Beaver Creek, Colorado, 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, which is an unusual combination. The village has a quiet elegance, and like any village or city, understanding how it got to be what it is, makes it more fun to be there. So join me, Burt Wolf for Travels & Traditions in Beaver Creek, Colorado
The Native American Ute’s called these “The Shining Mountains” and they had been living in them for over ten thousand years when the first white men showed up in the 1840s. They were mountain men and hunters and they were just wandering through. BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): During the 1860s and 70s gold prospectors began poking around here in Colorado. They had come over from California when the great gold rush of ’49 began to peter out. Now one of the first things you learn as a gold prospector is that the gold is up in the mountains and it filters down… the great mother lode is always up there some place. So you follow the creeks up into the mountains. The guys who came to Beaver Creek never found the great mother lode but they did find enough gold to make a living and they settled in and built small towns. Normally a miner would live on his claim, but that wasn’t the case here. They worked the claims in the mountains and came down to live in the towns at night. Very uncommon.
Once the prospectors settled in the ranchers came along. They homesteaded in the valley. They 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.
BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): And eventually, the prospectors learned to love ranching. A few years of prospecting would go by and they would have very little to show for it, so they’d pick out a piece of land, homestead it and settle down. During the 1950s, the Nottingham family consolidated most of these small ranches around here into one big one, but even with the advantages of size it was a shaky operation. So when a group of businessmen offered to buy them out, they eventually sold. And a marginal ranch became one of the great 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 and they showed everyone else how to make and use skis.
BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): They’d check out the side of a barn, and find a couple of boards that had a smooth grain running lengthwise. And they would put the tip of one end into a pot of boiling water to soften up the wood. When it came out of the water they’d stick that end between two boards in a log cabin, bottom side up, and waited until it dried. The result would be an eight to ten foot long ski with one end turning up. They’d keep their boots attached to it with old belts and put a little grease on the bottom so they’d move faster. When they wanted to head uphill, they would tie rough rags on the bottom to give them traction. Primitive, but at the time a life-saving form of transportation.
But it was also a form of recreation. As early as the 1880s skiers in Colorado got together and formed clubs to test their skills at racing down hill and ski jumping. Often at speeds of 80 miles an hour. Wherever there was snow there were ski clubs. In the western part of the United States, skiers looked at abandoned mining equipment and saw that the same trams and towers that were used to move ore and equipment in and out of the mines could be used to by skiers and they built the early ski lifts.
By the 1930s there were a number of winter resorts but not many. What turned skiing into a popular sport was a World War II unit known as the 10th Mountain Division. Pete Seibert was a member.
PETE SEIBERT: People here, they think of it being just the ski troops, that’s not really the case. It was mountain infantry so we would train like the infantry, but we were trained to operate in the mountains with no vehicles and on a year-round basis. If in the winter we had snow, summertime mountain climbing, rock climbing and so on. They sent us to break through the gothic line, the gothic line had been established by the Germans and we were directed to attack a ridge called Riva Ridge and the Germans had been in position for almost two years there. And it was difficult to dislodge them and gain the final toe hold
BURT WOLF: How did you take Riva Ridge?
PETE SEIBERT: Riva was attacked at night. The troops on the top, the Germans, were not expecting any troops to come up from the south side, which was the route we took. We climbed up some rope, some fixed rope, under the cover of darkness. It was a tough climb but we weren’t exposed to enemy fire at the time. Not until we reached the top and surprised the Germans on top. And then there was a fire fight there and they finally pulled out and we took over the Riva Ridge.
And when the men of the 10th Mountain came home their interest in skiing was stronger than ever. Sixty-two of the ski resorts in America were built by veterans of the 10th. Two thousand of them became ski instructors. In those days when you wanted to make a ski slope you just picked out a mountain and cut down some trees. And skied as best you could.
These days, things are very different. Building a ski run is a highly complex task. Obviously, the shape of the mountain controls the overall design but it’s important to understand the wind patterns and how the slopes are exposed to the elements. Where are the ideal spots for runs that will be used by experts, beginners and intermediate skiers?
The runs must be designed to take advantage of the natural rolls and obstacles in the terrain as well as the natural fall line of slope.
