Carl Eaton still remembers feeling the tap on his shoulder. It was December 15, 1980—Opening Day for the new Beaver Creek Ski Resort. Eaton had grown up racing for Ski Club Vail and was the son of Vail cofounder Earl Eaton, who’d originally proposed Beaver Creek in the 1950s. At 15, he already knew the mountain well; he’d gone elk hunting at the Bald Spot while his dad helped build Patrol Headquarters. For Opening Day—a VIP soiree that included Robert Redford and Jean-Claude Killy—Carl selected his 213-centimeter downhill boards and honored his adage, “ski fast, don’t be last.”

Carl and Earl Eaton in 1999

At Spruce Saddle, he spun around to find a Secret Service agent staring at him. He knew he’d gone a little fast down the Grand Traverse catwalk, weaving between guests. He didn’t know he’d narrowly avoided the 38th president of the United States, Gerald R. Ford. “The agent said, ‘Son, you better slow down—you almost ran the president into the trees,’” chuckles Eaton, who is now 55. “He wanted to make sure it was an accident and not something on purpose.”

As Beaver Creek celebrates its 40th anniversary this winter, all grown up and publicly traded, with a reputation as one of the finest luxury resorts in the world, you could argue that no family has shaped it more than the Eatons. Carl has worked at the resort for 30 years and risen from a mechanic to director of lift maintenance; he still skis his favorite powder stashes with his 10-year-old son, Cash, part of the sixth generation of Eatons to grow up in the valley. Earl, who died in 2008 at age 85, first skied here when he was 7, on wooden skis his dad made at their home in Squaw Creek near Edwards. He knew the valley’s mountains well from prospecting for uranium, and he dreamed of starting a ski area to provide local jobs.

The 19th-century settlement in Beaver Creek had evolved through the decades, from logging to lettuce farming to ranching. Earl Eaton thought it would be perfect for skiing, and he suggested as much to the U.S. Forest Service as early as the mid-’50s. Even after he and fellow Vail founder Pete Seibert turned their attention upvalley and settled on Vail Mountain, opening in 1962, his Beaver Creek idea never died.

A 1980-81 lift ticket

Eight years later, when Colorado won the right to host the  1976 Olympic Winter Games, organizers viewed Beaver Creek as a perfect site to stage the alpine ski races. Vail Associates bought 2,200 acres from rancher Willis Nottingham in 1972, and the resort finally had a home—only for the state’s voters to infamously reject the Olympics that November. It took another eight years of permitting and construction—and the equivalent of $30 million in today’s dollars to design—but the much-ballyhooed luxury resort scraped together just enough snow to open as scheduled, on a Monday no less.

Carl Eaton still has his lift ticket. “It was a little piece of paper with elastic around your neck that said, ‘I skied Beaver Creek first,’” he recalls. During the opening ceremony, Colorado Governor Dick Lamm called Beaver Creek “the Tiffany’s of ski areas.” Just behind him, a tennis bubble with picnic tables served as the base lodge.

 

 

 

 

Willis Nottingham’s Ranch

BeaverCreek Timeline

1956  

Eagle County native Earl Eaton first identifies the site that would become Beaver Creek Resort as being ideal for a ski area—thanks to its moderate slope and gorgeous valley views—during a tour with the U.S. Forest Service district ranger. However, the land was part of Willis Nottingham’s ranch, and Nottingham declined to sell.

1970  

Denver is named the host city for the 1976 Olympic Winter Games, setting off a frenzied search for a location to stage the alpine ski races. Beaver Creek quickly emerges as a front-runner, along with Mount Sniktau near Loveland Pass.

1972  

A year after Willis Nottingham finally extends an offer to Vail Associates for his Beaver Creek property, Vail exercises its option and purchases 2,200 acres for a reported $4.6 million—the equivalent of $28.6 million today.

The resort groundbreaking with former President Gerald R. Ford.

 

1972  

A few months after Vail pulls the trigger on Beaver Creek, more than 900,000 Colorado voters reject the Olympics on November ballots, fearing the Games would bring too much growth to the state. According to one account, such a popular veto had never undermined an awarded host location since the Olympics were revived in 1896.

 

1977  

Groundbreaking on the resort takes place in late July, a year after the Forest Service issued its permit. Former President Gerald R. Ford attends, along with the Eaton family and Governor Dick Lamm, one of many who initially suggested that building Beaver Creek was a bad idea.

1979  

President Ford goes snowcat touring at Beaver Creek to test the eventual product, and then, given first pick, purchases a one-acre slopeside lot off Strawberry Park for $300,000 and eventually builds a 7-bedroom, 10-bathroom ski chalet at 65 Elk Track Court. Over the years, guests often spied the former president and first lady on the slopes or walking their dogs through the village.

