Last summer the mountain looked like a benign Colorado version of Mount St. Helen's. Toppled trees were everywhere, their trunks scattered like Vulcan's own matchsticks over great slashes of raw dirt. There was no steam, no underground thunder, no acres of gray ash, but still the devastation seemed final, the damage irrevocable. Now a blanket of snow has fallen over the mountain and the transformation is miraculous. Summer's ravages have changed into winter's glories, and the harshly barbered mountainside of July has become a network of ski trails, beautifully groomed, gracefully sculpted. It's a place of authentic splendor: Beaver Creek, long awaited and often despaired of, North America's latest major ski resort—and, just possibly, its last.
The last resort? Forever? Well, there are plans for a few others, hopes for a few more—dreams. But there is no guarantee that there will be another laid out on the scale of Beaver Creek—a first-class "destination resort" (travel-agent jargon for a resort that offers lodging) to rival the country's best and biggest: Aspen, Vail, Sun Valley.
Of course, the saga of Beaver Creek has been climaxed by success: the area will open on Dec. 15 with 25 miles of trails and six chair lifts strung over some 450 acres of the rugged Rockies. But reaching this happy point involved such a long, painful, expensive, exhausting, frustrating process that sane men may well be discouraged from trying ever again to create something like Beaver Creek. Cal Conniff, executive director of the National Ski Areas Association, is paid to be optimistic about the future and fortunes of the ski business. Yet he says, "I'm not suggesting that it's flat-out impossible to develop another major destination ski resort. It's not, but there are obstacles now that tend to scare away investment capital. It's a cumbersome process, full of roadblocks and inherent risks, and terribly slow. From the first conception of a new area it will take five years at least before you can even start the first lift running. The process tends to tie up a lot of money. And the cost of a full-blown destination ski resort is at a minimum $100 million, which means that only large corporations can afford to get involved. Individuals simply don't have that kind of money. Besides, a ski area is a long-term investment. You have to figure that you'll be in operation five years before you begin to get a true return on your money."
So it seems we've reached the end of an era in skiing; no longer can we look forward to the opening of new, better and bigger ski areas, at least certainly not at the frenetic pace that has typified new development over the past three or four decades. Even now, Beaver Creek itself is nowhere near completion. What will open for the 1980-81 season is a $30 million fraction of the entire project, including a mountain full of lifts and trails, an architecturally superb "grandiose rustic"-style restaurant at the 10,208-foot level and a 177-car parking garage at the foot. Period. This year there will be nothing else at Beaver Creek—not so much as a single bed to sleep in.
December 15, 1980
An estimated $500 million will be spent over the next few years—no one knows how many—to produce an 80-acre village with restaurants, shops, bars and taverns, plus 6,000 beds in hotel rooms and condominiums. In addition to the village, there will be 245 homesites (original price from $250,000 to $450,000; now as much as $600,000) tucked in among the trees, streams and beavers and along an 18-hole, par-70 Robert Trent Jones Jr. golf course. The homes are expected to be enormously expensive, at least $1 million each, and will be built by such insatiable devotees of retirement recreation as former President Jerry Ford, who bought the first lot at Beaver Creek, valued at $300,000, to add to the luxurious spread he already owns in Palm Springs.
Brian Rapp, 38, an ex-Yale quarterback, has zigged and zagged through a variety of careers since he engineered the 1964 defeat of Harvard—Presidential Executive Interchange Fellow at the State Department, assistant county executive of Santa Clara County, Calif. and, most recently, president of the Beaver Creek Resort Company. "To live here is something few people will be able to afford," Rapp says. "We expect it to be in the class of Pebble Beach, Sea Pines, Aspen—even St. Moritz or Zermatt. This will be a planned community, rigidly and carefully designed, a true new town, in its way. But it isn't going to be Columbia, Maryland. We are planning to make Beaver Creek better than the best."
