Slippery slope

Skiing started as transportation, ended up recreation. And Beaver Creek, Colo., offers some great recreation.

Published March 31, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Beaver Creek is one of the most celebrated ski resorts in the world. It has a magnificent setting and was designed to be luxurious but it was also planned for families -- an unusual combination. The town has a quiet elegance, and as with any town, if you understand how it got to be what it is, you'll have a better appreciation of the place.

The Native American Utes called the land around Beaver Creek "The Shining Mountains" and had been living here for over 10,000 years when the first white men showed up in the 1840s. They were mountain men and hunters and they were just wandering through.

During the 1860s, gold prospectors started poking around in Colorado. They had come over from California after the 1849 gold rush petered out. One of the first things that a prospector learns is that gold drains down from the mountains -- the great mother lode is always going to be up there somewhere. So they kept following the creeks into the mountains. The prospectors who came into Beaver Creek didn't find the mother lode, but they did find enough gold to make a living and they settled down and built small towns. Normally, miners lived on their claim site, but these guys spent their days up in the mountains and their nights in town.

Once the prospectors settled in, the ranchers came along. They homesteaded in the valley, raised cattle and farmed potatoes, peas and spinach. A mutually beneficial relationship developed between the ranchers and the prospectors. Each night the prospectors would come back into town with the few nuggets they had found in the mountains. They would head for a restaurant owned by the ranchers and buy themselves a steak dinner with side orders of potatoes, peas and spinach. The miners had the money and the ranchers had the rations. It was love and who would have thought it.

After a while, the prospectors learned to love ranching. A few years of mining would go by and the prospector would have little to show for it, so he'd homestead a piece of land and settle down. During the 1950s, the area was consolidated into one big ranch by the Nottingham family. Even with the advantages of size, it was a shaky undertaking. So when a group of businessmen offered to buy the Nottinghams out, they accepted. And a marginal ranch became one of the world's finest ski resorts.

For thousands of years, skiing was an essential form of transportation for people who lived in snow country. Some of the early miners who came to Colorado came from Scandinavia and they understood how to get around in the snow. Soon they showed everyone else how to make and use skis.

They'd check out the side of a barn, and find a board with a smooth grain running lengthwise. Then they'd rip it off, and set one end into a pot of boiling water to soften the wood. Next they'd wedge the tip into a space between the cabin logs, bottom side up, and weigh the other end down until the wood dried. The result was an 8- to 12-foot ski with ends that turned up. Grease was rubbed on the bottom and leather belts were used as bindings. When heading up a hill, rough cloth was tied on the ski for traction.

Primarily a mode of transportation, skiing was also a form of recreation. As early as 1880, skiers in Colorado got together and formed clubs to test their skills at downhill racing and ski jumping -- often at speeds of 80 miles an hour. Where there was snow, there were ski clubs. In the Western states, skiers looked at abandoned mining equipment and saw that much of it could be used in the construction of early ski lifts. By the 1930s, a number of winter resorts had been built.

What turned skiing into a popular sport was a World War II unit known as the 10th Mountain Division. In 1938, the U.S. was watching Finnish ski troops resist a Russian invasion. U.S. skiers realized that their country would soon be involved in the war and would need military units that could function in a mountain environment, either in Europe or on home soil. Charles Minot Dole founded the National Ski Patrol System and he urged President Roosevelt to address the problem. In November of 1941, days before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Army authorized the development of the 10th Mountain Division.

Hale recruited the best skiers in the country. He also brought in skiers who had escaped from Hitler's Europe. They trained at Camp Hale, near Vail, Colo., and developed much of their own equipment -- snowcats, snowmobiles, advanced cross-country skiing techniques and modern winter survival skills all came out of the 10th.

They learned how to ski and climb mountains with 90-pound packs and rifles strapped to their backs. The final combat training exercise was called D-series and it was conducted during the winter at an altitude of 13,000 feet, in temperatures as low as 25 degrees below zero. Peter Seibert, a veteran of the 10th who came home and founded the ski communities at Vail and Beaver Creek, told me that "combat was almost as bad as the D-series."

In December 1944, the 10th Mountain was sent into combat in Northern Italy. The objective was to break the German stronghold on the Apennines Mountains, a job that the entire Fifth Army had been at for months without success. Under the command of Maj. Gen. George Hays they attacked Riva Ridge, which was the key to the German defense. Under cover of darkness they used their mountain-climbing skills to ascend an exposed wall and surprise the Germans. After two days of heavy fighting they took the ridge and then pushed on. They were the first unit to defeat the German forces defending the Po River and they continued to push north until the war in Italy was over. Of the 14,000 men in the 10th Mountain Division, 900 were killed and 4,500 were wounded.

When the men of the 10th came home, their interest in skiing was stronger than ever. Seventeen ski resorts and 33 ski schools were built by returning veterans of the 10th. Two thousand of them became ski instructors. Friedl Pfeifer helped found the Aspen ski area; Larry Jump founded Arapaho Basin. Steve Knowlton put together Colorado Ski Country, USA. Bill Bowerman was a founder of Nike. And they all credit the 10th Mountain for giving them the ability to commit to a task and see it through.

In those days, when you wanted to make a ski slope you just picked out a mountain and cut down some trees. Today, building a ski run is a highly complex task coordinated by computer. Obviously, the shape of the mountain dictates the overall design, but it's important to understand the wind patterns and how the slopes are exposed to the elements. What is the natural flow of the mountain's gravity? Where are the ideal spots for runs that will be used by experts, beginners and intermediate skiers?

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The central village of Beaver Creek has been given as much attention as the slopes. The shopping area has a small-town atmosphere. There are shops that carry general clothing, as well as places that specialize in outdoor gear. One shop has a collection of Bavarian styles so you can look like you've been skiing in the Austrian Alps. The best time to shop in a winter resort is the last two weeks of the season -- everything is on sale and not much is going to change by next year.

Heated walkways throughout the village melt the snowfall and escalators make it easy to get from your rooms to the base of the mountain. At the end of each day, hosts and hostesses at the bottom of the escalators hand out chocolate chip cookies. And Beaver Creek is serious about good food, from simple cafes to elegant white-tablecloth restaurants.

That's my take on Beaver Creek and some of the history that makes it what it is today. The mutually dependent relationship between the mountains and the valley. The respect for nature. The love of the outdoors. And the desire to have a good time.

By Burt Wolf

Burt Wolf's TV show, "Travels & Traditions II," appears on almost 300 public-television stations weekly. His column appears every Wednesday in Salon. For more columns, visit his archive. He also writes regularly about food and cooking equipment for Burt


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