Earl's Mount Olympus - Ski Mag

Earl's Mount Olympus

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It has been six weeks since the world gathered in Salt Lake City for the 2002 Winter Olympics. On this late March morning at Snowbasin, a few, final details evoke images of Bode Miller's incredible recovery in the combined and Picabo Street's final Olympic run. While the Olympic flags still flutter above the parking lot, the bleachers and press area in the finish arena are being dismantled. The safety netting that lined the men's and women's downhills is gone, leaving only the skeletal poles and cables to serve as memories of Olympic dreams.

Seventeen miles down Highway 158, Ogden's blooming fruit trees and green lawns may herald the coming of spring, but here, on the north face of Snowbasin's DeMoisy Peak, winter's snowpack is cold, hard and unforgiving. Seen from DeMoisy's 9,370-foot summit, the high ridge that divides Snowbasin from the Salt Lake Basin stretches away to the jagged summits of Needles, Mt. Ogden and Allen's Peak. From these rocky points, tributary bowls, ridges, gullies and intersecting ski runs cascade beneath myriad gondolas and chairlifts to the distant base lodge.

Looking down Lone Tree Chute's dicey mix of frozen ice balls and sedimentary rock walls, I see why Robert, my 17-year-old son, has led me here. For Robert, skiing Lone Tree is a rite of passage, a way of testing himself, of focusing skills he nurtured in Sun Valley, Idaho, and perfected in Canada, Colorado, Montana and France.

Tapping the sheer entry to Lone Tree with my pole, I wonder aloud if perhaps we shouldn't wait until it softens up a bit. "It won't get any better than it is right now," Robert replies, dismissing my caution. "Come on, Dad, you'll like this," he adds with an unshakable faith in his own immortality. Two quick check turns and he clears the large rock that divides the chute, then starts to jump from edge to edge. Slicing into the hard surface, his skis send showers of sparkling ice crystals skittering down the icy face. One turn, then a dozen, he does not stop until he reaches the Strawberry Traverse far below.

Setting an edge, I clear the rock and start to link turns. The cold, shadowed snow in Lone Tree is not the most forgiving I've experienced during my three days at Snowbasin, but the views are blinding. Spreading out beneath my ski tips is the Olympic downhill venue-and Earl Holding's vision of the future of alpine skiing.

rior to his purchase of Sun Valley, the multi-millionaire Wyoming businessman owned vast cattle ranches, numerous hotels and, most important of all, Sinclair Oil. Earl and Carol Holding fell in love with Sun Valley during a trip through Idaho's Wood River Valley, and when Bill Janss offered it for sale in 1977, Holding bought it. Surprisingly, local bumper stickers proclaiming "Earl is a Four-Letter Word" and an antagonistic local press that ran a front-page story about Holding personally cleaning the employee dorms failed to discourage Holding.

"When I bought Sun Valley," Holding recalls, "I think the town thought I was the devil himself. I went into the employee dorms and realized the mattresses had been on the beds since the resort was built and were so yellow that I just started pitching them. The paper sent someone out, and they got a photo of me getting rid of those old mattresses. The front page that week was filled with a story about how ruthless I was for not giving those mattresses to the poor. Well, the poor wouldn't have taken them they were so bad."

The criticism may have made Holding wary of the press-he rarely grants interviews of any kind-but it did not prevent him from buying Snowbasin in July 1984. Acting on a phone call from then-owner Pete Seibert, Holding hiked Snowbasin's bowls and ridges with his daughter Kathleen, who encouraged him to buy the small day-skier resort. When Holding did, it was with his understanding that the U.S. Forest Service would trade its base acreage for private land of equal, or greater, value. Opposition froenvironmental activists managed to delay the swap for 16 years.

"I think we bought 20 pieces of land that the Forest Service approved of, and the activists didn't like any of them," Holding recalls. It took a controversial act of Congress to resolve the dispute, freeing Holding to make plans to develop a base hotel, retail spaces, condominiums and private homes.

