When George Gillett, owner of the Vail ski complex in Colorado, describes himself as the proud possessor of "one of God's special works," it's easy to dismiss this as just another self-aggrandizement by just another hyper-acquisitive multimillionaire who has become disgustingly rich during this greed-driven decade of the '80s. However, Gillett happens to have something here.
Vail is now America's biggest ski resort. It is also the busiest, the richest, the friendliest, the most popular and the most diverse in skiable terrain. It is undeniably the best in terms of its far-reaching network of lifts; arguably the best in the grooming of its trails, in its ski school and in its marketing; and certainly top of the line when it comes to stratospheric pricing—daily lift tickets are $35, private adult ski lessons are $65 an hour. Even all this doesn't qualify Vail as a divine work, any more than it would the other enterprises in Gillett's $1.5 billion empire, which includes 12 TV stations scattered across the U.S., from San Luis Obispo, Calif., to Tampa, as well as bank holding companies, meat-packing operations, an oil and gas distribution company, and Vail's sleeker, smaller and more luxurious neighboring ski resort, Beaver Creek.
However, without putting too fine a metaphysical point on it, let's agree that there exists in every mountain a God-given potential for specialness, for monumentality, if you will—a status to which no TV station or meat-packing plant can ever aspire. Let's also agree that, God notwithstanding, monument status is sometimes conferred on a mountain only after mere mortals have done something to make it famous, infamous or unique, Mount Rushmore being the most literal example of this.
Gillett's Vail happens to be blessed this season with two man-made happenings that, though unrelated, together will bring such an aura of new splendor to the place that no one should ever quibble about whether Gillett is the owner of a national monument.
First is the expansion of Vail's skiable terrain into the vast exotic wastes of the China Bowl region, four dishes of open powder snow that stretch far beyond the resort's previously available trails and bowls. This was achieved as part of a capital investment of $15.4 million last year, including $4.5 million for the installation of a state-of-the-art high-speed lift. The addition of the 1,881 acres of China Bowl to the existing 1,906 makes Vail larger than California's 3,500-acre Mammoth Mountain, formerly the U.S.'s most sprawling ski area. All that open space in the back-bowl area, plus Vail's marvelously groomed skiing terrain on the front side of the mountain, has moved the place into a class by itself.
As if the blowout into China Bowl weren't enough, there's Vail's second happening—the World Alpine Ski Championships from Jan. 29 to Feb. 12, which will bring the 600 best ski racers from 43 nations to Vail for their most important biennial competition. This is the first time in nearly four decades that a U.S. ski area will host the championships.
The last time was in 1950, when Aspen, then an impoverished little mining-town-just-turned-ski-resort, did it and, in the process, gained for itself a worldwide renown that still exceeds any Vail enjoys. That will change next week with global press and TV coverage of the championships; henceforth, millions of people the world over will consider Vail the centerpiece of skiing in America.
Now that the moment is almost upon us, it may seem that it was inevitable. But when you look back over Vail's rather odd past, you'll find that its rise was never guaranteed—or even very likely.
As viewed from Vail Village, there is nothing impressive about Vail Mountain. There are no great looming peaks, no snowy massif, no sheer rock walls, no avalanche chutes, no waterfalls frozen into crazy ice sculptures. The terrain rises in undramatic rolls and folds, showing no scars from prehistoric volcanoes, no signs of ancient subterranean upheavals. If you climbed to the 11,250-foot summit, you would discover the plain truth about Vail Mountain: It's a docile, round-shouldered pile of earth, sand and soft rock—"the humble cousin ridge," as a local writer put it—set between the sensational saw-toothed majesties of the Gore and Sawatch ranges just across the valley to the north and east.
Until recently, life around Vail was not much more intriguing than the geological history of this big, soft hill. June Simonton, the local writer mentioned above, wrote in her book Vail: Story of a Colorado Mountain Valley, "Did gold strikes, cattle drives, or railroad barons figure in its past? Not at all. Vail, it seemed, was an orphan with nothing to nail it into place in the pattern of Western history." Simonton points out that the Gore Creek Valley, which lies at the foot of Vail Mountain, had always been isolated because it was cut off at one end by a 10,600-foot-high pass and at the other by a canyon no wider than a horse. The place that is now Vail, wrote Simonton. "was a blank spot on early Colorado maps."