Austrian ski legend and Vail pioneer Pepi Gramshammer passed away at the weekend, he was 87. He is survived by his wife Sheika, daughters Kira and Sheika, and two grandsons.
When Pepi and Sheika Gramshammer opened their hotel in Vail Village, it was, literally, the only thing on the corner of Bridge Street and Gore Creek Drive.
Gramshammer began skiing at the age of ten, moving to Innsbruck as a 17-year-old and joining the Innsbruck Skiing Association to ensure himself better training opportunities. He initially worked as a ski instructor in Igls, while also teaching skiing during the summer months on the Stevio Pass in Italy.
It would take him four years to work his way up the ranks to earn a spot on the powerful Austrian team of the 1950s, joining the likes of Toni Sailer, Anderl Molterer, Christian Pravda and Ernst Hinterseer. Gramshammer’s first major international victory came in 1956 in a Giant Slalom in Obergurgl, Austria.
Following the conclusion of his amateur career in 1960, Gramshammer moved to the United States, settling in Sun Valley, Idaho to teach skiing with Kitzbuhel native Siegfried Engl, who served as the ski school director. He also jumped aboard the newly-created U.S. Professional Ski Tour, becoming the circuit’s top racer in 1962, sponsored by Head skis, Nordica boots and Look/Nevada bindings.
Pepi Gramshammer was one of the fastest men on the professional ski racing circuit in the early 1960s, and was an instructor at Sun Valley, Idaho. He was lured to Vail in 1962 by Dick Hauserman, Bob Parker and Morrie Shepard. During a quick tour of the ski area, he had to hike from the bottom to the top of a bowl, which took some time, even for a young, ultra-fit ski racer. That's when the Forever run got its name, and Parker hung Pepi with the nickname “Forever.”
But Gramshammer fell in love with the fledgling ski area. He liked the high elevation — which meant more skiing — as well as Vail's proximity to Denver and its location in the middle of the country.
Gramshammer had a chance to buy into the resort. His first idea was to build a little chalet with a ski shop and an apartment upstairs. But the town's only ski shop had a three-year exclusive deal at the time, so plans changed. While on the road with the Austrian national ski team, and later on the professional circuit, Pepi noticed little and big things about the hotels he spent so much time in. “I saw things I'd like to do if I ever got the chance,” Pepi said. “Well, I got the chance.”
With partners including Howard Head, Ronny Balcomb and “Cotty” Davison, he started work on a hotel. His partners were his first guests when the hotel opened Dec. 18, 1964. The hotel opened Dec. 18, 1964. The rooms were finished, but guests had to help carry furniture up, and the ceiling on the bar wasn't finished.
Shortly after coming to Vail, Pepi met Sheika Moser at a race in Aspen in January of 1963. The two Austrians fell hard for each other and were engaged within weeks. They were married in February, 1964.
With Pepi on the road for much of the winter, running the hotel fell to Sheika. Neither really knew anything about the hotel business, so Sheika got to work learning.
She took a six-month business management course at the Barnes School of Business in Denver. When not in class, she tended bar at the Red Lion and worked the front desk at the Lodge at Vail.
The new hotel in town was called the Hotel Gasthof Gramshammer, to reflect the name of the owner and, to Europeans anyway, convey a very specific idea of hospitality. It also laid one of the cornerstones of the European style Vail has mimicked so successfully for so long.
In the summer of 1966, Gramshammer, along with fellow Austrians Erich Sailer and Anderl Molterer, founded the Red Lodge International Summer Ski Racing Camp in Red Lodge, Montana in an effort to help teach alpine ski racing techniques to American youth. He also created training programs for adults in Vail called “Wedel Weeks”.
Over the years, the hotel has hosted any number of celebrities, from actors to pro athletes and others. But after Gerald Ford became president in 1974, the political celebrities started coming, too.
When President Gerald R. Ford made Vail the Western White House during ski vacations, Pepi was one of his most frequent companions, both on and off the slopes. “Don’t worry about the White House,” advised Gramshammer, “you’re skiing now”. As a result of this friendship between the Fords and the Gramshammers, the President and Mrs. Ford returned the favor, hosting Pepi and his wife Sheika at the White House.
But perhaps the Gramshammer’s greatest contribution to the Vail Valley has come from their love of skiing and ski racing. Through the proceeds of their annual Crystal Ball, which celebrated its final chapter in 1998, over $2 million was raised and donated to ski-related organizations and programs throughout the gala’s 20-year run, with beneficiaries including the Vail Valley Foundation, the U.S. Ski Team, Ski and Snowboard Club Vail and Vail Resort’s Adaptive Ski Program. Pepi also served on the board of directors of the Vail Valley Foundation for 20 years.
Gramshammer was instrumental in helping to return World Cup ski racing to the Vail Valley in 1983, along with helping to direct the campaigns to bring the 1989, 1999 and 2015 FIS Alpine World Ski Championships to Vail and Beaver Creek. He also created the Legends of Skiing competitions in conjunction with Vail’s annual American Ski Classic, while being inducted into the Colorado Snowsports Hall of Fame in 1990.
Pepi has been fortunate enough to enjoy a very special love affair with Vail since day one. During the 1994 FIS Congress in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, he stepped to the microphone as part of the Vail/Beaver Creek World Championships presentation and laid it out for the international delegation. "I was born and raised in Austria and I am proud of that”, Gramshammer explained. “But my home is Vail, Colorado and I love that.
“I wanted to be somebody, to show people I could do things,” Pepi said. “That's why I was on the ski team. I could never have done this in Austria.”
A memorial service for family and close friends has been scheduled for Monday, August 26, at 11 a.m. at the Vail Interfaith Chapel. A reception will follow at Pepi’s. A community Celebration of Life will be hosted at the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater in September.
In lieu of flowers, the family has requested that donations be made in Pepi’s name to the Colorado Snowsports Museum, Vail Health Hospital or the Vail Valley Foundation, targeted for World Cup ski racing.