The 1950s also saw great improvements in equipment and clothing. Every year since then manufacturers have introduced new designs that make skiing easier to learn and safer. Metal and fiberglass skis, that take on the outline of an hourglass and are shorter, buckle boots, dependable release bindings, aluminum and fiberglass poles. And clothing that has as much to do with fashion as function.
Dee Byrne is the Director of the Beaver Creek Ski and Snowboard School.
DEE BYRNE: We offer something for virtually anybody who comes to the resort. We have downhill skiing of all levels from brand-new novice beginners to advanced experts skiers. We also offer snow-boarding which is the two feet clicked into a single board that’s wider, but you also control your speed by descending the slope with turns.
We start children in our children’s programs at age three. We have downhill Nordic skiing called telemark skiing. We offer track skiing in the Nordic world. We have an adaptive ski program for folks with physical disabilities of all sorts. You name it we offer in this Alpine environment virtually something for everyone.
They even had an instructor talented enough to teach me how to ski. Cahn Pulos is from Australia and showed me the basics.
Keep your shins bending forward and pressed against your boots.
When you want to slow down, point your skis together so you form a wedge that looks like a slice of pizza. A good metaphor for me.
Go down the hill a little at a time, weaving up and back across the slope.
Keep you shoulders parallel to the mountain.
And always smile. It tells your body that you’re having a good time.
CAHN PULOS: That’s it, work your left ankle in a little bit. A little bit more pressure on that part of your foot, Burt. Remember that movement in with your ankle from the inside of the boot. Stand on it. Good work. If you look back up there that’s not too flat is it?
BURT WOLF: Was I up there?
CAHN PULOS: You certainly were. Look back at where you were skiing and you think, yeah, I can do that, I did that.
BURT WOLF: very steep
CAHN PULOS: That’s a nice green run, well done. Now isn’t that just the prettiest sight?
BURT WOLF: Let’s do it.
CAHN PULOS: OK, let’s go for a bit of a ski down here.
BURT WOLF: We’re going straight down there?
CAHN PULOS: Yeah, stand up and relax. You know, I try and ski as lazy as possible.
BURT WOLF: Hot chocolate, I see hot chocolate in the distance.
As alpine skiing became more and more popular some skiers started yearning for the quiet beauty and solitude of the backcountry and took up cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. This is the environment in which skiing was born and its becoming more and more popular. Accordingly, Beaver Creek has a designated cross-country and snowshoe park located at the top of a mountain. It’s under the direction of Nate Goldberg and Nancy Smith was our guide and caterer.
BURT WOLF: I like this, where are we going?
NATE GOLDBERG: We have a magical lunch spot picked out for us today.
BURT WOLF: How many calories do you burn?
NANCY SMITH: well you know, you burn considerably more when you snowshoe. Let’s walk right up here in this deep snow and I’ll give you an example. Now anyone who can walk, can walk in this snow.
BURT WOLF: Oh yeah, but you’re really lifting.
NANCY SMITH: As you’re lifting your foot up and as it sinks a little in the snow, you know it takes more energy to pull your foot up through the snow so you definitely burn more calories and work your quads more than just walking. See the marks on this Aspen tree? Well, the elk make these marks, their top two teeth come down to gnaw through the outer bark layer to the candian layer which is where they find certain nutrients to feed on. The Indians, of course, also utilized the Aspen trees. One of the things that they discovered was if you rub the bark there’s like a powder substance on it. And they used the powder as a face paint. In recent years scientists have discovered that this powder contains about an SPF 8. So if you’re desperate someday for sun block, head to the Aspen grove.
BURT WOLF: Mother Nature’s sunscreen, just where you need it.
NATE GOLDBERG: Well and after a long snowshoe, we have our wonderful gourmet lunch to look forward to.
BURT WOLF: I’m hungry, so I hope I don’t have to look forward to it very far. How far do I have to look?
NATE GOLDBERG: Oh, it’s just around the corner.
BURT WOLF: I can trust you on that?
NATE GOLDBERG: Trust me on that one. And once again, I think that the beauty of McCoy Park speaks for itself. We consider this one of Colorado’s best kept secrets. And for a lot of people its the domesticated back country because within 6 and ½ minutes you’re up in probably one of the most beautiful things you could ever experience.
We finished the experience by eating lunch at a pre-set table on top of the mountain. My kind of hike.
And whatever type of winter sport you choose there is someone teaching it to the children. John Alderson is in charge of the programs.
