In the heart of Vail Village, on Bridge Street, you will notice a charming, quintessential Alpine lodge with an inviting deck. On sunny days, people gather on that deck to eat, drink, people watch, listen to music and party. After all, they’re on vacation! And what better way to relax than on Pepi’s deck at Gasthof Gramshammer’s – a Vail landmark, built by one of the town’s most beloved couples, Sheika and Pepi Gramshammer? Their story is a love story of sorts: for each other, and for Vail.
Born in the dramatically beautiful mountains surrounding Kufstein, Austria, in 1932, young Pepi Gramshammer was racing on alpine skis by the age of 10.
After finishing an apprenticeship in cheese making (C’mon, you didn’t think Austria was only known for composers and ski racers, right?), he made the move to nearby Innsbruck to join the skiers association and become a ski racer.
The 17-year-old wanted to be a ski racer, and the only way to be a ski racer in Austria is to be on the Austrian Ski Team. It took a few years, but Pepi’s first podium finish for an FIS race (International Federation of Skiing) came in 1953, when he won the Giant Slalom.
By 1955 he not only graduated from training to be a fully certified ski instructor, but he reached the second pinnacle of his young life – a member of the Austrian National Team.
And the podium finishes kept coming.
Giant Slalom wins in ’56, Downhill in ’57 and multiple wins in ’58 came to a head in the winter of ‘59 when Pepi won a Downhill in Chamonix, France, against fellow Austrian and ’56 Olympian, Ernst Hinterseer.
Summer months had been spent instructing and training at Stelvio Pass, at an exceptionally high elevation European ski area just a few jump turns over the Swiss border in northern Italy.
Pepi’s determination and drive, not to mention his skiing skills, had impressed German skiing Olympian and winter fashion entrepreneur, Willy Bogner. Pepi had been training and coaching Bogner’s son, Willy Jr.
“Go to Sun Valley,” Bogner Sr. suggested, “and work, as a celebrity ski instructor, for Sigi Engl”, another Austrian alpine race star who just happened to be Sun Valley’s ski school director.
Armed with his race winnings, off to America went Pepi, his stubborn resolve for success just beginning to show itself.
Hired as a ski instructor, and of course a handsome European who could ski the pants off most Americans, Pepi gave ski instruction to Sun Valley’s top guests, including a New York attorney named Cottie Davidson
Pepi also jumped at the chance to race professionally in the fledging International Professional Ski Racers Association. He was already a race circuit star in Europe, and immediately began winning races in America, collecting (and saving) even more prize money.
Sponsors covered most of his expenses, and none was more important than Howard Head, aircraft-engineer-turned-ski equipment-innovator. He believed in Pepi as a racer (and later as a hotelier), and the more races Pepi won the more money Pepi saved.
Still just in his late 20s, with a little bit of money and a little bit of fame and plenty of good looks to go along his sexy European accent, Pepi felt like he was on top of the world. He was in love with America and the opportunities she had provided.
Little did he know he had barely begun to scratch the surface of what was to be known as “The American Dream.”
Dick Hauserman, a principle initial investor in the concept of Vail, along with his wife, Blanche, was in Sun Valley during the winter of 1961. Dick had spent the previous twelve months crisscrossing the country searching for investors and generally trying to create a blizzard of interest in this yet-to-be-built ski area in the Colorado high country – to be named Vail.
A film, by soon to be legendary film-maker Roger Brown, was the most powerful tool in Dick’s marketing shed, and he was lucky enough to show the movie to Pepi.
“He showed me a film, a movie about Vail, and it was wonderful! I told him I would be in Colorado soon for a race and would love to see it for real,” Pepi recalls.
The race was in Loveland on April 15, 1962, and holding true to form Pepi topped the podium, winning a few thousand dollars in the process.
Hauserman had arranged for Pepi to be met by fellow Vail pioneers Pete Seibert, Bob Parker and Morrie Shepherd, who was a ski instructor with a guy named Rod Slifer from Aspen. (name sound familiar?)
