Let me just say it up front: Vail would never have become “Vail” if it were not for a man named Rod Slifer.
Oh sure, it probably would have opened sometime before the end of the 1962-63 ski season (give or take a year or two), and it probably would have been at least as successful as, oh let’s say, Aspen, but it certainly would not have become the largest and most successful empty-valley-to-most-respected-ski-resort-in-North America without the direct assistance of the man whose name has blazed a consistent local trail for the last five decades.
To say Rod Slifer was not instrumental in making Vail more than just a name on a state highway mountain pass is like saying ‘The Beatles’ was just the name of a band from Liverpool.
No one, of course, would ever suggest the names Seibert and Eaton should be diminished within our hallowed memories, as doing so would be considered treason in these parts, but neither was able to withstand the temerity that was needed to continue etching steps in the valley for half a century as our man Rod has done, and is still doing.
But I need to back up a bit.
Most of you already know the incredible story of Pete Seibert and Earl Eaton, and their respective journeys from hiking these tree-covered slopes in 1957 to wooing initial investors to the point of actually having a physical plan to follow in late 1961. But few know the details of what occurred, and what it actually took, to transform the precarious plan into the reality known as Opening Day – December 15, 1962.
At a semi-private party to celebrate the 49th anniversary I had the pleasure of sharing a frosty mug with the man himself. During his brief interlude from hand-shaking and head-acknowledging, Mr. Slifer made the comment, “I wish somebody would write about 1962… and just 1962, because that year is when it all happened…when it all came together…”
I felt an immediate compulsion to oblige.
What follows, mostly in his own words, is how Rod Slifer, three-time mayor and patriarch of all that’s good in Vail, remembers the fascinating 12-month period that converted a small slice of mountain paradise into an alpine nirvana for the rest of the world to enjoy.
I had been living in Aspen for two seasons, teaching skiing for the Aspen Ski School and waiting tables nightly at the Steak Pit restaurant. (Around that time, Morrie Shepherd, a good friend I had worked for painting houses during the summer, was asked by Pete Seibert, his childhood friend, if he would be the first Ski School Director at a new place called Vail.) So Morrie, for reasons, well, reasons I don’t really know — I guess because we were friends — asked me to come over and be the assistant ski school director.
“Before he could officially hire me though, I had to go down to Denver and interview with Pete, which I did one day in January. So I took a day off, and in those days it was a good six-hour drive, and I remember being told Vail was just past Dowd Junction. I was driving through, and I didn’t know if it was on this side of the road or that side of the road, and I was looking around, saying, ‘I don’t see where we’re going to ski here,’ I had no clue. And then I started up Vail Pass and thought maybe it was somewhere up there, but I just didn’t know.
“So I made it to Denver, and Pete had some maps and scale models for it all to make sense. We got along fine. I remember him saying, ‘Yeah, you’re in…if you want it…you should come on May 1st and start.’ I asked him what would I be doing, and Pete said, ‘I don’t know, we’ll figure it out!’
“I took the job, but I didn’t even ask what I was going to be paid, and as I recall I just turned around and came back to Aspen.
“During the end of the winter and early spring, everybody kept telling me I was crazy, I mean, leaving Aspen? ‘We don’t need another ski area,’ they would say, and I would always reply that I was 27, single, and I was going to give it a shot, and if it didn’t work I’d come back to Aspen. I really wasn’t too worried either way…”
Meanwhile, May 1st of 1962 was a defining moment for what was about to become Vail, Colorado. Both Rod Slifer and Morrie Shepherd reported from work that very morning, and from that moment forward Vail was a bubble from which neither would ever completely leave.
“I think I came over the day before, because Pete and Morrie and I went to dinner at a motel (in what’s now called EagleVail) called the ‘We Ask You Inn.’ I must say, that night I had my doubts. It was a pretty rustic place, and this guy comes out of the kitchen, he was a gruff ol’ guy, and he had a peg leg, a wooden peg leg, and I said to myself, ‘What am I doing here?’
“That first day of work was them just showing me around. ‘Here’s where the lodge will be, the gondola lift, the first store,’ and then we took this old Jeep up to where Mid-Vail would be. You could look up and see kind of a bowl, where the skiing would be, and Pete took me up the mountain to show me where the trails were going to be. We made it up near the top, and then we started walking down through the trees, with Pete pointing out fall lines, turns, dips and whatnot, and here I was just thinking, ‘We’re just walking through a bunch of trees,’ but he could visualize exactly where everything would be. He would always carry around a yellow roll of tape, and would tie off strips to show the workers where to cut down trees.
