Big Pete’s last drive
February 14, 2007
I had a bad feeling when I watched Pete Seibert, the founder of Vail, roar through the Aspen Glen roundabout in the wrong direction and point his fast little Audi A4 at Highway 82. Sure enough, he turned westbound into the two eastbound lanes, completely ignoring the proper ones on the other side of the wide dirt median. We were a few hundred yards behind him and by the time we reached the intersection I could see his dark blue sport-sedan barreling toward a wall of oncoming traffic at a high rate of speed. “Oh, my God,” I shouted into my cell phone, “he’s going the wrong way down the four-lane!” I’d been working on a book with Seibert for more than a year, a sequel of sorts to his “Vail: Triumph Of A Dream.” Ours would chronicle the far-reaching impact of 10th Mountain Division World War II pioneers such as Seibert who had largely shaped the North American ski industry in the second half of the 20th century. It was his idea and a good project for Pete, who still had a desk with Vail Associates at the signature American ski resort he had started and built into the most successful in the country. But he no longer owned the place, or any of the other resorts he’d helped at their beginnings – Beaver Creek, Snowbasin or Aspen Highlands.At 77 then, he was eager to find a place for his prodigious energies and his fundraising talents, and the book was it. As we tried to secure financing and worked on the outline, he produced a short vignette about his extremely dramatic experience with the 10th in Italy. The wounds he incurred nearly ended not just his war but his life, and he was told that he was unlikely to ever walk right again, let alone ski. I believe he was thinking about the trauma of Italy when he wrote the piece – not just because of the book, but because he had recently been diagnosed with cancer and was once again fighting for his life.The End of My WarCharlie, hey Charlie. Where the Christ is Jesus?Jesus Montoya and his childhood buddy, Johnnie Rodrigues, had been sent out on patrol about two hours earlier to pinpoint the German position above us. They should have been back by now. I was worried about them as they were a great part of our platoon and, as platoon sergeant of the 2nd Company of F, of the Mountain Regiment, I was responsible.I got sort of an answer at that moment when machine gun fire and the short pop of German hand grenades sounded in the stillness of the early spring day. A day that promised the end of a long, tough winter.The two fellow infantrymen had grown up together in Trinidad, Colo. The sons of coal miners in that Southern Colorado town, they were both tough and street smart. They were our best scouts, but maybe I had asked too much of that two-man team.As they inched their way across the upper slopes of Mt. Terminale, they were cautiously exposing themselves to the enemy in an attempt to locate the entrenched German soldiers on the ridge above us.The sounds of the infantrymen’s war – short, abrupt bursts of gunfire – had ceased. We could only wait hunched down in our shallow foxholes – holes that had been scratched into the rock soil of the Northern Italian Alps the night before when our attack on Mt. Terminale was stopped by the Germans in their dominant defense positions above us.