Beaver Creek village will be located 10 miles west of Vail and 110 miles west of Denver, in a valley two miles from Interstate 70. In all, there will be 4,901 acres devoted to skiing, golf, the village and homesites; 2,126 of those acres will be privately held, and 2,775 others, which are federally owned, will be used under permit from the U.S. Forest Service. The sugar daddy for the whole $500 million shebang is Vail Associates, which, of course, owns the Vail ski area. But Vail Associates isn't generating that kind of money from skiing. About 80% of the firm's stock is owned by one Harry Bass, whose family fortune springs from the vast resources of the Goliad Oil Company of Texas. The Bass family has been in skiing for years—Harry's brother, Dick, underwrote the building of Snowbird in Utah in 1972—even though it certainly isn't the kind of investment hard-headed businessmen ordinarily seek out. Vail Associates has had quite a few millions tied up in Beaver Creek, but until next week, when the first trickle of skiers arrive to enjoy the resort's "preview season," Beaver Creek won't have generated a dime of income.
"For four years, Vail Associates has been pouring money into the development of the mountain, and there has been no cash coming in at all," says Rapp. "This is one reason people aren't being facetious when they talk about this as being the 'last resort.' Money men are reluctant to get involved in skiing because there's more risk than ever involving more money than ever. The downside is steeper than it's been before."
It wasn't always this way. Once upon a time, risk in the ski-resort business referred to possible broken legs among guests, and downsides—the steeper the better—were covered with snow. That wasn't very long ago, but then, nothing is really very long ago in the story of ski resorts. Indeed, as recently as 1930 there was no organized skiing in the entire U.S., not a rope tow, not a stumpless hillside, not a single tanned, handsome, grinning Austrian expatriate to utter that favorite phrase of ski instructors, "Bend zee knees; two dollars pleez."
In Europe, the Alps had drawn winter vacationers from England since the late 19th century, but few were skiers. Most were upper-class "toffs" who skated in top hats and played hockey in shirts and ties. It wasn't until the early 1900s that "plank-hoppers" or "skeesters," as they were rather contemptuously called, were commonly seen at the better European winter resorts. Sir Arnold Lunn, founder of the famed Kandahar slaloms and an early British disciple of skiing for fun, described the sport as he found it in 1898 at the French resort of Chamonix: "About four or five Englishmen at Chamonix skied, but I cannot remember seeing any of the locals do so, with the exception of our instructor, who regarded his skis with obvious distaste and terror. He slid down a gradual slope, leaning on his stick and breathing heavily, while we gasped our admiration for his courage. Somebody asked him whether it was possible to turn. He replied in the negative, but added that a long gradual turn was just possible if one dragged oneself round on the pole. He claimed to have seen an expert perform this difficult maneuver but modestly added that he was unable to demonstrate it himself."
Perhaps the single most influential force in producing the ski boom was the invention of a method for moving skiers up hills without climbing. A few Alpine areas were ahead of the game: Davos with its Parsenn railway (completed in 1933), Zermatt with its groaning old ratchet train nicknamed Grannie (1890) and Wengen with its Jungfraujochbahn (1912). These uphill-transportation systems were all built for use by summer visitors, but later proved useful for hauling winter vacationers, too. Thus these lucky towns became the first "in"—or, rather, "up"—ski resorts.
But it wasn't until 1932 that skiing's true revolutionary genius appeared. He was a Swiss engineer and weekend skier named Gerhard Müller, who also happened to be the owner of an old motorcycle. Müller invented and patented the world's first rope tow. It consisted of a length of one-inch hemp rope and parts from his motorcycle, geared and connected in such a way that a skier gripping the rope would be dragged uphill by the snarling motorcycle engine. The process was slightly less painful and a lot more frightening than climbing under one's own power. Nonetheless, Müller's invention was a success, and mountains and ski resorts have never been the same since.
In the U.S., the great-great-grand-daddy of Beaver Creek was born in 1934 at Woodstock, Vt. It was created by the unlikely combination of a former Dartmouth ski-team captain (colleges in northern climes had had such teams since 1909), the owner of a hostelry called the White Cupboard Inn, and a sawmill mechanic. They arranged to pay $10 to a farmer named Clinton Gilbert to rent a steep section of sheep pasture for the winter of '34. The place was called Gilbert's Hill and as John Jay wrote in his book Ski Down the Years, "Gilbert's Hill became the Kitty Hawk of the American ski scene."
The rope tow on Gilbert's Hill was an Erector Set arrangement of grooved wheels, wooden supports and thick ropes, all powered by a sturdy Model T motor that drove a tire-less rear wheel. The tow on Gilbert's Hill offered a 500-foot uphill pull that resulted in increasingly intense pain and fatigue the closer one got to the top. Use of the tow cost $1 a day and allowed the skier perhaps 10 times more downhill runs than he would've been able to make had he had to climb the slope unassisted.
