Skiers celebrate Vail's 25th year. Memories of a new gondola, two double chairlifts, a beginner cable tow, and $5 lift tickets

Vail had been open only two weeks when I first looked up at those rolling mountains in Colorado's awesome Gore Range 25 years ago. When I think of what's happened since, I'm astonished at the prevailing image in memory: wilderness and a Conoco service station next to US 6. Snowfall had been meager in the Rockies during Vail's first Christmas in 1962 - a fact that seems to be missing in all the hoopla surrounding this silver anniversary season of America's most-visited ski resort (1.3 million skier visits last winter).

I was returning from covering the first World Professional Ski Championships at Aspen, which had been struggling for snow; and I wanted to see this newborn dream of a mountain at the foot of Vail Pass. Long before a tree had been cut, skiers were talking about the glorious skiing about to become accessible.

But it was late when I pulled into that Conoco station, looked up, and wondered how anybody was supposed to find the US ski team training somewhere in that vast alpine forest. When I finally reached then head coach Bob Beattie on the phone, I don't recall what he told me about the team. But I do remember he said the skiing was great!

That first year, Vail had a new gondola, two double chairlifts, a beginner cable tow, and $5 lift tickets. Even then there were 876 acres of skiing, which made it one of the three largest US ski areas from the start.

It was hardly a decade before the resort stretched 10 miles, end to end. Today, you arrive via Interstate 70, not US 6. Long before the exit you are flanked by endless rows of frankly rather ugly condos. The neo-Bavarian Vail Village and environs now have a permanent population of 5,000, and enough lodging to accommodate 30,000 visitors.

Many flock into countless shops and 80 restaurants and bars daily, even before 19 lifts stop channeling people onto Vail's 1,890 acres of skiing, 320 of them with computer-controlled snowmaking. Oh yes, and a one-day lift ticket now costs $32 ($27 when bought in Colorado supermarkets).

In a way, Vail became the ultimate realization of a dream held by many World War II veterans of the 10th Mountain Division. They had trained in these pristine mountains before going on to fight on craggy Italian peaks. To develop a mountain specifically for skiing was a common dream among these mountain men. It was almost inevitable that one of them, Peter Seibert, put it all together, so to speak, and, with other 10th Mountain veterans like Bob Parker and Bill (Sarge) Brown, came up with Vail.

Vail, has its easier terrain on top so that novices can see that spectacular skyline. With its vast and steep Back Bowls of powder, and its location only a couple of hours west of Denver, yet smack dab in the gorgeous Rockies, Vail was almost destined to become an American ``ski city,'' built from scratch.

The Vail faithful have been summoned from far and near for this ``Silver Season.'' During the week-long Silver Anniversary celebration in December, when golf great Jack Nicklaus lighted two Christmas trees, I wonder how many celebrants were recalling some of Vail's major benchmarks.

There was the resort's second gondola at Lions Head, west of Vail Village, in 1969. The sprawl of the 1970s prompted master plans, a pedestrian mall, bus service (now the second largest in the state), and a $5 million transportation center, not to mention parking garages. The tragic gondola accident in 1976 that killed four people changed the lift system a bit but didn't slow down the crowds. Huge overflows at holiday periods led to illuminated ``scoreboards'' that could signal hour-long waits at some lifts.

With sometimes 20,000 skiers on the mountain, Vail was becoming known as ``Zoo City.'' But in 1985, new high-speed, detachable, four-seat chairlifts had a tremendous impact. Suddenly you could ride from Vail Village to Mid Vail in the bubble-enclosed Vista Bahn Express in nine minutes, and possibly to the summit in 15, a vertical rise of 3,100 feet. Now, with four high-speed express quad chairs, plus this season's new Cascade quad chairlift, Vail's lift line waits have been considerably reduced, while uphill capacity has increased to 30,600 an hour. Other resorts have rushed to follow Vail's lead and install the detachable quads.

In the 1970s, there was the building of Vail's exclusive sister resort, nearby Beaver Creek. And now there is Vail's planned expansion into huge neighboring powder bowls, as well as development of a new ski area, Arrowhead, which could link with Beaver Creek. In sheer mass, this could become the biggest ski complex in this hemisphere, with more than a 4,000-foot vertical drop.

And finally, the first World Skiing Championships to be held in North America are scheduled here next year.

Not a bad record for only a quarter-century. But what I remember most fondly about Vail is undoubtedly similar to what keeps bringing everybody else back. And that's frolicking in a foot of fresh powder on a blue-sky day like the one my wife and I enjoyed with a friend last season. We went from lift to lift, trail to trail, hardly hitting any run twice. Everything was so great that even losing $50 and some traveler's checks at the crowded Mid Vail restaurant, which has now been expanded, didn't cast a shadow over the sunny memories.

Sure, Vail's crowds, glitzy hotels, and restaurants of nearly every ethnicity are well known. But skiers also know that if there's snow on the Front Range, Vail offers some of the best skiing in the world - whether it's cruising down Born Free or challenging the deep in the Back Bowls or the steeps on Prima.

Still to come in celebrating the Silver Anniversary season are the American Ski Classic and men's World Cup on Beaver Creek's new downhill course (March 5-13), and the Great Race of ski instructors (April 3).

As for prices, you don't go to Vail to save money. But if you'd like someone to take your skis at the door, consider a three-night, four-day package at the Lodge at Vail (available now through Feb. 13 and April 4-17). It includes skiing, buffet breakfasts, transfers from Avon airport, and a complimentary ski tuneup for $499 per person, double occupancy.

Practical information

For more information write Vail/Beaver Creek Resort, PO Box 7, Vail, CO 81658, or call (303) 476-5601.

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