JOHN ALDERSON: Learning to ski is a whole adventure in itself and for a kid who has never skied before it is just one of the most exciting adventures cause it’s like being able to drive your own car, you get to go do things and its all about not just a sport, its about an adventure. You’re really bringing the adventure alive for the kids and making very memorable vacations for them. You can learn to ski as early as two or three years old, it really has to do with your expectations. A three, four year old, it takes a little more time, the whole idea is not really the skiing skill, but gee, isn’t the idea, isn’t the activity of skiing fun. No matter what that is. For some of the kids that get up on them, they just ride up and down the magic carpet and that’s skiing to them. You see and that’s really important cause we’re looking not just to teach a child how to ski, but we’re looking at teaching them the sport, the recreation of skiing.
BURT WOLF : Medic! You think this is funny, huh?
KIDS: We won!
BURT WOLF: Yes you did. I have to get s’mores and hot cocoa for you.
The central village of Beaver Creek has been given as much attention as the slopes.
The interlocking buildings are constructed around a central plaza and everything is within walking distance.
The shopping area has a small town atmosphere.
Many of the shops carry clothing.
There’s a spot that specializes in outdoor gear.
One shop even carries a collection of Bavarian styles so you can look like you have been skiing in the Austrian Alps.
There are jewelry shops Including one with a group of pieces that feature a beaver…only fitting since you can look out the window of the shop and see Beaver Creek.
There are art galleries.
And Gift shops.
In the center of the village is an ice rink. You can rent skates here and instructors will teach you how to glide across the frozen surface. This is the first time I’ve seen these triangular supports. Training wheels for skaters. The technological circle of life…now you can start on a walker.
BURT WOLF (TO CAMERA): And right below the skating rink is the Vilar Center for the Arts. Performances here range from STOMP to Tito Puente. And to the best of my knowledge there’s no art center like this in any ski resort in the world.
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 there are hosts and hostesses at the bottom of the escalators handing out chocolate chip cookies.
Beaver Creek is serious about good food and has everything from simple cafes to elegant white tablecloth restaurants.
The Blue Moose makes fresh pizza and calzone.
But there are also restaurants with sophisticated menus and elegant surroundings.
You can even take a moonlit sleigh ride to the top of a mountain.
The horses have been replaced with snow cats but that’s life in the 21st century.
And when you get up there you can eat at Beano’s or Allie’s Cabin. Allie and Beno were early residents in the area. At either Allie’s or Beano’s you can enjoy your dinner and look out at a magnificent view of the valley below.
The developers of Beaver Creek have done a good job of building a resort that’s fun. Part of the fun comes from the interesting characters that have been attracted to the place. Helmut Fricker is a bookbinder by training. He is preserving a craft that is rarely seen.
But in the afternoons he puts down his needle and picks up his horn and in the center of Beaver Creek demonstrates this ancient Alpine instrument. It takes a great deal of air to play the Alpine horn
Another Beaver Creek character involved with air is Merlin of the floating castle, but instead of blowing it he just floats in it. Merlin runs Camelot Balloons and his magical castle can take you on an extraordinary trip through the mountains around Beaver Creek.
MERLIN: Fabulous, What a pretty morning! Every time I feel the wind in the balloon, it’s important to me. It tells me what direction the balloon’s gonna travel. As we go up, I look into the wind and that’s the direction the balloon will travel. And as we descend, I look away from it, it’s a function of how big we are. This balloon is 87 feet tall and 71 feet in diameter. It holds 175,000 cubic feet. When our shadow gets on people we call that a ballooner eclipse. When we get up a little bit higher, you’ll be able to see, you can ski from Arrowhead all the way into Beaver Creek and back. And we’re coming up on 1,000 feet. Then if you look around you now, folks. This is why I fly a balloon in the mountains.
That’s my take on Beaver Creek, Colorado and some of the history and tradition that makes it what it is today. The mutually dependent relationship between the mountains and the valley. The respect for nature. A blend of adventure and luxury. And the desire to have a good time in an environment designed for families.
BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): I hope you have enjoyed this brief visit to Beaver Creek, and if you haven’t already been here yourself, I hope that someday you will get a chance to visit The Shining Mountain. And I hope you will join us next time on TRAVELS & TRADITIONS. I’m Burt Wolf.