Tows soon appeared everywhere—from Mount Rainier in Washington to Mount Mansfield in Vermont, from Norfolk, Conn. (where snow trains brought passengers the 140 miles from New York City at $2 a head, round trip) to Wilmot Hills, Wis., where a man named Walt Stopa put in no fewer than 11 rope tows, creating the then-famed "Alps of Chicago," which had a nice suburban vertical drop of 198 feet.
But all of this was primitive stuff, only the dimmest rumblings of the American ski-resort boom. It was, writes Jay, "a time when everyone yodeled and smelled like a tossed salad (pure olive oil was the thing for a tan)," a time when skiers rented beds in drafty New England farmhouses, where they slept "stacked like layer cakes in four-decker bunks...and lined up for everything from the bathtub to the rope tows."
The first American ski resort worthy of the name was built in 1936 on a sweep of sheep-ranching land at the foot of Idaho's magnificent Sawtooth Mountain Range by the Union Pacific Railroad, then headed by W. Averell Harriman. The name of the resort was Sun Valley, and its original reason for existence was to create a destination in the West to lure passengers onto the railroad. The Lodge at Sun Valley was as luxurious as any resort hotel in the world—equipped with a glass-walled, heated outdoor swimming pool and a dining room where the strains of Eddie Duchin's orchestra sounded nightly. The skiing was terrific and the slopes boasted the world's first chair lift, which was patterned after a banana-loading device used on docks in the tropics. But none of these attractions was as important to the success of Sun Valley as the mind of a public-relations genius named Steve Hannegan. His most notable previous coup was publicizing a bleak stretch of sand in Florida, which became a thriving settlement of waterfront homes called Miami Beach. A devout cold-weather hater, Hannegan denounced Sun Valley at first sight as "a godforsaken field of snow." He then went to work to make it seem to be something quite different. First he persuaded Harriman to name the place Sun Valley. Hannegan then created a famous poster that showed a young man skiing in the sun while stripped to the waist. He also arranged for Hollywood to discover the resort. Mountain scenes for She Met Him in Paris, starring Claudette Colbert, were filmed in Sun Valley, and from the moment it opened, the Lodge glittered with celebrities, including such high-voltage luminaries as Tyrone Power, Clark Gable and Gary Cooper.
Nothing quite like Sun Valley ever happened again, but the publicity that Hannegan generated for it spilled over everything that had to do with skiing. The sport suddenly took on a glamour that Model T-driven rope tows on farmers' hills simply couldn't give it. Although World War II forestalled the boom, no sooner was the war over than the ski business began to grow into a national industry. The postwar growth was nourished by 1) a vast supply of army surplus equipment, which gave thousands of people an opportunity to buy inexpensive skis, boots and bindings, and 2) a cadre of enthusiastic young civilian entrepreneurs recently mustered out of the elite 10th Mountain Division, America's only unit of ski troopers. They spearheaded the opening of some of the country's grandest resorts, including Vail, Jackson Hole and Aspen.
The power behind Aspen, Colorado's premier ski resort, was a 10th Mountain man named Friedl Pfeifer. With the money of an enlightened Chicago industrialist named Walter Paepcke as backing, Pfeifer & Co. built the "world's longest ski lift," a then-startling 13,800 feet in length, with a vertical drop of 3,295 feet. The lift opened for business in January 1947—and business immediately went from bad to worse. First the Rio Grande Railroad shut down the town's connection with the main line, a disaster for Aspen, which is even more remote than Sun Valley. Worse, the skiing proved far too dangerous to attract average skiers. Not only was the mountain breathtakingly steep, but another unnerving hazard was the mine shafts that appeared suddenly before unwary skiers and threatened to send them tumbling several hundred feet down a hole. The town of Aspen had once had a thriving population of 12,000 and an annual production of $15 million worth of silver from its mines, but by the time the world's longest ski lift opened, the place had only a few hundred residents. And there was no Steve Hannegan to promote it. But in 1950 Aspen attracted the Fèdèration Internationale de Ski world championships, and that same year Paepcke brought such superstar intellectuals as Dr. Albert Schweitzer, Thornton Wilder and Josè Ortega y Gasset to Aspen for the Goethe Bicentennial Celebration. These things put Aspen on the map, and the ski boom in Colorado at last began in earnest.
