Until quite recently an American ski resort was a cheerful but unprofitable venture operated by an Austrian with a dream, a businessman looking for a write-off or a couple of Dartmouth boys trying to avoid work. But now, with 2 million customers to draw on, prosperity comes with the first winter chill. The millions of dollars spent on fancy lodges and equipment has helped, but the main requirement is, of course, good snow. The best of the burgeoning ski areas, such as Taos, New Mexico (right) and those on the following pages, have plenty. They have something else, too—a certain esprit of their own that makes them as appealing as the most famous European resorts.
FUN OR MONEY FOR, ONE AND ALL
It has been traditional in America that when a man starts to build a ski resort, most of his friends and absolutely all of his enemies ask a single patronizing question: Why? Or express a single patronizing thought: Poor guy. Sympathy was the best such a sporting investor could hope for, and he rarely got that. "See, the ego's involved here," said a friend of John Reily, the brave man who put out the original stock, issue to finance a ski area at Alpine Meadows just over the hill from Squaw Valley, Calif. "Down in Los Angeles, John's just a milkman. [This is a California way of saying Reily is treasurer of the Carnation Company.] But up here," he continued, gesturing toward a new lift totally buried under several avalanches, "John sees himself as another famous ski pioneer, like Alec Cushing at Squaw Valley or Walter Paepcke at Aspen."
If such a comment sounds cruel or fatalistic, it is quite in keeping with the often cruel and unprofitable business of running an American ski resort. In the entire 33-year history of this baffling industry, since Peckett's Inn at Franconia, N.H. first hired an Austrian ski instructor named Sig Buchmayr and stayed open for the winter of 1929-30, only Aspen among major U.S. ski resorts has ever paid a dividend to its stockholders. Nevertheless, a great many businessmen have found the temptation to start a ski resort intolerable.
In most cases they swiftly discovered that the business was likely to be more intolerable than the temptation. At the grand opening of Sun Valley in December 1936 there was not one flake of snow in the valley. For the opening of the Mt. Mansfield chair lift in Stowe, Vt. four years later the lift broke down, leaving 49 newspapermen dangling in a blizzard for an hour. "I remember that very clearly," said Sepp Ruschp, president of the Mt. Mansfield Co., Inc. "We were pulling them down with ropes, like the Volga boatmen." On opening day for the Mammoth Mountain Inn near Bishop, Calif. an adroit plumber hooked the hot-water system into the hotel's electrical conduits. And there was that most disastrous debut of all, achieved at Squaw Valley in 1949. When the first guests arrived, the floor was not wholly laid. China was stacked in crates outside the lodge. The domestic staff was so short that Cushing's wife pressed into chambermaid service an old friend who was sitting out her Reno divorce. A guest backed a car over one of Cushing's Lhasa terriers, his daughter Justine broke her leg, and a seething line of people grew longer and longer outside the one functioning toilet. Through it all Cushing wrestled with the plumbing and placated his guests with such soothing remarks as, "Madam, come back in an hour and we'll be ready. Meanwhile don't bother me."
Under these dreary circumstances, the tradition of mourning for resort owners grew, and it flourished through most of the '50s as 540 new cable lifts went up at more than 200 resorts all over the country. In the past five years, however, amid all the usual wailing, some very untraditional smiles have appeared. At Stowe, Aspen, Mt. Snow, Sugarbush and Bromley, the management has been looking suspiciously fat and happy.
The fact is that in this period the U.S. ski business was not just growing—it was growing up. The smart operators were finding out at last how to run their business. They discovered that the old, hairy-chested Dartmouth Outing Club kind of skier had just about vanished. And with him went the willingness to rattle down any icy, rock-strewn excuse for a trail, curl up at night in a drafty attic, dine on soggy oatmeal and limp hot dogs and wait two hours in a lift line. The modern skier wanted the same kind of special atmosphere and service that other vacationers expected—a development well understood by the men whose new and /or fast-growing areas are shown on these pages. Each now has a resort with a distinctive flavor that adds up to the promise of success. Nobody need shed tears for the operators of these areas. They know exactly what they are doing.
The one who knows best is Pete Seibert, 38-year-old impresario of brand-new Vail. "I've been in the ski business in Colorado since I got out of the service," said Seibert. "I've fried hamburgers and taught movie stars to snowplow. I've studied ski areas and hotel and restaurant management in Europe. I've helped build two other Colorado ski areas—Loveland Basin and Aspen Highlands—and I've given advice on at least a dozen more.
