Private Ski Areas: Is there really a place for them?

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The Yellowstone Club coined the phrase “private powder” and sold multi-million dollar memberships to those willing and able to fork over the money. While Yellowstone wasn’t the first to provide exclusive membership for skiers, they have certainly been the flashiest. Private ski clubs have been around for ages. Sahalie ski club at Snoqualmie Pass is a small, private club consisting of a single rope tow and a small warming hut, open only to members.

Battle Mountain, in Colorado, hopes to be the next private ski area. 5280 Magazine of Denver recently broke a story about the plans there. It’s an interesting read. One that makes me scratch my head. The developer, Bobby Ginn, certainly has the deck stacked against him, what with cleaning up a Superfund site and all just in order to start building his planned resort, and the legacy of “Honk if Bobby Owes You” bumper stickers following him around like an unwanted stink.

But I want to ask a bigger question: is there really a place for private ski clubs? Skiing has always been a sport with a pretty tall barrier to entry. The gear is expensive, the lift tickets aren’t cheap and just getting to mountains high enough and cold enough to support the sport simply isn’t available to everyone. Skiers these days have to be either a) wealthy enough to dedicate large chunks of time and money to the sport, b) dirtbags willing to give up all else in pursuit of the sport or c) once-a-year types that search expedia for deals and keep their fingers crossed for good conditions when they can make it to the mountains.

Part of the fun of skiing is not just the thrill of shushing down the slopes or getting face shots in a private stash or even catching first chair early enough to beat the crowds. Skiing is fun because it is shared. I know, this might run counter to logic. The more skiers on a slope, the less soft and fluffy it becomes.

But I see it all the time.

Skiers (and riders of all types) like to share their experiences. Just sit on a chair lift and

The beauty of apres-ski with friends

listen to the conversations. Dude. That run was sick. I totally killed that lip/cornice/mogul field/jib. Or click onto YouTube where every guy or gal with a GoPro posts footage heralding their day on the slopes. People want not just to ski, but also to share their skiing. Like anything, the experience of skiing grows infinitely more valuable when recreated through conversation. Those perfect 20 turns through that creamy boot-top pow gets better and better the more we talk about it.

Private ski areas just don’t quite have it. I’ve been to the Yellowstone Club as a guest. I’ve had my coffee held by the concierge/lift operator while I took a lap through untracked corduroy at 11 am. I’ve skied with a guide on Pioneer Mountain, lapping powder touched only by our small group as we worked every line, couloir and glade all by ourselves. We termed it “conversational powder”, since you found yourself actually engaged in conversation while riding it. Such was the lack of crowd pressure.

But at the end of the day, there’s no one to share it with, other than ourselves. You don’t talk to the bartender while he pours you a draft, nodding to each other in that knowing way. How was your run off the King? I think I saw you hiking up there today? At the Yellowstone Club, if the bartender does ski, he certainly doesn’t talk to you about it. You aren’t supposed to have that shared experience.

And isn’t that what we all love so much about the sport? Even on a heli-ski trip, don’t you want to compare favorite runs of the day with others while relaxing with that rum and coke in the hot tub? What if it was just you in that hot tub, with a hired someone standing in the steamy corner with cucumber water, fresh towels and a blank stare. That doesn’t sound like all that much fun, actually. It sounds a bit lonely and boring.

I love the cross section of ski areas–dirtbags, everyday joe and janes, ski psychos with their pupil-circling vertical lap count, each one with their own enthusiasm for the sport. That’s what makes skiing real for me. Perhaps, since I’m a writer, I find that words, either spoken or written, make the experience. Maybe it’s just me.

You tell me. What’s the value of private ski areas? Should Battle Mountain move forward on it’s plan or simply leave one untouched slope in that already crowded valley?

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24 responses »

  1. It’s hard to agree with you now that the Mega Corp’s are buying up all of the local Mts. Can you say that Alpental is better now that Boyne owns it? Private may not be the answer but mega corps owning the Mt is just as bad IMHO.

    • Thanks Matt for chiming in. I can’t agree with you about Alpy. I can agree that some big corporations try too hard to homogenize all their areas, losing much of the spirit in the process. At Boyne we understand that each ski area is its own entity and must be run independently.

  2. Some people like the privacy.Others like to hang with a certain crowd (wealthy exclusive). Why denythem that right?

    All the times I took my wife night skiing at the local hill she was run over by drunk first-time snowboarders on icy runs.

    I only wished I was at a private club then.