The 1950s saw new resorts in every part of the U.S., and the early '60s produced an all-out explosion in skiing. From 1960 to 1965, a total of 386 new areas opened, among them some of the nation's finest: Crested Butte, Steamboat Springs, Vail. Where previously there had been nothing but rocks and eagles and avalanches, there were now lift lines and fast-food cafeterias and people parading in new stretch pants. Ski-industry income ballooned from an estimated $125 million in 1960 to $750 million in 1970 and $3.5 billion in 1980. Downhill skiers increased at the rate of 15.4% a year in the 1960s, from a doughty handful of 2.1 million in '60 to 6.5 million in '70 and 15 million in '80. The proliferation of new areas continued at the stunning rate of more than 30 per annum well into the '70s. In 1972, a vintage year, 35 areas opened, including three superb major-league resorts—Copper Mountain in the Rockies, just 1½ hours out of Denver; Telluride in the San Juan Mountains in the southeast corner of Colorado; and Snowbird in the powder-packed Wasatch Mountains, 45 minutes from Salt Lake City.
But after 1972 the boom slacked off, the beginning of the end had occurred. The last truly major area—Mary Jane, 70 miles west of Denver—opened in 1975. Between 1973 and 1980 an average of only eight new areas have started up in the U.S. each year. This season there are but three. Beaver Creek is one—the one, really. The other two are comparative anthills: Ski Starlite in southern Indiana not far from that well-known winter-sports paradise, Lewisburg, Ky., and Ski Scaley in western North Carolina.
Now people in the ski business are quick—very quick—to say that growth in their industry hasn't been completely snowed under. They claim that the number of skiers and ski dollars continues to increase at a rate of close to 10% a year. But the pattern of prosperity hasn't been uninterrupted. There have been some killing seasons indeed.
There were a few bizarre winters in the '70s that left either the East or the West or both lacking the one commodity without which there is no point for a skier to get up in the morning—snow. During these years of brown disaster, ski-area operators prayed, complained,' tried to get along exclusively on expensive man-made snow, filed for bankruptcy, changed their religion and prayed some more. In the season of 1976-77, the worst of these winter droughts, almost no snow fell in either the East or the West until March. Sun Valley had to hold the World Cup ski races on an entire run of man-made snow. Most areas shut down weeks before they ordinarily would have, and ski-area industry profits fell 20% between 1975 and 1977.
Then, in the winter of 1977-78, the U.S. was blessed with blizzards, and ski areas racked up their highest average profits ever. As the Ski Areas Association's Conniff says, "The ski business is just as vulnerable and volatile as agriculture. We are totally dependent on the weather—over which we have no control at all. You never know. The vintage year it was perfect from Maine to Oregon, but last season it was excellent in some areas in the West, a disaster in some in the East. It's totally unpredictable."
But it isn't just the weather that lends a boom-or-bust air to the ski business. The industry is also a potential victim of the energy crisis. In 1974, a massive shortage of gasoline resulted in long lines at service stations and short lines at ski lifts, particularly at those belonging to the more remote resorts. "What happens in the Middle East is critical to our industry," says Conniff. "A gasoline shortage could practically snuff us out. Skiers rely on the automobile. There's no mass transit to most resorts. I think that if there's a supply of gasoline—no matter what the cost—skiers will go skiing. But if the time comes when there's no gas, we're in big trouble."
So there the business dangles, caught between the two most unpredictable and uncontrollable forces in the world: the weather and Middle East politics.
Still, the riskiness of it all isn't the main reason that we have come to a relatively static period in the growth of ski resorts. The primary problem is one of money and time. About the money: to create a ski mountain, be it on the scale of Sun Valley or Ski Starlite, the costs are astronomical. Jim Branch, a ski-area design consultant and president of Sno-Engineering in Franconia, N.H., estimates that it costs $3,500 per acre to prepare a new trail (Beaver Creek has 450 acres in trails for its premier season). Branch says you cannot install a new lift line for less than $100 per linear foot (Beaver Creek has 26,287 linear feet of lifts), and he guesses that the installation of a trustworthy snowmaking system will run from $10,000 to $20,000 an acre.