"I wasn't doing it for fun. I needed two things: the experience and the right place to put it to work. The experience was just a matter of time. Finding the place was a matter of eliminating every possibility but the best one. There was never any doubt after I saw Vail."
Seibert saw it after a friend, Earl Eaton, came back from a jaunt through the high mountains west of Denver and said there was some mighty good-looking ski terrain just beyond the point where Vail Pass opens onto the western slope of the Rockies. Seibert drove out of Denver on Route 6 until he came to the proposed ski area. But all he could see was a medium-high, steep, timbered shoulder that might pass for a mountain in Massachusetts but is little more than a pitcher's mound by Colorado standards. Then he hiked up over the shoulder, and there, rising to the timberline, was a genuine Rocky Mountain, whose gently undulating summit slopes were surrounded by four beautiful ski bowls. "I turned my skis loose on three feet of powder," said Seibert, "and it made me giddy. One way or another, I was going to make this place go."
Shortly after that first visit, Seibert, Eaton and some Denver friends formed a little front organization called the Transmontane Rod and Gun Club and bought up the ranch property at the bottom of the mountain where the Vail base area is now being completed. "We didn't want to tip our hand before we had the place sewed up," Seibert explained. "The club seemed like a logical front."
It was—but it didn't fool anyone. "Rod and Gun Club, your mother-in-law," snorted an Aspen friend. "Seibert has found his mountain."
He then began finding money for his mountain. At the summit he put up a Quonset hut. Next he got hold of a snow tractor and a skiing friend named Bob Parker to help promote the place. Whenever a live financial prospect popped up, he would be invited to Vail. Seibert and Parker would drive him up the mountain in the tractor, wine him and dine him in the Quonset and then, if the man could ski, one of them would lead him down the slopes. Sometimes the leadership was a little blind: one Texan skied into the creek at the base area. But when he thawed out he was ready to put up some cash. So were a lot of other investors, $1.8 million worth of investors, more boodle than any U.S. ski resort had ever had to start with.
Seibert had the capital Dec. 22, 1961, before he so much as started building the first lift. Since then, he has found so much more that when Vail opens on December 15 some $5 million will have gone into it, and all of this has gone just where Seibert wanted it. "I'd seen ski areas suffer because people who were writing the checks and calling the plays didn't know anything about the ski business," he said. "I didn't want that to happen to Vail."
It didn't. Seibert called all the plays and then saw that they were run off properly. First, 1,000 acres of land were acquired on both sides of the road at the base of the mountain so that no real-estate speculator could muscle into the middle of the Alpine village Seibert planned. Then 10 square miles of the mountain were leased from the White River National Forest. This doubly insured exclusive control, since the Forest Service owns all the adjacent terrain and never lets one lift builder crowd another. Of the 10 square miles of mountain, six will be opened to skiers this winter by a 9,500-foot gondola, two double chair lifts and a Pomalift. The gondola rises to the base of one of the bowls. There the skier has his choice of sitting down to enjoy the view from the sundeck of a restaurant or riding one of the chairs to the summit.
When he gets to the top, he will see a great sprawl of open terrain and high peaks that look more like the Tyrol than the Rockies. But when he starts down, if he is a real expert, he may be a bit bored with the descent. The slopes on the back side of the mountain are good enough for anybody. But the very best skiers will find the face of the mountain a trifle slow, especially between the top of the chair and the top of the gondola. The lower two-thirds of the mountain has a kind of endless feeling, too. Willy Schaeffler, director of ski events at the 1960 Winter Olympics, concurs in this judgment: "Vail has the vertical drop—2,700 feet—but I'm not sure it has the steepness, the sharp concave terrain features that challenge really fine skiers. The better runs may be there somewhere, but I haven't seen them yet."
Siebert, who has observed the long financial struggles of such havens of the ski expert as Alta, Utah, couldn't care less about the hotshots. "Vail isn't designed for that fraction of 1% of American skiers," he says. "It is designed to provide the most enjoyable conditions for the average skiers." In this he has succeeded admirably, not only in the contours of his ski trails but also in the character of the village at the base of the mountain. All the buildings are designed in the same style, a not unattractive combination of old Swiss and Howard Johnson. And they are clustered right at the bottom of the gondola—the SI million lodge, a ski shop, a cafeteria and a 52-unit motel complete with service station, restaurant and a bar. Surrounding them are 27 private homes, all done in a harmonious mode and a majority belonging to investors in the ski development. "It is masterfully done," says Schaeffler.