    • Yikes! Hopefully your wife recovered quickly. At a private club, the drunk snowboarder would have been escorted out. That is, unless he was a marquis member who owned Hawaii and then he would probably be hand-wringingly tolerated.

  3. Yes, I believe there is a place for membership type ski areas. Vermont ski area’s Magic Mountain and Mad River Glen has both been funded by private citizens in order to maintain the flavor and soul of their ski area.

    The club fields of New Zealand are another example of a membership owned and operated ski experience.

    As far as Battle Mountain, if it wasn’t in the most populous ski area state, didn’t have lackluster terrain and it’s plan didn’t heavily involve real estate, it would make more sense.

    I am all for membership mountains, as long as non members can visit during non peak times to maintain the overall experience.

    • Mad River Glen is more a co-op than a country club. Yes, you can buy ownership in the form of voting shares. Yes, it is very small and can’t sustain huge crowds (I’ve been turned away simply because I didn’t get there at 5:30 AM on a powder day). Yes, they ban snowboarders (although unlike Alta, there’s a somewhat justifiable reason beyond “we don’t like them”).

      But the bottom line is if you get there early enough in the morning, you’re on skis, and the snow coverage supports it, then you can ski it- no five digit initiation fees required. There’s a reason practically every high mileage Volvo with a ski rack in New England has a “Mad River Glen: Ski It If You Can” sticker.

      While I wish there was a similar shareholder owned mountain here in the Northwest, I recognize that the single seat chairlift and no snowmaking policy of a MRG is one bad season away from bankruptcy without the money and partnership of resorts with some geographical portfolio diversity. That’s why I have no problem with Boyne, Powdr, Vail or Intrawest.

        • Well, they used to allow them when snowboarding was brand new in the 80s. But they had issues with the narrow runs and two of the chairlifts that run fast and are flat or slightly uphill on the exit ramp. They’d have to stop the lifts because they’d deposit people faster than the boarders could get out of the way. The owner put a policy in when I was a kid to ban the boarders, then when the co-op bought MRG, they voted to make the ban permanent.

  4. Interesting! I think, for some people, the word “private” has great allure. Public golf courses can be as nice as private ones. Same goes for public and private schools. I suppose, however, some people are comforted by the label. Me? I would be one unhappy gal without public radio, public libraries, and public schools. And, there’s nothing like riding public transportation if you want to get some new story ideas. That’s your point, though, right Kim? That the element of publicness adds life and energy and surprise to the experience? Cool post.

  5. Interesting question. I agree that sharing the experience with the right someone does make it more enjoyable. When I can bring my kids with me, it’s awesome not as much for the challenge (though they are getting better), but more for the ability to see it through their eyes. It makes what would otherwise be same-old stuff new again. Also, going riding with friends is (a different kind of) great because you can push each other, stoke each other, and – of course – be safer.

    However… I certainly don’t have to share the experience to enjoy it. For me, one of the things I love about mountain sports is being able to get away from social constructs and use my mind and body as a paintbrush on the canvas of nature. In that case, the absence of others actually enhances the experience. I could wax poetic about it, but some of you know what I’m talking about.

    • Bryan,
      I hear you. I love watching my step-daughter grow up as a skier. She’s finding herself out there on the slopes, just like I did, and it makes my heart soar to be a part of it all over again.

  6. I’m with you on this one, perhaps because I would never be in the demographic that could afford the private club/mountain experience. let’s face it, we’re pack animals by nature, with a few lone wolves.

  7. There probably is room for both categories of ski resorts. However, I think the novelty of the private club would grow old and lonely very quickly. I agree with you, a big part of the ski experience is the social interaction with every strata of life. I wouldn’t trade my experiences at public resorts for anything.

    • Thanks for checking in Clay. I agree about the social interaction. While my actual time on the slopes is best spent alone, afterwards, I love the esprit de corps found in ski town bars and hangouts.

  8. In theory? Sure, this is a free country, why not have a private ski resort that the ultra-rich can go to and call their own? Besides, less of those people clogging up the lift lines and terrain for me at my local hill. In reality? You don’t need to look far beyond the example of the Yellowstone Club to find your answer. Places like the YC and the plans for Battle Mountain are not only the antithesis of the soul of skiing, but they are symbolic of greater trends in the industry (and the overall economy for that matter) that are leading us as skiers to the brink.

