Making Tracks

A History of Skiing in Colorado, by Abbott Fay

Abbott Fay thinks skiers lamenting this year's late and scant snowfall ought to quit bellyaching. Farmers and ranchers throughout the West already know that drought is a cyclical occurrence, after all. Fay, a semi-retired Grand Junction history professor who has written the entertaining A History of Skiing in Colorado, knows nearly everything there is to know about the rise of recreational skiing in the state. He says the folks who run the ski areas can't seem to remove their rose-colored glasses when it comes to the obvious rudiments of Colorado weather. "Now the ski areas are agonizing over it, as if this is the worst year ever," Fay says with the wisdom of experience. "Unfortunately, the ski areas haven't gotten the idea that there are going to be some bad years."

And that kind of sniveling hardly befits a rugged pastime so rooted in practicality: Colorado's earliest skiers, Fay notes, were mountain men -- trappers and guides who strapped on their hand-carved boards in the dead of harsh high-country winters as a matter of life and death. Then came another breed of working men on skis, whose efforts really gave way to modern-day sport skiing. "The real heroes were the mail carriers who went from town to town, carrying mail on their backs year round," he says. "Some were quite heroic -- several were lost in avalanches. The next group were the men who strung telephone lines. Then there were also the cowboys on skis, who'd ski to look for calves in the brush, especially up in the Steamboat area. And the doctors who went out from some of these mountain towns sometimes traveled for miles. That was when doctors really put in some house calls."

As civilization overtook the Rockies in the late nineteenth century, regular folks drawn to Colorado by the mining boom seized a cue from Nordic culture, forming ski clubs and associations that would eventually give way to formal teams, partly due to the efforts of people such as Carl Howelsen, a Norwegian stonemason and ski jumper who at one time flew down a water chute on soaped skis for P.T. Barnum's circus. Attracted by the mountains, Howelsen came to Denver in the early 1900s, bringing his daredevilish enthusiasms with him on jaunts north to Hot Sulphur Springs and Steamboat Springs. "I'd credit Carl Howelsen with touching off the idea of skiing for fun in Colorado," Fay says. "In Hot Sulphur Springs, he got everybody in town on skis. Then he went to Steamboat and did the same thing."

Ski-sons greetings: A mail carrier near Ouray in 1912.
Ski-sons greetings: A mail carrier near Ouray in 1912.

Although Howelsen organized Colorado's first winter carnival in Hot Sulphur in 1912, winter sports still existed in the state only on a grassroots level. "Sport skiing was only popular with the fanatics until World War II," Fay explains. "But it was the Tenth Mountain Division training camp in Leadville that made the difference. That was the turning point." A unique unit that included some of Europe's best skiers and mountaineers who became U.S. citizens in order to serve, the Tenth was responsible for letting Colorado's cat out of the bag. "They all came here and discovered what good, dry powder snow we have."

Combat in Italy nearly decimated the unit, but enough members remained -- and returned -- to make a difference in Colorado's recreational future. "The list of people connected to the big resorts who were also in Tenth Division reads like a who's who," Fay says. That roster includes such early resort pioneers as Aspen developer Freidl Pfeifer, Snowmass designer Fritz Benedict, Vail founder Peter Seibert, first Colorado Ski Country USA director Steve Knowlton and Olympian Gordy Wren, who managed and taught at various ski areas in the Steamboat area. These men of the world sought to imitate the successes of such Western winter havens as Sun Valley, Idaho, but that accomplishment required more than luck or good intentions. "Maybe I sound cynical, but they spent as much money promoting those areas as they did building them," Fay says, summing it all up in this nutshell: "They spent more than the areas that didn't do well." Public relations, he indicates, are what essentially make or break a ski resort.

So in the end, A History of Skiing in Colorado goes places Fay never expected it to go. "The book became more of a corporate history than a ski history," he laments. "I don't predict anymore. I thought there would eventually be more family ski areas and that the major resorts had reached their capacity, but I found out I was completely wrong. For the most part, the resorts consolidated. I thought we wouldn't have such an affluence, that people couldn't keep going to expensive ski holidays, but instead, great prosperity occurred. The minor resorts couldn't get the publicity the major ones got, even though a lot of them had excellent skiing."

Still, the book is a pleasant read chock-full of historical photographs and little-known facts that'll get you pining for virgin tracks, snowflake sweaters and stocking caps, along with an aprés-ski scene consisting of songs and beer around the fireplace. And in spite of his hesitancy to speculate, Fay thinks the corporate takeover of winter sports in Colorado has to level off sometime. "The best areas have pretty well been taken," he says. "The Forest Service will be reluctant to endorse too many more big developments or expansions such as the one Vail is building. And in the early stages, people didn't give ecology issues as much thought. I'm not going to stick my neck out, but I think we're just about there."

 
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