Colorado ski areas celebrate 50 candles, but will they see 100?
by Allen Best
It’s birthday time in the Colorado Rockies. Ski areas at Vail and Steamboat Springs opened 50 years ago this winter, and Snowmass began guided ski tours, a precursor to that ski area. Telluride turns 40.
But will they remain as ski resorts during the next 50 years? Gold and silver miners probably thought they’d be around forever too.
At Telluride, the miners were around for almost a century. But, as was explained in a recent article in the Telluride Daily Planet, it was clear by the late 1960s that a new economy was needed. The last bank had closed and just a few hundred people remained as Idarado, the local mine, sputtered on. Many people, including a local man, William “Senior” Mahoney, dreamed of creating a ski area. But nobody could come up with the money. It appeared likely that the sheep pastures needed to create a base area for skiing would be subdivided into 35-acre home sites.
A busy California lawyer, Joe Zoline, who had fallen in love with Aspen, buying a ranch on the edge of that town, reluctantly agreed to make the ski area happen. “We were living the dream,” said Johnnie Stevens, a local boy who later became chief operating officer of the ski area, recalling the transition from mining to skiing.
Steamboat already had a rich skiing history, thanks to the Winter Carnival that spawned ski jumping on the in-town Howelsen Hill. But Jim Temple, who had grown up on a nearby ranch before spending seven years at Sun Valley, had a dream for what locals called Storm Mountain. He began his planning in 1955, but he needed a collaborator. That individual was John Fetcher, who had degrees from Harvard in business and engineering before moving to Routt County to become a rancher. Together, as a story in Steamboat Magazine explains, they made the dream happen on what is now Mount Werner.
Pete Seibert’s search
Vail has a parallel history. Pete Seibert had grown up in New England, looking at pictures of resorts in the Alps, imagining his own ski area. During World War II, he trained at Camp Hale as a member of the 10th Mountain Division. But during that time, he never saw the ski terrain just two or three valleys away.
After the war, he searched the Rockies, even spending a summer as a night clerk at the Grand Imperial Hotel in Silverton, by day scouring the slopes of the San Juans for the perfect ski mountain. But in Aspen, he met Earl Eaton, who had grown up on a ranch in the Eagle Valley. In March 1957, the two men strapped climbing skins onto their skis and headed up the mountain that Eaton had in mind. Seibert had found his resort. We call it Vail Mountain.
Vail Mountain is an extraordinary one for the sport of snow-sliding. It sprawls for miles with moderate slopes, perfect for intermediate skiers, and just enough steeps to interest experts. Several years ago, it took a friend, Rob Schilling, who is a good skier, 7 ½ days to ski all the named trails.
Too, the mountain was just close enough to Denver to have a steady business to supplement the destination travelers that Seibert had in mind. And, while Seibert may not have realized it in 1957, Vail has a knack for getting snow. Huge powder dumps, such as are enjoyed by Steamboat and Wolf Creek, are rare. But Vail rarely misses out entirely.
Early on, ski areas began flexing their muscles in natural resource issues. They usually aligned with environmental groups. In the mid-1960s, as the route of Interstate 70 was being plotted, highway engineers wanted to slice a new route through the Gore Range, via a tunnel under Red Buffalo Pass, reducing the distance and travel time between Silverthorne and Vail. Truckers supported the proposed route, as did chambers of commerce in both Denver and Grand Junction. Vail Associates, as the original ski company was called, allied itself with the environmental groups, who wanted to keep primitive lands in what is now the Eagles Nest Wilderness Area intact. The route ended up staying on Vail Pass.
The new economic and political landscape was illustrated even more clearly in the 1980s. Aurora and Colorado Springs had begun diverting water from the Eagle River watershed in the 1960s with almost no opposition. Commissioners in Eagle County, where Vail is located, in the late 1980s denied the plans by the Front Range cities to expand the diversions to around Mount of the Holy Cross. They were helped by new state laws, but just as importantly, they had the means and political will to see the process through. Skiing did that.
That change is also evident in Telluride. Just in recent months, the town government there has wrangled concessions about water from Idarado, the former mining operator, and from a uranium mining company to the west in the Paradox Valley.
Will skiing remain the driving force it is today? Maybe not. Spurts of growth enjoyed by the ski industry as baby boomers came of age long ago leveled off. Popularity of skiing, as a sport, has not kept up with population growth. In search of new economic elites, the major ski areas have been cultivating prospects abroad. Portuguese has become common in both Vail and Aspen in recent years as Brazil has prospered. In Vail, I hear people talk about the town catering much more in coming years to Latin countries.
Effects of warmer temperatures
During the next 50 years, it’s less likely to be about skiing. Already, Aspen has become a virtual TED forum through summer in recent years, courtesy of the Aspen Institute. Vail talks about cultivating the wellness concept and, more vaguely yet, medical tourism. It’s not all about skiing.
Climate change will ensure that skiing fades even more. If periodic drought is normal, scientists have strongly linked rising temperatures to greenhouse gases accumulating in the atmosphere. This doesn’t spell immediate doom to the higher, colder resorts of Colorado, although it may shut down some of the lower-elevation “feeder” ski areas elsewhere in the country. In fact, limited climate modeling has suggested the possibility of even more snow at some locations in northern Colorado.
But snow-wrecking mid-winter rains of the last few years will become more common. According to climate models, storms will likely be more ferocious, droughts longer. And winters will become shorter. None of these things will kill skiing, but they all shave the margins.
Particularly disturbing is the evidence that heating could be even more drastic than the early climate modeling forecast. Keep in mind, snow-season today delivers 80 percent of the revenue at some lodges in Vail and 70 percent of the town’s sales tax revenue.
Can summer deliver the same punch? Vail and other resorts from their very beginnings have tried to find the summer-time equivalent of powder snow. Nothing has ever come close. Summer in mountain resorts is a time of paradise, but winter pays the bill.
What bears watching is the experiment now getting underway at Vail. Under legislation introduced into Congress by Sen. Mark Udall, Vail and all other ski areas that operate on federal land have new authority to install ziplines and other adrenalin-inducing attractions. The law tries to exclude overt amusement park-type of activities, such as roller coasters and water parks. The Forest Service says it wants to avoid “kitsch.” But what constitutes kitsch is still to be defined.
If I were a young person in Vail, Steamboat or Telluride, I’d also be questioning the premise of an industry dependent upon cheap fossil fuels in a world likely to face carbon constraints. Even Aspen, which is at the forefront of taking climate action, remains deeply glued to profligate use of energy, most of it derived from carbon.
In the 1870s and 1880s, millionaires like Horace Tabor and the first Colorado governor, John Routt, were being minted monthly in Leadville as the silver economy boomed. That same boom gave Aspen the first electrified streetlights west of the Mississippi River by 1885. But by 1893 their economies had crashed. It took Aspen 50 years and a new career to get a fresh coat of paint. Past success is never automatic prelude to the future.
A somewhat different version of this column was published in The Denver Post on December 23.