Apparently the customers think so, too; the place is booked solid from the opening through the Christmas holidays. There seems no good reason why it should not keep on that way, through the winter and into the summer, too, for Vail's gondola and chair lifts will operate as tourist attractions come thaw time. The restaurant up on the mountain will stay open, as will the lodge, the motel—both of which are putting in swimming pools—and a couple of the shops. Seibert is even providing horses for guests who like to trail-ride, and he is pushing fishing and hunting for the cold but still snowless days of late fall and late spring.
"We've got everything people want," says Pete Seibert, in the new happy vein of resort men. "We'll make it and we'll make it big."
At Alpine Meadows out in the Sierra, John Reily and his associates have already made it, though not so big and not with quite so sure a touch. They began in December of 1959 and relied on a recently developed law of ski economics that says that if a new resort is built next to a flourishing old one, then both places will get a double dividend of prosperity. In December 1959 what semi-old ski resort was flourishing more than Squaw Valley, where the Winter Olympics were about to be held?
So Reily set up a corporation to develop Alpine Meadows, just down the backside of KT-22, the mountain on which three of the Olympic ski races were held. Like Seibert, he nailed down the key land, then went looking for money. Unlike Seibert, however, he didn't get all he needed at first. To get it, while still holding the largest block of stock, he had to give over effective control of the operation to a new group headed by Byron Nishkian, a consulting engineer from San Francisco.
Nishkian then proceeded with a few mild missteps of his own. He allowed the top of the chair lift to be put on the unprotected crest of the mountain, so that in midwinter the skier arrives in the teeth of the 40-knot easterlies that howl over the Sierra divide. One of the Pomalifts was rigged just where half the avalanches in the valley come rumbling to a rest. But these are standard, nonfatal blunders in the Sierra, where the bitter weeks of midwinter are scarcely skiable anyway, and a slope that doesn't avalanche during one of the appalling, 10-foot blizzards is hardly a slope at all. Meanwhile, Alpine Meadows has been making nothing but money.
"We first opened over the Christmas holidays in 1961," says Alpine's general manager, Tim Sullivan. "We had 1,500 people on the third day, and we didn't have the lodge or lunch service or even any plumbing."
The mobs of customers thinned a bit at Alpine Meadows through the storms of January and February. But when the sun came out, so did the crowds, and they stayed on into May. They found that the heavy snow on the avalanche slopes of winter stabilized to provide some of the finest spring skiing anywhere. The great ridges and headwalls beyond the lift terminals sweep down into long, even slopes where the most uncoordinated novice could look fairly flashy—and, failing that, could have a glorious time soaking up the sunshine and the view of Lake Tahoe. When the chair finally closed down on May 13, Alpine Meadows declared a net profit of $60,000, happily crowing that it was the first ski area ever to make money in its opening season. However, the profit on the ski operation was peanuts compared with the approximately $500,000 that Reily and friends have gotten back selling and improving choice plots for chalets near the ski area.
There will be plenty more where that came from, for Alpine Meadows has a lot going besides good real estate values, beautiful spring skiing or proximity to Squaw Valley. Within 20 miles there are two other major areas—Sugar Bowl and Heavenly Valley—that attract skiers. And all four resorts are now cooperating—a staggering first for American skiing—in mutual advertising with three airlines. Better yet, Alec Cushing of Squaw Valley, who once had the reputation of being the most hard-nosed loner in the hard-nosed and lonely Sierra, astounded everyone not long ago by dropping over to Alpine Meadows to suggest that they link with Squaw Valley via a new chair lift up the back of Squaw Peak or KT-22. This will likely be finished within two years. By that time, Route 40, the major east-west road into the region, will have been expanded from a winding, frequently closed avalanche path to an all-weather four-lane speedway. "When that happens," says Tim Sullivan, "this is going to be like standing at the end of a fire hose. The people are just going to pour in here."
