Norwegian Olympian Trygve Berge reflects on founding of Breck ski area
BRECKENRIDGE — From his studio apartment in downtown Breckenridge, near where the Lower Four O’Clock ski run meets pavement, Trygve Berge looks out at Breckenridge Ski Resort.
It’s one of the world’s most popular ski destinations. And it also happens to be a playground that many Summit County locals believe wouldn’t exist as it does without the input of the 1956 Norwegian Olympic skier — the forefather of modern Breckenridge and a former farm boy from Voss, Norway.
Seven decades after he and his family survived Nazi occupation and a half-century after he had the aha moment that the Tenmile Range could become a ski area, Berge, 87, is still a Breckenridge local. After he has his cup of coffee and doughnut in the morning, Berge will walk up and down the town’s steep streets to “get my pump going,” as he says, before meeting up with friends. On days where he can go ski the mountain, about 10 days this past winter, he describes the snow as “the best in the world.” Heck, last June, he wore sunglasses and a white, purple and teal retro ski get-up while riding Peak 7’s spring slush.
Along with fellow Breckenridge Ski Resort co-founders Sigurd Rockne and Bill Rounds, Berge is the man who put Breckenridge on the map. He’s the man who was the guiding force in laying out the ski runs off, say, the Colorado SuperChair. And when you consider his success as a Norwegian championship and Olympic Alpine skier and his years of community impact instructing thousands in the ski school at Breckenridge, he’s the Alpine skiing winner of the Summit Daily’s Peak Performers contest.
“I always felt that this was my home,” Berge said recently, a month shy of his 88th birthday.
Long before Berge — and fellow 1956 Norwegian Olympic Alpine skier Rockne — laid out the first runs on Peak 8, he dreamed of being an architect. As a child, Berge was an accomplished gymnast in Norway, a talent that aided his ski skills, which came on ski jumps and cross-country courses.
Berge was 8 years old when the Nazi occupation began. Berge and other neighborhood Norwegians weren’t permitted to gather to ski or do most anything else, including attend church. Still, when not working on the family farm, the young Berge would sometimes ski tour to visit neighbors, keeping the passion alive.
After the occupation concluded, Berge essentially stumbled on the Alpine version of skiing, winning his first race through gates.
“I walked over to the mountain that morning, hadn’t seen these people, and this lady said, ‘Why don’t you ski through it and see how you’re doing,’” Berge said. “So I skied through it, and I won my class, and that was the end of it.”
Once the gymnast-turned-downhill skier realized his potential, he put his architecture dreams on hold and moved to Oslo, where many of the country’s best Alpine skiers were located. He won the Norwegian downhill national championship a couple of years later in 1956, the same year the then-23-year-old DQ’d in the Cortina d’Ampezzo Olympic downhill after he lost a ski mid-race.
It was during this time that Berge grew close with the man he said was his best ski instructor, Norwegian Olympic medalist and skiing’s first superstar Stein Eriksen.
“I ski more like Stein than Stein does,” Berge said with a laugh.
Berge followed Stein to the United States, which eventually led him to Breckenridge. On the lookout for areas with good slopes and exposure to the sun, Berge said the first time he laid eyes on the Tenmile Range, he knew a ski area was a must.
After the Peak 8 Ski Area, as it was originally called, opened in December of 1961, Berge, along with Rockne, taught the Peak 8 Ski School for the next decade. As Peak 8 Ski Area, and eventually Breckenridge Ski Area, grew in the ensuing years, Berge and Rockne went to consumer shows in places like Detroit, Chicago and Minneapolis to promote skiing. In one case, in Milwaukee, Berge showed off his fabled gymnastics-inspired somersaults on ice atop a ramp sprayed by a local brewery. In another favorite memory, Berge skied atop hairbrush-like plastic bristles at one of President Richard Nixon’s inaugurations.
As ski area ownership evolved and as his role at Breckenridge changed, Berge remained a Breckenridge local. He helped teach future freestyle ski stars like Scott Rawles, who once worked at Berge’s ski shop near Ski Hill Road.
As Berge skis into his ninth decade on snow, he still has the Peggy Fleming-like grace he prided himself on for so many years. If he were to chose one final run at Breckenridge, it would be off the Imperial Express SuperChair and down into Upper Four O’Clock, Mach One and eventually Sawmill — the heart of the Peak 8, 9 and 10 terrain he eyed to ski all those years ago.
Home in his apartment amid the coronavirus pandemic, Berge laughs about how he’s been “doing the elbow thing” with people around town during his daily walks rather than shaking hands. Reflecting on his life, Berge says he hopes he’s known as a guy who was always out there, doing his best with whatever he had.
Berge explains how in Norwegian “Trygve” means “trust” and “Berge” is the derivative of “mountain” or “cliff.”
In a way, beginning in 1961, Breckenridge trusted its mountain to Berge. And for that, he’s thankful.
“Breckenridge is a place that you call home, while Aspen or Vail isn’t,” Berge said. “You can live there, but it doesn’t feel like home. Not to me, anyway.”