They had worked hard to prepare for the Allied attack and would make us pay dearly for our audacity.As quietly as they had left, they were back with us. Jesus and Johnnie were back. Excited but shaken by their scrape with death, they reported on the locations of the superior positions above us and estimated the number of enemy soldiers holding that section of the ridge – our section.I remember breathing a sigh of relief as the two mountain soldiers found protection in a small recess in the ground. They were gnawing on the few rations that they had and would, in spite of our situation, soon be asleep, curled up in the shelter of the Italian earth.While waiting for their return, movement in the valley below us had caught my attention. As I peered down into the narrow valley on our right flank, I could see puffs of smoke from infantry artillery on the slopes above the roadway leading to an old Roman bridge over a winding mountain stream. Just short of the bridge was an American tank that was trying to find a way around the bridge that was not built to carry the weight of a large, heavily armored vehicle and was undoubtedly mined.I moved carefully forward, intrigued by the scene below me. I took up a protected position against a small tree and prepared to watch the tank and the supporting soldiers as they started across the stream, when a blast in the tree above my head shattered my life and ended my part of the war in Italy.One mortar shell had split his nose open, knocked out his front teeth, nearly severed his left arm at the elbow, destroyed his right kneecap and broken his right femur. A second shell hit him in the chest and the calf of his right leg. He spent a total of 17 months in hospitals recovering and, against all odds, went on not only to ski again, but also to win the 1947 Roch Cup in Aspen and qualify for the 1950 U.S. Alpine Ski Team. And not long after that, he began scouting the country for the perfect ski area, eventually alighting on it when invited by an Eagle Valley, Colo., rancher named Earl Eaton to look at a mountain that was just on the backside from where Pete had trained with the 10th Mountain Division at Camp Hale. And the rest is the kind of romance-novel history that turned Pete Seibert, just another ambitious vet, into Big Pete, the dean of American ski area owners, a swashbuckling and decorated warrior who helped bring one of the most fashionable recreation industries in Europe to America.Our family visited Vail from Wyoming the first year it opened, and I swore at that young age that Pete Seibert was God. Vail, then, seemed like pure paradise, and if my opinion on that matured as the years went by, I still always thought Pete must be something special. But it wasn’t until 40 years later, in 2002, when I got to see for sure. By then he had already been diagnosed with throat cancer and had fought it to what he thought was a standoff. Or that’s what he told me. But he couldn’t eat the foods he liked, he wasn’t skiing much or golfing either, and the chemotherapy was exacting its characteristic high price. Still, he loved the idea of the book, and he loved driving various places to try to get it done. The truth is, he just loved driving in general. He had put 70,000 miles on his Audi, which was full of books he was using for reference on our project, golf clubs just presented to him by the newly opened Red Sky Ranch, several pairs of golf shoes, and a selection of clothing to accommodate his changing sizes as the disease and the treatment raged in him.During all of it, he never failed to be generous with me or my family when we came to visit in Vail, and he shared a wide gamut of stories about legendary figures in the ski industry. He missed being involved in the day-to-day running of a big resort, but he was full of ideas and thoughts on the book. Who should be in it, what the cover should look like, how we could use some of the remarkable photos that had been made available to us.He was still struck by an image that longtime Aspenite Fritz Benedict had taken of a town square full of rubble in a small village as the 10th advanced up through Italy. There was nothing left standing but a crucified Jesus in the middle of all the ruin. Like a lot of vets I’ve known from the era, including my father, Pete was still troubled by the things he had seen in World War II, and he was concerned about our headlong rush to war again in Afghanistan. “I’m not sure wars ever solve anything,” he said one day as we sat around his office in Avon.It had been a good meeting that day, and I thought Pete looked OK and seemed sharp as I headed back to Aspen. It was about a month before we met again, and this time Pete insisted on coming over to see me.”Are you sure?” I asked for the third time, trying not to treat him like an invalid, which he wasn’t. “It’s no problem for me to come there,” which he knew well enough since I’d done it a bunch of times already. “I don’t mind the drive.”
