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Hiking to Paradise

Fall Line

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Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Vail, Triumph of a Dream, a new coffee-table book by resort founder Pete Seibert. Here, Seibert and business partner Earl Eaton first hike the virgin glades, bowls and rolling slopes of what will become Seibert’s life’s work.

It was an hour before morning light on Tuesday, March 19, 1957, when Earl Eaton and I parked my army-surplus Jeep on the snowy shoulder of U.S. Highway 6 and prepared to climb a mountain that had no name. The stars were out, and it promised to be a clear and sunny day¿just as we had hoped. We laced up our leather ski boots and strapped climbing skins onto our 215-cm Head skis. We stepped into bear-trap bindings and lashed long leather thongs around our ankles. We poked our shoulder-high ski poles into the snow, turned south and began the ascent.

It was tough going from the start, deep and steep, and we often traded places for breaking trail.

After a half mile or so, we were panting and perspiring.

“God, I hope this is worth the trip,” I said to Earl.

He pondered this question as we continued to climb. “It looked like a damn good ski mountain when I saw it before,” he finally said.

“You saw it in the summertime,” I chided him. “You couldn’t judge snow conditions or wind conditions. I hope we’re not wasting our time.”

He shrugged. “Hunting for a good ski mountain is never a waste of time.” He plunged ahead into the powder.

Both of us had spent the winter of 1957 working at the Loveland Pass ski area. I was the area manager; Earl was a mountain maintenance man and ski patroller. Nights we spun dreams around a potbelly stove in Buckley’s Store. Always the talk was of skiing: how to do it, where to do it, how to build a money-making resort. At the time, there were only a handful of ski areas in Colorado, including Aspen, Winter Park, Loveland and Berthoud Pass. But in those days every ski bum, every snowplow driver, every ski patrolman believed that if he could only find the right mountain with the right contours and the right weather patterns he could quit his job, raise some money and build a ski resort that would make him rich and famous. Floundering upward in three feet of snow along a faintly visible logging road, it took us two hours to slog the first two miles. Then we entered a dense, silent forest of lodgepole pine and spruce. We climbed in soft, knee-deep powder, cutting back and forth through the woods. After almost two hours in the trees, we broke out into sunny, open terrain and faced a vast landscape consisting only of snowy slopes, dotted here and there with perfectly sculptured spruce and fir trees.

I didn’t know it then, of course, but this would become Mid Vail. We decided to stop for lunch: cheese, salami, good bread and hot, sugary tea from a Thermos. It was a moment of pure bliss. Everything sparkled in the sun. I envisioned a line of skiers charging through the virgin powder, making braided tracks and kicking up rooster tails as they disappeared into the woods.

“My God, we’ve climbed all the way to heaven,” I said to Earl.

“It gets better, Pete,” he replied.

We continued our climb, finally reached the summit¿and wow! Seven hours had elapsed since we began our ascent in the darkness. We had climbed 3,050 vertical feet, probably covering eight miles. And here we were at the top¿11,250 feet.

In all of our backcountry explorations, we had seen nothing like this. Beneath the brilliant blue sky, we turned in a circle and saw perfect ski terrain no matter which direction we faced. North back down the mountain and off to the east and the west lay miles of terrain, both steep and gentle. And to the south was the most mind-blowing landscape of all: A series of bowls stretched to the horizon, a virtually treeless universe of boundless powder, open slopes and open sky. We looked at each other and realized what we both knew for certain: This was it!

After an hour of tramping around the summit, Earl annd I removed our climbing skins, put them in our packs and turned to head down the mountain. The powder was so deep that it slowed us to a halt. We were tired but exhilarated. The trip down took less than two hours. I looked back up, and there was no sign that such a vast treasure lay in hiding up there.

But I had seen it, and Earl and I had just completed probably the first downhill runs ever at Vail.

Vail, Triumph of a Dream, published by Mountain Sports Press, can be purchased for $44.95 by calling 888-802-3355, ext. 610.