by Leigh Girvin
Photos by Carl Scofield, Bob Atchison and Alden Spilman
Friends since their youth. Competitive ski racing buddies. Ski instructors. Mischief-makers. Co-founders of the Breckenridge Ski Area. Trygve Berge and Sigurd Rockne came to Breckenridge in 1960 and helped create the community we know today. And they are still here. As ski town Breckenridge celebrates its 60th anniversary, we are honored to profile these Sons of Norway.
Breckenridge, Colorado, in 1960 was “the ugliest town I’d ever seen,” said Sigurd Rockne. He and Trygve had just arrived to construct Bill Rounds’ lumber yard. Buildings in town hadn’t been painted in fifty years. Streets were dirty. Junk stacked everywhere. “And the rock piles,” Sigurd shakes his head.
Breckenridge’s biggest eyesore, acres of rock piled tens of feet high, extended from the south end of town for miles northward. River cobble left behind by the dredge boat mining platforms that upended the river bottom in search of gold. Breckenridge long-timers learned to blot them out: Look Up, they’d say. For newcomers, the rocks blighted an otherwise lovely landscape.
When Trygve and Sigurd arrived, Breckenridge was nearly a ghost-town. The surviving population held a tight grip onto the only economic generators: a school, the County Courthouse, one operating mine and three gas stations. Would the new recreation economy revive the town?
Two years prior, the Rounds & Porter Lumber Company of Wichita, Kansas, stealthily started buying up huge parcels of cheap land, thousands of acres of old mining claims and placer ground. With the coming of Dillon Reservoir, better highways and a tunnel under the Continental Divide, the company foresaw a demand for vacation cabins.
Ralph Rounds, Sr. brought his sons Bill and Dwight (Doc) to check out Breckenridge. Bill immediately took to the place. The free-spirit of the rough western town appealed to him. And he saw opportunity. A lot of opportunity.
Bill was a skier. His wife Callie’s step-father, Whip Jones, founded the Aspen Highlands Ski Area. The Highlands opened in 1958, the same year Rounds & Porter started investing in Breckenridge. Bill, Callie and the children skied at Aspen Highlands from the beginning and Bill learned a lot from Whip. Trygve and Sigurd taught at Stein Eriksen’s Ski School there. Drinks in the bar, dinner after skiing, and soon the young Norwegians became friendly with Bill and Callie.
Before anything could be developed in Breckenridge, the market needed a lumber yard. Bill hired Trygve and Sigurd in 1960 to build it.
Trygve Berge and Sigurd Rockne met in middle school ski racing at their home town of Voss, Norway. Trygve’s background in gymnastics and ski jumping made him a natural. Sigurd’s athletic skill and daredevil attitude propelled his young racing career. But the races were amateur level only. “We’d work all week and race on weekends. There was no money in it,” recalled Trygve.
As ski competition evolved, the men excelled. During his racing career, Trygve specialized in downhill. Awards include the 1954 Norwegian downhill championship, winning the Holmenkollen combined, fourth place in the 1955 NorAms at Squaw Valley, and a spot on the 1956 Norwegian Olympic Team. According to his induction profile in the Colorado Ski Hall of Fame: “He remembers racing downhill in the 1956 Olympics in Cortina, Italy, because the course was so difficult that no one else wanted to tackle the challenge.”
Sigurd competed in the Norwegian championships in 1953, ’54, and ’55 when he beat legend Stein Eriksen in the downhill race. Breaking his leg just before the 1956 Olympics, Sigurd missed the team. But the men’s relationship with Stein Eriksen paid off.
Eriksen grew the skiing industry as a sport in the United States and he needed instructors. Few Americans knew how to ski, much less teach. Trygve and Sigurd’s unique skills earned them special visas to instruct. In the off-season, they were builders and stone masons.
Bill Rounds came to Breckenridge that September 1960 to inspect the new lumber yard. Trygve asked him: “What are you going to do here in the winter?” “Do you think we can ski here?” Bill replied. The Norwegians enthusiastically agreed.
