Dave Gorsuch embodied the mountain life

It was a gorgeous winter evening as a young boy joined his father on the T-bar at Chalk Mountain outside Climax, Colo. When they reached the top at around 12,000 feet, a full moon was creeping up over the ridgeline. They looked back down at the majestic floodlit slope. After a moment, dad skied over to the lift shack and flipped a switch, turning off the lights and flipping on the moonlight for a father-son cruise down the backside of the mountain to their home.

Such was life for young David Gorsuch. His father, Jack, was one of those ski area pioneers who bootstrapped lifts onto mountains and introduced a passionate generation to the sport of skiing. Young David would go on to become one of America’s great ski racers and forge a lifelong relationship with the love of his life, skier Renie Cox, as icons of the retail ski industry with the Gorsuch brand.

Gorsuch, who was 82, passed away June 26 at his home in Vail. A celebration of his life will be held Monday, July 19 at the Ford Amphitheater in Vail.

Lessons learned as a child

Hitching a ride up Chalk Mountain in Climax, Colo. with father Jack around 1940. (Gorsuch Collection)

The values instilled in young David growing up in the tiny high-mountain town of Climax never left him over his eight decades. He stayed close to his teammates and loyal to his friends. He worked hard every day of his life, always had a friendly smile and was rewarded with lifelong friendships.

Most of all, that cultural connection with the mountain life never left him. He was truly at home in the High Country of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains.

Life was pretty simple up in Climax, which sat atop Fremont Pass along state route 91 between Copper Mountain and Leadville. The Climax molybdenum mine started production in 1918 and grew to become the world’s largest mines. During World War II it was a vital resource because of molybdenum’s importance in hardening steel.

In 1935, father Jack and others began clearing land on Chalk Mountain for a ski area. It would become the first in Summit County. They also formed the Continental Ski Club, which continued for three decades. The company town sat at around 11,300 feet and was the highest inhabited town in America. But in the mid-60s, its buildings were literally moved to Leadville and it soon became a ghost town.

The company town of Climax, Colo. sat at the base of Chalk Mountain. (Colorado Snowsports Museum)

David was born in 1938, on the eve of the war. His father had learned to ski on Grand Mesa in western Colorado in the ‘20s using wooden skis he carved himself. He worked with the mining company and convinced them to let he and wife Zella build a rope tow on Chalk Mountain. It was fortuitous in many ways. As World War II wore on, the concept of ski troops evolved into the fabled 10th Mountain Division, which was based at nearby Camp Hale. Soldiers were transported from their encampment up the twisty mountain road to Climax to develop their on-snow skiing skills on Chalk Mountain.

Young David didn’t know it at the time, but some of his future was playing out in the soldiers who trained at Chalk Mountain. A Seattle ski racer, Major John Woodward, commanded the training unit of the 10th Mountain. He would go on to become one of the owners of the A&T Ski Company. Among the troops was Pete Seibert, a New Englander who discovered the mountain culture on Chalk Mountain and came back years later as one of the founders of Vail.

Before long the rope tow was expanded to a long T-bar. There was also skiing across the valley on Bartlett Mountain, which later became another molybdenum mining site.

There were few ski areas in the region at the time. Loveland’s first rope tow was running for the 1936-37 season, with Arapahoe Basin opening just after the war. Resorts like Vail, Copper Mountain, Breckenridge and Keystone weren’t even in the dream phase at the time

Racing in Aspen in the 1960s. (Gorsuch Collection)

Chalk Mountain became a bit of an early Mecca for Colorado ski racers. It was mostly above treeline and had some extraordinary terrain. A huge cirque about a quarter of the way down, which locals called ‘The Bowl,’ was a proving ground for skiers like Gorsuch and later national team athletes like Climax residents Scott and Rudd Pyles, as well as Leadville skier Tom Malmgren, who would go on to help the Denver Pioneers win three NCAA titles.

Coaches like Bert Snyder and Don Larsh, both school teachers and teammates from Western State, engineered a strong program. Gorsuch was an early product of the mountain. Things were pretty rudimentary at the time. Young David would search for willow branches along the headwaters of the Arkansas River to use as slalom gates.

“Those guys up at Climax – that was crazy up there,” laughed Jim ‘Moose’ Barrows of Steamboat Springs who remembers not only racing up in Climax but ski jumping. “I still remember the little trophies they gave out there made in the mine – I still have mine!” With the thin air at over 11,000 feet, ski jumping didn’t work very well.