About money and time: millions will be tied up for years before an area earns a dime of ski revenue. From the moment the land is purchased until the first skier buys a lift ticket, half a dozen violent economic cycles might occur—from high interest rates to low, from massive inflation to modest and back to massive, from recession to boom. And during all that, the money invested in a ski mountain is doing about as much good as if it were stuck in a mattress. It's not a situation that your average gimlet-eyed banker is eager to involve himself with. Beaver Creek went through years of all this and, amazingly, succeeded anyway.
Bob Parker, the senior vice-president of Vail Associates, is a lanky, bearded man who was in the 10th Mountain Division and, along with Pete Seibert, another 10th Mountain man, was for all practical purposes the creator of the Vail ski area. Seibert is no longer at Vail, having departed four years ago after a series of management disagreements; he now runs a small operation in Utah called Snow Basin. Parker remains at Vail, and most observers give him the credit for having wrought the success of Beaver Creek. Parker's expertise lies in public relations and marketing, not technical mountain-making, which was Seibert's specialty, and therein lies the truth of how one must proceed in creating a ski resort these days: the science of persuasion—not engineering and finance—is the essence of the game.
Before selecting the site at Vail, which opened in 1962, Seibert and his cohorts had searched the mountains from Canada to Mexico for several years, looking for a suitable place to build a dream ski area. As Parker puts it, "Damned few mountains in the Rockies have skiable terrain and developable real estate at the bottom. Vail did. But so did Beaver Creek, and Pete liked it better."
Unfortunately, at the time key sections of Beaver Creek were the property of a crusty old rancher named Willis Nottingham, who didn't want to sell. Seibert and Parker developed Vail instead, but Seibert began an annual ritual with old man Nottingham that went on for 10 years. The two of them would share a bottle of whiskey every Christmastime, on which occasions Seibert would casually bring up the subject of buying Nottingham's land. Finally, in 1970, Nottingham said, "All right, I'm older and I've got arthritis and it's tough to get around. I'd like to leave the mountains. If I can find me another ranch, I'll talk about Beaver Creek." In the summer of 1971 Seibert found some property in another section of Colorado and persuaded Nottingham that it was made for him, and the deal was concluded.
It was at this point that the ill-fated drive to bring the 1976 Winter Olympics to Colorado began gathering steam. In the winter of 1972 the Colorado organizing committee came to Vail Associates to discuss using Vail as the site for the Olympic Alpine events, but Vail Associates sold the committee on using the still-virginal Beaver Creek instead.
However, around that time a new political force came to the fore in Colorado—an angry and idealistic crowd of environmentalists. They began the move against holding the Olympics in the Rockies. The crusade was led by a state legislator named Richard Lamm, who rode his white charger into the Colorado governorship in 1974. On the way, Lamm and an increasingly concerned public overturned the Olympic project with a referendum vote in November 1972. The battle was bitter and even now there are angry echoes of those days of conflict.
"Lamm and his people managed to create the impression that there would be negative environmental impact at Beaver Creek and other venues," Parker says. "That and their claim that the Olympics would cost too much are what beat the Games. However, I like to make the point these days—eight years after Lamm and his group shot the Olympics down—that all the environment impacts they projected as likely to happen because of the Games have happened anyway. There was a very carefully conceived land-use plan that would have gone into effect as a protective measure if the Olympics had been held here. When the Olympics were rejected, that plan was automatically out. And no similar plan has been enacted in its place; in fact, there has been no meaningful environmental legislation passed in Colorado since then. It's a small point I like to repeat whenever I can."
Governor Lamm, a Democrat, replies that there has been less pressure for this kind of legislation in recent years and also that both houses of the Colorado legislature have been controlled by the Republicans for the entire 1970s with the exception of 1975-76, and have been relentlessly hostile to such ideas.
The November '72 nay vote on the Olympics threw the Beaver Creek plan into a cocked hat, but Vail Associates still wanted to develop the new area. "The market was growing. We had to expand, to grow as a corporation," Parker says. "The defeat of the Olympics changed our timetable, but we needed a new profit center. And the public needed more ski capacity."
