Working at the top of the world
January 24, 2014
VAIL — Some people think they have a pretty good view from their offices, but few come close to the vista that Doug Wooldridge has enjoyed for the past 15 years.
Wooldridge, the longtime general manager at Vail's Two Elk Lodge, looks out daily from the expansive windows of the dining hall to the dramatic peaks of the Gore Range on one side and into Vail's Back Bowls from the other side. It's not only his view during work hours, but after work as well — Wooldridge has the distinction of being the only employee to live long-term on Vail Mountain. (Two other positions at Eagle's Nest rotate housing every two years.) After Two Elk burned down in 1998 as a result of an arson fire, the resort wanted to rebuild the lodge with improvements. One of those was an attached four-bedroom apartment for am employee caretake, added both for convenience and security measure. Tall and jovial, with a dimpled smile, Wooldridge looks less security measure and more like a friendly welcoming committee for the popular dining hall.
However, the post is more than a full-time job. Two Elk is by far the busiest dining facility on the mountain, and the restaurant also runs and supplies Belle's Camp and The Doghouse in Blue Sky Basin. The facility has about 100 employees on payroll, and on any given winter day, the facility is staffed 16 to 18 hours a day. Poke your head in the doors during lunchtime on a weekend, and it will appear that the dining hall is nearing its 1,300 person capacity.
On a sunny, blue-sky day on Vail Mountain, Wooldridge sat down to chat about life at Two Elk, trading the Windy City for Vail and the downsides of a commute that involves snowmobiles and chairlifts.
Vail Daily: What's a typical ski-season day look like for you?
Doug Wooldridge: My day starts at 5 a.m. and ends around 7 p.m. It's my job to run the reports — how many gallons of chili, how many hot dogs — so that when the (delivery) snowcats arrive in the morning, I can tell them what I need. I look at historical data, as well as snow reports. We do better on bright, sunny days. If it's snowing sideways, a lot of people don't come out to ski at all. Then we go out by snowcat to deliver to Blue Sky Basin. Both of those are extremely busy locations and move a lot of product.
Two Elk opens for beverages and baked goods at 9 a.m., and the full menu is available at 10:30 a.m. We're done serving by 3 p.m.
Sometimes I have to go down to the base for meetings. Then there's cleaning up and getting ready for the next day.
VD: Who lives up here with you?
DW: My girlfriend, Anne Redden (who also works for Vail Resorts), lives up here as well. I have a dog named Moab, a chocolate lab who is 11-and-a-half-years-old. He's kind of our mascot and comes down to greet the staff in the morning, then goes back to the apartment. At the end of the day he comes back down and wishes everyone farewell. We also have a six-month-old dog named Stella.
VD: I understand you're from Chicago. How did you end up out in Vail?
DW: We came out here for fall vacation, and it's a long story, but I got offered a job. I've been in hotel and restaurant management all my adult life. I turned down the job a couple times, then accepted a position at Eagle's Nest.
VD: How did you end up living and working at Two Elk?
DW: Just 10 days before the fire, I'd agreed to manage Two Elk. When they rebuilt it, they asked, "Who will live here?" It was an obvious answer — me. I said, "Yeah, I'll live here for a year." Who gets to live on top of the mountain? Then they wanted a summer person up here, so I stayed, and my one season turned into a full year. Now, 15 years later …
VD: How's the commute from here? It's not like you can pop down to the grocery store on a whim up here.
DW: I'll ski and ride on the chairlifts during the day, then I have a snowmobile that I'll take to the gondola. I try to plan my trips in town with my meetings. In the summer, we take a truck. During the winter, skiing from the base takes about 30 minutes, and that's if there are no lines and no stops.
VD: What's the best thing about living up here?
DW: It's the views and the location. Most people see Two Elk as one of the most crazy, chaotic places on the planet during the day. I have the luxury of sitting here in the evening and have it be one of the most serene, beautiful locations. There's not a day I don't look at the view and say, "Wow!"
VD: What's the biggest downside?
DW: At times it's not real convenient. For example, two summers ago we went to a movie in Edwards that got out at 11 p.m. My girlfriend said, "Well, let's go home." The thought of driving back to Vail, switching to the company truck, driving back up here … by the time we got home it was a solid one hour and 20 minutes from Edwards.
VD: What's summer like up here?
DW: It's totally different. You won't see anyone up here for days or weeks. The wildlife and flowers are spectacular, and it's extremely quiet and peaceful up here. I walk a lot. On my lunch break I'll walk out one door or another and just start walking. Anywhere else you start walking up the mountain, and here it's the opposite. I do get to see the mountain in a way most other people don't.
VD: On the Two Elk menu, what's your favorite item?
DW: My all-time favorite single menu item is the burrito. If I'm craving a soup or chili, it's always the Buffalo Chili.
VD: Favorite area to ski?
DW: Blue Sky Basin. I have to get out at least a couple times a week to check on operations there anyway. It's not a bad gig.
Assistant Managing Editor Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2927 and firstname.lastname@example.org.