“The first couple of weeks were spent sleeping in Fitzhugh Scott’s house (an early investor and the architect who insisted Bridge Street be curved), with Morrie and I in one bedroom and Pete in another, and we had an office on the first floor. Earl Eaton, who could jury-rig anything and was a very creative guy, installed the first water system. He found a spring a few hundred yards up the mountain, and drug an old horse trough up to it, and ran a hose from the tank all the way to Fitzhugh’s house, and that was our water system, and that’s how the house had a flush toilet.
“And then they kicked us out, and Pete and Morrie and I moved into a trailer. Pete had a room in the back, with Morrie and me sleeping in the ‘living room’ and another little room with a toilet. Then we moved into a cook trailer, a kitchen, and a dining trailer, putting them side by side, and connecting them with a little walkway. I hired a guy and his wife as cooks, and they prepared three meals a day because there was nowhere to eat and we had all these men who were starting to build the Lodge at Vail, do the infrastructure and so on. Some lived in Minturn, some brought their own campers, and a few lived in Leadville, but the mines were cutting back and they needed work and we needed workers.
“Pete said we had to go to the county and get the plat approved, so we went to the county commissioners and said we need this plat signed by the planning commission, and they said, ‘We don’t have a planning commission.’ They asked us what we were going to do with it, and we said, ‘Well, we’re going to make a ski area…’ Well, they appointed themselves planning commissioners and signed it.
So Pete was out raising money, Morrie was out cutting trails, Earl was building lifts, and I was sitting there, and people kept coming in, wanting to know where Pete was and so on, and pretty soon, rather than saying when he’ll be back, I started saying, ‘Well, what do you want?’ and I started making decisions.
“Pete would come back and I would say, ‘Here’s what I did today,’ and he would say, ‘Well, that’s good,’ and move on. I had zero experience in development, but decisions had to be made. Guys would come up with truckloads of stuff, or they were surveyors, and they were all coming to do things, so I had to direct them and hope I was putting them in the right place. Investors, particularly on weekends — mostly from Denver — would come up and I’d have to show them around.
“One of my jobs that summer, every day, was I’d drive into Minturn and get the mail. There was a little grocery store, and I’d get stuff for us to eat, and beer. You know, we were there every evening, no TV, no radio, there was nothing to do so we’d sit around and drink beer, and one of our pastimes was naming trails. Pete kept a list, and we’d think about trail names, and we named all the basic trails that way.
“There was Swingsville (named after the slang of the day… swinging down the run, etc.), Riva Ridge (named after the WWII battle), Tourist Trap, which I named because I thought a lot of tourists would get trapped there…Ramshorn, which to Pete curved around like the horn of a ram…Bear Tree, named because there were, and still are, several trees covered in bear claw marks, you can still see them, only they’re a lot higher now, and Zot, which came from the old cartoon B.C. and the sound the anteater made whenever he’d shoot his tongue out.
“It was almost like being in Antarctica or something. We had the one telephone line, no newspapers, and a lot of stuff came to Minturn in those days by train. We could keep up a little bit with old newspapers and such, but for the most part all we cared about was getting things done on time. It was all we talked about, thought about, cared about…”
As the warm summer months came to a close, foundations for the Lodge at Vail and the lower gondola terminal were completed, but the lift towers had not even begun being installed. Oh sure, they knew where they were going to put them, they just had not found the time to actually do it yet.
Far, far away in the real world, the tide was turning for that new band called ‘The Beatles’ as they replaced Pete Best with Ringo Starr. Around the same time a young Marilyn Monroe was found dead of an apparent self-inflicted drug overdose and a short-in-statue but tall-in-promise man named Ross Perot was starting EDS (Electronic Data Systems).
Meanwhile, with barely over a dozen weeks to go, the three amigos of Vail had no time, nor communicable ability, to notice or even care about any of that, as it was crunch time. Things were changing, but not just the aspen leaves, and they were changing quickly, so Labor Day was…
“…nothing to us because every day was labor day as far as we were concerned. We were shooting to open for Thanksgiving, but it didn’t snow in any significant amount until about the first week of December.
“We were able to work seven days a week, getting concrete trucks and construction vehicles up the mountain to finish Mid-Vail. It was pretty warm, the weather was great. In hindsight it was the greatest thing that could have happened.
“There were about 25 or so houses being built that summer and were occupied in the fall. A few of them had little rental apartments attached, so a ski patrolman or ski instructors could live there. We had a trailer park on Red Sandstone Road where a number of workers, and even a few investors lived for a short while. We encouraged the construction workers who had campers and such to bring them up and park ‘em wherever they could. A lot of them were ex-miners coming from Leadville, Gilman and Red Cliff. The Gilman Mine was still operating, and some of those were here because it was a chance to work above ground, and the pay was good, as much or more than they were making in the mines. They made a lot of overtime… we didn’t have trouble hiring people.
