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Large creamy flakes tumble and swirl from the storm clouds above, blanketing my skis and adding to the already thigh-deep snow below me as I ride the Alberta quad to the summit.
The chair in front of me is filled with tykes catching the snow on their tongues while their instructor distributes high fives and pointers before the next run. It’s another classic day at Wolf Creek Ski Area, tucked into the San Juan range in southwest Colorado. The lift kicks a half step forward and slows to a stop for a moment before I hear the all-clear bell ring and we continue our ascent. My lift companion mutters something about the good old days through a grizzled beard before donning his goggles and nodding in my direction as we prepare to unload. I nod back, wondering quite what he means. The good old days?
Maybe he’s thinking of the fickle yet briefly effective Model A engine that spun the inaugural rope tow at Wolf Creek, then sputtered, bucked, and ultimately exploded in 1938, having propelled only a handful of elated skiers uphill against the will of gravity. A year of searching and mechanic work produced a second engine to power the same tow, and 1939 was proclaimed the first skiable season for Wolf Creek. The first few decades were trying, and the freshly minted ski area teetered between success and closure until it slipped into bankruptcy in 1976. This modest business opportunity caught the attention of young Kingsbury Pitcher.
Pitcher, who had cut his ski-area teeth by surveying terrain for what are now the Aspen and Snowmass resorts before moving to New Mexico to run Ski Santa Fe, was enticed by the chance to run a ski resort in Colorado. Within a decade of investing, he bought out his fellow board members and began full ownership and operation.
He spent the next few decades transforming Wolf Creek from a small skiable hill atop the newly finished Wolf Creek Pass on Highway 160 to a bustling mountain of avid skiers and adventure enthusiasts. He had a simple business philosophy: make skiing accessible to the people who enjoyed it. By focusing on the less attractive aspects of the operation—parking, bathrooms, lift maintenance—he created a solid foundation for people to build their own skiing adventures. This was the operating wisdom he encouraged his six children to follow as they grew up helping tend to the rapidly forming ski area. In 1989, Kingsbury began handing off the operation of the family business to his son, Davey Pitcher. He wouldn’t have had it any other way.
As with many small independent ski areas, there’s a day-to-day undercurrent of anxiety about the future. How do we keep up with today’s skiers’ increasing demands: high-speed lifts, urban-quality cuisine, a buzzing base village, sophisticated lodging, and grooming fit for a king, for a start?
Then there’s the big one: Should we stay independent or are there opportunities to cash out? And if so, why the heck not?
All indications are that Wolf Creek wants nothing more than to remain Wolf Creek.
“We’re a generational resort,” Davey Pitcher says. The theme is seen in both its business operation and its customers. Though Davey is now the official owner and operator of Wolf Creek, he is not in it alone. Each member of the Pitcher family has an important role. As Davey runs the snowcats, manages the patrol operations, and oversees all on-mountain activities, his wife, Rosanne, runs the marketing department.
Their son, Keith, started helping at age five, wrangling children in the Wolf Pups ski school, and he essentially grew up within earshot of groomers working the slopes. “My dad has been building this place since I was born,” he says. His sister Erika started in the ticket office as a kid and worked in the marketing department during her high- school years. While both are now in college in California, they make it home to work on construction projects during the summer and can sometimes still be found slinging tickets on busy holidays. “Hard work brings the family closer together,” says Keith, who admits that growing up seeing the operation of a business from the inside is bound to teach a kid some life lessons. “You have to pay attention to things that people don’t want to pay attention to,” he says, such as cleaning the bathrooms and taking out the trash.
Extending the working family tree is Chris Pitcher, Davey’s nephew. “I basically grew up in the ticket office,” he says. Raised in nearby Pagosa Springs, he left for school on the East Coast only to return as a civil engineer, and now he works on lifts, lodges, and other projects. Going to work is almost like a family reunion. The generational focus within the Pitcher family is a hallmark of the business and key to the operation of the area—now and in the future.
That family focus is seen in visitors as well. “People plan their entire winter around a week at Wolf Creek,” Davey says. Skiers from all over southwest Colorado as well as Texas, Oklahoma, and all the way to the East Coast fly in, naturally with their kids in tow. The ones who grew up visiting Wolf Creek now return with their children, starting the next generation of customers.