While Barrows was seven years younger, they struck up a friendship though never really raced against each other. “David was a great friend to anybody that would show up on a pair of skis.”

Gorsuch took every opportunity he had to get on skis. The rugged mountain helped him build strength and skill. And he took those traits into what was a burgeoning post-war competition scene, first around races in Colorado and later across the west.

Skiing was everything to David Gorsuch.

Growing as an athlete

He was just eight when the ski racing bug really took hold. His first big event was in 1945 at the legendary Winter Carnival in Steamboat Springs. It instilled in him a true spirit of competition, and he liked that. When the Olympics returned to the world stage in 1948 at St. Moritz, he became enthralled. New stars like Crystal Mountain’s Gretchen Fraser, Stowe’s Andrea Mead Lawrence and Steamboat’s Buddy Werner arose on the world stage over the coming years.

Ski racing was quite different in those days. There were no formal national teams or a network of camps and competitions. There was a lot of barnstorming from resort to resort across the western mountains. Gorsuch dove right in, establishing a foothold as one of the best. 

In 1953, he began to make his mark, winning the slalom at junior nationals at just 14. He took the junior national combined title in 1954 and repeated in 1956. In 1955, the venerable Sports Illustrated journalist William Oscar Johnson, in one of his earlier pieces on skiing, called Gorsuch a ski racer who “may become one of U.S. Olympic aces in near future.”

The 1954 junior nationals were held at Snow King in Jackson, Wyo., a mountain known today as more of a slalom and giant slalom hill. The downhill at Snow King wasn’t long – it ran maybe 50 seconds. But it had some nasty features, like a replica (of sorts) of the fabled Hahnenkamm Steilhang to add some excitement to the course.

At just 19 years old, Gorsuch was named to the World Championships team, skiing alongside the legendary Werner and watching intently as Austrian sensation Toni Sailer won three gold medals and a silver in Bad Gastein, Austria.

“Buddy was one of his best friends, said son Jeff Gorsuch. “They were neck and neck but still best of friends, as were Skeeter and Loris – that whole group.”

On what was his first big trip to Europe, Gorsuch went into the fabled Lauberhorn in the Bernese Oberland village of Wengen and finished third in the combined, said his son. It was a remarkable period for ski racing. Media attention was high. Skiing was booming coast to coast. And the Olympics were coming to America in 1960.

“It was a different era,” said Jeff. “There were no one-man or one-woman shows. No one had private coaches. And just look at what they were racing on, for Pete’s sake. It was a real honor for my dad to be among them.”

Former U.S. Ski Team chief and 1964 Olympian Bill Marolt remembers Gorsuch well. Marolt was six years younger, but his older brother, Max, was best friends with Gorsuch.

“If you watched him ski as he got older, you could see what a good technician he was and how well he stood on his skis,” said Marolt. “He was strong – he was a big guy. He was a force on the competitive scene and well known nationally and internationally.”

Gorsuch, at 21, was named to the U.S. Olympic Team for Squaw Valley. He was in solid company with the stars of the day including New England’s Gordi Eaton and Tom Corcoran, Northern Michigan’s Chuck Ferries, Aspen’s Max Marolt, Idaho’s Jim Barrier and Frank Brown, and Utah skier Marvin Melville.

“To be able to represent my country and participate at that level, it was the peak of my athletic goals,” he told Ed Stoner of the Vail Daily in 2006. “Everyone says they want to win a gold medal, but for me it was a great honor to be named to the team and represent the country.”

He finished 14th in both the downhill and giant slalom. His future wife, Renie Cox, was ninth in slalom behind American silver medalist Betsy Snite. “For some reason, Renie wasn’t selected to ski the downhill in Squaw Valley despite the fact that she had won there before,” said son Jeff.

Renie Cox and Dave Gorsuch in Aspen, circa early 1960s. (Gorsuch Collection)

Love of his life

When Gorsuch won the combined at junior nationals in 1954 at Snow King at 15, alongside him on the podium was a charming young girl from Port Leyden, N.Y., Renie Cox. A 15-year-old Lake Placid skier, Cox had finished third in the women’s combined.

Just a teen, Gorsuch was clearly smitten. He followed her around and helped her with her wax her skis. Their racing schedules would cross paths occasionally, as both rose to the top of their sport. Soon, they were traveling Europe hopscotching to legendary venues like Wengen for the Lauberhorn and the Hahnenkamm in Kitzbühel, as well as the 1958 World Championships in Bad Gastein. In the 1950s, men and women alike shared schedules and skied the fabled courses together.