So two days later the four men headed over the pass on Highway 6 to the Gore Creek Valley.
“They had one building, a snow cat, a lot of dirt down low and a lot of snow up top, and it was beautiful,” shares Pepi. But, Pepi especially loved how the entire village was to be developed right next to a ski mountain.
She was perfect! Every head in the bar was turning
and looking at her. Everyone wanted to talk with her!”
At one point Seibert, with Pepi and the others in tow, drove the snow cat to the top of the mountain known today as the “Top O’ Chair 4,” at which point, Pepi hopped out, took off, and did not stop until he reached the bottom. The snow was so amazing and the run so long he said to himself, or maybe even shouted it out loud (he doesn’t remember), “To hell with everyone, I could keep skiing FOREVER!”
That said, Forever was the first of two runs named by Pepi. The other, Wow. And today, to honor the esteemed athlete a Double Diamond run on Vail Mountain is known as Pepi’s Face.
Yes, that one long run into the forever depths of the back bowls was all it took for Pepi Gramshammer to fall in love with Vail that very day.
“This was the perfect place for me,” Pepi says in perfect reflection. “The mountain was perfect! I left Sun Valley and came to Vail. They were not happy that I was leaving.”
So that was that.
On April 17, 1962,Pepi moved to town, and Seibert immediately hired him as a professional racer to represent Vail on the race circuit.
Shepherd, who had hired on as Vail’s first Director of Ski School, employed him as a ski instructor as well, but Pepi was first and foremost still a racer, and since Vail Mountain had yet to open, his training continued.
In November, just weeks before Vail was set to open, Pepi was training in Aspen.
At the time, Sheika Moser was modeling in New York, when a friend, Barbara, invited her to visit Aspen.
Although she grew up in Austria, Seika had never learned how to ski, and thought going to Aspen would be a perfect opportunity to learn. So she hopped on a plane and, as the story goes, never looked back. She was introduced to Pepi at the Red Onion Bar (Aspen’s oldest watering hole and still on the pedestrian mall).
“Pepi was a real smart aleck!” Sheika reflects, “You could tell he thought he was God’s gift to women, but he was handsome.”
“She was perfect!” exclaims Pepi. “Every head in the bar was turning and looking at her. Everyone wanted to talk with her!”
The next day, Sheika was to have taken a ski lesson from Austrian skier, Anderl Molterer, the “Blitz from Kitz,” but he didn’t show up. Lo and behold, the handsome “smart aleck” happened by and offered to drive Barbara, Sheika and others up to the training area. Aspen was not yet open, so they had to slowly traverse a dirt road up the backside of the Highlands in order to reach snow.
Pepi spent the morning showing Sheika how to make a few basic maneuvers (such as standing up), then he would go off to train, and return every so often to give her a few more pointers before going back to train some more.
At one point everyone had suddenly skied down, and Sheika found herself stuck all alone at 3:30 in the afternoon alone at the top of Ajax Mountain. Scared and desperate, she thought she heard someone just over a ridge, and hiked over to find a lone individual.
It was Pepi. Prince Charming got Sheika down the mountain and asked her to dinner, as well. And, the rest, as is said – is history. In Vail, anyway.
The dinner went so well that Pepi invited Sheika to Vail for the December 15th Grand Opening, but her schedule didn’t allow it. She was, however, able to make it to Vail for Christmas, and it was during that extraordinary week she came to the sudden realization that this was her man.
“I was in love.”
And so it was. The couple’s engagement became official in January of 1963.
Sheika was still employed as a model in New York, and Pepi was heading back to Austria to teach at a summer ski camp in Italy, but the rest of the winter was spent with her traveling back and forth from Aspen, where she had gotten an apartment.
In March, while Pepi and Sheika were enjoying a lovely afternoon outside the Vail Village Inn, owner Gene Murphy did his best to persuade them both to stay in Vail, offering Pepi his option to purchase the land where the Gasthof now stands.