While Alpine Meadows and Vail talk millions, Big Mountain, Mont, is quietly selling something quite different. "We get a lot of family skiers coming here," said President and General Manager Ed Schenck. "We want people to stay and we want to make it pleasant for them." He does. Sixty percent of his customers are young and middle-aged married couples with children, and 85% of Big Mountain's skiers like the place so much they stay anywhere from three days to two weeks.
Part of the appeal of this resort is the extraordinarily pretty—and skiable—mountain. The main slope, sprinkled with fir, larch and spruce, faces south and west. In most places, this exposure would mean no skiing. But at Big Mountain a moist wind from the distant Pacific mingles with the cold northerlies to provide cloud cover that both protects the upper slopes from turning icy or slushy under the sun and replenishes the existing snow cover with frequent falls of surprisingly good powder. At the very summit this unique climatic condition creates beautiful groupings of surrealist statues (see cover) as the clouds sift through the evergreens, plastering them with tumblings of hoarfrost and snow.
The trail plan is perfect for family skiing: a wife who is an intermediate skier can ride the double chair with her expert husband all the way to the top, then take a wide, easy trail down while he tries to kill himself on the 35° pitch of The Big Face or one of the touring bowls beyond the summit. Meanwhile, the small children—or any other novices in the family—can stagger around on the two long, gentle practice slopes at the bottom. All the trails end in the same place, right at the lodge, so there is no mad shuttling from one hill to another trying to collect everybody for lunch. Nor is Big Mountain ever crowded.
But its real appeal is the aura of Gem√ºtlichkeit, which the help is hired specifically to generate. This is not a lot of back-slapping, self-conscious square dancing and let's all play charades. It's a natural, easy atmosphere that makes a new guest feel as though he had arrived at an old friend's house.
"I spend two months each year just hiring," said Schenck. He insists on and gets lift attendants who smile and say, "Good morning," "Good afternoon," and "How was the last run?" as if they really care. The ski patrol says, "Excuse me," if it has to close a trail, and then may ask you to join in for a run. The young men and women who work in the chalet are good ski companions—but they are a cut above the ski bums who double as innkeepers at some resorts.
The hospitable attitude seems to rub off on the guests, who mingle easily on the slopes, at meals, in the chalet bar (opens at 11:30 a.m.) or the Bierstube at the lodge.
There are only two minor things wrong with Big Mountain. One is the rooms; though comfortable and livable, they are not designed for the carriage trade. The other is that, despite the cloud cover and careful cutting of trails, the lower pitches of the main mountain and parts of both practice slopes can get mushy on some afternoons. But this is niggling about an otherwise excellent area which, in the two years since the main chair lift went in, has become perhaps the most pleasant small family resort in the U.S.
While Big Mountain goes happily and profitably on its way, at Taos, N. Mex. Ernie Blake is doing his best to pretend that he and his resort are suffering the traditional pangs of the ski business. "You don't run a place like this to make money," said Blake. But anytime a sharp, quick, well-organized Swiss like Blake runs a place, it is not likely to lose—particularly when the surroundings are as unique and fascinating as they are at Taos.
Blake's tight little ski complex is set in an isolated snow bowl 9,400 feet up in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The ski hill, rising sharply—a frightening 40° under the lift line—to 11,200 feet, gets a deep but dry blanket of November-to-May snow that connoisseurs consider as good as Alta's, i.e., the best powder skiing in the country. This hill is no place for beginners. (There is a so-called beginners' slope at the bottom, but the crowds are so light and the snow so deep that there is no packed snow for the beginner to begin on.) The easiest run from the top takes an intermediate with a certain amount of fortitude, and the hardest run, the lift line, takes an expert with good legs and a love of high places.
The nearest habitation to the resort is the Indian village of Arroyo Seco, 10 miles down the Hondo Canyon on a gravel road. Nine miles beyond that is the old (17th century) Spanish town of Taos. A colony of artists there has, by a series of chain-saw night raids on neon signs and garish billboards, convinced every new merchant—including Safeway, Conoco and J. C. Penney—to put up one-story buildings in the proper adobe motif.
At one corner of town there is an authentic and still functioning pueblo, founded in 1276, as near as anyone can tell, when a drought is said to have driven the tribe out of its cliff homes at Mesa Verde and into the New Mexico area. Aside from the ancient and middle-aged cars, the occasional glass windows and the Sears, Roebuck blankets the elders wrap themselves in, there is almost no difference between the way these Indians live now and the way they did when the conquistadores first showed up.