At this point, the Forest Service had completed an environmental-impact study on the Upper Eagle Valley, in which Beaver Creek is located. Even though the Forest Service's research uncovered ho serious environmental dangers in the developing of Beaver Creek, public pressure required a specific study of the area, a much more probing analysis of the ski resort site, which Vail Associates produced for the Forest Service.
That study was finished in the fall of 1973, a year after the Olympic referendum, and an official Forest Service chronology of events leading to the authorization for the Beaver Creek project makes it sound as if things were going swimmingly:
"November 1973—Eagle County Commissioners approved master plan which recommends development of recreation resources in the Avon-Beaver Creek region.... January 1974—Forest Service filed draft environmental statement which included Beaver Creek Management Unit to be utilized as winter sports site.... February 1974—Eagle County conditionally approved Vail Associates Inc.'s planned unit development for Beaver Creek.... August 1974—Forest Service filed final environmental statement with the Council of Environmental Quality.... December 1974—Colorado Land Use Commission held a two-day public meeting to review concerns raised by state agencies about development of Beaver Creek.... January 1975—Land Use Commission recommended to the governor that Beaver Creek be designated a winter sports site.... Jan. 14, 1975—Governor of Colorado Vanderhoof concurred with recommendation of Land Use Commission and recommended same to Regional Forester...."
Ah, yes, swimmingly indeed. But then Richard Lamm was sworn in as governor on Jan. 15, 1975, and almost his first act was to file an objection to the approval his predecessor had given Beaver Creek. "It is very clear that this is a lame duck type of action, precipitously done," said Lamm. Ten days later the U.S. Regional Forester for the area approved Beaver Creek's designation as a winter sports site, and Lamm countered by asking for a review of that decision. Two weeks later, on Feb. 11, 1975, the Sierra Club also requested a review.
Lamm points out that the bitterness and intensity of the opposition to Beaver Creek was based to some extent on conditions unique to the time. "We needed some rational way to deal with some 100 applications for ski areas that were pending at that time, some systematic way of having state input," he says. "In recent years, the economic climate has changed and most of those requests to build new areas have withered away."
But in 1975 the future of Beaver Creek was very much in doubt. There were arguments over virtually every aspect of the development: water supply, population density, air quality. Not until March 1976 was the area granted the essential Forest Service special-use permit, and even then some environmentalists were angered that it was given. The Environmental Defense Fund sharply criticized the Forest Service for not preparing a statement on a broader geographical basis that would have included Beaver Creek's environmental impact on the entire Upper Eagle Valley—an area that had been scarred with an unsightly sprawl of condominium town houses and apartments in recent years. The environmentalists were also very concerned because the ski area bordered on the proposed Holy Cross Wilderness Area, and they wanted a study on what the impact might be on wildlife there.
The battle was joined, but instead of attacking with anger and vindictiveness, Parker and Vail Associates embarked on an enlightened strategy of patience and forbearance. It was a time-consuming and costly approach that, despite its success, is fraught with discouraging echoes for future Beaver Creeks.
Says Parker: "Quite simply, rather than fighting or habitually refuting the environmentalists' concerns, we made a concerted effort to demonstrate either that the negative impacts they predicted would not—could not—happen, or we came up with mitigations that corrected anything they felt would go wrong. Instead of bitching back and forth, letting our emotions guide us, we tried to answer their concerns reasonably. To do that, we had to have the facts."
Vail Associates had earlier hired the Rocky Mountain Center on Environment (ROMCOE) to produce some of the most detailed impact studies ever done. "We wanted to anticipate the environmental opposition, and the ROMCOE study gave us all the basic building blocks for understanding the ecology of the area," says Parker. "Then, for example, when the environmentalists came along and said, 'You're going to ruin the range for the elk herds,' we'd say, 'No, we're not,' and we had a precise and accurate statistical basis for saying so."
The impact study for Beaver Creek is a masterpiece of its type. It included voluminous information on how the ski resort would affect everything from bird migration to soil erosion, from the mating habits of elk to the preservation of some decrepit old pioneer cabins. It examined the effect of the ski area on water flow volumes in Beaver Creek and the Eagle River, on the life of fish and pollywogs and beavers there. It went so far as to measure the amount of air pollution that might be caused by smoke from fireplaces. The ROMCOE findings resulted in Vail Associates' promising that there would be a local ordinance requiring residents to snuff out their fireplace fires if smoke levels reached a point of irritation. Depending on air quality, Beaver Creek could be limited to as few as 1,000 fireplaces. The survey examined the possible impact of loose dogs on the elk, and Vail Associates proposed to implement strong leash laws—or, if that wasn't enough, to prohibit dogs from the place.
