Empire of the Snow
When it opens this November under new ownership, Park City Mountain Resort will be the largest ski destination in the United States, with superfast lifts, fine dining, and other posh amenities. Can it stay true to its scrappy, independent roots? Joel Lovell heads to the storied slopes to find out.
When I arrived in Park City late last February, things were not awesome. Snow-wise, it had been as bad a season as they’d had in many years. The trails were covered with artificial snow, the mountains were brown, and the temperature during the previous week had approached 70 degrees. While the boutiques on Main Street were full and it was tough to get a table at the High West Distillery (“the only ski-in distillery in the world”), the feeling in the air was that things were not as they should be. The kid who drove my family into town from Salt Lake said that some guys he knew were selling T-shirts that read BLAME VAIL.
He was talking about Vail Resorts, the 800-pound gorilla of the ski industry, which in the fall of 2014 had purchased the legendary Park City Mountain Resort from Powdr Corp., a smaller conglomerate owned and operated by the Park City–based Cumming family, which more than one person in town described to me as “one of us.” Vail was now laying the logistical groundwork to combine the property with nearby Canyons, which it acquired in 2013, to form the largest ski resort in the United States, with more than 7,000 acres of skiable terrain. The merger became official in July, and the new and hugely expanded Park City Mountain Resort—with Canyons now known as Canyons Village at Park City—will begin its 2015–16 ski season this month. Park City at dusk. Todd Hido
The town of Park City is an old mining village tucked into a canyon in the Wasatch mountain range, about 30 miles southeast of Salt Lake City. For a generation, there have been three resorts in the area, each with a recognizably different vibe. The family-owned Deer Valley provides a kind of concierge service to visitors, with valets, a limit on the number of lift tickets sold each day, and a strict no-snowboarding rule. Canyons, which was renovated four years ago, feels contemporary and smooth: the lines move fast and the lifts hum along effortlessly, especially the amazing Orange Bubble Express, which features tangerine-colored windshields and heated seats. There’s a mid-mountain hub with outdoor grills and food carts, plus several restaurants in the base area that serve high-end food light-years away from the chicken-tenders-and-chili fare of many ski resorts. And then there’s PCMR, traditionally thought of as the coolest of the three. All are world-class in terms of terrain (each hosted events during the 2002 Winter Olympics), but PCMR is most rooted in the history of Park City. It opened in 1963 as Treasure Mountain after the final silver-mining company went under, leaving a ghost town. In its early days, skiers were transported over two miles through an unlit mining tunnel into the middle of the mountain (the Skiers Subway, it was called), then lifted nearly 2,000 feet to the surface by a mining elevator.
For Park City residents and ski nerds, Vail Resorts’ acquisition of PCMR has been a near-Shakespearean drama. It all began in May of 2013 when Powdr Corp. forgot (this is true! Someone just ... forgot) to renew its incredibly sweet 20-year lease, which required it to pay only around $150,000 annually to Talisker Land Holdings, the Canadian corporation that owns the land upon which PCMR operates. What ensued was your classic landlord-tenant dispute, only with all the animosity and bad acting played out in public and in court, until September of 2014 when a judge ruled that Talisker had no obligation toward Powdr Corp. and Vail, which had been monitoring the dispute, stepped in—or swooped in, vulture-style, depending on your point of view—paying $182.5 million for control of PCMR.
Vail runs 11 resorts, but it is best known for its eponymous property in Colorado. It’s hard to imagine a place less like PCMR. Vail’s flagship resort can feel like an exclusive alpine playground for the global one percent, who come from all over to ski and dine and shop and make deals with other sybaritic one-percenters. Park City, on the other hand, has been populated by hippies and ski bums and back-to-the-landers since the end of its days as a mining town, and the collective ethos of that crowd has informed the place for decades. From left: a pulled-pork sandwich at High West Distillery; the lobby of Washington School House, a hotel in downtown Park City. Todd Hido
I know, I know, that last statement is on some level totally laughable. The place is now awash in money. The Sundance Film Festival injects up to $80 million a year into the local economy. And seventy percent of the homes in Park City belong to people who don’t live there year-round. But there’s some truth in the unsubtly shaded notion that the place still contains genuine anti-corporate, alt- culture strands in its DNA, and the fact that Vail, a publicly traded, $4 billion company, is now the most powerful player in town has engendered all sorts of arguing and opining and hand-wringing over the fate of Park City.
I had come to get a sense of the mood now that the lawsuits, threats, and Facebook battles were in the past, and to understand how Vail’s grandiose plans might shape the future—for locals, for skiers, for the whole industry. Plus, my three daughters had never skied in the West, and I was dying for them to experience that feeling of moving through true powder and looking out over the Wasatch Range from 10,000 feet. I also wanted to buy them lunch in a yurt.
