Vail Daily column: Welcome to the club
Ryan Summerlin November 22, 2013
I have never turned down the infrequent offer of a free ride in a private jet.
Laurie and I were living in Vail and enjoying the good life of skiing every day, many of which were with our friends Jack and Joanne Kemp.
Jack had introduced me to someone with a wild idea to build a private ski resort in the Montana wilderness.
Tim Blixseth was the idea man, Jack Kemp was the contact man and I brought Jon Reveal along, the best ski resort designer and operations guy I knew.
The flight from Vail to Bozeman was short and the drive along the Gallatin River was beautiful. I had no idea at the time that this free one-day trip would change Laurie’s and my life forever.
I had pretty much retired from making ski movies and had settled down into a life of writing stories such as this and illustrating for the fun of it, but something new in my life certainly didn’t hurt.
Soon after the SUV turned off the Gallatin River Highway, Lone Peak, home of the Big Sky ski resort, reached toward the sky with its 4,200 vertical feet of skiing that is still one of the best-kept secrets in American skiing today.
Ten minutes later, we stopped alongside of a helicopter with its turbine already warmed up and spinning slowly on idle.
The four of us would be the only people skiing on Pioneer Peak on this sunny spring day.
And what a day it would become.
Tim had already cut a couple of trails on his mountain that he had groomed just for us, but the upper half of the mountain is too steep to groom, and so we had a great day of skiing in powder snow, while deciding whether or not this would be a good mountain for a private ski resort.
Tim had acquired the 14,000 acres of land in timber swaps. Jon Reveal had been the mountain manager at Keystone and then Aspen so he brought a world of desperately needed important knowledge to the table.
Jack Kemp, after being a congressman from Buffalo for 16 years, brought his Washington, D.C., contacts to the table, and all I brought was my almost 50 years of movie-making experience and apparently a reputation for turning people onto skiing.
We used that helicopter so much that day that they had to refuel it twice.
To me, the mountain seemed as though it had been specially designed for all abilities of skiers and snowboarders. The upper half is steeper than the cornice at Mammoth, and the lower half is gentle, just like Snowmass at Aspen.
But a private ski resort? One of this scale had never been built before. It was scheduled to cost $250,000 just to join and then you had to buy a vacant lot, and they were scheduled to start at $2 million. I know enough about real estate to know that if you are going to build a house on a $2 million vacant lot, then someone will normally spend upwards of $4 million for the house.
I thought those numbers would make a very, very small market of customers.
I lived in Sun Valley for three years, Vail for a dozen and have spent time in almost every other ski resort in Europe and North America, and I just did not see any market for such expensive skiing.
It would cost a $6 million initial price to ski every day on Pioneer Peak? I was concerned that the numbers wouldn’t work for enough people to make it a success.
However, the ski terrain was perfect for any skier, or snowboarder, regardless of ability.
On the way home on the private jet, I found a copy of a magazine called the Robb Report containing an interesting article; It wrote about the worlds’ most expensive wrist watches. One jeweler in Switzerland only made nine of them because he didn’t want to glut the market. He sold all nine of them in less than 30 days at $999,000 each.
Until that moment, I had no idea that there were that many people in the world with that kind of disposable income. Some of them could well afford to join what just might become a private ski resort.
I signed on as the director of skiing at the Yellowstone Club and spent the next 13 years skiing on an almost-my mountain. With five quad chairlifts and 16 other assorted lifts to ride, it would be five years before we had more than a hundred people on the hill at the same time.
One of my favorite times was when Mary Macdonald was the only member there for three days. Bright sunshine and 6 inches of powder snow just for us. Every time a lift operator saw us coming, they would start the lift and when we got off at the top they would shut it off again.
One of my favorite runs at the club is the bottom of Snake. One day after lunch, I was able to ski down leisurely, leaving round turns in untracked powder snow. When I got back to the top, no one else had been down the run, so I crossed my own tracks and left top to bottom figure eights. Before I quit for the day, I had made two sets of figure eights by myself and no one else skied down that run that day.
In truth, I left three sets of figure eights but only claim two sets because no one believes me when I say “three sets of figure eights.”
One day I was skiing down behind one of the real estate salesmen in goofer feather powder snow. When Will Littman pulled up to rest he had a smile on his face that was 10 miles wide.
I said to him, “If I had a smile like you have and was in love with a beautiful lady like you are, tonight would be a good time to ask her to marry me.”
That night he asked her, and they have two great young skiers to show that love can do every day of their lives together.
Just like every Start Up company, the club has had its ups and downs and today has more than 400 members, more than 300 homes with a 140,000-square-foot, $100 million lodge to serve them.
Since the first time I skied there in 1997, I have had only one bad day and that was when I was traversing at about three miles an hour, stepped out of a binding and the ski I stepped out of landed on its side. I landed on the upturned edge and broke my back. It was not nice. But the accident provided me with a lot more time to work on my autobiography since I couldn’t ski every day.
Hey, you learn to make do with what you have left, and the Yellowstone Club is our four months a year winter home. A pretty good place to enjoy what I have left!
Filmmaker Warren Miller lived in Vail for 12 years, and his column began in the Vail Daily before being syndicated to more than 50 publications. For more of Miller’s stories and stuff, log onto warrenmiller.net. For information about his foundation, The Warren Miller Freedom Foundation, go to www.warrenmiller.org.
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