Making a Mountain Out of a Soul Hill [PART IV] Will KSL’s Plans to Optimize Squaw Destroy it? “BY A REAL JOURNALIST!”

Making a Mountain Out of a Soul Hill [PART IV] Will KSL’s Plans to Optimize Squaw Destroy it? “BY A REAL JOURNALIST!”


Making a Mountain Out of a Soul Hill [PART IV] Will KSL’s Plans to Optimize Squaw Destroy it? “BY A REAL JOURNALIST!”


Part IV of The Four Part Series “Will KSL’s Plans to Optimize Squaw Destroy it?” 

Click on links to read PART I, Part II and Part III

By Mike Wilson (the journalist, not the stunt man)

By now most Squaw aficionados have heard about Squaw Valley USA’s five-year, $50 million capital improvement program. Wirth is promising better grooming, new trail names and signs, and airport-like information boards that will explain why a lift is closed and when it’s likely to open. Customers will also see a café at the top of the Funitel and an overhaul of the Snowsports School aimed at “significantly improving the beginning learning experience,” according to a press release.

And that’s just the first $15 million worth of changes, all planned for this winter. In the second year, Squaw will pour $20 million into what Wirth calls “big metal” – new high-speed lifts at Granite Chief and High Camp.

Some of the changes he is making aren’t so visible. Smoothing out the snow in the lift lines is an example. Expert skiers don’t care if the lift lines have camel humps in them, but skiers struggling to keep their balance do. Wirth has also been negotiating with the Reno airport to bring in more flights from Minneapolis-St. Paul, in hopes that some travelers might come to Squaw and stay a few days. Seventy-two percent of his visitors come from Northern California and he wants to build a broader customer base. 

He needs those beginning and intermediate skiers. With Baby Boomers aging out of the sport, the industry has been working to increase the number of first-time visitors. An analysis of the 2009-10 season showed a big jump in rentals and lessons at American resorts – sure signs that more people are squeezing into ski boots for the first time. 

As for the rumors that KSL and Wirth are plotting to develop Squaw, Alpine Meadows, and a couple of other areas into a heavily condo-fied, Whistler-style megaresort, Wirth says they’re done buying mountains “for the time being.” But KSL can make money even if it never does that. 

“Mountain resorts are very viable on their own without the real estate component,” said Jennifer Rowan, publisher of the independent trade magazine Ski Area Management. She mentioned Peak Resorts – which owns Mount Snow and 11 other resorts – as a company that does well just by selling mountain fun. 

Those who say Squaw has become more corporate are right; the days of “shabby-snobbish charm” are over. Family-owned shops in the base village have been priced out in favor of chain apparel stores. And Wirth has cast off some longtime Squaw employees because of a need to “recast the organization.” This has created inevitable hard feelings in the valley. 

Finally, there is the controversy over Mighty Mite rock, which you can file under Not Very Important Yet Highly Symbolic. For years at Squaw, kids were encouraged to finish their day on skis by jumping off a little rock on the side of a run. Last year, according to locals, the Mighty Mite coaches were told that if they took their kids to the rock, they’d be fired.

Jason Smith regrets the loss of that tradition, which he saw as fostering the next generation of McConkeys.

I mentioned the controversy to Andy Wirth and he shrugged.

“Maybe when that tradition started there were a few less lawyers out there.”

* * *

I met with Rockwood, 30, because Jason Smith had mentioned him when I asked for the names of other disaffected skiers. And sure enough,

Squaw Skier, Jon Rockwood

Rockwood is troubled by some of what he sees happening at Squaw – the disappearance of family-owned shops, the occasional lift line that looks like I-80 at rush hour, a focus on intermediate slopes at the expense of a better terrain park. Hell, even Alpine and Northstar have good terrain parks.

“An extreme disappointment,” he said.

And yet Rockwood wasn’t inclined to join any uprisings. He sees the wide availability of $369 season passes (they used to cost about twice that) as a sign of Squaw’s appreciation for people like him. And he figures Squaw can’t be all that uptight because it still encourages wacky events like the Lake Cushing Crossing, in which skiers try to skim across a pond without sinking, and the Pain McSchlonkey Classic, a big ski party on snow blades. 

He thinks Andy Wirth is just trying to do what’s best for the mountain. If that means Rockwood is not much of a revolutionary, he’s okay with that.

“I would like to be more angry,” he said, “but every time I ski at Squaw I have a blast.”




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

More Unofficial Networks