“Neither do I,” he replied. “In fact I like it. I need an excuse to get out.”So we had agreed to meet at the Aspen Glen golf club. And as I waited there with my wife, I grew more concerned. It was an hour and a half past the appointed time before I saw Pete racing up in his Audi. When he didn’t appear in the restaurant for a while, I went out to make sure he knew where to find us.From the moment I saw him struggling to get out of his car I knew something was wrong. In 30 days he’d aged 10 years and he was obviously confused. Over the course of lunch he got better, but as soon as we suggested that we’d like to give him a ride back to Vail, he insisted he was fine. “I know you are, but we’re worried about you and it’s no problem for us,” I told him. “So I’ll give you a ride and Harriet can drive your car back. Or if you’d rather, we can call Pete Junior, and ask him to come over.””No, no. I was a little tired but I feel better. I have some things to do. Just show me how to get out of here and I’ll be fine.”He had already told us he’d been so late because once he got into the subdivision, he couldn’t find the clubhouse. It is a little confusing, but we continued to insist that we’d just drive him home, and everyone would feel better about it. Finally he got a little cross and wouldn’t hear anymore about it. He walked out to his car in much better shape than when he arrived; we talked about meeting again the next week and then said goodbye and pointed him toward the street to the highway.We got in our car nearby and were leaving when we noticed that instead of being ahead of us, Pete was coming along very slowly and crookedly behind us. As I watched in the rearview mirror, he bounced three different times off the raised sidewalk that crosses a bridge over the Roaring Fork. “Jesus, he’s in bad shape,” I said to Harriet. “He can’t drive.”We pulled over at the end of the bridge and I jumped out to flag Pete down. But he just roared around us, giving me a wide berth as I stepped into the road, waving as he passed. I jumped back in the car. “We need to stop him. Call his son right away.”We had tried to reach Little Pete, as he is sometimes known, earlier when Big Pete was so late, to see if he knew where his dad was. We’d gotten his voice mail while he was out showing property. And that’s what I got again as Harriet handed me the phone, and I started to tell the recorder that we were worried about his dad, who was driving home right now in spite of us trying to talk him out of it. “If he isn’t there in an hour or so, please let us know and then see if you can locate him, because …”And then I watched Big Pete whip into the roundabout at the Aspen Glen entrance the wrong way, with us well behind and losing ground. “Uh-oh,” I said into the phone. “Damn, Pete, he’s really driving badly, maybe we can stop him, but if not, I hope you can make sure he’s gotten home all right,” I said as I roared through the roundabout the right way, fearing the worst.”I hope he doesn’t,” I was saying to Harriet, when I watched the back of his car head west on the eastbound side. “Oh, my God,” I shouted into my phone, forgetting I was just leaving a message, “he’s going the wrong way down the four-lane!”We couldn’t believe our eyes as we watched him accelerating madly away. I scanned the westbound traffic, trying to get on that side, trying not to yell into Little Pete’s voice mail. “This is really bad. We’re trying to catch him. There’s something really wrong. I just can’t believe it,” and on for another minute or so as I barged out into traffic, honking, yelling, trying not to lose sight of the Audi a half-mile away. Little Pete told me later that he saved the message for days, that he had never heard anything like it.We cut it off when Harriet suggested we call the police. As she did I could see eastbound vehicles suddenly veering wildly, bailing off into the dirt median, throwing up dust clouds and honking as Pete charged straight on and out of sight over a small hill.I shouted at the traffic on our side, “Damn, damn, damn! Get out of the way!” and leaned on the horn while Harriet urged me not to kill us, too, and tried to talk to the emergency operator.
“Yes, going the wrong way on Highway 82! Yes! We’re following him, we know him. We think he’s on strong medication. He has cancer.”Ahead it looked like an L.A. news video as traffic careened out of Pete’s way and I kept waiting for a big orange ball of flame. Then a tractor-trailer rig jack-knifed and a motorcycle went through the median and almost into our lane. As traffic on the eastbound side got heavier, Pete slowed slightly. We almost caught him as cars on our side pulled over to get out of the way of the cars abandoning the eastbound lanes, and to get out of my way, too. Still, Pete kept the pedal down.It went on like this for over three miles (we measured it later), with more and more cars and trucks spinning out, and I kept thinking he’d either hit someone at any second or realize what he was doing and pull off. But neither happened, and by now probably a hundred cars had been affected. Finally the traffic light at the CMC turnoff backed up cars on both