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In Vail this past summer, they mourned the death of Pete Seibert, 77. His passionate pursuit of a vision led to the nation’s premier ski resort. So it is said. The reality is more complex.
In a decade marked by Vail’s debut in 1962-63, Seibert did launch and oversee a successful expansion of trails, lifts, hotels and roads. A former racer, he made international alpine competition part of the new resort’s culture. Vail, however, spent more than it made. Disgruntled investors blamed Seibert for shortcomings as a financial executive. He left town to go to Colorado Springs, then unsuccessfully attempted to build a second Vail in Utah. Back in Vail in the 1980s, he was broke and barely remembered as the founder of America’s No. 1 ski resort.
Seibert’s dream of building a ski area began when he was only 12, as he pored through ski magazines, studying photos of international resorts under towering mountains. Raised in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, he developed into a rugged stub of a guy, with jet-black hair and flashing dark eyes. In World War II, he joined the 10th Mountain Division, training at Camp Hale not far from Vail. In Italy’s Apennines, he was severely wounded in the 10th’s battle to capture Mt. Terminale. His flat, honest face-often creased in a winning, crooked smile-forever bore a trace of that nearly fatal ordeal.
After his discharge, Seibert worked on Aspen’s ski patrol, then used money from the GI Bill to go to Europe in 1950. He studied at L’Ecole Hoteliere de Lausanne, arguably the world’s best hospitality training institution. Returning to the U.S. in 1954 at the age of 32, he was determined to create an American resort that combined the ambience of a classic European mountain village with Colorado’s dry powder and consistent sunshine.
His search for “the perfect ski mountain” is recorded in the book he wrote two years ago, Vail, Triumph of a Dream. It started with forays from the Loveland Ski Area, where he worked. In the spring of 1957, Colorado native Earl Eaton led Seibert to the top of a huge mountain ridge, 11,250-feet high, on the south side of Route 6, west of Vail Pass. At the summit, the two men peered down into great open, south-facing bowls, and to other mountains beyond. “It was love at first sight,” Seibert recalled.
Eaton had long known about Vail Mountain. Along with several others, he helped Seibert build the resort, giving rise to a revisionist history that suggests Vail was somehow started by multiple founders. But that’s like saying America was discovered by the crew of the Santa Maria. Seibert launched Vail for the simple reason that people naturally rallied to his superior knowledge of trail and resort design, his determined character, and his genuine willingness to ask them for suggestions. His friends were legion.
The land for the resort’s base-sheep pasture and forest-had to be purchased from several owners. As for the mountain, its owner, the U.S. Forest Service, on two occasions opposed Vail’s opening. Seibert and oilman George Caulkins drove across America desperately seeking investors. There was never sufficient cash to build lifts and buy enough land-one of the causes of today’s congested Vail Valley.
Seibert’s vision was of a town that combined elements of resorts in the Alps. In the original village, which opened in December 1962, skiers approached the slopes via a pedestrian lane, Bridge Street, soon to be lined with Tyrolean-style lodges, shops, restaurants and bars. It was charming.
From the beginning, the place was untroubled by the kind of fractiousness that split the town of Aspen and its Skiing Corp. Promoting skiing was perceived as good for Vail; promoting the town was good for skiing. Seibert died before any of us thought to recognize his creation of a model of positive ski area/community relations that should have been the envy of resorts everywhere, and that eventually came to elude Vail itself.
A dozen years after Vail’s opening, Seibert wass elected president of the National Ski Areas Association, where he proved a desultory leader in a period of tumultuous change in the organization. He must surely have been distracted by Colorado’s vote not to host the 1976 Winter Olympics. The rejection temporarily halted his dream of opening Beaver Creek, where alpine races would have been staged. Meanwhile, there were huge cost overruns in building the Lionshead gondola, and in opening terrain.
By 1976, Harry Bass, a taciturn, emotionless Texas oilman, had increased his stake in Vail Associates to more than 50 percent. The two men clashed. Bass wanted financial savvy at the helm, not a former staff sergeant who could climb mountains and tell whether or not a slope would hold snow. Seibert became a poster boy for the pioneering skiers and mountain lovers-10th Mountain Division veterans-who, after building America’s ski areas, needed, in the minds of investors and banks, to be replaced by MBAs and accountants if their resorts were ever to succeed.
In the wake of lawsuits arising from the 1976 gondola collapse at Lionshead that killed four skiers, Seibert rejected an offer by Bass to step down and run the mountain operations. He left Vail for Colorado Springs, his marriage broke up, then he resurfaced in Utah’s Wasatch as an owner of Snowbasin. He attempted to raise millions of dollars for a major resort-a second Vail, if you will. He foresaw the world-class downhill terrain, which 20 years later tested racers in the Salt Lake Winter Olympics. Disappointing skier visits, insufficient capital and real estate sales, and soaring interest rates in the early 1980s forced Seibert to sell Snowbasin.
Pete returned to the Vail Valley to briefly manage an under-capitalized Arrowhead development. He had little money and no prospects of a job. In a generous and even canny move, Vail Associates’ new owner George Gillett put him on the payroll. Henceforward Seibert would serve as a credible ambassador of skiing. Gradually, residents began to recognize the accomplishments of this tough, deceptively simple guy, who could equally befriend a day laborer and a president. A statue was raised, honors bestowed.
When Pete Seibert conceived his plan for Vail, American skiers didn’t know that they would love to ski in vast, treeless south-facing bowls or live in a car-free village. He intuitively knew they would, and he set a style that came to be emulated by resorts everywhere. His courageous, inspired life was a long voyage of struggle. But like Odysseus, Pete Seibert came home a hero.
Columnist Fry can be found at firstname.lastname@example.org