Earl Eaton, a prospector who spotted the potential of a then-nameless Colorado peak in 1957 and helped transform it into Vail Mountain ski resort, has died. He was 85.
Eaton, who was diagnosed with cancer last year, died Sunday at his home in Eagle, Colo., his family announced.
"If it hadn't been for Earl discovering the mountain, there likely wouldn't be a Vail today," said Chris Jarnot, chief operating officer of Vail Mountain, a division of the company that grew from Eaton's seven-hour scouting trip.
With his friend Peter Seibert, Eaton had searched since 1947 for the ideal site to develop a new ski area. While pausing during the eight-mile ascent through deep snow, Seibert said: "My God, we've climbed all the way to heaven."
"It gets better, Pete," Eaton responded, according to Seibert's 2000 book, "Vail: Triumph of a Dream."
A Colorado native who grew up strapping on homemade skis, Eaton was about to reveal "the damnedest ski mountain he had ever seen," Seibert wrote.
At the summit, "we looked at each other and realized what we both knew for certain," Seibert wrote. "This was it!"
Eaton, who had prospecting claims on the mountain, theorized that it had remained undeveloped because its top slopes and wide-open back bowls could not be seen from the valley below. They kept their plans a secret, Eaton later said, because "everyone back then was looking for that special mountain" that could be a ski resort, especially one relatively close to Denver.
Pretending they were founding a rod-and-gun club, they began buying land for $110 an acre at the foot of what would become Vail Mountain, which opened Dec. 15, 1962. The site was named after a nearby mountain pass.
Seibert "was the force behind getting everything going," Eaton told the Rocky Mountain News in 2002. "He got a lot of the right people interested in the beginning," persuading a small band of partners to invest in what was "just a sheep pasture and a mountain."
But Seibert always gave Eaton credit for his crucial role.
"I'm the founder of Vail," Seibert said, "but Earl is the finder of the mountain."
After their initial climb, Eaton spent two years building ski lifts and trams elsewhere, "all with the idea of preparing myself to build Vail," he said in the book.
At Vail, he supervised the cutting of the first runs and building of the first lifts. He was a full partner who owned 21,000 shares of Vail stock and an acre in the valley on which he built a house, the Rocky Mountain News reported in 1999.
Eaton recalled building a number of other Vail structures -- restaurants, lodging, shops and a ski gondola that was Colorado's first.
"He was instrumental in the formative days of Vail . . . as an engineer and a blue-collar guy who quietly worked behind the scenes to get things done," Justin Henderson, curator of the Colorado Ski and Snowboard Museum and Hall of Fame, told The Times. "Earl Eaton is viewed as an early pioneer who helped put the resort on the map."
Vail would become one of the nation's most popular ski resorts, driven in part by its family-friendly terrain. Today the ski area covers 5,290 acres and has 32 chairlifts; the resort drew 1.6 million skiers and snowboarders during the 2006-07 season.
After the resort opened, Eaton was effectively the manager of the mountain but was turned down when he sought an expanded role, according to the 1999 Rocky Mountain News story.
He left Vail and worked as a consultant on other ski areas, but didn't make much money. Devising a sort of ski bicycle, he tried to popularize ski-bobbing, which was big in Europe but didn't catch on here.
With four children to support, in the late 1960s he began selling his Vail stock and his property. Seibert would not sell his stake in the resort until 1976, after a gondola accident killed four skiers and he feared lawsuits; he died in 2002.
Later in life, Eaton prospected for gold in the mountains around his home.
He skied until he was 84.
Earl Vanreed Eaton was born Dec. 10, 1922, on an Eagle County, Colo., homestead to Carl and Erma Eaton.
At 17, he left home and worked in Colorado mines, but was soon drafted into the Army. He helped build Camp Hale, where Colorado ski pioneers trained to fight as the 10th Mountain Division, and spent more than two years in Europe during World War II.
Back home, he returned to the mines, then became a ski patrolman in Aspen, where he befriended Seibert, a veteran of the 10th Mountain Division. They always shared a "desire to find the perfect ski mountain," Seibert wrote in his book.
During their arduous, historic climb, Seibert said, "God, I hope this is worth the trip." The soft-spoken yet direct Eaton eventually replied, "Hunting for a good ski mountain is never a waste of time."
Eaton, who was divorced, is survived by his children, Sherry, Micah, Carl and Carrie-Bronwyn; two grandchildren; and a sister.