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.
Alexander Cochrane Cushing, born into wealth in New York in 1913, bought into Squaw Valley in the late 1940s at the urging of Wayne Poulsen, a Pan Am pilot, outdoorsman and real estate speculator who had the drive to open a ski area but not the cash. The two were poorly matched: Poulsen, who was raising his family in the valley, wanted to develop the land slowly and lovingly, while Cushing, who was not so emotionally attached, just wanted to put up lifts and sell tickets. In 1949, Cushing ousted his partner, keeping the mountain and giving the valley real estate to Poulsen. Next, partly as a publicity stunt, he made a bid for the 1960 Olympics, even though Squaw at the time had only a single chair lift. He won the games by schmoozing the International Olympic Committee in Paris and showing members a large model of everything he would build if they went along with his quixotic plan.
The 1960 winter games turned Cushing into a legend, but they did not turn him into a great resort operator. He was never much interested in greeting customers or securing building and environmental permits. He was tremendously loyal to his top people, but those farther down the organizational chart sometimes remained strangers to him even after years on the job.
“He could be super charming, the guy. He could also be a real asshole,” said Hans Burkhart, the German-born lift engineer who worked with Cushing for decades and supervised the construction of almost everything you see at Squaw today.
Cushing practiced what Andy Wirth refers to as “mountain planning by arm-waving.” One day in the mid-1960s, Cushing gazed up the hill and told Burkhart he wanted a tram. You’d think this sort of project would require months of careful study and consideration. You’d be wrong.
“I want to go right up over the top of that cliff,” he said, pointing.
“Where do I go after that?” Burkhart asked.
“I don’t know. You figure that out.”
Burkhart did, and the tram opened in 1968. In the early years, riders were entertained by an accordionist. The main lodge, meanwhile, was “designed for a small, high-class crowd,” Sports Illustrated wrote, but “is overrun each weekend by hot-dog-munching herds.”
“It is Cushing, more than anyone else, who is responsible for the resort’s genteel, shabby-snobbish charm,” the magazine said.
Squaw turned a neat profit in those days, according to Cushing’s 1971 report to the board. In the 1969-70 ski season, it earned $815,000 on $2.18 million in revenue, and the next year it cleared $793,000 on $2.14 million.
But the money probably wasn’t as good as it could have been. Ski rentals and ski lessons are usually big profit centers, but for years Squaw contracted them out as concessions. When Burkhart suggested Squaw could do more with the food service, he remembers Cushing huffing, “We don’t know shit about food.” And during the first few decades of his ownership, Cushing never tried to develop Squaw into anything more than a regional attraction – never ventured into real estate, never added any significant retail to the base area.
“Alex only wanted to build ski lifts and sell lift tickets,” Burkhart says. Cushing liked to say he was in “the uphill transportation business.”
Cushing’s widow Nancy, who helped him run Squaw for 20 years, said those who criticize his customer service are missing the bigger picture. Cushing cared deeply about his patrons, she said. That’s why he built the Funitel and the tram and all those chair lifts. He was so dedicated to making Squaw more fun that for decades he plowed all of his profits back into it, never taking a dividend for himself or his family.
“His greatest pleasure was lifting people up the mountain and watching them ski down,” she said.
Still, it’s hard to read Cushing’s annual letters to his season pass customers without thinking he was a little cavalier about service. In them, he sounds like he is addressing chums he sees every week at the golf club, not customers whose business he values. His 1972 missive noted that he had tried to get his lift attendants to be a little friendlier.
“The attendants really did seem to take an interest in you (now and then),” he wrote.
Four years later, he tried a new way to make customers feel welcome: “Snow hostesses.”
“Seven beautiful girls … will greet each and every one of you. … These girls will be available for a chit-chat, know where the best skiing is, pass out lift maps, and generally be at the ready to be of service in any way they can (up to a point).” The snow hostesses didn’t last long.
Cushing, who died in 2006 at age 92, once wrote that Squaw “is not for sale and never will be. But in a letter to pass-holders after his death, Cushing’s third wife, Nancy, acknowledged the area was on the block.
“Although we welcome investors who have a long range view,” she wrote, “we don’t want to get mixed up with private equity firms who have a five-year fuse with an in-and-out real estate development mentality.”
Two years later, Squaw was sold to a private equity firm.
A five-foot-tall black-and-white photograph hangs behind Andy Wirth’s desk in his upstairs office at the Olympic Village Lodge. The photo shows the late Shane McConkey, a Squaw local, perched on the side of a snow-dusted rock wall like Spider-Man on K2s.
Wirth says he feels a kinship with extreme skiers and values them as customers. But they’re not the people he’s most concerned about these days. If he were to hang a photo of those skiers, it might show a middle-aged dad carving wide turns on a blue-square trail with his grade-school-age kids.
“We are in the vacation business, period,” Wirth says. “We sell vacation experiences which put us on the clock 24 hours a day for whatever that customer is seeking.”
Wirth, 48, is a marketing guy, and it shows. He tends to hold forth when answering questions, and at times during our conversation he lapsed into hipster lingo that felt a little forced. At one point, his assistant called out to let him know he had a 2 p.m. meeting. Wirth asked where it was, and when she told him, instead of saying “Okay, great” or “Thanks,” he said “Score.”
He was also extremely knowledgeable and, at times, refreshingly candid. When I asked him about the decision to close Silverado last spring, he said, “We made a mistake. Absolutely that’s on us. Period. Lesson learned.”
Hosni Mubarak apologizes!
Wirth, a former VP at Steamboat, became Squaw Valley USA’s chief executive officer on Aug. 2, 2010, while Nancy Cushing was still in charge. His first act as CEO was to prepare the resort for sale to KSL. Within four months the deal was done. Nancy Cushing left and Wirth stayed. And he said he’s not going anywhere. It’s unfair, Wirth said, to assume that every private equity firm has a “five-year fuse.”
“We have involved, motivated, well capitalized ownership,” he said.
Then again, everybody who has a Squaw season pass thinks he owns the place. It’s the best thing and the worst thing about Wirth’s job. Those guys who line up in the dark to get the first ride up the KT-22 chair on powder days? They’re Wirth’s most loyal customers. They can also be the most demanding.
Wirth gets that, but he’s not about to run Squaw on their wishes alone.
“There’s a lot of people who don’t want anything to change. But there’s a lot of people who want it to change dramatically, and want it now,” he said, adding that his job is “to optimize all aspects of the performance of this operating company.”
It’s safe to say the word “optimize” has not been uttered very often in the 62-year history of Squaw Valley. The question, for his hardcore customers, is whether optimizing Squaw will also spoil it.
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,
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.