Pepi wasn’t too hot on the idea, although an ambitious part of him had always wanted to operate an Austrian-styled hotel. After all, although he did not know much on the business front, he knew how to ski – and make cheese. Sheika, on the other hand, was convinced they could build a little chalet, and it didn’t take too much arm-twisting to sway Pepi to her way of thinking. Besides, Pepi had saved a great deal of prize winnings. So, before long they signed a contract and bought the land.
They had exactly 12 months to begin construction or the contract would be ruled invalid according to a Vail Associates clause in all land contracts; one that promoted and prompted quick, but dedicated, growth to the novice ski area.
Building a new hotel in a new ski area is risky business, even for those with years of experience, of which Pepi and Sheika had basically none, but that was a mere detail to be dealt with over the summer months of 1964.
It also takes large sums of money, and although Pepi had saved conscientiously throughout his racing career, he needed investors. The search was not hard. He was able to secure his top sponsor, Howard Head, along with Sun Valley ski client Cottie Davidson, Jack Crosby and Walter Haenski from Switzerland.
Through attorney John Ferguson, Pepi signed the original land contract. “It was as thick as a book,” remarks Pepi. “I didn’t know what was in there. I believed everything John told me. When it came time to pay the bill, which was $5,000, John told me that Cottie had taken care of it. Later, when I saw Cottie and told him that I wanted to pay for the work, Cottie said that John had never sent him a bill. To this day, I do not know if Cottie paid him or if John never charged him. I thought, ‘Is it that easy to do business in this country?’ That’s how I got started – everyone helped me.”
When Pepi had traveled with the Austrian ski team and on the pro circuit, he had taken note of the details in the hundreds of different lodges, hotels, and motels in which he stayed. Certain things stood out, but he knew that, if he ever got the chance, he would do some things differently.
“Well, I got the chance!” Pepi says, with obvious pride.
The couple’s half- acre lot was on the west side of Bridge Street, just as people would cross the bridge to get to the ski mountain
The only structure at the corner of Bridge Street and Gore Creek Drive, Pepi knew their southern-facing deck would be a popular spot for sun-seekers on those cold, but sunny, winter afternoons. He was not only right, but it became, quite literally, a cornerstone for the rest of the Zermatt-styled Bridge Street on which to build.
So build they did.
That summer, with Pepi involved in the actual construction, Sheika attended the Barnes Business School in Denver to learn a few hotel business basics.
“During the weekends I was learning how to bartend over at the Red Lion and also managed the Plaza Building, for Dick Hauserman until we opened the hotel.
“The people of Vail helped us build our hotel,” says Sheika. “We had no idea what we were doing, but the goal was to make it. There was ‘togetherness’ in the community, we were nice to each other and helped each other. There was no jealousy. And we protected each other.”
On December 18, 1964, the Hotel Gasthof Gramshammer officially opened.
Twenty hotel rooms complimented the bar and restaurant, with seven dormitory-styled rooms down below, each with four beds, separated with one side for the ladies and the other for the men.
A room would set you back 19 big ones, but one of the dorm beds could be had for a mere 5 bucks.
The investment partners were the first guests that week before Christmas night and their first VIP, on Christmas Eve, was astronaut Scott Carpenter
Their circle of friends from those beginning years is still their circle of friends. According to Sheika. “My milestones to Heaven…” she says with a huge smile and a nod upstairs.
Believe it or not, the Hotel Gasthof Gramshammer is the only building on Bridge Street to never have been sold.
“We love our building! I love my Vail,” says Pepi, making sure he made his point!
As Vail grew, so did the Gasthof family. Kira was born in 1967, and “Little” Sheika in 1971.
It was in the late 1960s, when Pepi and Sheika’s friendship with President and Mrs. Gerald and Betty Ford began. It was the first time that the Ford family stayed at the Gasthof Gramshammer and, almost immediately, concluded that Vail was their favorite ski resort.
