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Pete Seibert, a veteran of the 10th Mountain Division, needed $1 million or so in 1961 to build his life’s vision of the ultimate ski resort. He put together a package for investors: $10,000 got you shares in the unbuilt resort and four lifetime season passes for the family. For $500 more, you’d get a lot for a home site in what was then scenic sheep pastures high in the Colorado Rockies. Like just about everything to do with Vail, it turned out to be a damn good investment.
A majority of the top mountain destinations (Aspen, Telluride, Park City, and such) were frontier towns first; the charming ski resorts came later. Vail, in contrast, turned the ski industry upside down: ski resort first, then the town grew around it. And boy, did Vail grow. From Gold Peak to Vail Village (the town square, if you will) to West Vail, the community has expanded so much that each area has its own personality. It’s become a ski metropolis with distinct neighborhoods. There may not be another community in the mountains that so deftly does the destination jujitsu of combining the thrill of outdoor athletics with the buzz of a booming urban environment. The Aspen valley, by comparison, now seems downright quaint.
The Vail experience is a skier’s Rorschach test. Do you see Colorado deep-blue skies, endless untracked turns in the Back Bowls, and an animated urban-village vibe, or I-70 traffic jams, jostling crowds, and ersatz Bavarian storefronts? As they say, skiers vote with their skis, with a Yogi Berra-ism coming to mind: No one goes there anymore; it’s too crowded.
The haters are going to hate, dusting off the tired Disneyland-on-snow trope. But honestly, that’s not fair to Vail. Families outgrow Disney. The key to Vail is that you grow into the experience. You figure out how to avoid the mosh-pit start to your ski day and quickly learn to make tracks where others don’t. You identify your favorite après and dining spots, and you discover new options, which seemingly appear every year with the first frost. To help you get around, the town of Vail operates what it says is the biggest free transportation system in the country. Who knows if it’s really the biggest, but it is free and it does work. Vail may not be skiing’s soul, but it sure is its playground.
In synch with the booming linear town at its base, Vail Mountain very well might be the biggest mountain most skiers will ever ski. Seven miles across, with 5,300 acres, it’s a massive blank canvas upon which to paint your ski dreams. Yes, it is a bit light on ski-movie steeps, but ski-resort visitors are a bit light on being ski-movie athletes.
Crested Butte ran a series of poke-in-the-rib ads in this magazine in the early 2000s with the tagline “This is Not Vail.” One ad featured a photo of young partiers piled into a car with the copy “You can tell because the car is too old, and the people are having too much fun.”
That was more than a decade ago, before Vail was the sprawling, teeming, ever- changing, and ever-expanding destination of today. You won’t be seeing a “This is Not Vail” slogan again anytime soon; it’s too preposterous. Ski communities avoid comparing themselves to Vail these days. No one else is Vail. No one else can be Vail. There’s no need to draw attention to the obvious.
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