    Massive over-development for a resort that caters to so few skiers per day, leads to many obvious environmental concerns. Also, the huge overhead costs associated with this kind of development leads to the inevitable use/abuse of debt-financing and leverage, which, as we all learned through the mortgage crisis is all well and fine until things turn south. Look at the brief history of the YC, which declared bankruptcy in November 2008, or even a place like Moonlight Basin, who, though not private, is a luxury resort that was largely reliant on its real estate development before it filed Chapter 11 in November of 2009. These places are the quintessential example of over-extending yourself, greed and mismanagement. It’s like that scene from Cinderella Man when Russel Crowe goes over to Kevin Matheny’s fancy apartment, only to find that once he’s in the front door, there is no furniture in the place!!! “Have to keep up appearances,” is what he says. As the Blixseth’s jet-setted around the world with Credit Suisse and other investor’s money, weren’t they doing just this?

    I guess what I’m saying is, that before we provide yet another over-priced, overrated playground for the ultra rich in this country, how about we try and do something for everyone else. With a real unemployment rate of close to 20%, multiple states going bankrupt, national parks closing left and right, continued dependence on foreign oil, a public education crisis…..you get the idea. It is amazing what power and money can do, especially now that the concentration of wealth is in fewer hands than any other time in U.S. history, except for just before the Great Depression. I just wonder why can’t that power and money fix some of the problems I listed?! Imagine what the California Board of Education could have done with the $375 million that Credit Suisse gave to the Blixseth’s to run the YC? Actually wait, don’t, it will make your head spin.

    • P4P,
      Thanks for stopping by and making such an astute comment. Sometimes I worry that skiing is becoming like polo–a sport for the wealthy and that’s just it. But other times, when I see families schlepping gear and standing in line for tickets just to take a few laps at a ski area, and at the end of the day they are actually happy, I have hope. Those few turns out on the slopes are worth it. Hopefully skiing can remain one place that still offers freedom for all those willing to put up with it.

      Too often the ski industry over expands, every area trying to keep up with the Joneses. They construct elaborate villages, hotels, real estate lifts that far exceed the current need. It’s a rat race. At Crystal, we have a few new lifts and a new restaurant and we hope, someday, to build a new hotel with 100 rooms. But there will never be a highrise village ala Intrawest. Instead, we are going for a more authentic, realistic vision that doesn’t outprice all our customers.

  9. Kim I sure like your blog. You have such a variety of topics! I’ve never skied Yellowstone Club, but did gaze longingly at its untouched powder during the week we skied Big Sky and Moonlight Basin some years ago. Some people have the right connections or friends–some don’t.

    About skiing alone: Since I started patrolling in 1965 in the Tahoe area, I’ve had to ski a lot of runs alone–I don’t necessarily like it, but when you are on duty, you aren’t always with a buddy. You know how that is–if you are assigned a certain chair, you are expected to check out the runs for problems. Personally I like best to ski with my 3 daughters and their families–they all ski better than I do.

    • Thanks Sam. I love what you say about skiing with your family. As a patroller the job is always to open up skiing for the public, so perhaps that’s where our tendencies lie.

  10. Hi Kim – good conversation. I’ve skied the YC several times (guest not member), most recently this last Christmas break. It is more populated than ever before… and that week is certainly their peak of the season. Comparing that to several years prior – not long after they opened – there’s been pretty significant growth all things considered. Either way, I LOVE skiing there. Massive elbow room, safety, untouched cords (some of the best grooming ever), occasional pow in the trees and some serious steeps. No lift lines, the warming shacks are so full of goodies it’d make Willy Wonka cry. I usually ski solo up there and single onto chairs where I always have the conversations you mention above with other skiers, lifties or patrol. And I’ve had a few beers chatting with bartenders\waiters… but as you say there’s a little more distance. Best of all, as you may remember you can’t park your own car, valet is mandatory, friendly and fast. Obviously I could go on and on, and it does come at a high cost (unless you’re a lucky guest like me), but wow what an experience.

    Ultimately, I guess I’m just conveying is this is a kind of skiing experience that is fabulous if you can get some. It still allows for all the public-area-upsides you mention… hmm, well no dirtbags. There’s room for the luxury version of anything – YC proves skiing is no exception.

    Acknowledgments: not having the YC won’t solve world hunger, i freaking LOVE the Crystal bc, some of my best friends are dirtbags.

  11. Pingback: Welcome to Minturn « Colorado Ski Blog

  12. Reading this I see what you are saying but having been to the Yellowstone Club the bartenders still do really talk about thiers runs and skiing not to seem judgemental but its alot different while your there its a lot different than you would think about it.

    • Thanks for the comment Jake. I’ve been to the YC and all the employees are super friendly, and the skiing is good. I skied there on a powder day and it was awesome. Having said that, I still love the local vibe that real ski bums bring to an area.

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