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SUNDAY BIZ: Wolf Creek Owner On Proposed 5-Lift, 1,000 Acre Expansion

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Davey Pitcher is the archetype of what a ski and snowboard resort owner and president should be. His office is located behind the ticket office within site of the slopes he grew up skiing and gets out on nearly every day: before, during, and after work. Along with his family, including his nephew, former pro snowboarder Kalei Pitcher, Davey has spent his life exploring the mountains of Southern Colorado and growing Wolf Creek Ski Area into a unique, family-owned and family-focused mountain that has made its mission to expand access to avalanche-controlled terrain that makes riders feel like they’re in the backcountry.

Pitcher, 50, is a strong advocate of not just backcountry riding, but avalanche safety. and his latest project is seeking to marry the two by opening 750 acres on the mountain’s backside, where no runs will be cut, under a new, low-capacity gondola. The plan is part of the resort’s recently released 20-year masterplan to add five lifts and 1,000 acres, a swath larger than Vail’s Category III and China Bowl expansions, and is setting the stage and political map for modern ski area growth pushes.

We caught up with Pitcher by phone to learn more about the plan and his ideas on the future of riding and backcountry access.

Let’s start with a little background behind the expansion: the five new lifts, the thousand acres. How long have you been working on this and what are the overall goals?

My father was the first English- speaking ski instructor in Sun Valley, he was up there in the late thirties with all Austrians. They kinda tried to freeze him out, literally, by putting him in a cabin that didn’t have any heat. After World War II, he moved to Aspen, ran a burger shack at the bottom of the 8 Lift with a ski instructor—that was back literally in the pioneering days. The reason that he moved to Aspen wasn’t because Aspen was a million-dollar resort or anything; it was because he loved to ski.

We were all brought up with that same intensity of being out on the hill and becoming very avid enthusiasts of skiing and snowboarding. So, the basis of the way we try to plan for Wolf Creek is always looking at where good skiing would be and how to make the most out of what your mountain has to offer. Through the ‘90’s we really saw that backcountry, pseudo-backcountry skiing, tree skiing, which of course I’ve grown up doing and love dearly, was a great way to have a good stab at creating a niche that people enjoy.

The Alberta lift was really a paradigm shift from the existing trail network that we had over the Treasure Lift and other lifts. Those lifts served a little more traditional terrain with a fair amount of groomed trails with tree skiing in between. With Alberta, we chose not to do any grooming over there, and to let people experience whatever the terrain has to offer. We have really had the public at large really respond to that.

Hand in hand with that is all of the wonderful new [ski and snowboard] equipment that has come out. It’s really pushed that need for people to be out in the woods and worked to Wolf Creek’s advantage. The other aspect of that of course is the desire to get out into the backcountry. Backcountry skiing is a great thing, I do it a lot myself, but it’s not something to be taken lightly. It’s fairly dangerous to be a weekend warrior backcountry skier.

It’s always a concern when I hear people say they’re going to Aspen for backcountry skiing, and then they say they’re going to Breckenridge for backcountry skiing. You better have a little zone that you learn, and you learn it well, but it takes a lot of time and effort to do that. So, those people who want to be out in the more extreme terrain, more primitive terrain are a segment that’s growing.

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Wolf Creek and the Pitchers released this video in late February detailing the expansino in order to generate public feedback from letters and surveys. Pitcher says the resort received over 2,500 letters from stakeholders.

The cornerstone of the expansion is the Matchless Pod. The terrain looks amazing, and it’s cool to see that you won’t be cutting new runs.

The tree skiing is amazing. Tree skiing is just a great thing. We really focused on that and we’ve identified it with the Forest Service, they’re working through their forest plan. We believe that it’s gonna be in the preferred alternative, which is a stepping stone to us getting authorization to build the tram back there. It’s a great big step. I was talking to the Mineral County Commissioner yesterday, it was 1996 when they started the revised forest plan for the San Juan National Forest.

I heard they were hoping to have a decision come out this past spring?

It’s gonna be in spring’13. That’s the latest word. From all indications, we feel we have a very good chance of having the Matchless Pod and The Pass Pod in the record of decision as potential winter recreation development.

Now as far as the other proposed lifts, and on-mountain structures, those wouldn’t require new Forest Service permitting, would they?

They require site-specific approval because they fall within our existing permit.  So there would be public comment involved. We’re moving forward on replacing the Treasure Lift with a detachable. We hope to do that next summer. The reason for that is, the public really let us know during the comment period in our video about that lift having a lot of stops. We have a lot of misloads and loading and unloading incidents.

Will you be increasing capacity on Treasure?

We’re not gonna increase the capacity—1,600 an hour is what its rated capacity is. We’re gonna use the luxury of having a slow loading and a slow unloading with the detachable on that lift. We feel it’s a great upgrade and it sets us up for focusing on the Matchless, making sure our core lifts are ready.

