The corporate owner of Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows resorts announced an agreement today with private landowner Troy Caldwell that will likely connect the two California ski areas. Pending local government and U.S. Forest Service approval, Squaw Valley Ski Holdings plans to build a base-to-base gondola over KT-22 Peak and through Caldwell’s land.
Andy Wirth, president and CEO of Squaw Valley Ski Holdings, spoke exclusively by phone with us at Liftopia on the day of the announcement.
What is your personal reaction to this big step forward?
My personal reaction is that this is many decades in the vision and dreaming by Squaw Valley’s founder Wayne Poulsen. Our team is quite prideful in our ability to help move it one step forward to reality. Quite honestly, there is an emotional sentiment that is involved here. We’ve always considered ourselves to be lucky to be stewards of these incredible mountains.
I highlight an important fact that this is a result of input from our customers and our community—that this would be a desirous effort. We’re pleased to be in this position to be in what is ultimately just step one of a multi-step process.
Once the process is complete and the dream is realized, how do you think this will elevate Squaw and Alpine in the pantheon of North American resorts in terms of reputation?
It is difficult to say without getting into speculation, but I think over the past 25 years if you look at the evolution of Whistler Blackcomb, it might be analogous. Whereas in the 70s and 80s Whistler and Blackcomb were separate mountains and separate companies, over time they were obviously joined. There are actually people still in Vancouver that consider themselves “Blackcomb skiers” or “Whistler skiers,” but I think the overriding point is that it is possibly analogous to Whistler and Blackcomb in its evolution.
When you talk about the pantheon of resorts, KT-22 and Squaw Valley are already very much there. What we’re talking about here is the combining of two legendary mountains in their own right. While it is difficult to speculate and we’re not of the sort to boast, we think we have two fantastic mountains already. To make it one experience truly, I think is going to be fantastic. I think the only analogous situation is Whistler Blackcomb and their incredible evolution.
It seems like your personal relationship with Troy Caldwell helped move this forward. This is a long way from years ago when Caldwell and Squaw were in litigation. What can you say about your personal relationship and the tone of the negotiations?
When I came in to be the CEO of Squaw Valley in 2010, Troy Caldwell was one of the first conversations I had. It was quite understandable that he had a challenge with trusting the leadership at Squaw Valley. Unfortunately, it seemed that my predecessors seemed to solve everything with litigation. He was understandably very apprehensive. I think through the years, it is fair and accurate to say that this announcement was born out of a friendship, but also a trusted relationship.
It took a little while to establish trust, and I conveyed to him pretty early on that we wanted to be friends and good neighbors. I honestly conveyed to him that if we had to solve things through litigation, I would consider that an abject failure for both of us and I was not of that mindset.
We literally built a friendship and trusted partnership. We quickly found alignment in having the vision of bringing Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows together. We traveled together to different mountain resorts in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. It would be fair to say that today’s announcement of agreements were born out of a trusted friendship and born of many days up on the mountain and on his property.
It really comes down to the basic premise that we had fundamental alignment of vision, fundamental alignment of our values and that is what enabled us to get to this stage today. There is still a lot of work to be done. We have a great deal of interest in engaging the community.
Maybe the best, most telling moment was when signed these very important documents that were literally decades in the envisioning, we celebrated it very quietly and comfortably with a cold Coors Light.
At one point, Caldwell put up 17 lift towers on his property. Can those practically be used or is there any possibility of using those for the new gondola?
It’s a totally different lift that Troy Caldwell is still contemplating finishing. The base-to-base gondola line as it’s currently contemplated would not involve those lift towers. Not to speak on Troy’s behalf, but I think it is fair to say that he intends to complete that chairlift as a function of a different project.
A project like what he’s always had in mind to create a little private ski area, you mean?
That is exactly right.
It’s hard to predict the government, but what timeline based on other projects might you expect for approval?
It’s very difficult to speculate. We need to engage our community and that will help inform our planning package. We’ve already received just this morning (of the announcement) an overwhelming amount of support from our customers and frankly leaders of environmental organizations in the community.
At this stage, we have a concept that is thoughtful and approvable, but there is a lot of work to be done between now and approval and build. I resist the temptation to speculate on how long that’ll take.
How long will it take to actually build once it’s approved?
We do know that. We’ve not solidified on what manufacturer. There’s really only two manufacturers in the world, Leitner-Poma and Doppelmayr. We are still in negotiations with both of those companies. Both of those companies have indicated that the construction phase would take no longer than 11 or 12 months.
Compared to many projects, from a design and especially a construction perspective, it is actually a pretty straightforward project.
You have talked about getting support, but I’m guessing some might worry about Alpine Meadows losing its down-home vibe. What would you say to comfort them?
First and foremost, we will be tuning in very acutely to anybody and everybody’s input. Not only do we anticipate that input, but we’ll be soliciting that input. I will want to hear from long-standing customers of both mountains in what we can do to help preserve the heritage and legacy of both mountains. I think connecting them doesn’t compromise that. I think it could actually be enhancing. We think there is great value in respecting the legacy, history and vibe of each mountain.
Excellent, thank you so much for your time.
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