Addy McCord with AVY dogs Blu and Dixie at Ski Patrol Headquarters in 2014

Denver native Addy McCord arrived later that winter and worked as a cashier, fresh out of nursing school. She joined the ski patrol the following season, intending to stay one year. “In and out and gone,” she says. Of course, like any good ski bum, she never left. Now the director of Beaver Creek’s patrol, McCord says the resort was so empty in the beginning that she often saw more staff than guests on the slopes. “It was a hidden gem,” she says. “Nobody knew about Beaver Creek for many years, which was great for us.”

Gary Shimanowitz patrolling with avy dog Zach in 1994

 

She and her coworkers had lockers in a trailer behind the tennis bubble, where they could see their breaths while inside. “I remember all the upper management of those days always talking about what Beaver Creek was going to be, and I’d be like, yeah, yeah, whatever,” McCord recalls. “And now sitting here and seeing what it became, I marvel. It actually happened the way it was supposed to.”

But not quickly, mind you. Beaver Creek was marketed as a less crowded alternative to Vail and managed as Vail’s little sister as it gradually gained its footing. “The Beav,” as the resort would come to be known among locals, did 110,000 skier visits in its inaugural year. Slopeside homesites were priced from $235,000 to $1.2 million, but infrastructure came slowly. The biggest selling point to visiting skiers was a family-oriented ski school.

“From the beginning,” McCord says, “a family could come and feel safe and well taken care of and treated very specially. And the fact that we’re up the road, kind of a gated community, makes it even more special. You think back to our old tagline, ‘Not exactly roughing it’—I loved that, because that’s exactly what it was.”

Beaver Creek Opening Day 1980

 

1980  

On December 15, Beaver Creek celebrates its Opening Day with a mix of locals and luminaries, including triple Olympic champion Jean-Claude Killy, actor Robert Redford, and, of course, President Ford. Unfortunately, the resort had to shut down temporarily soon after it opened due to a lack of snow.

1983  

The first televised ski races at Beaver Creek take place, delivering the upstart resort national exposure and launching its longstanding relationship with—and, in turn, effort to attract as guests—racing fans.

1985  

Beaver Creek starts serving guests oven-warm chocolate chip cookies on 35 peak mornings as a way to welcome them to the day. The program later expands into what is now known as Cookie Time: every afternoon at 3 o’clock (but alas, not this season), chefs hand out cookies on silver trays in the base area. The resort doles out some 500,000 a season, or an average of 3,846 a day.

1986  

The new Centennial chairlift is installed, becoming the first high-speed lift at Beaver Creek. Transporting guests 2,102 vertical feet to the summit in a matter of minutes, Centennial set a new bar: 11 high-speed lifts (and two gondolas) have been added since. None of the resort’s original lifts remain today.

1989  

The resort cohosts the World Alpine Ski Championships with Vail for the first time—becoming the first U.S. hosts since 1950. The marquee race, the downhill, takes place on Centennial and features a glider’s course as well as a man-made halfpipe known as Rattlesnake Alley.

1991  

Grouse Mountain opens for the first time in November, adding 120 acres, 2,000-vertical-foot runs—each named after one of the area’s resident birds of prey—and the steepest sustained pitches in the valley. Grouse promptly becomes a locals’ favorite.

1992  

Addy’s, named after longtime ski patrol director Addy McCord, becomes a run—unofficially. After
staff removed the old
Chair 7 towers, the summer trail crew installed a sign with McCord’s name on it partially as a joke. The pitch is still a fun stash to hit on a powder day.

 

The resort original lifts

The resort developed its own identity as it grew. The U.S. Ski Team trained here early in its season; a German entertainer named Helmut Fricker started playing his alpenhorn and accordion in the base village, eventually becoming a local icon; and people started buying real estate as base-area hotels went up around an ever-expanding ski area. Skier visits more than tripled in seven years. Horse-drawn sleigh rides and Nordic skiing complemented the alpine offerings. What started as a resort with 425 skiable acres would eventually grow to 1,832—nearly three times the size of Aspen Mountain today.

Grouse Mountain open 1990

High-profile races played as big a role as anything in putting the Beav on the map. Televised competitions gave it national exposure starting in 1983, and the 1989 World Championship downhill took place on Centennial, introducing Beaver Creek to the epicenter of ski culture: Europe.

