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Nearly a century ago, Earl Eaton skied on the slopes that would become Vail Ski Resort and Beaver Creek Ski Resort. And without him, those ski areas—as well as numerous others throughout Colorado–would not exist as we know them today.
To commemorate his legacy, Beaver Creek opened the Eaton Haus earlier this month, a new warming hut at the resort’s recently launched beginner terrain at McCoy Park—complete with sweeping views that Earl saw before any other skier.
“This is still his backyard, even though he’s looking at it from above,” Carl Eaton says of his father, Earl, waving toward the panorama of peaks that can only be seen from the Eaton Haus’ back patio. As Beaver Creek’s lift maintenance director of 39 years, Carl gets emotional speaking about his father, who was the visionary behind Vail and Beaver Creek and died in 2008 at the age of 85.
“He literally grew up here,” Carl says. “That’s where he used to go trap pine martens, shoot elk, and live off the land. Every direction I look from here is something that he showed or taught me.”
Born in 1922, Earl grew up on a homestead and attended school at a small red schoolhouse, both of which still stand in what is now the upscale subdivision of Cordillera west of Beaver Creek. Earl often explored the surrounding slopes that would later become major resorts on skis that his father made for him.
“Grandpa, who I’m named after, ran the big sawmill operation at Beaver Lake,” Carl says. “There are still remnants of it. They logged a lot of [what] is McCoy Park now. If you come out in the summer, you’ll see the old snags.”
Earl helped build the barracks at nearby Camp Hale that were used to train the famed 10th Mountain Division, which he wanted to join himself, but he had already become part of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). He worked with the government group in Aspen, where skiing (sans chairlifts) was becoming more popular. He was later drafted to serve in World War II.
After the war, however, Earl returned to the slopes with big ideas. The dream was to build a ski area. Earl had originally set his sights on what is now Beaver Creek, but due to land ownership obstacles, he was forced to explore further afield, discovering what is now Vail.
While working for the Aspen Ski Patrol he took his friend Peter Seibert, an Aspen ski instructor and fellow dreamer, up to Vail’s 11,570-foot summit. The trek took about seven hours. From the top, they could take in the sprawling terrain that would become Vail’s Back Bowls.
“The big worry was that the Back Bowls wouldn’t hold snow,” Carl says. “Dad started hiking up once a month to take snow measurements from mid-Vail and the Back Bowls. Just think about that. Going up on skins on that equipment in those days to see if your ski area is going to hold enough snow to make it worthwhile.”
It turned out to be worthwhile. Earl and Pete opened Vail in 1962, followed by Beaver Creek in 1980. Earl then continued to explore untapped terrain, including what is now Copper Mountain. “He was probably the first person to ever ski that, too,” Carl says.
Earl also helped with development at Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands, Sunlight Mountain Resort, and Purgatory Resort. He even continued to help shape Vail and Beaver Creek into the expansive paradises they are today.
“Dad was always a visionary about the type of terrain more people could enjoy,” Carl says. “He always thought about having good intermediate terrain that’s still challenging, how many skiers per acre you’d put on a certain green or blue run, and how wide you’d want to make it. Our runs here, there’s plenty of room.”
Carl’s first memory of skiing with his dad is not at Vail or Beaver Creek, but in the driveway of the house he grew up in across Interstate 70 from Vail. And he recalls plenty of other fond moments, including skiing the backcountry and sidecountry with his father, who later in life traded his skis in for a ski bike.
More than anything, Carl describes his father as an adventurer. “That’s who he was,” Carl says. “There were no barriers for him on anything. He was such a humble soul, pretty quiet, kept to himself. But if you got him talking … look out.”
Carl expects to spend a lot of time taking in the views and channeling his father’s spirit from the Eaton Haus deck. As far as Earl’s legacy, Carl says it would take multiple encyclopedic volumes to account for all of his adventures and contributions to Colorado skiing. “He was like the Jack Kerouac of the ski industry, “ Carl says. “He was just a pioneer.”
(Read more: 4 Colorado Ski Resorts Celebrate Major Anniversaries This Season)