Steamboat Springs Vernon Summer, who personified the historic bridge between the ranching and skiing communities in Routt County, died peacefully in his easy chair at the Doak Walker Care Center on Tuesday night. He was two weeks shy of his 95th birthday.
Summer, who spent his life on the family ranch in the South Valley in an area known as Sidney, could ride a pair of Alpine skis as well as he sat a horse. And he was a heckuva horseman.
Always open to change, Summer embraced Steamboat Springs’ evolution into a resort of international stature.
“He was a gentleman and a very gentle man,” longtime friend Jane McLeod said Wednesday.
Another friend, Jayne Hill said Summer could be counted on to remember precise details about the valley’s pioneer families.
“He had absolutely the most amazing memory, Hill said. He remembered what room in the house people were born in and why they named their children what they did. If a family had been here for long, he would remember it all.”
Summer served on the National Ski Patrol from 1961 to 1976 and spent a decade on the Steamboat Ski Patrol, acting as its leader in 1964 and 1965. He earned many NASTAR medals in citizens’ ski races on Mount Werner.
During his 90th birthday party at the Tread of Pioneers Museum in 2007, Summer told a story about a backcountry skiing adventure he shared with Dick Randolph, John Fetcher and local high school student Larry Larson in 1954. Randolph would go on to play a role in establishing the Jackson Hole ski area, and Fetcher soon would become instrumental in planning and developing Steamboat Ski Area.
But in early spring 1954, with heavy snow on the Continental Divide, they were intent only on adventure.
The men took off up the Rainbow Lake Trail from the North Park side of the Park Range. They were on a mission to test the latest survival equipment, including eider down pants and sleeping bags, Summer recalled. They camped the first night in a tent at Slide Lake, just above Rainbow Lake. The next morning, they set out for the 11,923-foot summit of Mount Ethel.
"I remember that the wind had blown the snow off the summit, and it was bare," Summer said. "But we did see six ptarmigan."
Retreating from the mountaintop to the west side of the Continental Divide, they camped a second night at Windy Gap. The third day, they skied down the range into Strawberry Park, and they were home.
Summer’s father, Louis, was just 13 in 1898, when his family of 14 arrived in the Yampa Valley by horse-drawn wagon and set up ranching from a log cabin near the now-vanished town of Sidney.
Summer was born in town in a stone house on Pine Street but spent most of his time on the ranch and attended first through eighth grade at the old Sidney Schoolhouse.
McLeod said Summer and his late wife, Edythe, married late in life in 1962, and they had no children. They met at a Farmer’s Union dance in the Sidney Schoolhouse in 1943, but it was another 19 years before they wed.
Edythe died in 1991, and Summer had been declining from heart problems for some time, McLeod said.
In June 1970, Summer sensed the pace of change in the valley increasing and accepted a position on the Steamboat Springs Planning Commission, saying, “I feel that the influx of people here is inevitable, and orderly planning is a must in the interests of the people that live here now and those that are coming.”
Vernon Summer’s unfailing acceptance of the changes the ski resort has brought to the rural character of the Yampa Valley has indelibly influenced a younger generation that will carry on after him.
“Vernon embraced the opportunities that skiing brought to this community because he embraced the outdoors so much,” Hill said. “He embraced the new as well as the traditional, and certainly, he was the historian here. He remembered it like it was.”
To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com