Skiing is one of the biggest draws to present day Colorado. Thousands of people come from around to the world to ski at places like Vail, Aspen and Breckenridge. Yet this was not always the case. The Works Progress Administration guide to Colorado, published in 1940 does not mention Vail, Aspen or Breckenridge, nor does it mention skiing. Skiing as a large organized sport is a post WWII phenomenon. Veterans of the 10th mountain division and local and out-of-state businessmen invested in Colorado skiing, building Aspen, Vail and Breckenridge into what they are today.
This does not mean, that skiing was not present in Colorado before WWII. Skiing was present, just in a very different form. Colorado has a local heritage of skiing. European immigrants, particularly those from Scandinavia, brought skiing with them to America. As they settled in Colorado, they taught their neighbors and friends to ski. Skiing became a way to get from one place to the other during the snowy Colorado winters. Skiing was not a sport, it was something one had to do to survive. Mailmen used skis to cross the mountains and deliver the mail to mining camps. Doctors used skis so they could reach their patients in winter. Miners would ski up to the mine and the race back down the mountain at quitting time.
As more and more Coloradans learned to ski, towns and mining camps held ski festivals and competitions during the winter for local entertainment. These local festivals grew over the years, attracting more than just local people. Folks would from as far away as Denver to take part in friendly ski competitions. By the 1890s skiing had become a sport and recreation activity due to improved transportation in Colorado. The arrival of railroads ended skiing as a necessity in all but the very small mountain towns.
The introduction of Alpine skiing (shorter skis, the use of two poles and the idea of going straight downhill instead of cross-country) in the 1920s, changed the Colorado ski culture. Alpine skiing grew famous in ski clubs all across the United States, spreading to Colorado by the 1930s where locals adopted the new style. During the Second World War, the 10th Mountain Division trained on skis in Colorado. Their influence and an influx of European ski instructors and stars resulted in the explosion of Alpine ski culture in Colorado after the war.
The Aspen Skiing Corporation was founded in 1946 and just a few years the city became a well-known resort thanks to the partnership of Friedl Pfeifer, a member of the 10th Mountain Division and businessman Walter Paepcke. The Vail Ski Resort opened in 1962 by ski legend Pete Seibert and local rancher Earl Eaton. Breckenridge began as a ski run down Peak 8 in 1961 with a double chairlift. In 1970 Aspen Ski Company purchased Breckenridge and expanded onto neighboring peaks.
Today, when most people think of Colorado they think of skiing. They see skiing as Colorado’s only and oldest heritage, an idea supported by many people’s yearly pilgrimage to Colorado to ski. While skiing did play a large role in Colorado history, particularly after WWII, skiing was not invented in Colorado nor did it play a role in shaping the state’s early culture or economy. Skiing could be called a modern heritage of Colorado instead of an ancient one. Recreation skiing in Colorado has only been around for one hundred years, and resort skiing has only existed for half that long. Those that ski in Colorado need to appreciate the ski industry, but realize that it is an industry.
For more information on the history of skiing in Colorado see Annie Coleman, Ski Style, Sport and Culture in the Rockies ( Kansas: University of Kansas Press, 2004). I used some of her information to write this article.