Earl Eaton, the quiet man behind Vail, dies at 85

Earl Eaton of Eagle, who died of cancer Sunday at the age of 85, never got rich for discovering Vail’s Back Bowls and helping turn the area into one of the nation’s most popular ski resorts.  But that never seemed to bother him.

Eaton found the area while prospecting for uranium in the mid-1950s, and in 1957 he showed Pete Seibert his find when Seibert was looking to develop the perfect ski area. Seibert gets most of the credit for “discovering” Vail, landing the initial investors and turning Vail into a mega-resort. But Eaton, a native Coloradan and far more laid back and unassuming, did a lot of the heavy lifting to put in chairlifts and trails in the early days before the ski area opened in 1962.

When I first interviewed Eaton a few years back, he came to my office, spread out maps of the ski area and dreamed about more terrain, more lifts and didn’t at all mind what had become of the valley where his family used to homestead. In fact he seemed kind of proud of the fact that he’d helped spark the wave of development that turned Vail into a global vacation destination.

Seibert, on the other hand, had a bit of New England swagger to him. The World War II hero who was wounded in action in Italy as a member of the famed 10th Mountain Division summoned me to a restaurant owned by his Austrian ski racing friend, Pepi Gramshammer, and proceeded to hold court on his role as Vail’s founder and his then-new book, “Triumph of a Dream.”

Seibert, who died in 2002, was forced out as head of Vail Associates in the wake of litigation following a 1976 gondola crash that killed four people. Eaton, who “just” served in the regular Army during World War II, never really assumed a major executive role with the ski company.

Eaton never sought attention for his critical role in finding Vail’s famous terrain. He even seemed a bit embarrassed in 2000 when Vail Resorts named a new bowl in their Blue Sky Basin expansion after him. Appropriately, Earl’s Bowl is right next to Pete’s Bowl in Blue Sky Basin, and skiers in the know will tell you Earl’s Bowl is just a little more mellow than Pete’s Bowl.

is an award-winning reporter who has covered energy, environmental and political issues for years. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Denver Post. He's founder of Real Vail and Real Aspen.