If Elton John wants to go skiing on Pioneer Mountain, Mont., he'll have to sing for it. With 5,000 acres, five lifts and a 3,100-foot vertical drop, Pioneer will be one of the largest ski areas in the nation when it's finished. But after this winter, Mr. John or anyone else for that matter won't be allowed to ski there unless they're extremely rich or extremely well connected.
Wedge-shaped, 9,861-foot Pioneer Mountain is the centerpiece of what lumber titan Tim Blixseth believes will be the most exclusive four-season resort in the world: 18,000 acres along the western edge of Big Sky Resort, land owned by Blixseth's Big Sky Timber.
"I love that piece of property," says Blixseth. "I looked at it when I was hiking one day and thought, 'God, this is a great ski mountain. I should build a house and put up a few ski lifts.'" Blixseth's friends in Rancho Mirage, Calif., convinced him that they, too, would like a private ski mountain, so he agreed to develop The Yellowstone Club.
The Club's deal is simple: Each of the 400 members will pay $1.5 million to join and then about $25,000 annually in dues. That ante will buy them the opportunity to purchase either a "fishing cabin" (about 2,500 square feet); a suite in the base lodge (2,000 square feet); a mountain chalet (3,500 square feet); or one of 200 estate lots, which range in size from two to 20 acres. Blixseth declined to speculate on how much the properties will sell for, but the Club's Internet site (www.yellowstone.com) states owners will be in for "an average property cost of $1 million." In other words, the 400 members could end up paying $2.5 million each-for a combined $1 billion-to belong to and build in The Yellowstone Club.
So what does all that money get you? For starters there's no need to buy lift tickets. And there will be all the usual resort amenities: a cross-country skiing center, snowshoeing, horse-drawn sleigh rides, ice skating and a restaurant or two. For summer diversions try fly fishing on the West Fork of the Gallatin River, hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding and golfing on the 18-hole course.
What you won't get is crowds; nobody else will be allowed to ski there, except members' guests. The one exception: If a marquee personality, like, to cite Blixseth's example, Elton John, wants to visit, management may invite him to "sing for his skiing," Blixseth said. That could mean performing in the bar if you're a British pop star, or cooking in the lodge restaurant if you're a famous chef.
Despite its plush trappings, the club is "more of a home than a resort," insists Blixseth, who made his fortune in timber and acquired Pioneer Mountain (along with 220 square miles of other Montana lands) in 1991. His company paid a reported $26 million for the acreage after a Ted Turner-backed purchase by The Nature Conservancy fell through. "You know you're going to be safe, your kids are not going to be kidnapped," he said. "I believe there are a lot of people out there who want a slower pace of life, and that's what we're trying to create here."
Such people fall into all economic categories, but those Blixseth is interested in are the 350,000 Americans who are worth more than $10 million each. In November, he said there was a waiting list of 40 people who want to buy. Those first 40 could get a good deal, since a number of published reports-including the Club's website-say charter members will either get a five-acre slice of land gratis or will get their up-front money back when the last 40 sign up.
The entire development will cost $75 million, Blixseth said, noting that he will not borrow the money. Coincidentally, published reports say that Big Sky Lumber, now busy logging, selling and swapping other private lands to the federal government, will clear $75 million on its 1992 land purchases while retaining the Pioneer Mountain tract, plus another 35 square miles near Bridger Bowl Ski Area.
Yellowstone Club members will be able to book time on thee Club's Gulfstream jet for their commutes and will be kept secure by a former Secret Service agent. Former Aspen Skiing Company general manager Jon Reveal is sitting on the advisory committee, as are ski movie mogul Warren Miller, erstwhile vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp, Olympic medalist and ski instruction pioneer Stein Eriksen and LPGA leading money winner Annika Sorenstam.
If The Yellowstone Club is perceived as a sandbox for the rich, that's fine with Blixseth. "There's no hiding that there are people in the U.S. who have tremendous wealth, and that's the American dream," he says. "It isn't in my book to be ashamed of wealth. I think Aspen, Vail, Telluride and Sun Valley are ostentatious. This is a place to get away from that."
But enough about the money-how's the skiing? With the high tip pointing to the south and the steepest slopes off the east, the mountain offers some rock-ribbed chutes and a long cornice. The gentler slopes are on the lower elevations and along the northern side. It's a good family mountain, which is what most of Blixseth's customers want.
Five trails have already been cut and the eventual development will include four high-speed quads and a gondola. For now, snowcats are taking people up the slopes-30 a day, and you can go, too (see sidebar). If you decide you really like it-enough to drop a few million-you're going to have to agree to one thing, Blixseth says: "Check your ego at the gate, and pick it up again when you leave."
Ski It While You Can
Snowcat skiing on Pioneer Mountain can be arranged by calling The Yellowstone Club at (888) 400-4949. Options range from day skiing ($150 to $250 per day) to seven-night (five ski days) packages that include food and lodging at the nearby Rainbow Ranch or River Rock lodges. Two-day packages in low season start at $1,121; five-day deluxe packages in high season start at $4,259 (based on double occupancy).