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Getting to Vail - The Long Way Around

Updated: Jan 10, 2022

From 1972 to 1975 I was a soldier in the US Army. Although I am very much a patriot, my tour of duty was not due to a rush of patriotic fervor. Rather, it arose from my draft lottery number: 3. I had no desire to go to Vietnam and was unwilling to decamp to Canada, so as a young man certain to be called into active duty I began exploring options. Along the way I learned that if I enlisted for three years, rather than being drafted for two, I could have my first 18 months duty station guaranteed. At the time I was a classified expert ski racer in Utah’s Intermountain Division. The recruiter I was working with told me there was an Army ski team working out of Fort Carson, Colorado. He couldn’t guarantee me a spot on the team – that was something I’d have to earn for myself – but he could certainly get me to Fort Carson. In addition, he told me that in order to maximize my chances of being released from regular duty to race, I should select a combat arms Military Occupational Specialty (MOS), which meant infantry, artillery or armor. The rationale he presented was that there were so many active duty soldiers in combat arms roles that releasing one would be a no brainer, should it come to that.

A naïve 18 year old, it didn’t cross my mind that he might be manipulating me for his own benefit. It turns out that combat arms MOS recruits were difficult to come by and that failing to meet quotas would result in the recruiter being removed from his city job and repurposed back into regular duty someplace a good deal less desirable.

Sometime before I shipped out to basic training, I made an appointment with him specifically to make sure I understood the situation correctly.

“So you can’t guarantee me a slot on the team, but there is a team at Fort Carson. Is that right?” I asked him.

“Yes it is,” he assured me. Of course, because I couldn’t be promised a spot on the team, there was nothing about it in my documentation. If I had known then what I know now, I’d have at least made him put in writing that there was a ski team at Fort Carson. I wasn’t concerned about not making the team. If there was a team, I had no doubt I’d get on it.

It was a lie. There was no ski team at Fort Carson. The only actual guarantee I had was that I was assured no less than 18 months at Fort Carson in my combat arms, artillery, MOS. I contacted the recruiter, who insisted that the 4th Division Unit of Choice Office had told him there was a ski team there. I asked him to write me a letter saying so. He agreed, but said he had something else he needed to finish first. Meanwhile, I told my story to every office in my chain of command. The response was always the same: after expressing sympathy for my situation, whoever I was speaking with inevitably would ask “do you have anything in writing?” Because I did not, all I ever came away with was a lesson in the consequences of being conned.

Frustrated and unwilling just to live with things as they were, I wrote a letter to the Salt Lake Tribune newspaper recounting my experience and warning potential recruits to be wary of recruiters’ promises. Sometime after it was published, I was summoned to the Post headquarters. There I met with a seemingly annoyed officer, who I asked why I’d been called.

“Everybody knows about that letter you wrote,” he snapped. It turns out that somebody in the Washington chain of command instructed Fort Carson leadership to see if something could be done to appease me. The officer went on to tell me there was a 14 man mountain rescue team on post, led by a civilian named Don Patrick. The officer could arrange a meeting for me with Don, but the decision about joining the team would be up to him.

The Fort Carson Mountain Rescue team had a demonstration area eight miles from the top of North Cheyenne Canyon, which is where I went to meet Don (called “Pat” by everyone who knew him).

Somehow our conversation veered toward avalanche control work. Alta, my home ski area, was (and is) heavily involved with avalanche study and control. I mentioned having skied with one of our local snow rangers, Peter Lev.

“You know Peter Lev?,” asked Don, smiling. I nodded. “You can be on the team,” he said. (All of the preceding notwithstanding, the Army did make it right once the facts had been presented).

During winter months the rescue team taught skiing on military gear to soldiers from other units. To my happy surprise, we were also allowed to ski for free on regular alpine gear at Ski Broadmoor, a small ski hill serviced by a solitary chair lift behind the Broadmoor Resort. The resort’s general manager, I was told, had been involved in the 10th Mountain Division, which was deactivated in 1958. The Fort Carson Mountain Rescue Team was, at the time, the surviving remnant of the 10th (which was reactivated in 1985 at Fort Drum, New York). The Broadmoor connection struck me as vague, but I didn’t need a detailed explanation for a gift of free skiing.

In October 2021 my wife and I went to visit friends in Grand Junction (see the Blog post “Donnelly Idaho – A Rural Jewel Off the Beaten Path” for more information about them). In addition to their vacation home in Donnelly, they have a cozy condominium in Vail, Colorado that we visited together on this trip.

I’ve skied Vail a few times, but never been there in summer before. Like many ski resorts, Vail has become a year round destination. One of the surprises for me was the impact Gerald and Betty Ford had on the area. I’d known Gerald was a skier, but not that he and Betty had been such avid devotees of the area. The Betty Ford Alpine Gardens, Gerald R Ford amphitheater, and other remembrances commemorate their Vail boosterism.

Restaurants were short staffed enough that finding tables required considerable patience. Walking through the village, though was suitably restorative to one’s sense of calm. Some establishments, like the Red Lion and Pepe Gramhammer’s hotel/bar, date back to Vail’s earliest days. A newer development, one well worth a visit, is the Colorado Snowsports Museum and Hall of Fame. The place is chock full of artifacts ranging from skiing’s infancy through present day. A small theater in the museum plays a movie, “Climb to Glory,” on a repeating loop.

Climb to Glory documents how the 10th Mountain Division was formed and trained at Camp Hale, not far from where Vail sits today. The film credits the 10th with significant influence on the development of alpine skiing, but I’d say in a parochial sort of way. Yes, the experience introduced thousands to skiing and Colorado, but as instruments of war. The actual development of Vail did incorporate the talents of Dick Hauserman, a 10th alum, but exaggerates their contribution beyond people like him. After all, miners working in Alta and Park City, UT were contemporaneously exploring skiing as a pastime. Their experiences would count in my mind as co-equal to the contributions from Camp Hale.

Our host, Bonnie, suggested I take and read a book she had, authored by Dick Hauserman, titled “The Inventors of Vail,” whose reading brought one thing into focus for me for the first time: the connection between Broadmoor and our Fort Carson Mountain Rescue Team.

The Lodge at Vail opened in 1962. For five years it lost $100,000 per year, earning it the sobriquet “the white elephant of Vail.” Then, in 1967, a man named Ross Davis bought it and arranged for it to be managed by the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs.

Q’uell Surprise! A legacy connection snapped smartly into focus and I realized my military boon was as much connected to Vail as to the 10th Mountain Division.

Knowing what I know now really changes very little, but whenever a moment of my past gets more meaningfully illuminated, I feel enriched.

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