We woke on our first morning to nine inches of fresh snow. The whole mood in town had changed. Park City is really something when it’s covered in tufts of powder and the mountains are set off against an impossibly blue sky. Among its many charms is a lift—the Town Lift—which leaves from the center of the village and skims right over the roofs of brightly painted Victorian gingerbread houses, then rises up through the tops of birch trees before dropping you at the Bonanza Express, which takes you up to the summit. From there, you can look down on Park City far below. Beyond the canyon are mountain peaks as far as you can see. There are runs right off the lift for every kind of skier, long gradual beginner’s slopes that go on forever and more advanced runs that wind through stands of snow-covered trees. The mountain’s history is right there on its surface, the trails dotted with entrances to old tunnels and barracks where the miners used to live. The Orange Bubble Express, a signature lift at the expanded Park City Mountain Resort. Todd Hido
I have some pictures I took of my daughters after our first couple of runs. They’re the kinds of pictures you look back at months later just so you can revisit the excitement on your kids’ faces. They were giddy with the feeling of what was suddenly possible on all of that soft new snow, chasing each other through little rolling trails in the woods, taking on terrain that they would be terrified of on most icy days back East. Near the base of the mountain, we stopped at a metal alpine roller coaster that operates even in winter and is absolutely worth the $22 for a ride. It hasn’t been around for that long—less than 10 years—but there’s an Erector Set–like quality to its no-frills, silver-steel construction that feels antique and perfectly of the place.
We stopped for lunch at the Viking Yurt. It sits at 8,700 feet, at the junction of five trails. Opening the door is like stepping into a Hans Christian Andersen tale. There are garlands and warm Scandinavian drinks, a woodstove and apple strudel and baked goods that the pastry chef carries in on his skis. Even if you’re not a skier, dinner here should be a priority. It’s a single-seating, candlelit, piano-accompanied six-course meal preceded by a sleigh ride up the mountain, with views of Park City illuminated by thousands of strung lights below.
Later that day, my kids took a rest and I rode the lift to Jupiter Peak with an awesome, aging Spicoli type—a Park City native with blond hair past his shoulders who had worked as a lift operator at PCMR on and off for years. I asked if he expected the vibe of the mountain to change. He didn’t know, he said. Nobody did. They had jobs, though. That was good. “We’re Vail now, man,” he exclaimed. “Can you believe that?” He laughed in an overly long way that suggested a regular regimen of waking and baking, then grew serious. “I’ll tell you what, though,” he said, “you can’t say Vail doesn’t do things right. You cannot say that.”
Dana Williams, Park City’s popular former mayor (also a farmer, bartender, and environmental activist), isn’t saying that either. A child of two early hippie settlers, Williams remains the town’s moral authority in many regards, though over coffee he took great pains to emphasize that he’s now no more than another concerned citizen. In his three terms as mayor, Williams bolstered environmental protections and supported the passage of bonds that severely limit development through the enforcement of urban growth boundaries. He passed tax hikes for second-home owners that help provide affordable housing, largely to the benefit of the town’s Latino community, which makes up about 25 percent of the local population.
It’s generally agreed upon that Park City has expanded responsibly, though it hasn’t always been easy. Williams told me a story about a second-home owner who came into a city council meeting a few years ago and accused the mayor of socially engineering the town. He complained that he hadn’t purchased a house there “to walk the streets with the people who serve me,” Williams recalled. “I said, respectfully, ‘Let’s get you a realtor in Vail.’ ”
So I was surprised that Williams was upbeat about the relationship between the city and Vail Resorts. Yes, he agreed, the company’s best-known property was a terrible model for Park City. But he pointed out that several of Vail’s other holdings—like Breckenridge, Heavenly, and Kirkwood—have quirky personalities more akin to Park City. “They have a diverse product,” Williams said, “and they’re probably the best managers in the industry.” For him, the question was, “Does Vail want us to become part of them, or do they want to become part of us?” So far, he was optimistic. Vail had taken pains to make clear that it wanted to be part of the community, he said, and to prove that it understood what makes Park City unique.
In that way, Vail’s challenge isn’t so different from the one Williams faced as mayor: how do you expand income opportunities and handle the influx of people and traffic that those create, without giving up the soul of the town? “We spent decades here trying to figure out how to codify funk,” Williams said. “We’ve been true to what the vision of the people who live here is. We are this funky little town.”
