Earl Eaton, man who found Vail Mtn., dies | AspenTimes.com

Earl Eaton, man who found Vail Mtn., dies

Edward Stoner
Vail correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado

Earl Eaton was the man who knew Vail Mountain's terrain best, having hiked, hunted and skied in the area long before the resort opened. He died Sunday. (Vail Daily file)

VAIL, Colo. ” Earl V. Eaton, the man who first saw the potential of Vail Mountain as a ski resort, died Sunday.

He was 85.

The Eagle resident was diagnosed with cancer last year.

Eaton introduced Vail developer Peter Seibert to the Back Bowls in the late ’50s but remained in the background as Vail was built and grew into one of the world’s biggest ski resorts.

He was raised in a homesteader’s cabin on Squaw Creek near Edwards, where his family logged and ranched. Eaton hunted and hiked all over the area, climbing peaks around Breckenridge, Leadville and the Gore Creek Valley.

“He was an adventurer,” said his son Carl Eaton. “That’s pretty much what he did with his life.”

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After serving in the Army during World War II, he returned home and, with the ski industry burgeoning, started looking for a place for a new ski resort.

Eaton found some open bowls in the Two Elk Creek drainage ” now Vail’s famous Back Bowls ” and thought they might be a good spot for skiing. He and Lefty McDonald, a longtime friend, skinned up the nameless mountain in 1955.

“We didn’t ski the Back Bowls then,” McDonald said. “We climbed up to the top and could look down the Back Bowls. I said, ‘Boy, you hit that in 12 inches of powder it’s going to be terrific skiing.'”

Eaton started taking snow measurements to evaluate the area’s skiing potential.

“We knew he was always looking,” said Morrie Shepard, who met Eaton in Aspen in the late ’40s and later worked with him at Vail. “He said he was uranium prospecting, but he was an old-time skier, and was always looking, just like Pete was.”

In 1957, Eaton ascended the mountain with Seibert, with whom he had worked at Aspen and Loveland. Vail Mountain opened about six years later.

“Earl Eaton was the founder of Vail,” said Dick Hauserman, one of the original directors of Vail Associates. “He’s the one that located the spot, that knew about it. He had been all over those ridges when he was a little boy.”

Eaton worked for Vail as the ski area was built, helping with the construction of lifts and trails.

“Earl was the backbone of everything on the mountain at Vail,” said Shepard, Vail’s first ski school director. “Peter was more gregarious and the frontman for everything that got done, but Earl was right behind him doing all the work.”

Acquaintances called Eaton soft-spoken, honest and modest.

“He was a 100 percent honest person, and a handshake was a handshake, and it was better than a contract,” said Joe Staufer, a longtime Vail resident. “His word was his word. … He never took any credit for all the things he did, and he did a lot of things.”

Eaton would never talk about his role as the discoverer of ski terrain that would become world renowned, said Rod Slifer, who has lived in Vail since the early ’60s.

“Someone would ask him the question, and he would say, ‘Yep.’ That’s all,” Slifer said.

But Eaton quietly recognized his part in turning a sparsely populated county of ranches into a mecca of skiing, his son said.

“He’d joke around about it sometimes when there’d get to be all these issues with traffic and employee housing,” Carl Eaton said. “He used to joke around and say, ‘I guess that’s all my fault.'”

David Gorsuch, a Vail resident, owner of Gorsuch Ltd. and Olympic ski racer, knew Eaton in the mining town of Climax, where Gorsuch grew up and where Eaton worked. That was a few years before Vail was built.

“I remember when I just got out of high school and was working at Climax,” Gorsuch said. “I was going to Aspen to train and Earl said, ‘You ought to come over to Vail.’ I said, ‘What do you mean? Vail Pass?’ He said, ‘I think we’re going to have a ski area there, and it’s going to be something.'”

Vail now has 5,289 acres of skiable terrain and consistently ranks as No. 1 or No. 2 in SKI magazine’s annual ranking of North American resorts. Several years ago, Vail Resorts christened part of its new Blue Sky Basin area as “Earl’s Bowl” in honor of Eaton.

Eaton also recognized Beaver Creek as a potential ski area, skinning up Grouse Mountain with McDonald in 1955, too. Rancher Willis Nottingham declined to sell then, but years later Vail Associates developed the area into another world-class ski resort.

“We have lost a true Vail pioneer and an important contributor to the Colorado ski industry with the passing of Earl Eaton,” said Chris Jarnot, chief operating officer of Vail Mountain. “Pete Seibert was the first to acknowledge that although he was credited with founding the resort company, it was Earl who discovered Vail, and without him, it likely wouldn’t exist.

“All of us at Vail join the Eaton family in mourning his loss. We were all inspired over the years by Earl’s passion for the mountains, and we will miss seeing him joyfully riding Vail Mountain on his signature ski bike.

“His spirit will always be a part of the mountain.”

Eaton was inducted into the Colorado Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame in 1998.

While Eaton’s formal education didn’t go beyond high school, McDonald said “he had a Ph.D. in old-fashioned common sense and ingenuity.”

McDonald recalled working with Eaton to create the first snowmaking system in Colorado, at Ski Broadmoor in Colorado Springs. Slifer remembered Eaton creating surveying equipment partially out of aspen trees ” a contraption that worked just as well as the professionals’ gear.

As a young man, Eaton worked in mines at Climax and Kokomo. He also worked at several ski resorts, including Loveland, Ski Broadmoor and Aspen.

He was known for his adventurous spirit. He fished and hunted, and once rafted from Aspen to Lake Mead.

In his later years, he rode his hand-built ski bike, or “ski bob,” on the mountain he discovered ” he was the only person allowed to ride a ski bike during the mountain’s regular hours.

In summers, he searched for gold in the mountains south of Eagle and Edwards in hopes of a big strike.

“He was a mountain man,” Carl Eaton said.

Services have not been announced.

Eaton is survived by his ex-wife, Penelope; his children, Sherry, Micah, Carl and Carrie-Bronwyn; his grandchildren, Pamela Vigil and Christopher Eaton; and his sister Nettie Webber.

estoner@vaildaily.com