Penny Pitou, who would go on to win two silver medals at Squaw Valley in 1960, remembers watching their love affair blossom. “We met early on, I think I was 12 or 13,” said Pitou. “I met her at some of the races and we went on to ski together. We went to the Junior Nationals when we were 15 or 16 in 1955. You know, we’ve stayed friends ever since. That’s been wonderful.”

After a half dozen years on the road together, Gorsuch and Cox decided to settle down after the Olympics, getting married and setting up shop in Colorado for what would end up being 61 years of marriage.

Newlyweds June 15, 1960. (Gorsuch Collection)

Plan A was going to school at the University of Denver and ski racing. But it didn’t take long for Gorsuch to realize that the hustle-bustle of city life in Denver was a long way from the quiet town of Climax. So he transferred to Western State College in Gunnison.

Under the leadership of coach Sven Wiik at Western State, Gorsuch had a standout collegiate career. In 1963, he took the NCAA downhill title, tying for gold (yes, NCAA did race downhill) with Werner and Bill Marolt, and was second in both slalom and alpine combined. In 1964 he led the Mountaineers to second in the NCAA Championships with a second in slalom and third in giant slalom.

In the twilight of his ski racing tenure in 1963, Gorsuch, now 26, joined teammates on a charter flight to Anchorage, driving down to Girdwood for the U.S. Alpine Championships. It was one of the last big events of his career and he had a great time with his friends in a place that had only become a state three years earlier. 

Hanging out one day with Harry ‘Rebel’ Ryan and others, the group decided it would be a nice memory if they brought back an authentic husky dog to remember their trip up to the new frontier. They had found someone with a litter of pups that were just as cute as could be. So they took the whole lot of them. 

As time went on, it became quite clear that the pups weren’t huskies, but basic mutts. Nonetheless, Gorsuch had a bit of a love affair with SUNA (you can figure out the name). The fully grown pup eventually went on to greet guests in the new Gorsuch Ltd. store in Vail and became an icon of sorts.

Early store progression from Gorsuch Ski and Sport in Gunnison and Crested Butte to the Gorsuch Ltd. shop in Vail’s Clock Tower building. (Gorsuch Collection)

Building the Gorsuch brand

David and Renie were no different than other young couples, trying to make ends meet. David was going to school at Western State and tuning skis in his spare time. Renie was teaching school. At their home in Gunnison one night, a stack of skis fell over onto some dishes and crystal candlesticks and broke them.

Renie turned to her husband and said, “if we’re going to do this, we’re going to do it for money and we’re going to make a business out of it.” So they did. 

They found an old Standard gas station in Gunnison (which still stands today) and set up shop, transforming it with barn wood and burlap into a ski shop. When it got too small, they moved into the Gunnison pool hall.

“I remember his first shop down there,” said Barrows. “It was a garage that didn’t even have insulation on the walls. You could see right through the slats out into the elements.”

After David graduated from Western State in 1964, they bought an old home in nearby Crested Butte which served as both living quarters and a second ski shop. Not having much capital to invest in additional inventory, David sold his Porsche and bought a Volkswagen minibus to haul skis every weekend from the Gunnison store to Crested Butte.

David also picked up work at the new ski area in Crested Butte. Fred Rice and Dick Eflin purchased a ranch on what was called Mt. Crested Butte. Forest Service permits in hand, they opened the resort on Thanksgiving Day in 1961 and added a gondola in 1963, a year after Vail.

Rice hired Gorsuch as mountain manager. It was a time of struggle for the fledgling resort and sometimes he had to float for months without being paid. But he kept juggling with two ski shops, the mountain job and still attending school and racing for Western State.

“It was interesting how they were entrepreneurs in the business when the business was just starting,” said Marolt, who would see Gorsuch a couple times a year at Crested Butte. “The early ‘60s when it was just starting to roll. So their timing was good. But initially they were scrambling to make it all work.”

Life changed for the Gorsuch’s at a ski show in Denver. There they met developer John McBride. He was building the now iconic Clock Tower building in the heart of Vail. And he needed a good ski shop operator for his new building.

They were fortunate enough to find a buyer for both their Gunnison and Crested Butte stores. And in June of 1966, they moved to Vail.

The Gorsuch brand concept blossomed along with the town of Vail. The new resort grew up in the image of an Austrian Tyrolean village. Just across the street from Gorsuch Ltd. was Gashof Gramshammer, with Pepi and Sheika Gramshammer. David and Renie had developed a real love with the Alps while racing there in the ‘50s. They brought design concepts into the story that reflected the feel of Swiss and Austrian ski lodges.