Snowbasin has evolved from a simple Salt Lake day area marked by fixed-grip doubles, a small lodge and extraordinary terrain to a world-class day area, characterized by gondolas, computerized snowmaking, elegant base lodges and extraordinary terrain-though still no overnight accommodations.

Olympic TV coverage was supposed to provide the payoff, but Holding recalls that 9/11 had wide-ranging effects, one of which was the security limits imposed during the speed events. Besides stationing snipers on the surrounding ridges, security barred the spectators from the new lodges.

"Both (recently retired General Manager) Gray Reynolds and I had been assured that the spectators would be allowed into the lodges. But on race day, the crowds were restricted to a small area at the finish arena, virtually out of sight of the base lodge."

A strong case can be made that the Salt Lake Olympics might not have taken place without Holding's purchase of and investment at Snowbasin, which gave the Games a world-class downhill course that could not be rivaled anywhere else in the state. In light of the $125-million plus outlay, the time away from his family and incalculable hours of work to bring Snowbasin in on time, was Holding ple

ased with the U.S. television coverage? "Between working at the hotels and dealing with Snowbasin," he admits, "I didn't have a lot of time to watch TV. I did attend the opening and closing ceremonies, one of the ice skating events and the races at Snowbasin...but that was about all I had time for."

The rest of the world was watching, however, and while international audiences were rewarded with coverage that extended deep into the downhill, combined and super G fields, U.S. TV coverage cast an unblinking eye on the cat fights in the figure-skating arena. If you consider TV exposure alone, Holding didn't get his money's worth, which may explain the lack of skiers on this late March morning.

While the Strawberry and Middle Bowl Express gondola cabins-named after Olympic gold, silver and bronze medal winners-speed toward Needles and DeMoisy Peak, the only thing lacking is the crowds. Following past Olympics in Albertville, France, Lillehammer, Norway, and Nagano, Japan, the alpine venues enjoyed a post-Games honeymoon during which spectators from the vast TV audience appeared to both ski the downhill courses and book the restaurants and hotels that were covered in the color segments.

On this Saturday morning, however, the downhill courses that even earned praise from hard-to-please Europeans wait silently for all comers. Despite the fact that Salt Lake City is only 40 minutes away, the resort is empty. Chalk it up to post-Olympic ennui, or the fact that Utah skiers have traded their shaped skis for mountain bikes and golf clubs, but Robert and I are alone. The massive base parking lot is nearly empty, and there are no liftlines and few skiers testing the silky corduroy of Wildcat Bowl, Philpot Ridge or Main Street. The upside is that we can ski laps on Trapper's Trail, Easter Bowl, Porky Face, Bash and a dozen others until our thighs burn with exhaustion.

With Ogden sited at the base of the canyon and greater Salt Lake's 1 million inhabitants less than an hour away, Snowbasin will continue to attract day skiers. But Holding admits that even last winter's record 150,000 skier days needs to grow. By his account, it would take 450,000 skier days to cash flow his investment. Though Ogden offers a renovated old brick downtown, a number of excellent family-style restaurants and the historic Ben Lomond Hotel, it remains a blue-collar town, heavily dependent on nearby Hill Air Force Base and the railroad for jobs and tax revenue. It's hard not to look at Snowbasin's lifts, terrain and lodges and wonder if Holding overbuilt the neighborhood.

Holding believes Ogden is an asset. "It has two magnificent rivers and the backdrop of those mountains. And with the cooperation of the city fathers and the Forest Service, I would like to build a tram from Ogden to the top of Snowbasin." At this point, a tram is still in the planning stage, but it would provide immediate and easy access from the Salt Lake Basin.

Following a nonstop run down Sweet Revenge to Boardwalk to Wildcat Bowl to the base lodge, Robert and I ride the Middle Bowl Express back to Needles, where, after snapping a group photo for six Japanese skiers, we enter the Needles Lodge. With sweeping views of the surrounding mountains, Needles feels more like a high-altitude private home than a commercial lodge.