In October 1990, a fresh-faced economics major named Gary Shimanowitz took a job on ski patrol. The resort was just emerging as its own entity—no longer operated as “Vail West,” it was finally a viable rival to the company flagship 12 miles east. “We called it co-opetition between us and Vail,” says Shimanowitz, who worked on Beaver Creek patrol for 15 years and is now vice president of mountain operations. An expansion onto Grouse Mountain—“One tough bird,” as the tagline went—in 1991 dramatically improved the resort’s steep terrain, especially when compared with Vail. Not that the masses swarmed: lift lines remained light, and they still are most days of the season. “We threw a bunch of explosives, skied a lot of powder,” Shimanowitz says of the early ’90s. “That was the start of my career.”

Beaver Creek added Bachelor Gulch to the west and Arrowhead to the east later that decade, which fulfilled a long-held goal among the resort’s visionaries: to create village-to-village skiing like that found in the Alps. “I think that’s when we finally earned that credibility and Beaver Creek became the place that our founders had in their heads back in the day,” McCord says. Still, it was another project around the same time that transformed the resort unlike anything before.

Centennial base area, circa 1990s

In the summer of 1997, Shimanowitz helped to build the Birds of Prey downhill course on Golden Eagle—a treacherous track that would become one of the most feared in the world, constructed to host the 1999 World Championships. Shimanowitz, then a sawyer and heavy equipment operator, remembers hiking it the prior year with course designer Bernhard Russi, the 1972 Olympic downhill champion from Switzerland. “I was like, ‘Wow, this is going to be intense. You really want to take the racecourse through here?’” Shimanowitz recalls. “And he said, ‘Yes.’”

Birds of Prey would go on to become an annual stop on the men’s World Cup circuit, cementing Beaver Creek as a place where you could ski not only impeccable corduroy but also formidable pitches that spiked your adrenaline. The resort turned into the center of the alpine world each December, when village pubs filled with the fastest skiers on earth and cowbells echoed through the valley for a week straight.

Beaver Creek’s transformation into a well-rounded terrain trove culminated in 2006 with the addition of the Stone Creek Chutes, an extreme-skiing zone where locals had been testing themselves for years. Forget “not exactly roughing it” or “legendary attention to detail”—suddenly you could catch 50 feet of air, inbounds, then head right back up and do it again. That’s something you couldn’t, and still can’t, do in Vail.

1999 World Championships Finish Stadium

Through it all, Beaver Creek has never strayed from its roots as an intimate, luxury escape. As in Aspen or Sun Valley, the rich and famous come to be pampered and to experience a real mountain. But here, they don’t broadcast it. “You’re not showing off if you come to Beaver Creek,” McCord says.

Of the many promotional slogans the resort has adopted or considered through the years, perhaps the most enduring and accurate is “Where Western hospitality meets European charm.” Guests relate to it. Staff take pride in it. It is no coincidence that Carl Eaton, McCord, Shimanowitz, and plenty of their core colleagues have spent decades working at Beaver Creek—instead of at some point jumping to the more recognized brand just up-valley.

“It still feels like it did back when I started,” says Shimanowitz. “Yeah, the company has changed, and we’re now a publicly held, multibillion-dollar corporation, but the core business we do really hasn’t changed. We provide amazing experiences in the outdoors with an almost maniacal focus on the guest.”

“Just the ambience or essence of Beaver Creek,” says McCord. “I couldn’t compare it to anywhere else.”

Bode Miller on the men’s downhill course in 2004

 

“It’s always had a special place in my heart,” Eaton says. The Beav still attracts hardcore guests, from anonymous local rippers to Olympians like Mikaela Shiffrin and Bode Miller, who come to freeski. It also remains committed to providing a place for people to fall in love with the sport, as evidenced by its recent expansions of beginner terrain. The latest project, McCoy Park, is scheduled to be completed this summer and open for the 2020–21 winter, adding low-angle, wide-open bowls with stunning views of the Sawatch Range.

 

Business aside, one of the bummers of the Covid-19 pandemic is that few if any international guests—including Trachtenkapelle, the authentic oompah band from Austrian sister resort Lech Zurs that regularly flies in for signature events—will be around to celebrate Beaver Creek’s 40th anniversary, after playing such an integral role in the resort’s evolution and success. Still, the Beav’s employees see a silver lining that is special in its own right.

“It’ll just be a little more for the locals,” says Eaton, who started working for Vail Resorts when he was 18. “Having a 40th anniversary puts a little happiness on an otherwise tough situation. I think it’s going to be a celebration for the survivors who have been here since the start.”

“Originally I was thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, is anybody going to come back to this job knowing what’s in store?’” says McCord, the patrol director. “And my team is absolutely the opposite. They’re so excited and looking forward to how we’re going to pull this off—how they’re going to adjust and be resilient and make it a successful year. Their attitude is: Let’s do this.”

That’s one thing that hasn’t changed in 40 years.  

Filed under
Show Comments