Sigurd and Trygve love to tell the story of that September day. They piled into an old Willie’s Jeep. Up the mining road on Peak 8 they bounced, past the squatty lodgepole trees that only recently regrew after the miners cleared the forest. Near timberline they could finally see the mountain. Parking where the Colorado Chair terminates today, they started hiking toward the top of Peak 8.
Bill got sick and threw up. Concerned about impacts from his polio and the high altitude, Trygve and Sigurd wanted to turn around. “We’ve seen enough,” they offered. They could already envision the new ski area. The rolling terrain and northeast aspect were perfect for skiing.
“No, no, we’re going all the way to the top,” Bill insisted. It took a while. Back at the Jeep, Trygve remembered: “Bill pulled out a bottle of Cutty Sark and we had a toast to the new ski area. And that was the very beginning. That was Sigurd and me and Bill, all three of us there.”
The permit came swiftly from the U.S. Forest Service, thanks in part to the Rounds’ family’s deep pockets and connections through their vast timber holdings. Cleared for construction in early 1961, planning escalated. Bill offered the Ski School to Trygve and Sigurd.
“They made it very special,” observed Carol Rockne, Sigurd’s wife. “They were famous because those crazy Norwegians had a ski school in Breckenridge.”
Sigurd and Trygve set the tone from the beginning. Breckenridge would be all about fun and sharing the joy of skiing. Trygve entertained the weekend crowds with his famous flip on skis. Sigurd jumped over cars. Together, they invented Breckenridge’s winter carnival, Ullr Dag (now called Ullr Fest).
Despite the ugliness, the slow start, the financial sacrifices, and the challenges, Trygve and Sigurd made Breckenridge their home. “We thought there was more opportunity here,” explained Trygve. “The Ten Mile Range is beautiful. We felt more like home here than Aspen.”
Through the years, Trygve continued the ski school until Aspen Ski Corporation bought Breckenridge Ski Area. He also owned and managed two ski shops and equipment rentals. Sigurd found success in the restaurant business. His first venture, The Roc Mine, was the happening spot in town, known for good food, funny characters (himself included), and swinging jazz.
Now entering their 90’s with Trygve celebrating his 90th and Sigurd his 89th Birthday, the two still get together to reminisce. Sigurd’s favorite stories revolve around the early crazy days in Breckenridge. Shootings in town. Knock-out fights. Unruly guests at his Roc Mine Restaurant. The parachute jumps to announce the grand re-opening of the Gold Pan Saloon. Throughout the tellings, Sigurd is laughing. It’s contagious. When he speaks of crawling across the floor to escape gunshot coming into the bar, you can’t help but join him in laughter, even though you know it wasn’t funny at the time.
The difficult times, the challenges of growing the ski business, fade into fond memories. The first season — when it was called the Peak 8 Ski Area and no one knew where that was — skiers were sparse, and so was the money. “The first week in January we had only one couple the whole week from Monday to Friday,” recalled Sigurd. “The second season it was so cold, 57 below,” Trygve remembered. “A couple from San Francisco in the old 10th Mountain outfits with the white uniforms and the square-toed boots, they were the only two on the mountain. They went up the lift to the half-way point, they came down Ego Lane and they closed the ski area after that. They had to give up. I don’t think we’ve had that cold ever since.”
Looking back, could they ever envision what Breckenridge would be today? “We didn’t really expect it to be like it is today, one of the most visited ski areas in the world. I know we have maybe too many people at some times,” said Trygve. “It’s hard to imagine,” continued Sigurd. “When we first came, there were no houses, nothing.”
Ever upbeat, ever laughing, they temper their nostalgia. “It’s been a wonderful place to raise kids,” Carol chimed in. “It has been very rewarding. Everything I’ve done I’ve been trying to promote Breckenridge because it has been my home,” added Trygve. “And I can still ski home on Four O’Clock.”
~As Seen In MountainTown: Breckenridge – a magazine by Breck locals for everyone who loves Breckenridge.
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