“I didn’t have experience in construction, or building lifts, or cutting trails, just coordinating stuff. It’s what we did here; just find somebody who knew what to do, and even if you had no skill, they’d find something for you. There was no unemployment.
“There were a lot more people here by September. They were building The Lodge, Vail Village Inn, The Red Lion, Christy Hill’s building, John Donovan and Phil La Mantia were building the Deli, and there was also Vail Blanche and one other ski rental shop, and they were all totally immersed in their own little businesses. Morrie was hiring for ski school, Earl was hiring for lift operations, Bob Parker had a few people doing marketing or whatever it was they were doing. Some of them were traveling, meeting with ski clubs in Atlanta and Chicago and so on, so everybody was doing a lot of things. Everybody had responsibilities, and all of the sudden there were a lot of people making a lot of decisions all to make sure we got open.
“I had moved my office out of the house into the lobby of The Lodge. Vail Associates had a few offices there as well, and they had hired a few accountants, bookkeepers and so on, so I was no longer responsible for paychecks and all that. They didn’t have any guests yet, as the first ones didn’t arrive until opening weekend.
“Vail Country Day School opened in October because a few of the people here had kids. There were seven to be exact, and they had class in Allen Brown’s apartment (he was the teacher) above John Donovan’s Deli.
“I was still running around showing property to partners. They kept coming up and looking at lots, and that took most of my time. Some people came just because they’d heard about it and wanted to take a look. It was exciting.
“In November we finally started getting the cables on the lifts, hanging chairs and such. It was a Bell Gondola from Switzerland, the first ski gondola in Colorado, and they sent two guys to oversee the installation.
“A dangerous thing was pulling the cables. They were on giant spools that they pulled from the bottom, except for Chair 5, where the spool was on top. After pulling it all the way down using a bulldozer and then wrapping it around going back up, they had it almost all the way to the top when something broke and the entire thing started whipping back down the mountain. It took out two or three towers, literally took ‘em down, and then everything got all tangled up.
“That was a bit of a setback.
“It wasn’t ready for opening day. There wasn’t enough snow to open up the back until mid-January anyway, and that gave them enough time to fix everything.
“I remember having the, maybe the honor (laughs out loud), with the two Swiss guys and Earl and his dog, Vincent, to ride up in a work cart as the ‘first test with people.’ We were human guinea pigs, but it went off without a hitch. I don’t remember the gondola having to be approved, or any officials coming up to give us a stamp of approval, it was just the two Swiss guys saying it was okay to go.”
If you were in Mid-Vail the day before opening, you would have said, ‘This isn’t gonna happen…’ but it happened. Everybody pitched in and made it happen, we just got together and got it done. “The day wasn’t a letdown, but it was almost anti-climactic. We had been so busy trying to get open, and then we opened and it wasn’t very busy. We opened with less than a hundred employees and only a few customers.
“I don’t remember anyone cutting a ribbon or anything like that, we just opened, and the first person up the gondola was the first paying customer. I think they took a picture, but I’ve never seen it. Everybody was so concerned about getting open that they forgot about publicity.
“It was kind of, ‘Yea, we’re open!’ but there weren’t like thousands of people, and most of them skied Ramshorn and Swingsville all day because the snow was so much better up high.
“Ski school had some customers, but it wasn’t many. John Murchison was one of the investors, and Morrie made me teach his wife, Lupe, that day. She wasn’t a very good skier, but he just wanted me to make sure she didn’t get hurt or anything and that she had a good time.
“It’s funny, but I can’t remember if it was sunny or not…”
“You know, I was just here, and available.”
Pete would say, “You need to do this.”
“I don’t know how to do that.”
“Well, then figure out how to do it!”
“I think it was quite a while before any of us were convinced that we were going to make it. Vail Associates was always on the ropes, financially, and they were always trying to raise money. Pete’s strength was not financial, it was vision, but the ones who were keeping it together financially were working with smoke and mirrors and always managed to get those with the wherewithal to put some more money into it. It was difficult, because at any moment, if something bad happened or they couldn’t get that next round of financing, we may not have made it, but nobody gave up.
“Who’d of ever thought. All those naysayers who said we’d never get it done, and we got it done. There was a lot of pride and euphoria in that we got the thing open and running.
“By golly, we got it done.”
Yes you did, Mr. Slifer, yes you did.
The fact that people are reading this article and we are now celebrating 50 years is proof of their, and your, success. And just like that band called The Beatles, Rod Slifer didn’t do too shabby either.