And, Pepi was President’s Ford’s favorite and only ski instructor. Once, with Pepi right behind him, the president, skiing a tad too fast, caught an edge and slid almost 100 feet down the slope.
“He was a pretty good skier,” says Pepi, “But I said to him, ‘hey, do me one favor…don’t ski so fast!’ ”
A few months before, during the ’76 election, a conversation about Pepi not able to vote because he was not an American citizen came up. “Pepi, every vote counts,” President Ford told him.
“Well Mr. President, if every vote counts, then I will become a US citizen!” responded Pepi.
And, so he did.
In 1976, the Gramshammers converted the dorm rooms on the lower level of the hotel into a nightclub called, of course, “Sheika’s,” after this spirited woman who, when the Vail Town Council refused her request to take down a few aspen trees, did the most logical thing and pruned them to the point where they died all on their own and thus had to be removed.
And, who, at Pepi’s 40th birthday party in 1972, rented a casket down in Denver. She was pulled over for speeding on her way home. And when the officer made the usual request of asking if she was aware that she was speeding, Sheika, at once, burst into real tears, and pointing at the casket in the back, sobbed,“I have a heavy load in there.”
Both Pepi and Sheika are filled with an unequaled passion, which is clearly evident. And together they helped form the very foundation of what became “Vail,” by promoting people and events such as the American Ski Classic, which brought racing champions and gold medal winners together for celebrity races, and the Crystal Ball, now known as the Black Diamond Ball.
The couple held fundraisers to send delegations to Australia for the FIS meeting that, in 1989, resulted in Vail holding the first World Ski Championships in the US since the 50s. And they continued those same traditions to help secure the Championships in 1999 and again in 2015.
“Who knows what’s going to happen here,” Pepi says, when asked about the next 50 years for Vail. “I would not make it much bigger, it’s important for us and the ski area to not grow any more. I have a good place here. I have everything I need here. If everything stays around here the same I will be happy…I will stay happy. Sheika and I want to keep the Gasthof the way it is.”
These days you’ll find Kira and Little Sheika and, perhaps, someday – grandchildren Kreek and Tirin – behind the desk or handling other duties at Gasthof.
“Family is number one,” says Sheika. “That’s all that matters to me. With all the things Pepi and I have done in our lifetime, the people we’ve met and the places we’ve been lucky enough to see – there’s nothing more important to me than our children, our grandchildren. Of course, Pepi is number one!”
“This is our place,” Pepi continues. “We built it. It is for our daughters when we are gone, if they want to sell it they can sell it, but…you don’t sell a place like this. It’s very difficult to get a place like this, no matter where you go now; you will never have a building like I have here. Maybe it’s not the biggest because I didn’t have the money, but at least I built it, and all these people helped me do it.”
“This is a love story, but love stories need people, and without them there is no love story,” adds Sheika. “The people of Vail shared their love with us, and us with them. Together we built something of value, and we are still here because of those bonds of love, and now it’s also our love for our guests. We always look forward to seeing them. The whole thing is an ongoing love story.”
And those guests still come in droves to the Gasthof Gramshammer, some even on their third generation of family visits to the Vail Valley.
Pepi skied 12 times last season, and can’t wait to give it another shot this winter. And just this past July 4th, for the annual “Vail America Days” parade, Pepi and Sheika shared the spotlight as the Official Parade Marshalls for 2015.
“I did a lot things here,” Pepi says, pointing out towards the lobby doors. “I did everything I wanted to do. I’m 83. I’m not the youngest anymore, but I can still remember things. I love the area here, you can’t beat it. This is the best ski area in America, and better than all of Europe. Nothing even comes close. I could never have done this in Austria. You can’t believe how lucky I am. No one is luckier than I.
“Yes, I love Vail very much!” exclaimed Pepi, as together we stood, signaling the end of the interview. Hesitating a beat, he turned and looked me straight in the eye, his smile worth more than a hundred podium finishes, and followed with, “But I love Sheika a little bit more.”
Credit: Vail Valley Magazine - Dec 10, 2015