Then there is the snow. The 1,600-acre powder haven boasts a tremendous endowment of the fluffy stuff, with a 430-inch annual average, benefiting from the natural swell of moisture within the mountainous bowl, low temperatures, and, of course, its 10,000-foot base elevation. While obviously not immune to climate change, Wolf Creek is one of the strongholds of prolonged deep seasons. While much of West Coast skiing has endured a succession of drought winters, Wolf Creek quietly counts the inches as they pile up.
Accumulation starts hard and early, leaving only a handful of roped-off runs by Thanksgiving, much to the rejoicing of locals and patrollers alike. For early-season access, Davey Pitcher and his patrol team put a lot of trust in their patrons. Besides placing a few unmarked hazard signs around sketchy spots, he allows skiers to judge the conditions as well as their own ability and to wisely pick their way down the hill, kind of like a dad trusting the kids to not crash the family car. “People have been thinking of skiing all summer,” Davey says. “It’s important to let them make their own decisions.”
Wolf Creek calls itself a ski area, not a ski resort. The distinction puts the emphasis on the mountain and the community, not the attendant amenities. Though the season-pass prices are in the mid-range for an isolated ski area (the early-season price for an adult pass is $731), Wolf Creek offers tiered discounts for each additional kid, with its website listing prices for the “5th in the family,” which tells you a lot about the area’s customer base. Wolf Creek also serves up a full 15 discounted Local Appreciation Days throughout the season. “Skiing needs to remain inclusive,” Davey Pitcher says without reserve.
Attitude and early-season access are not the only inclusive items at Wolf Creek. The inbounds terrain is easy to navigate, welcoming skiers of all skill levels with varied gnar factors. Outside the small yet homey base area, a trio of lifts sweep skiers up the front side. The northeast-facing front face hosts a bevy of runs, ranging from gentle and inviting greens to test-yourself expert terrain. Each meticulously groomed beginner slope seems to be balanced out by a mogul- or tree-studded pitch, offering easy access to slopes to both learn the basics or master the nuances.
The rugged back side is a different beast. With everything from the tight trees in Area 54 to the heart-pounding drops off the Knife Ridge and Dog Chutes, the back side is the rendezvous spot for advanced skiers looking for fluid lines and deep snow. While pods such as the Numbered Chutes are easy to reach from the chair and hold great snow all day, the best skiing can be found with a short traverse across the Knife Ridge into Horseshoe Bowl. The expansive and feature-rich back side, which is served solely by the Alberta lift, rarely sees crowds and holds snow well, often providing untouched pillows of powder days after a storm. It’s the kind of place where, once you start skiing, little else comes to mind. Lunch could easily be forgotten, but thankfully the Alberta Grill is tucked neatly at the base of the lift.
Over its more than seven-decade history, development at Wolf Creek has maintained a methodical focus on core skiers and their families. And the development schedule looking forward, while packed, is no different. The U.S. Forest Service and Wolf Creek have worked publicly to provide a 20-year plan on changes and improvements around the area, including a new low- capacity tram accessing an additional 1,000 vertical feet.
However, the Pitcher family is not alone in looking to develop new aspects of the area. Doug “Red” McCoumbs, a Texas-based millionaire and real estate mogul who has had land in the region since the late 1980s, recently finalized a land swap with the Forest Service for development rights on the edge of the area. McCoumbs’s original plan of building lodging and amenities for a large bed base has been cut back in recent years, but it has still been met with public opposition. Stickers saying “Don’t Pillage Wolf Creek” have popped up on lift towers.
Despite the uproar against the proposed McCoumbs expansion, Davey Pitcher remains cautiously optimistic and urges the community to feel the same but also to remain diligent in guiding the potential project. He says if the permits go through, and there are more beds and amenities to let more people ski with minimal impact on the experience, then it will benefit the region. Yet with the continuing consolidation of the ski-resort industry, many members of the community are uneasy about the future of Wolf Creek and its status as a small, independent, and family-operated area.
The Pitchers, who have worked for generations to build Wolf Creek into what it is today, aren’t looking to cash out. Chris Pitcher, whose earliest memories include sitting in the ticket office, doesn’t think a buyout would change the ski area in any way for the better. “Nothing would make me happier than seeing Wolf Creek stay in the family for future generations,” he says. He admits that the Pitchers, like every family, have their highs and lows, and sometimes family ties strain under the pressure of running a business, especially one depending on unpredictable weather. But when the snow falls and the lifts start turning for the season, the Pitcher family unites to work for a common love. “We are a family of people who like to ski,” he says simply.