We opened up on October 8th last year, for example, with a great early snowfall, which we get, not every year, but we do get them enough that it’s become part of our kind of aura. That ‘s the lift that people want to ski early season and to protect your infrastructure is an important step to doing these outlying projects

Opening day at Wolf Creek last season—October 8, 2011.

The master plan is looking ten, twenty years out if everything goes as planned, or as hoped for, with the Forest Service. What’s the time frame for the individual pieces of your plan?

The discussions that we’ve had with the Forest Service and with the public and with our stated conservative approach of living within our means financially, we would focus on these two improvements and do some renovation to our sports center, our ski rental—from a financial standpoint is probably a four-to-seven year financial package. Four being if we have nothing but great years and no droughts and skiers ski and inflation doesn’t hit and all of the other unknowns that come with planning.

We are talking about moving forward on getting the approval for the Matchless and if everything was perfect, possibly starting four-to-six years from now on putting that tram in. It’s probably not realistic to say that it would be any sooner than that.

Where do you foresee the funding coming from? You said you are living within your means, is this something you would be financing yourself?

We work with our bank. We have always picked a project or two and focused on borrowing the money and then paying off that money and then moving on.

It’s all based on not really projecting a big increase in skiers. The fact is we had our best year ever last year at 227,000 skiers, but we also had some years in the last four where we were doing closer to 200,000. The reality of skiing and the vagaries of the snow and the economy and the fact that skiing as a whole isn’t really growing, the number of people nationally aren’t going up.  We don’t project a tremendous change in our general dynamics up here, and so when we talk about four-to-seven years it’s basically with the assumption that our skier visitation stays pretty close to what it is now with maybe a small increase.

It’s sounding like the overall goal is really to improve the experience for the people that are coming out versus really driving a huge influx.

Absolutely, and the fact of the matter is that the Matchless as a skiing experience will be a unique lift. We’ve spent a lot of time having discussions with engineers and validating our goals. It would be a tri-cable, funicular style transportation with enclosed cabins—probably six enclosed cabins—little 15-passenger standup tram style. It would go back and forth with a mid-way loading statino, which would allow you to ski all those shoots and all the upper terrain if there was either low snow or avalanche concerns in the lower part.

The tri-cable system is very very stable in high winds and inclement weather, and the goal is to continue to push our avalanche hazard reduction program in a way that gets people into the terrain during storm cycles and really pushes the envelope on not being shut down during storm cycles. We’ve got the most fixed location exploders in the country. They are very effective and we’re building on that program. We have a patrol staff that is very motivated to do as thorough a job as they can or to open terrain as quickly as they can, which I think we are recognized for.

For sure, it is definitely a prone area down there, do you envision having to expand your current patrol staff?

Absolutely. It would probably bring up the staff two-thirds more, another seventy percent of our safety staff. Again it’s something that I’m very interested in,.

We have been hearing for years and years about the local fight around Red McCombs plans to build a village down there. I understand that he is re-igniting that push at the same time as this is going on. What’s your take on his program at this point and what have you guys been talking about with those guys?

Our relationship, when all the law suites were settled, is really defined. They, as a private property owner, have acknowledged both privately and publicly that we’re our own entity and we are doing our own planning for our own reasons and we see our work as really looking at winter recreation and skiing for the public at large. Where a person spends the night is really irrelevant to us.

We acknowledge and very much support our existing bed base of South Fork and Pagosa Springs. Again part of our goal is to create a skiing niche up here that doesn’t build for peak days. It’s very easy, being a ski area designer,  to add a lift, add a parking lot, and add another thousand people on December 27th. It’s very difficult to come up with something that’s sustainable and that increases the interest in the off-peak days, mid-week, creating something that would make someone want to travel and spend time other then peak periods.

Because we have significant powder storms, we have a philosophy of low density skiing already, we are already recognized for that and our demographics are shifting accordingly.

We see the land-trade proposal that they’ve put forward as a step in the right direction. It protects the skiing heritage, it moves them off of the remaining terrain that they can build on, it moves them out of the wetlands which helps the water users of the San Louis Valley, and in in acknowledgment of land owners property rights in this country, it gives the developer some potential for having some south facing terrain with less issues to build on.

We’ve been clear to Mr. McCombs and his daughter that we are supportive of their endeavors as to this land trade and they have some very interesting options out there. They have nine 34-acre parcels which would be nine possible building sites for nine probably fairly wealthy land owners. We think that’s an intriguing idea. They have a mid-level development that I think would be something that we could live with, and that probably wouldn’t overwhelm the communities at large. But I do believe that Mr. McCombs understands that whatever takes place has to be organic by nature, and I think they have really backed off this “city on a mountain” push that their prior development coordinator was pushing for.

The economics of building a village right now are really dubious, and so we give it a little thought, but really we are focused on making sure whoever gets on the chairlift has as good an experience as they can have without changing our overall experience that people expect and have grown to like up here.

Our MDP [Master Development Plan] is seventeen percent less capacity than the last MDP, and that is a very conscious effort we’ve made to not overwhelm this mountain and kind of turn a mountain into a mole hill.