Earl Eaton: Last of the ski pioneers

Vail Trail, Aug. 2008

It’s an interesting thing about the ski industry that some of the people involved in the “beginning” are still around. Of course, we’re talking about the modern, lift-served ski industry, which took off after World War II and involved many members of the famed 10th Mountain Division. According to a quick Wikipedia hit, skiing in its earliest form may have existed up to 5,000 years ago, if we’re to correctly interpret rock drawings found in Norway.

One of the things to love about skiing is how the sport brings together such diverse types of people. You need guys who know how to monkey with lifts, others who know how to ski, people who can cook lunch and dinner, cat drivers, and on and on. In the early days, the men and women who got things going often did a little of everything. Some came from ski backgrounds, while others just knew a good mountain when they saw it.


Such was the case with Earl Eaton, who was the first to identify Vail as a nice spot for a ski hill. Eaton, who died in May at age 85, was always fun to talk to and decidedly modest about his contribution to the Vail legend. The last time I spoke with him about two years ago, we talked about getting together – possibly even up on the hill with him on his ski bike. I regret that our meeting never came about, because it’s always a lot of fun to talk about the early days of anything with someone who was there. Another Vail founder, Dick Hauserman, doesn’t spend much time around here anymore, but he’s great to talk to because he seems to remember the most minute details of Vail’s origins as if it were yesterday.

One of my favorite interviews of all time was one I did more than a decade ago with Max and Edna Dercum. As one of the founders of Arapahoe Basin, Max is the kind of guy who can tell you about how they modified an old mining contraption to make a chairlift. Edna, who was there for the whole ride (and who wrote a great book about the experience), sits there and corrects him when his recollections don’t jibe with hers. The two of them are a hoot, and they still live in the Keystone area, in the shadow of the mountain that today bears their name.

It’s hard to imagine what skiing was really like back then, but I had a taste of it as a kid learning to ski in Stowe, Vermont. I actually had leather boots and wooden skis and was hardened by what the skiing experience was back then in the East: blue ice, super-slow lifts, sub-zero temperatures and steep, narrow trails that scared the crap out of me. When I first skied Colorado in the early 1980s, I couldn’t believe it was the same sport. It just seemed so much kinder here.

There are plenty of mountains around here, but only some that make sense for ski areas. To Earl Eaton, we owe a debt of eternal gratitude for pointing out those famous back bowls to Pete Seibert all those years ago. This Saturday, Eaton’s life will be memorialized at the top of Vail Mountain – certainly a fitting place. Those interested in going should be at the Vista Bahn by 10:15 a.m. On the ride, try to imagine what the mountain looked like before 1962 – and how Eaton was able to visualize how it all might come together.

It was a heck of a vision, and one that was able to be fully realized on a grand scale.

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