Skip to main content
Original Issue

Skiers' Paradise How nature's magic and World War II turned Colorado into HEAVEN FOR DOWNHILLERS

It's the snow, stupid. ¶ Colorado ski marketers can rave all they
want about the state's 24 resorts, 2,062 trails and 296 lifts.
They can bust a gut bragging about Vail's 5,289 skiable acres,
Snowmass's 4,406-foot vertical drop and Arapahoe Basin's
13,050-foot elevation, all tops among North American resorts.
They can crow about Aspen's night owls and endless apres-ski
options, with nearly 100 restaurants and bars for the beautiful
folks. The bump runs at Telluride, the Head Wall at Crested
Butte, the Freeway Terrain Park on Peak 8 at Breckenridge--
fantabulous, one and all. Small wonder that in SKI magazine's
2003 survey of its readers' favorite mountains, Colorado had 11
of the top 20 resorts in North America. (Vail was No. 1,
Snowmass No. 4.) All one really has to do is count the sunburned
noses: Last season Colorado had 11.6 million skiers on its
slopes, almost as many as No. 2 California (7.4 million) and No.
3 Vermont (4.5 million) combined.

Still, beyond the numbers and mythology lies an honest-to-goodness secret why Colorado--not Utah, not Idaho, not Vermont--is
America's capital of winter skiing. The snow rocks. "We're
1,000 miles from the nearest ocean at altitudes ranging from
7,000 to 13,000 feet," says former Olympian Billy Kidd, the
director of skiing at Steamboat Springs, who grew up in Stowe,
Vt., but has lived in Colorado for more than 30 years. "The
combination of 300 sunny days a year and an average of 300
inches of light, fluffy powder makes Colorado a dream
environment for a skier. When I go to Europe and tell people
where I live, they can't believe I'd leave the Rocky Mountains,
which has the best powder skiing in the world."

The miracle behind the sublime conditions? A chemical process
called sublimation, nature's recipe for champagne powder. In the
high, dry, pine-scented Rocky Mountain air, what little moisture
is in the snow quickly evaporates, leaving flakes as fine as
diamond dust--more a gas than a solid--white parachutes of powder
that can be blown away like dandelion seeds. A faceful of it at
the bottom of a turn is the purest form of Colorado Rocky
Mountain high. It is the only snow in the world you can breathe.

And breathe it people do. World Cup racers (the first downhill of
the season was held last weekend at Beaver Creek), toddlers in
harnesses, halfpipe daredevils and arthritic baby boomers with
Vioxx in their veins all love it here. In 2002, between the Oct.
16 opening of the season and Dec. 31, Colorado attracted nearly
as many skiers (2.9 million) as neighboring Utah did the entire
season (3.0 million).

Recreational skiing didn't originate in Colorado, though people
have skied in the Rockies for well over a century. In the late
1800s miners used to strap on boards and race to town, turning by
means of a single pole dragged between their legs. Crested Butte
had a ski club as early as 1886, and a ski jump was built at
Howlesen Hill in 1914. But these were for local enthusiasts. No
one traveled to Colorado from out of state to ski.

The concept of a destination ski resort was introduced to America
by Averell Harriman, who in 1936 built Sun Valley, a grand
complex in Idaho, as a way to increase ticket sales on his Union
Pacific railway. Sun Valley was an instant success, and
entrepreneurs familiar with the mountains of Colorado began to
look for suitable locations near Denver. A ski trail was built on
Ajax Mountain, above the old silver-mining town of Aspen, in
1937, but the only lift servicing it was an eight-man "boat tow,"
which consisted of two counterbalanced sleds pulled by a hoist
from an abandoned mine.

America's entry into World War II suspended all talk of
ski-resort development, but in a twist of fate, the war led to
the skiing boom. Looking for a place to train troops for fighting
in the Alps, the Army selected Camp Hale, about 140 miles west of
Denver, as the base for its newly formed 10th Mountain Division.
That decision would change the face of American skiing.