sides, and we saw Pete turn off into a business parking lot as we passed by, two-and-a-half lanes away. He flipped a U, crossed over the eastbound lanes and then accidentally over the westbound lanes to a frontage road where he headed west to intercept the highway again at the light.By now there were other cars also chasing Pete, and I forced my way through the light to block him off on the frontage road, where I rolled down my window and said, in the kind of big voice I would have never imagined using with him, “Pete! You have to pull it over and park, right now!” Apparently it worked because he looked a little surprised and just said, “OK. Where?””Right over there,” I pointed at a convenience store. “I’ll follow you.”We no sooner got him parked and out of the car than we were joined by more irate people, while others came by glaring and gesturing. A guy on a motorcycle pulled in and parked nearby. During the next half-hour, while we waited for the police, I explained repeatedly to angry drivers that Pete was very sick, we didn’t know what happened, but were just glad no one was hurt. “Yeah, well I almost died, I swear to God,” the guy on the bike told me.Another man in a pickup was equally upset, but said he felt bad for Pete. His own father died of cancer (as did mine) and he hoped Pete would beat it. Eventually all but two of the other drivers left. One of them was on the phone every few minutes asking where the cops were, and the other just stayed to make sure, he said, that Pete didn’t do any more driving.Finally the angriest one told me that what concerned him the most is that he looked right at Pete’s face as he was headed for him at a combined speed of about 130 mph, and swore Pete knew exactly what he was doing and was trying to end it all and take someone else with him. He wanted to see Pete in jail, and wasn’t leaving until the police came.I finally convinced him that he just didn’t know Pete and that I did. “He’s talked to me about it,” I told this stranger. “He said if he ever thought he wasn’t going to make it, he’d go jump off the Royal Gorge bridge. He’s actually imagined it, fairly vividly. But he’d never try to hurt someone else. That just isn’t him.”It took another hour or so to persuade the police of the same thing once they finally arrived. During all of this Pete couldn’t figure out what had happened and didn’t remember anything, and Harriet kept him company while I negotiated. Pete Junior called during the proceedings and was able to make the difference between his father going home or going to a Glenwood Springs lockup.Then Harriet drove the Audi and I drove Big Pete most of the way through Glenwood Canyon, where we met Pete Junior at the Bair Ranch turnout. On the way, Big Pete and I talked, and he was extremely worried about what he’d done, but couldn’t recall any of it. “It must not have been too bad, though,” he remarked, “because they let me go.””It was pretty bad, Pete,” I said, seriously. “The good thing is no one was hurt. But they could have been.” He looked deeply pained and I felt bad. “I wish I could have had a camera mounted on your car. It must have been one hell of a ride,” I said and grinned stupidly at him.
When we met Little Pete, he was grateful and looked in shock. There was someone with him whom I babbled at for a while until I found out he was just the guy to whom Pete Junior was showing some property. “I didn’t have time to take him home when I got your message, and I needed someone to drive Dad’s car anyway.” In the face of considerable weirdness the man was very nice about it all.Two days later Pete Junior called and said that Big Pete had been in for a checkup and that the cancer had metastasized into his brain.”It was very sudden. He was fine when I saw him the day before he came over to see you. And when I met you there in the canyon, I thought he’d had a stroke. He looked completely different.”Little Pete went on to say that the prognosis wasn’t good, and that his dad still felt terrible about everything that had happened. They had surrendered his father’s license to the Glenwood police, which was part of the deal we’d struck, and Big Pete wouldn’t be driving any more. Necessary, obviously, but very sad. Driving was, at that point, probably the last thing Pete Seibert could still do that reminded him of his real, independent Big Pete self. Unknowingly, he closed out his life with another remarkable adventure. As Harriet said, driving back home that day, “He’s one incredibly lucky man. It wasn’t his time in World War II, and it just wasn’t his time again today. Fortunately for everyone else.”But a month later it was his time, and he went quietly. As we drove to the memorial service in Vail, I reran the whole episode again in my mind while we passed the site of the most insane three miles of driving I ever hope to see. It was horrifying and miraculous at the same time, like a fast-forward wrap of Seibert’s whole life, packed into one frantic five-minute burst that was, in the end, Big Pete’s last drive.Jay Cowan is editor of Aspen Sojourner magazine, author of “Best Of The Alps” and a longtime contributing editor at SKI magazine.