There is no setting like this anywhere else in American skiing, and Blake has done nothing to spoil it. In fact, he has added to it. At the base of the ski hill he helped put up the cozy, 20-bed Hotel St. Bernard, run by two French skiers, Jean and Bernard Mayer, who know how wine and salad should taste. They also know how to teach skiing, which they do in Blake's school, an oddly unprejudiced organization that will teach in any style the pupil prefers, rather than try to remake the poor sinner in some locally favored image.
Near the hotel are two other newly re-finished inns, a ski shop and the just-completed Chalets St. Bernard, owned by Ski Instructor Chilton Anderson, a bony Philadelphian who plays a passable cello for the Taos string trio in his rare spare time.
Because of its isolation and because Blake has carefully avoided advertising until the area was completely ready, very few people have discovered Taos. But the word is getting around and, despite the owner's mock despair ("In summer we live off the tax losses we suffer in winter"), it is fast becoming a money-making model of the small resort that gives the modern ski vacationer the special flavor he is looking for. The fact is that Blake can hardly manage the traditional ski-resort man's frown anymore, nor can his smiling fellow businessmen at the likes of Vail, Alpine Meadows and Big Mountain.
Big Mountain, Montana is best reached by Great Northern Railway—either from east or west (St. Paul or Seattle). West Coast Airlines has a daily two-engine flight from Great Falls or Spokane to Flathead County Airport (8 miles from Whitefish). Whitefish, a 20-minute bus ride from Big Mountain, has a 30-room hotel, the Cadillac ($3.50-$16) and half a dozen motels, some with kitchens ($4-$18 per unit) catering to skiers. At Big Mountain itself there are the Chalet and Ski Lodge ($15-$16 with bath, $13-$14 without, American plan). Lodge dorm is $10. Big Mountain ski weeks, which include instruction, are $98.68, $119.68 or $134.68 per person, according to convenience of the bath. A day ticket on the chair lift costs $5.50, on the T bar $3.50. For information and reservations contact Ed Schenck, The Big Mountain, Whitefish, Mont.
Vail, Colorado is a three-hour drive from Denver on U.S. 6 when the road is clear. Rates at the 175-200 capacity Lodge at Vail average $15 per person per day, modified American plan. A motel, the Vail Village Inn, opening December 15, will charge $18 per room, double occupancy, European plan. A day ticket on all lifts costs $5. Learn-to-ski weeks, from $115 (dormitory, breakfast, classes, lifts and dinner) are Jan. 6-12, 13-19; April 7-13, 14-20, 21-27. For all accommodations write Siegfried Faller, The Lodge, Vail, Colo.
Alpine Meadows, California is a 3½-hour drive on U.S. 40 from San Francisco. There are no overnight accommodations in Alpine Meadows as yet, but Tahoe City—less than half an hour's drive away—has plenty of motels. Rates are around $8 single and $10 double. However, Squaw Valley itself is closest of all—a 15-minute drive. The Squaw Valley Inn costs $8-$22 and the Squaw Valley Lodge $14-$24, both European plan. The Olympic Village charges $8 for two and $10 for three for rooms without meals. The chair lift costs $5 per day, $125 for a season ticket. The Tahoe City motels are promoting Monday-through-Friday ski weeks: $55 per skier for a Continental breakfast, box lunch, lift and class; $30 more buys the weekend, too. For information contact Tim Sullivan, Alpine Meadows, Box 865, Tahoe City, Calif.
Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico is 70 miles from Santa Fe. The Hondo Lodge has space for 100, and the Hotel St. Bernard has 20 beds. A private room and bath, double occupancy, American plan, costs $12-$15 per person. Newly opened Chalets St. Bernard have 72 beds. Private room and bath, American plan, are $12-$15, dormitory $9. Use of all lifts costs $4 a day. Learn-to-ski weeks (any time except Dec. 26-Jan. 3) include all lifts and classes and three meals a day for seven days ($75 in a dormitory, $105 in a room of one's own). Taos city's super restaurant, La Dona Luz, is staying open this winter for the first time. For information write Ernie Blake, Taos Ski Valley, Box 856, and for reservations contact Jean Mayer, Taos Reservation Office, Box 931, both at Taos, N. Mex.