Somewhere around 8 a.m. on Saturday, August 17, the heart of Vail, Colorado skipped a beat. The air in the heart of Vail Village seemed to become lighter and a sense of calm settled over the Gasthof Gramshammer.
Austrian ski legend and Vail pioneer Pepi Gramshammer had left his beloved valley for a higher place – he was 87. He is survived by his wife Sheika, daughters Kira and Sheika, and two grandsons.
Gramshammer spent the waning days of his storied life in the place he loved most–Vail. His hospital room’s window looked out on Vail Mountain and the Riva Ridge ski run. His family played video thank you messages from other ski racing legends including, Mikaela Shiffrin, Franz Klammer, Hermann Maier, and Annemarie Moser-Proell, along with celebrities Arnold Schwarzenegger and Wolfgang Puck. Many in the Vail Valley will forever wonder what could have been or, more appropriately, what might not have been if Pepi Gramshammer had decided that he was a better cheesemaker than a ski racer. Born in Kufstein, Austria in 1932, he was determined to make the Austrian National Ski Team following the completion of his apprenticeship making cheese.
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. That same year, Pepi was approached with another new opportunity, a fledgling ski resort in Colorado called Vail. Resort pioneer Dick Hauserman showed him a film about the new ski area that impressed Gramshammer enough to agree to meet with developers Pete Seibert, Morrie Shepard, and Bob Parker, following a pro race at Loveland. The next day, the men visited the mountain and skied the Back Bowls.
Pepi credits his decision to move to Vail to Hauserman and his wife, Blanche. “It was the best move I ever made in my life,” he maintained. Initially, Gramshammer worked for the ski school, but the lion’s share of his responsibilities came in public relations and racing for Vail. He quickly became the resort’s Ski Ambassador, showing people around the mountain.
At the conclusion of his first season, Pepi approached Hauserman with an idea—he wanted to make Vail his home. Gramshammer had always harbored a desire to operate an Austrian-style hotel and wanted to build one in his adopted home. With the help of investors that included Howard Head, Endicott Davison, Edward Lynch, and Jack Crosby, Gasthof Gramshammer and Pepi Sports became
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”.
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.”
Throughout his life and career, Pepi Gramshammer has truly been the heartbeat of Vail, embodying the American “can do” spirit, along with the fun that is skiing. His love for his adopted home and for all things skiing will remain as his lasting legacy and gift to Vail. The Vail Valley, along with everyone that visits Vail and Beaver Creek each year, most certainly owes the cheesemaker a great debt of thanks. 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.