At 12,050 feet on the Continental Divide, a crowd grows. It’s Valentine’s Day in Colorado, and skiers don wedding dresses and tuxedos beneath the bright February sun. Elvis Presley croons “I can’t help falling in love” from speakers bolted to Loveland Ski Area’s Ptarmigan Roost Cabin, while couples slow dance around the deck.
About eight of the 80 couples will actually be married today. The rest are here to renew their vows at Loveland’s 29th annual Mountaintop Matrimony mass-wedding service. Most have lift tickets hanging from their jackets that say, “I DO!”—part of a 2-for-1 promotion that Loveland offers to participants. A woman double fists a pair of hard seltzers and glances at her watch. The ceremony was slated to start at noon, sharp. It’s 12:07. Then someone gasps. “Harry has entered the building.”
The crowd parts as Harry Heilmann, the 73-year-old registered minister for today’s service, strolls across the deck to a picnic table atop which he will stand. He is wearing a black leather jacket over a blue button-down shirt and navy tie with roses on it. Also: ski pants.
“Welcome to Loveland!” Heilmann bellows into his microphone. “It is about the love, isn’t it?”
No one knows this event better than Heilmann, who has presided over 28 of its 29 editions and is more popular here than St. Valentine. At registration this morning, he’d barely sat down to start signing marriage certificates when the first couple approached. “You married us two years ago!” the man almost shouted. “Oh, so you’re here for a tune-up?” Heilmann quipped with a smile. His buddy Vinny, a food and beverage supervisor at Loveland, where Heilmann spent a decade shoveling snow, parking cars and taking out the trash, came over to greet his old friend.
“Mr. Heilmann!” Vinny deadpanned.
“Baileys and coffee, and I mean right now,” Harry replied, still grinning.
Vinny obliged, and then Harry started telling stories. “The first year, it was a raffle for one couple to get married. The next year, Loveland opened it up for everybody to get married.” Heilmann made a perfect officiant. In 1974, he’d mailed a postcard to the Universal Life Church because a friend told him he could fly for half price if he were a member of the clergy. The promise never materialized, but he’s been a registered minister for the past 46 years (as well as a teacher and, lately, a bailiff).
“I do this because they give me a free ski pass,” chuckles Heilmann, who lives in a neighboring mining town that dates back to the 1800s. “It’s my favorite day of the year, period.”
Over the event’s three-decade history, roughly 2,500 people have taken part. They come from across Colorado and beyond. While Heilmann signed his certificates, beaming couples strolled through the doors to collect their free picture frames and lift tickets. Jim Creek, 54, and Tana Bowen, 56, had driven up from Durango, six hours away. They’d been talking about getting married for two years when they heard about Loveland’s mass ceremony. “We started YouTubing it and saw what an awesome job the pastor does, so we were like, ‘let’s do this,’” said Creek, a 6-foot-9 snowplow driver. He and Bowen, who made her own dress, were honeymooning in Leadville, Colorado, the highest-elevation town in America.
Fort Collins residents Raj and Tricia Ashtaputre, 49 and 46, had gotten married three years earlier in a temple in Mumbai, India, where he’s from. But Loveland was the first place they skied as a couple, hence their decision to renew their vows here. “We have an emotional bond to this place,” Raj explained.
The attendees spanned all ages, including two couples celebrating their 50th anniversaries. One was from Texas. The other was from Idaho Springs, just down the road off Interstate 70: Lyn and Linda Darrell, who are 72 and 70, respectively. They brought eight family members to support them, including twin, 2-year-old flower girls. “It’s a really big deal to us,” said Lyn, a retired high school teacher and football coach. “For 50 years we’ve been saying, ‘We’re so lucky we found each other.’ And Linda finally said, ‘Why aren’t we celebrating?’”
An hour later, the crowd assembles on the Ptarmigan Roost deck to do just that. Heilmann, twice married himself, speaks from experience as well as his heart, keeping it light.
“I never really thought that I’d be on skis with a tie on, just like you never thought you’d be getting married in safety helmets,” he says. “Sometimes you have to work hard, sometimes you have to sacrifice. I once heard a minister say, ‘Sometimes you have to put it in four-wheel drive.’”
He mentions the couples who are celebrating 50 years of marriage. “I highly recommend you follow in their tracks,” he adds.
Near the end, Heilmann reminds his crowd, “Don’t lose sight of what brought you here today.”
Whether it was skiing or their vows or a combination of the two, everyone seems happy when the ceremony ends. “It was more touching than I thought it would be,” says Daryl Lipham, 67, who traveled from Atlanta to renew his vows after 45 years of marriage to Lynette. “My wife is someone I admire more deeply than I can express, and to do this is very meaningful.” (The Liphams, grandparents of 36, went on to win the Best Dressed prize, determined by audience applause.)
Heilmann struck a cord for other couples, too. Mary Mohn, 59, and Mary Mackenburg-Mohn, 61, met online in 1997—“before Tinder,” Mohn jokes—and wed in 2009 in Iowa when same-sex marriages became legal there. Mackenburg-Mohn works part time as a ski patroller at Loveland and thought they’d enjoy participating but didn’t expect the ceremony—or Heilmann—to have such a powerful impact.
“When he said renewing couples often get teary, I got teary,” she said. “Because it’s easy to take your partner for granted, but Harry helped me remember what I love about Mary and why we’re together.”
It was all downhill from there—on skis, of course.