Popular ski program under fire in Keystone, Breckenridge
Summit County, CO Colorado
SUMMIT COUNTY, Colorado ” When Tim Bourke’s wife died after the couple moved to Summit County, he found solace in a circle of friends he developed when he started skiing at Keystone with the Over-the-Hill Gang every week.
“It helped me get my mind on other things,” Bourke said this week, brushing a few flakes of fresh snow off his goggles before starting down the resort’s Schoolmarm run with some of those newfound friends on a fine powder day.
But this year will be different for Bourke and nearly 200 others who’ve been meeting regularly at Keystone under the auspices of the Colorado Springs-based ski-and-travel organization.
Trying to standardize operations across its four ski mountains, Vail Resorts has told the Over-the-Hill Gang that it can’t run its structured ski program at Keystone and Breckenridge this winter, leaving many of participants bitterly disappointed and feeling like they’ve been banished from the mountain.
“Basically, Vail Resorts kicked the Over-the-Hill Gang guided programs off the mountain. We were told we can’t wear our guide jackets. Most of us in the county are really upset about it,” said Breckenridge resident Evey Statz, who, with her husband, has helped organize local outings the past few years. “We just keep asking ourselves why?”
For Statz and many others, the gang has helped cement lasting friendships.
“It was a godsend for us. We would not have relocated here permanently without the Over- the-Hill Gang,” Statz said, adding that she and her husband have been visiting Breckenridge since 1971. She explained how they didn’t know anyone when they first moved to the area, but quickly found supportive and like-minded spirits through the club.
Pat Campbell, chief operating officer at Keystone, said she understands the disappointment among the group’s members.
The resort’s sales staff is still working with the club to find some common ground, she said.
“We reached a point where it wasn’t working on our end,” Campbell said. “Over time, the historically informal program has grown … We saw more of a divergence from how we handle other groups.”
Large organizations like the National Brotherhood of Skiers and the Florida Ski Council also frequent Keystone but use resort staff, including ski instructors and guest services, to assist with their programming, Campbell explained.
“The Over-the-Hill Gang is a for-profit operation, and they want to conduct their activities on the mountain for free,” she said.
In particular, officials with the ski company suggest that the Over-the-Hill Gang guides take away business from the ski schools at the resorts.
“The crux of it is, they’re a for-profit group, and we need to treat them like any other group,” said Lucy Kay, Campbell’s counterpart at Breckenridge Ski Resort.
It’s true that the Over-the-Hill Gang International is a for-profit enterprise that makes money by functioning as a travel agency. But the group’s activities at Keystone appear to be non-commercial and generally of a social nature.
The skiers who participate pay annual dues of $90, which entitles them to meet up with their friends and ski in guided groups with others of similar ability.
Fear of losing ski passes
Longtime locals ” and make no mistake, these folks have hundreds of years of combined ski time under their belts ” who have been guiding these groups say they feel threatened by Vail Resorts heavy-handed negotiation tactics.
Specifically, they’re afraid they could lose their skiing privileges at Keystone and Breckenridge if they show up wearing their Over-the-Hill Gang jackets this season.
“They’ve made some veiled threats. They didn’t come right out and say it directly, but they used examples of how off-duty instructors from other areas teaching at Keystone lost their passes for life,” Statz said.
She doesn’t have any proof, but Statz is convinced that the order to disband the gang came from Vail Resorts corporate office in Broomfield.
“What we’ve heard is that, last year, Rob Katz and Pat Campbell decided to shut down the program. Basically, they just quit talking to us.”
The final edict banning the group’s organized activities at Breckenridge and Keystone was communicated about Nov. 1, she said.
It’s difficult to track down exactly who said what and when. Vail Resorts officials have been typically tight-lipped about revealing any details, but corporate spokeswoman Kelly Ladyga said it was a definition made by the individual resorts, and not at the top level of the company.
Campbell said the company’s sales team has been handling the ongoing discussions with the organization, and is still working to come up with some alternative solutions.
One possibility is that the club could use the Keystone guest services volunteers ” for free ” as guides, she said. The program works in a similar way at Copper, where staffers serve as guides for the club.
She also denied that Vail Resorts made any threats ” veiled or otherwise ” to revoke passes, and said that club members are free to ski together as “informal groups.”
John Karras, who has guided the lowest-level group, the Turquoise Gems, on Thursdays at Keystone for more than five years, said members are trying to figure out why Vail would make such a move.
“As far as we can see, they’ve succeeded in alienating well over 300 seniors for little apparent gain,” he said.
Some of the club members may start skiing more at Arapahoe Basin, where they’ll find a welcoming atmosphere.
“They’re great. They’re awesome ambassadors to the ski world,” said Arapahoe Basin spokeswoman Leigh Hierholzer. “We don’t have a problem with brown-bagging. We love having them up here, and they can wear whatever they want.”
All together, the organization has brought together several hundred skiers at Breckenridge and Keystone each week in recent years, said Nancy Macey, who helped start local activities for the group at Copper Mountain in the mid-1970s.
“The important thing to me is we’ve helped people achieve a level of skiing they never would have reached,” Macey said, emphasizing the club’s supportive camaraderie.
“Vail would like to think we’re taking away from their ambassador program. We’re really disappointed,” she said. “We’ve been doing so well.”
Bob Berwyn can be reached
at (970) 331-5996, or at