The woodwork, carpets, fixtures, furniture and stonework are stunning, but it's the bathrooms that make you pause in wonder. An elegant mix of green marble, gold fixtures and granite floors, they evoke a five-star hotel-or an exclusive private club.

Holding recalls, "I wanted guests to have a sense of quality. The bathrooms are done in marble, the furniture and fixtures and architecture are all of outstanding quality. We used pavers and heated hydronics at both the base and the upper restaurants to melt the snow. We quarried and shipped the rock down from Triumph (near Sun Valley). Most of the furniture is made of several-hundred-year-old solid hardwoods. We placed teak tables outside and bought a variety of bronzes, including the moose in the central plaza. We picked oil paintings that suited the setting, installed Italian glass chandeliers, built large fireplaces and filled the lodges with fine carpets.... We didn't try to make it feel deliberately upscale...but that is the result."

Holding readily agrees that Snowbasin "is probably the most expensive ski resort in the world without lodging." And he knows the resort cannot continue to operate indefinitely as a day area. "To succeed, it must have a base area built around a new hotel, retail shops and private homes and condominiums, as well as the summer sports-the golf, tennis, swimming, horseback riding and bicycle trails that define a four-season resort."

The planning, financing and construction of this base infrastructure would discourage much younger men. And Holding readily admits that following the effort to meet the Olympic deadline, he needed a push to get started again. Now in his mid-70s, he still has the energy and means to complete a hotel. But no one would doubt his resolve if he were to bring in a partner, say an Intrawest, to supervise construction. Holding, however, is not seeking partners-it is simply not his style.

"Building the hotel and condominiums, the health club, golf, tennis and swimming pool is a big job and could take as long as four or five years. Sometime soon I'll have to hire a new construction boss," he says. "If I can do the base as well as I've done the mountain, I'll be very satisfied."

For now, Snowbasin's uncrowded slopes and unparalleled facilities offer one of the finest ski experiences anywhere. In fact, one high-ranking ski resort VIP who toured Snowbasin during the Olympics clicked out of his bindings in front of the new base lodge and declared it the "best skiing experience in North America."

Robert and I catch the John Paul quad to the John Paul Lodge, then load the Olympic Tram to the start of the men's downhill. Six weeks after the Olympics, Ephraim's Face is corrugated with huge moguls deliberately left ungroomed to slow Robert and hundreds of other wannabe Fritz Strobls.

Ephraim's leads to the John Paul Traverse and Flint Lock Jump. From there the course plummets into Bear Trap, Hibernation Hole and the Arrowhead Jump. I watch Robert tuck the steep face, then stand to scrub speed befoeavily dependent on nearby Hill Air Force Base and the railroad for jobs and tax revenue. It's hard not to look at Snowbasin's lifts, terrain and lodges and wonder if Holding overbuilt the neighborhood.

Holding believes Ogden is an asset. "It has two magnificent rivers and the backdrop of those mountains. And with the cooperation of the city fathers and the Forest Service, I would like to build a tram from Ogden to the top of Snowbasin." At this point, a tram is still in the planning stage, but it would provide immediate and easy access from the Salt Lake Basin.

Following a nonstop run down Sweet Revenge to Boardwalk to Wildcat Bowl to the base lodge, Robert and I ride the Middle Bowl Express back to Needles, where, after snapping a group photo for six Japanese skiers, we enter the Needles Lodge. With sweeping views of the surrounding mountains, Needles feels more like a high-altitude private home than a commercial lodge.

The woodwork, carpets, fixtures, furniture and stonework are stunning, but it's the bathrooms that make you pause in wonder. An elegant mix of green marble, gold fixtures and granite floors, they evoke a five-star hotel-or an exclusive private club.