The all-volunteer 10th Mountain Division was made up of troops
who had either been born and brought up in the mountains or been
recruited from the top ranks of the National Ski Association. All
were expert skiers, their skills further honed during maneuvers
in the snow-covered mountains around Camp Hale. In January 1945
they were called into action in Italy's Apennine Mountains and
later fought in the Italian Alps. Their heroism in driving the
Germans out of fortified positions in the Alps moved commanding
officer Major General George P. Hays, a World War I veteran and a
participant in D Day, to write, "The battles of the 10th Mountain
were as strongly contested and as bitter, and in many instances
more intense, than any I had experienced hitherto.... We
completely destroyed five divisions."

After the war many members of the 10th Mountain Division moved
back to Colorado, where they helped boost a fledgling
recreational ski industry. Friedl Pfeifer, a naturalized Austrian
who'd instructed the 10th Mountain troops at Camp Hale, teamed up
with Chicago industrialist Walter Paepacke to develop Aspen,
which opened on Jan. 11, 1947. It boasted the world's longest
chair lift, but Paepacke's vision was to make the town a cultural
destination too. Paepacke financed the Aspen Institute of
Humanistic Studies, and in 1949 he persuaded 74-year-old Albert
Schweitzer, a renowned theologian who would win the 1952 Nobel
Peace Prize, to make his first U.S. visit, to speak at the
institute during its celebration of the 200th birthday of German
writer Johann Goethe. Schweitzer's visit drew worldwide
attention, and suddenly Aspen was the second-most famous town in
Colorado, after Denver. The prestigious Federation Internationale
de Ski World Championships came to Aspen in 1950, cementing its
reputation as a ski venue.

Postwar skiers were unlike the ski pioneers. They wore flattering
stretch pants and demanded comforts and amenities--ski lifts,
chalets, fancy restaurants and bars. Filmmaker John Jay helped
glorify Aspen with a series of movies espousing the pleasures of
Colorado skiing that were shown at ski clubs in Chicago, Dallas
and Atlanta. Suddenly the mountains of Colorado were swarming
with scouts looking to find other locations that could mimic
Aspen's success.

Larry Jump, a 10th Mountain Division veteran, cofounded Arapahoe
Basin in 1947. Pete Seibert, severely wounded in Italy, became
manager of Loveland Basin. That's where he hooked up with Earl
Eaton, a uranium prospector who'd helped build Camp Hale. While
roaming the mountains in search of ore, Eaton had found an area
he thought might make a pretty good ski hill, midway between
Denver and Aspen. He brought Seibert in for a look, and in 1957
they formed the Transmountain Rod and Gun Club so they could
quietly buy the land at the base of what would become Vail
Mountain. Vail, which introduced the gondola to America, opened
on Dec. 15, 1962, and within 20 years was the U.S.'s most popular
ski resort.

The 1960s also ushered in Buttermilk, Crested Butte,
Breckenridge, Steamboat Springs, Purgatory (now Durango),
Powderhorn and Snowmass, followed by Keystone (1970), Telluride
('72), Copper Mountain ('73) and Beaver Creek ('80). The names
are as familiar to skiers as Everest and McKinley are to
mountaineers. Each in a unique way conjures up images of long,
breathtaking ski trails, of Victorian villages strung with
Christmas lights and of pine-covered peaks painted in alpenglow.

Collectively they generate one of nature's most impressive
migrations: the annual flight of millions of snowbirds to the
Colorado slopes every December. Because if you call yourself a
skier, every trip to Colorado is a journey home.

COLOR PHOTO: JACK AFFLECK MIGHTY FINE Dry air helps create the world's best powder.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY MARC MUENCH/CORBIS PEAK ATTRACTION With popular resorts like Steamboat Springs, Colorado drew 11.6 million skiers last year, by far the most of any state.

B/W PHOTO: C.E.GROVER/CORBIS WANNA LIFT? A 10th Mountain tuba player helped celebrate the 1947 opening of Aspen, which became a fun lovers' mecca.


After the war, many members of the 10th Mountain Division moved
back to Colorado, where they helped boost a fledgling
recreational ski industry.

For more about sports in Colorado and the other 49 states, go to