Sunday, December 18, 2011

Breckenridge Marks 50 Years of Skiing

The morning itself may have been similar to Dec. 16 half a century ago, but celebrated skiing pioneer Trygve Berge noticed quite a few changes.

In particular, he was treated like a celebrity. And, as he skied the fresh corduroy he's come to enjoy, he pointed out that the soft, man-made snow churned up by groomers was a commodity not available in 1961.

There were just a handful of Breckenridge celebrities gathered for the “understated” start of Breckenridge Ski Resort's 50th birthday, spokeswoman Kristen Petitt-Stewart said, but it was great to see Berge doing what he's been doing for the last 50 years. He rode the first chair along with his friend Greg Gutzki; Nancy Macy, who rode the first chair in 1961 and still skis four days a week; and Bob Brown, who was born on Dec. 16, 1961 and was granted the wish to ride first chair.

“It was a special moment,” she said. “It probably wasn't that dissimilar to when they took the lift 50 years ago. It was a cool, crisp morning that was memorable.”

Berge, who turns 80 on April 19, doesn't mind being recognized for his work in starting the ski resort; in fact, he says he sort of likes feeling like a movie star. But he acknowledges he's just a regular person.

“It's fun to be recognized, but other than that, I'm just me,” he said.

He's also quick to say his wasn't the only hand at work in recreating the town of Breckenridge by starting the ski resort.

“It was Sigurd (Rockne) and me who got the ball rolling,” he said.

Rockne, who still lives in Breckenridge, was not available for comment Friday.

Berge was invited to the United States by 1952 Olympic gold medalist Stein Eriksen, his friend and employer in Voss, Norway, where Berge mounted steel edges on 12,000 pairs of skis to make a living during ski racing. (He competed in the 1956 Olympics in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy, but didn't place. He lost his ski just before the finish.)
Eriksen had come to the United States, lending a hand and making a living off ski area startup. He wanted Berge to run his ski schools in Heavenly, Aspen and Boyne Mountain, Mich. — a role he'd fall into again once Breckenridge's lifts started turning. Trygve's is still the learning area at the mountain. (Ericksen still lives in Deer Valley, Utah.)
While he was in Aspen, a friend, Bill Rounds, encouraged Berge and Rockne to visit the open valley between the Continental Divide and the Tenmile Range that was to be flooded to create Dillon Reservoir. They saw the opportunity to build there, and created the Norwegian Construction Company and built the Anthem Lumberyard, which would eventually become the Breckenridge Building Center. That was in the fall of 1960.

Birth of a ski area

“There was nothing here, just rock piles all over,” Berge said. They planned to build cabins around the lake, but wondered what people would do in winter.

Rounds asked if it might be possible to ski. So they set out to scout.

“We looked at the slopes, the snow, the exposure, and rode up the old mining road to where the Colorado Superchair ends right now,” Berge said. The threesome hiked to the top, and decided they'd build the ski area. They headed back to the car, pulled out some scotch, mixed it with spring water spouting from the hillside nearby, and tossed one back to the ski area. Not long after, they had the permit to move forward.

They marked the runs in the spring and summer of 1961, and crews from Aspen came to cut the slopes. That winter, the ski area opened with Springmeier (named for an old mining character who lived next to the Gold Pan), Rounder's Run and Callie's Alley (named after Rounds and his wife), Eagle Lane at the bottom and the Constam T-bar on Trygve's beginner area.

Building a town

A sliver of the land of opportunity, Breckenridge attracted all kinds of entrepreneurs. Unlike Vail, which was funded by investors, Breckenridge was build more haphazardly, with developments scattered throughout the valley.

“It was a crazy time,” Berge said, though it was exciting for him to see people coming with new ideas; ideas both for building the town and having fun. “The enthusiasm was incredible.”

Locals who remained in the mining version of Breckenridge thought the skiers were nuts.

“They didn't understand the future of the skiing business,” Berge said.

Meanwhile, the town was dying, and just a few hundred people remained.

“Without the ski area, there would be nothing here,” he said.

Changes: The best and the worst

Berge commends the direction leaders have taken the town — from its visual appeal to the economy on which it thrives. He appreciates the investments (though, he admitted he sometimes thinks it's too much) in various activities that cater to broad audiences, such as the recpath.

However, he laments the change in opportunity. It's not as easy for people to come and make a life here, between the town's red tape and the already developed valley.

“It's so hard to do something small anymore,” Berge said.

And though skiing has remained a somewhat social activity, younger generations view it somewhat less so than the old-timers, who still take the time to meet each other at Fatty's on Ridge Street after a day of skiing — as they did on Friday to kick off Breckenridge's afternoon of festivities. Some of them have known each other since the beginning, or at least for several decades.

Nonetheless, Berge

Looking back and looking forward

The expansions since the start of the Peak 8 Ski Area fall into Rounds', Berge's and Rockne's original vision. Berge said he vizualized the entire Tenmile Range being a ski area, with Peak 1 and Bill's Ranch making the most ideal terrain. He'd walked the land in its entirety, and envisioned a monorail connecting it all together.

Berge smiles and his gaze is far away as his hand demonstrates the graceful turns and jumps of the long, wide moguls formed by straight skis.

He remembers the days when he and Rockne were strong youths, building houses, cutting trails and creating the ski area's foundations for ski instruction.

“We've always been close friends and nothing will change that,” Berge said. He laughs and looks away shyly when asked to share stories of their friendship — he never did spill any beans.

Eventually, Rockne moved into the restaurant business while Berge stayed in ski school and ski shops. Both still live close, with Rockne in Breckenridge and Berge renting here and living primarily in Lakewood.

“I don't like to shovel snow, but I like to ski on it,” he said with a grin.

As he reflected on the many years spent dedicated to Breckenridge, he said, “It's good to look back, but it's kind of sad; I don't know where those 50 years went. It's also good to look forward, because the future doesn't seem to come as fast as the past goes.”

Courtesy Summit Daily News