"We designed our surveys to avoid confrontation," says Parker. "And we thought up our own standards sometimes if we didn't think the environmentalists were tough enough. We wanted to head off all litigation; we wanted everyone as satisfied as possible. In the long run, we left them no substantial issues to pin an appeal on."
It cost a lot of money—the surveys, legal fees, engineering studies and analyses involving everything from transportation routes on the mountain to the visual impact of the ski area as seen from Interstate 70, the superhighway at the foot of Beaver Creek Valley. Vail Associates spent $7,250,000 before any construction work began on the mountain.
It was probably worth it, because even opponents of the project now feel pretty good about how things worked out. Clif Merritt, executive director of the American Wilderness Alliance, says, "We're basically happy with what we got, and Vail Associates has been quite sensitive over the years to wilderness and environmental values."
"I think this is one of the best resorts in the world from an environmental standpoint," says Governor Lamm. "I'm disappointed they went back on the transportation plan we'd agreed on, but I understand the reasons." (The governor refers to the fact that in June 1977, after having gotten approval for Beaver Creek, Vail Associates summarily announced that, rather than entirely banning the use of private automobiles as had been proposed, it would permit the people who rented or owned property in the village to enter with their cars—a change which Lamm at that time defined as a breach of contract. "We never planned to ban all vehicles," says Parker.)
By the time the Beaver Creek groundbreaking ceremony was held in July 1977, five years had passed since Vail Associates acquired the land. The construction of the first road up the mountain was to be completed the following summer, but it still wasn't clear skiing. Each additional step of the construction had to be preceded by another round of hearings and approvals by various federal, state, county and local agencies. In all, Beaver Creek had to receive 52 separate official stamps of approval. Some ski trails were finally cut in the summer and fall of 1979, and in the winter of 1980 the mountain was available via snowcats and trucks to a handful of VIP skiers. In April 1980 the first chair-lift tower was put up; all last summer the mountain was alive with the construction of everything from ski trails to sewage facilities.
Dean Kerkling, the man in charge of designing Beaver Creek's trails, has used computerized projection drawings that display topographical characteristics and tree density to lay out the ski runs. "We're trying to fine-tune our design," says Kerkling. "Trails used to be laid out like stripes on a mountainside, harsh straight lines. Skiability was the first order of business; visual esthetics were beside the point. We're trying to break up the harshness, to soften the effects of our trails. We're leaving islands of trees in the middle of some. We've selected individually the trees we want to keep and those we'll drop. If we see a particularly beautiful aspen, we'll tie it with a ribbon, which means it has to be saved. We've even tied chicken wire around the base of some particularly good trees to save them from the beavers."
Beaver Creek will have an uncommon amount of glade skiing, which is the best kind available. As an unusual bonus for non-tree-skiing novices, the top of the mountain, with its stunning view of the Gore Mountain Range, will be given over almost totally to beginners' slopes. Kerkling says that the mountain—which he refers to as "the product"—will be laid out so that roughly 30% of the slopes will be intermediate in difficulty, with the remaining 70% about evenly split between beginner and expert runs. "This is the best mix from a marketing standpoint," he explains.
The mix and the market of "the product" will be only mildly tested this winter, because the number of skiers will be limited to 3,300 a day. But still the mountain, which has a vertical drop of 3,340 feet, will at last be available to those skiers who are excited by the idea of trying the first major resort to open in five years—and possibly the last for some time to come. The trail names are unfamiliar, but they may soon become part of the sport's lore—classics that every skier will want to challenge at least once. The steepest are named after birds of prey—Golden Eagle, Goshawk and Peregrine, which is among the steepest and longest runs extant. The run called Centennial is a certified F.I.S. downhill course and, when not set for a race, is a good intermediate trail. The names of it and the other middling trails are of historical or Western origin. There are also historical names for those beginners' runs at the top—Mystic Island, Booth Gardens, Sheephorn.
It has been a long, long time coming, but finally Beaver Creek is with us; it will be around for a much longer time than it took to get it started. All in all, it was probably worth the wait.