But then when I had to leave, I suddenly discovered that I'd made a much deeper lifetime commitment to the place than I'd realized. It hurt to go."
Seibert bought a small ski area in Utah called Snow Basin and stayed there for seven years before returning to Colorado to work at (but not own) a new area called Arrowhead. As it happens, Arrowhead is 10 miles from Vail, and some sections of it lie adjacent to Beaver Creek. It was Seibert who had arranged the $4.4 million purchase of the Beaver Creek land in 1971 from a recalcitrant old rancher he had been trying to coax into selling for years. "I saw Beaver Creek as a little diamond in Vail's navel," says Seibert. He was in Utah when Beaver Creek opened in 1980.
As for the gondola accident, all of the suits were settled out of court. The payout totaled only a fraction of the $50 million mentioned in the original suits, and most of the amount was covered by insurance. In 1984, Bass, too, was ousted from the chairmanship of Vail Associates, after an ugly confrontation with his children, whose trust—set up by him—controlled enough Vail stock to force Harry out. Bass had spent much of his time in Vail while he owned the place, but friends say that he has not been back since he was dumped. Seibert says with a chuckle, "I keep telling Harry he should come back. Hell, if I could come back, it should be real easy for him."
The Reverend Don Simonton (husband of June Simonton, the writer) has lived in Vail for 22 years. "I may tend to overromanticize the old days, but Vail was built by guys who were in the ski business because they loved skiing," he says. "They winged it. They had fun. It was a matter of friendship as much as a matter of business. A corporate mentality took over after that. Now they plan everything constantly. The executives come and go, interchangeable people. They don't study the past. They come in equipped with all the answers about us without knowing our history, our character. An old cowboy friend of mine summed it up once: 'Vail Associates is run by guys with M.B.A.'s and BMWs who come here, play a few sets of tennis, divorce their wives and move on.' "
Simonton, a Lutheran pastor, works out of the village's Interfaith Chapel, a church he shares with the congregations of six other denominations. And how is it having a ski area as your parish? "Well, we have a lot of pure and simple gold-plated hedonists around here, a lot of people who are wholly dedicated to remaining young and good-looking," he says. "There are a lot of people here, too, because they love the mountains, love the West. Not everyone cares about skiing; the ranchers sure don't. I see this parish as a ministry of reconciliation, building bridges between the different subcommunities, between skiers and nonskiers, old-timers and newcomers, between hard-nosed businessmen who own expensive houses here and have-not local employees who feel they've been forced to move out of Vail because they can't afford it."
Vail is a company town. The ski resort is the only reason the place exists. What happens at VA, as the locals call Vail Associates, happens to all 4,500 citizens of the town. Rod Slifer was one of the Seibert-era pioneers, and he also served as mayor of Vail from 1977 to '84. When asked to compare the various VA regimes, he says, "I think Peter and George Gillett have similarities. The mountain and skiing interest them, and the quality of skiing comes first. Harry Bass ran it like a business. He didn't put money back in the mountain, he drained it off. Pete and George believe in the European idea of business: think of the future, think of your kids. This isn't a place to grab instant profits, it's a long-term investment. I think George Gillett might be the best owner Vail ever had. He has lots of money, he has lots of contact with the town, he makes people here feel good."