Though the purchase of PCMR was a huge deal in the ski world, the single most industry-rattling thing Vail has done in recent years has been to introduce its Epic Pass, in 2008. For less than $800, you can have unlimited season-long access to all of the company’s properties: Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone, and Arapahoe Basin in Colorado; Park City Mountain Resort; Kirkwood and Northstar in California; Heavenly on the California-Nevada border; Perisher in Australia; and several smaller properties Vail owns in the Midwest. It also buys complimentary skiing days with Verbier in Switzerland, an international partner.
The criticism of the Epic Pass, which is really just a subset of the larger complaint about Vail, is that it’s making it impossible for independent operators to compete. I met Bill Rock, Park City Mountain Resort’s chief operating officer, for breakfast one day at the base lodge. The cafeteria was mostly empty, and the lifts hadn’t started running yet. High up on the mountain, a moose was making its way slowly across one of the trails. Rather than putting the squeeze on smaller resorts, Rock said, Vail is lifting the sport by making it more accessible to more people. This is a big deal for an industry that has long been flat in terms of new adoptees.
Obviously, Vail wants to reward its shareholders. But the company knows that to keep thriving it has to attract and maintain the loyalty of more and more skiers. The Epic Pass, which by the end of last year had been purchased by more than 400,000 people, is a very good deal, and while it has made it tough for individualdestination mountains to compete, it has brought in recreational skiers who otherwise wouldn’t spend the money on a season pass. It has also forced other mountains to band together to offer their own packages, like the Mountain Collective, which offers a pass for around $400 that gives skiers 22 days of access to a number of elite mountains, including Alta and Snowbird in Utah and Aspen Snowmass in Colorado. All of this ultimately helps achieve what the skiing industry needs most, which is more people on the mountains. Empty whiskey barrels at High West. Todd Hido
From a selfish skier's perspective, it’s hard not to be excited about what the experience in Park City is about to become. Since last season, Vail has sunk $50 million into the most ambitious capital improvement project ever at a North American resort. The biggest addition is Quicksilver, the connecting gondola, which goes from PCMR to Canyons Village in nine minutes. There’s also now a base station on the PCMR side next to Miners Camp, a 500-seat restaurant with an all-glass front, and another terminal on the Canyons side. A mid-station high on a ridgeline called Pinecone Ridge provides access to trails previously accessible only to backcountry skiers. Further changes on the PCMR side, including numerous lift upgrades, have given it the same smoothrunning modernity you experience everywhere when you ski at Canyons.
While in Park City, my daughters and I stayed both in town—at Main & Sky, a boutique hotel a block from the Town Lift that has, among other lovely features, glass walls that look out at the mountain—and at Grand Summit in Canyons Village, a stone’s throw from the Orange Bubble Express. If you stay in town, you’ll be at the easternmost edge of the newly combined resort; in Canyons Village, you’ll be near the westernmost edge. On the Canyons side, we’d ski all day before returning to the lodge and swimming in the heated outdoor pool, looking up at the snow-covered mountains and watching the steam rise off of us into the cold air. I recommend splurging on dinner at the Farm, which serves exquisite dishes made with carefully sourced ingredients. The club steak was as memorable as any I’ve ever eaten. The Red Pine Lodge at Canyons Village. Todd Hido
It’s very easy to get into town, though, where the eating and drinking options are wide-ranging and excellent and where you can stroll along Main Street, past buildings that stood when the place truly was a Western mining outpost but are now festooned in strands of white lights. Park City natives like to congregate at the No Name Saloon, but outsiders are more than welcome. It was there that I expected to experience the full force of local resentment toward Vail, but no one was all that worked up about things. The worst of the vitriol was behind them, they said. Now they knew what the plan was, and they trusted that the Park City–ness of Park City would continue to win out.
I do, too. For all the extraordinary improvements that will be on display at PCMR this year, there’s still nothing, at least in my mind, that will match the experience of riding up on the rickety Town Lift. My daughters and I would wake each morning and get our gear on and walk a block from Main & Sky to an outpost of the popular Salt Lake City franchise Publik Coffee Roasters, which was then operating inside the Kimball Art Center. The kids would get toast with maple syrup and powdered sugar or peanut butter, banana, and honey. We’d finish breakfast and walk over to the lift and the sun would be lighting up the pastel houses as we rose over them. It’s such a lovely way to start a day of skiing. At the end of the day, we’d ski back down the lift trail and glide over the bridge above Main Street, then click out at the curb. The fires would be going outside the High West Distillery, and I’d get a bourbon and sip it as the sun went down. The lights would come on all through town, and the place would look like a movie set. Except it isn’t. Its history is as real as a Western town’s can be. And the beauty of Park City is that you can still feel it.