Will KSL’s plans to “optimize” Squaw destroy it?
By Mike Wilson (the journalist, not the stunt man)
The rumor went around in early March, and it echoed through Squaw Valley USA with the concussive force of an avalanche.
Word had it that Squaw’s Silverado chair – which serves some of the most aggressive terrain – would henceforth be closed midweek, apparently to save money. Squaw’s new corporate owners had not announced the change; skiers simply encountered a closed lift – a long row of chairs dangling uselessly over the slopes. For the locals, many of whom work weekends and ski during the week, this new policy was a jagged icicle in the back.
Squaw’s tribe of serious skiers and snowboarders – many of whom had mothballed college degrees and extinguished their parents’ dreams to live full-time in the shadow of the mountain – were already chafing against some of the changes Squaw had made since it was purchased by KSL Capital Partners in December 2010. Among the new regime’s transgressions: giving official names to trails that had never needed names before, improving intermediate terrain while limiting access to gnarlier parts of the mountain, and selling large numbers of inexpensive season passes, which some of the locals blamed for longer lift lines and a higher doofus quotient.
Any change would have been suspect among those who treasured Squaw’s hard-edged, non-commercial vibe. But these weren’t just any changes. Together they suggested a drift toward all the tendencies they scorned at other ski areas.
The midweek closing of Silverado was one insult too many, and the tribe howled in protest. An anonymous poster on UnofficialNetworks.com captured the mood: “Here is a big middle finger right back at you Squaw.”
Squaw Valley USA quickly issued a Facebook statement acknowledging that some customers were “disappointed.”
“We are mindful that skiers and riders desire fresh powder particularly on this part of the mountain, and will be considering that when scheduling Silverado’s operations.”
Oh, thank you for being mindful of what we desire! This bland, irritating corporate-speak reassured no one, and when the regulars read it, they converged on Squaw’s Facebook page.
Julie Tobias: “This is what you came up with? Someone needs to go back to PR/Marketing school. Take the class entitled ‘Loss of Goodwill.’”
Eric Arvidssen: “PATHETIC. I want the old Squaw, the mountain just for skiers.”
Revolution was in the air. Some of the locals had been following the news from Egypt, where tens of thousands had flooded into Tahrir Square to demand the resignation of President Hosni Mubarek, part of the so-called Arab Spring that saw democracy movements flowering across the Middle East.
“We thought, if they can overthrow Egypt, we can overthrow Squaw,” said Jason Smith, 24, who skied 100 days at Squaw last winter.
It was a Squaw Spring! As in Egypt, the popular revolt effected change. Within days, Squaw reopened Silverado with a clever, face-saving announcement: “Powder to the people!”
A few months later, in August, I visited Jason Smith at the ski shop in Truckee where he works. He was still worried about his beloved Squaw, but didn’t seem angry at its new corporate owners. He seemed sorry for them, the way a preacher might feel sorry for a sinner.
“They’re trying to dress Squaw up into something that it’s not,” he sighed.
Yes, Jason, they are.
CEO Andy Wirth and his team are trying to make Squaw what it is not and never really has been: a family-friendly, customer service-oriented, maximally profitable ski area. A place where you can find a smiling lift operator, a helpful ski instructor, a new parka, a decent sandwich and signposts showing the way down the mountain. A place where you don’t feel like a dork if you don’t know what the Fingers are.
A place that might be fun for – God, no! – intermediate skiers from Minnesota.
In September, KSL moved a significant step closer to creating a true destination resort when Squaw “merged” with nearby Alpine Meadows. (It was more like an acquisition; KSL has the controlling interest, with Alpine as a minority owner.) Speculation abounds that the resulting 6,000-acre resort, the largest in the United States, will continue to metastasize, with KSL someday acquiring Northstar-at-Tahoe, Mt. Rose, and eventually the moon.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Merely turning Squaw Valley into a welcoming place for the average skier is going to entail a radical change in culture. After all, for most of its history Squaw was owned by an aloof blueblood who sold you a lift ticket and left you to your own devices. Alexander Cushing was a member of the country club set who treated Squaw like a country club, and by God and Andy Wirth, that’s going to change.
About the Author: Mike Wilson, a managing editor at the St. Petersburg Times in Florida, is the author of “Right on the Edge of Crazy,” about the U.S. men’s downhill ski team. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.