SNOWMASS VILLAGE - On Dec. 16, Snowmass ski area will celebrate the 45th anniversary of its grand opening.
That date is not just a celebration for the resort but for the many people who built it, including eight ski instructors who have called Snowmass their home and workplace since that first season.
In 1967, legendary ski racer Stein Eriksen was directing the ski school at Sugarbush Resort in Vermont when he decided to create the Snowmass Ski School. He recruited a group of instructors from Sugarbush, most of whom he had originally brought over to the United States from Europe, to join his team at Snowmass.
"It seems like yesterday," said Henrik Brusletto, who today is a private lessons coordinator for the ski school and joined Eriksen at the beginning.
There were 20 full-time and 10 part-time members of the team that
year, according to instructor Per Guldbrandsgaard. Much of the infrastructure in the town of Snowmass Village, which was incorporated that same year, was still being built, so the instructors weren't able to move into their housing until after they'd been here a month.
Guldbrandsgaard said the instructors were busy from the start.
"We put Snowmass on the map the first year," said Amund Ekroll, who's been friends with Guldbrandsgaard since they were still living in Norway.
Most of the full-timers at the beginning were Europeans: Norwegians (like Eriksen), Swiss, Austrians and Germans.
"Since we came all the way from Europe they gave us kind of a (preference) to make sure we could eat and live for a year," said Kjell Vanghagen, who roomed with Brusletto in Sugarbush after moving there from Norway the prior year.
"It was like a ski instructor family," said Martin Nordhagen, who also arrived here from Norway via Sugarbush.
The instructors who came from Sugarbush all commented that the climate and skiing conditions here are much preferable. According to Vanghagen, during the winter of 1966-67 there were days when the temperature dropped to 35 below, and then in January the weather warmed up and rain washed away the snow.
"You have much bigger fluctuation out there," he said. "And a lot of people skiing over a small area, it gets very icy."
Vanghagen said he originally planned to just spend two years as a "ski bum."
"I can't think of many places that have as many things to offer as this area," he said. "It's an ideal place to live because you can also take care of your mind. ... When I got to Snowmass, I decided, 'This is it; I'm not going back to Norway.'"
"It's a beautiful place - the climate, the people, the snow, the people you work with," Brusletto said.
For Nordhagen, too, the climate is a pull, but there are other reasons he's stayed in Snowmass for four and a half decades.
"We were friends from Sugarbush," he said. "We made friends here but the core was around for a long time. I think if you left you had to start over again with friends and so on. What we have here is fantastic, but it's not just that."
Nordhagen also met his wife here. They've been married for 41 years.
Nordhagen has taught full time since his first day here.
"That's a lot of hours over the years," he said.
As for when he will retire, "It depends upon the body, how long it's gonna hang in there," he said. "And it's fun, it has to be fun. In this business ... you have to have fun. It's not going to the assembly line."
An extended skiing family
Vanghagen met his ex-wife on his first night here and started a construction company, which he continues to operate. He's built homes and condos for people he used to teach.
"You make so many connections and meet so many people," he said. "When you go skiing it brings out the good in people."
Ekroll, who retired last December, also knows about making connections. He still goes skiing with some of the friends he made teaching. He says he and one of his clients started the "Brazilian invasion."
"Because I started skiing with him and his family and he invited tons of friends into coming, and this crew I grew over the years," he said.
The client organized trips for people, prepaying for their travel needs such as lift tickets.
"The last couple of years, he was here just for a few days," Ekroll said. "He says, 'Amund, there are too many Brazilians here.' So he goes to Jackson Hole and Whistler and places to ski."
Guldbrandsgaard has a family of clients from Los Angeles who he's been teaching since the first season.
"When you have had clients for 30, 40 years there isn't that much more to teach. Then it becomes a good friendship," he said. "You are the guide on the mountain, take them around, have lunch up on one of the restaurants and just have a good day of skiing and fun together. And fun is the name of the game."
Ekroll used to go back every summer until 1970, when he spent a summer here doing carpentry work.
"The summer's here are the best," he said.
He owned and operated a restaurant in the Aspen Business Center for some time and worked in construction building homes, until those got in the way of his fishing and golf.
Guldbrandsgaard still returns to his hometown of Gielo, Norway, for four months every summer.
"Otherwise I might lose my accent and lose my clients," he joked.
Guldbrandsgaard still has family in Europe, but his ties to Snowmass are strong.
"When you are in heaven, you don't want to leave," Guldbrandsgaard said.