Holding recalls, "I wanted guests to have a sense of quality. The bathrooms are done in marble, the furniture and fixtures and architecture are all of outstanding quality. We used pavers and heated hydronics at both the base and the upper restaurants to melt the snow. We quarried and shipped the rock down from Triumph (near Sun Valley). Most of the furniture is made of several-hundred-year-old solid hardwoods. We placed teak tables outside and bought a variety of bronzes, including the moose in the central plaza. We picked oil paintings that suited the setting, installed Italian glass chandeliers, built large fireplaces and filled the lodges with fine carpets.... We didn't try to make it feel deliberately upscale...but that is the result."

Holding readily agrees that Snowbasin "is probably the most expensive ski resort in the world without lodging." And he knows the resort cannot continue to operate indefinitely as a day area. "To succeed, it must have a base area built around a new hotel, retail shops and private homes and condominiums, as well as the summer sports-the golf, tennis, swimming, horseback riding and bicycle trails that define a four-season resort."

The planning, financing and construction of this base infrastructure would discourage much younger men. And Holding readily admits that following the effort to meet the Olympic deadline, he needed a push to get started again. Now in his mid-70s, he still has the energy and means to complete a hotel. But no one would doubt his resolve if he were to bring in a partner, say an Intrawest, to supervise construction. Holding, however, is not seeking partners-it is simply not his style.

"Building the hotel and condominiums, the health club, golf, tennis and swimming pool is a big job and could take as long as four or five years. Sometime soon I'll have to hire a new construction boss," he says. "If I can do the base as well as I've done the mountain, I'll be very satisfied."

For now, Snowbasin's uncrowded slopes and unparalleled facilities offer one of the finest ski experiences anywhere. In fact, one high-ranking ski resort VIP who toured Snowbasin during the Olympics clicked out of his bindings in front of the new base lodge and declared it the "best skiing experience in North America."

Robert and I catch the John Paul quad to the John Paul Lodge, then load the Olympic Tram to the start of the men's downhill. Six weeks after the Olympics, Ephraim's Face is corrugated with huge moguls deliberately left ungroomed to slow Robert and hundreds of other wannabe Fritz Strobls.

Ephraim's leads to the John Paul Traverse and Flint Lock Jump. From there the course plummets into Bear Trap, Hibernation Hole and the Arrowhead Jump. I watch Robert tuck the steep face, then stand to scrub speed before he disappears around the corner toward the tight, blind and uphill Muzzle Loader Jump. When I follow, my speed soars and eyes water. For the briefest moment, I could be Fritz Strobl pushing the limit for gold. My parka rattles, my skis squirm and-in contemplating my own fragile mortality-I stand up and push on an outside edge to make the sweeping corner.

Snowbasin has always been a family resort, and studying my son's reaction to the terrain, lifts and lodges, I suspect that will not change. To envision Snowbasin's future, you must look at Sun Valley. Just as Holding's investment in new quad lifts, lodges and snowmaking have transformed Bald Mountain, it has also lifted real estate values and supported year-round employment. More accessible, with better snow and equally impressive terrain, Snowbasin has the potential to be every bit as good as Sun Valley.

The key to its success is Holding, who has both a clear vision for Snowbasin and the means to achieve it. before he disappears around the corner toward the tight, blind and uphill Muzzle Loader Jump. When I follow, my speed soars and eyes water. For the briefest moment, I could be Fritz Strobl pushing the limit for gold. My parka rattles, my skis squirm and-in contemplating my own fragile mortality-I stand up and push on an outside edge to make the sweeping corner.

Snowbasin has always been a family resort, and studying my son's reaction to the terrain, lifts and lodges, I suspect that will not change. To envision Snowbasin's future, you must look at Sun Valley. Just as Holding's investment in new quad lifts, lodges and snowmaking have transformed Bald Mountain, it has also lifted real estate values and supported year-round employment. More accessible, with better snow and equally impressive terrain, Snowbasin has the potential to be every bit as good as Sun Valley.

The key to its success is Holding, who has both a clear vision for Snowbasin and the means to achieve it.

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