And they also brought quality. They had known German designer Willy Bogner since he had provided stretch pants and jackets to the 1958 world championship team. They gravitated toward top-end brands like Bogner, Heirling, Roffe and more. They sought out international products and boutique companies. And they stuck with them. It’s no surprise that Gorsuch has been the top buyer of Bogner’s winter products for a half-century.

“Bogner has been a big part of our story,” said Jeff.

Gorsuch Ltd.’s storefronts established one of the highest quality standards in the industry. And the expansion into catalog sales – where they reached millions – catapulted the business. Through it all, quality and top brands kept Gorsuch as one of the top brands in ski retail. 

The concept of resort-based stores greatly expanded. Gorsuch Ltd. established a footprint in Beaver Creek, Aspen, Snowmass Keystone and now Park City.

“David and Renie created and ran one of the best retail ski shops in the country,” said longtime Snowsport Industries America President and CEO David Ingemie. “They were great listeners. They clearly understood their customer and what their customer not only wanted but dreamed about.”

That ability to listen to customers helped them earn SIA’s Retailer of the Year Award in 1969 and again in 2003.

As a team, the husband-wife combo was a perfect match for the business. “Renie was especially strong willed and really helped drive the business,” said former Marker owner Hank Tauber.

“David and Renie were a great team together,” added Ingemie. “They didn’t just do what the industry wanted, they did what their customer wanted. And they had a way of communicating it that made everyone involved feel good.”

“Find something you really love and try to take care of it. Put your phone down and enjoy the day. Get outside and take a breath of fresh air.”

Dave Gorsuch

Living a mountain life legacy

All business and ski racing aside, the Gorsuches were pillars of the Vail community for nearly 60 years. They helped support construction on the Vail hospital and to establish the Vail Mountain School and Ski & Snowboard Club Vail. In their communities, they made sure kids could get on skis.

David, his father Jack, wife Renie and son Jeffrey are all honored members of the Colorado Snowsports Hall of Fame. David and Renie are on the ballot together for this summer’s U.S. Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame.

Over the years, David never left that mountain life. He and Renie were regulars at local legends events and the American Ski Classic. They loved hanging out near Gunnison at their Rivergate Ranch, or taking the grandkids up into the mountains to ensure that Colorado Rocky Mountain lifestyle was well instilled.

Still got the form, racing at Beaver Creek in 1989. (Gorsuch Collection)

Throughout his life, Gorsuch never forgot his roots in the tiny mining town atop Fremont Pass. Those lessons served him well.

“When I grew up, where I grew up, and the people I came in contact with were all part of my journey,” he told a writer from Wagner Custom Skis a few years ago. “The people in Climax taught me a lot: Never be afraid to take chances, and listen to other people’s advice.”

Barrows echoed the sentiments. “Dave had that ranch down by Gunnison and I had mine in Steamboat. We would get together, compare tractors, talk about hay problems. It was great. He was always interested in everything like that. He was a real farmer – he had it in his blood. And his boys will tell you that, too!”

The Gorsuch trophy display is truly a thing to behold. There are well over a hundred pins, cups and trophies heralding performances at Wengen, Crans-Montana, the Roch Cup and so many more. With each memento comes not just a memory, but a story behind it.

“He never lost the connection with all the competitive people that were really like his family,” said son Jeff. 

Just before Dave passed, Olympian Andy Mill called him for a final chat. Gorsuch had been coaching the Rocky Mountain team at the Junior Nationals at Bridger Bowl in Montana when Mill was just 12 in the mid-60s. “I had been dead last in the first run and was standing at the top shaking in my boots,” recalled Mill. “The ruts were bigger than I was. I told this story to Dave and he remembered. He came up to me in the start, put his arm around me and said, ‘Andy, do it for your mother.’ That was the perfect thing to say to a 12-year-old who was scared to death”

Those words inspired Mill. And the two became lifelong friends. Gorsuch took him elk hunting along with Rudd Pyles. “To me, he was always bigger than life. I know he was like that with everyone. He was all smiles.”

Those ski runs with his father down Chalk Mountain gave young Dave a certain wisdom.

“Today, if you want to succeed, you really have to work hard at it,” said Gorsuch a few years ago. “Find something you really love and try to take care of it. Put your phone down and enjoy the day. Get outside and take a breath of fresh air. I hope there are still people out there with a strong passion for what they do.”