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Richman, Poorman: The Deer Valley Way

Richman, Poorman: The Deer Valley Way

Features
By Fred R. Smith
posted: 08/15/2000

Deer Valley boosts my ego. I know of no other place where I would be as comfortable skiing in the fast tracks of Heidi Voelker, a former U.S. Olympic team member who is a slaloming rabbit. And here I have followed Stein Eriksen's swooping parabolas down the groomed steeps of Stein's Way, fancying that I was skiing, just once, like Stein. It's the way the runs are cut and the way the slopes are maintained that makes it possible.

After one of those fresh-snow and blue-sky days that March often brings to Utah, I join the grooming crew to see them work their magic. I'm picked up on the doorstep of the Stein Eriksen Lodge by Don Cook in a Bombardier 400 Snocat. With only a thumb and two fingers on a Top Gun control stick, Cook turns the 300-horsepower machine with such finesse that it pivots like a Bolshoi ballerina before heading down Viking. We skirt the base of Red Cloud and the Northside Express, the plow blade rolling up layers of snow into cylinders like Turkish rugs, then smoothing them out, leaving in our wake the silken carpet that is the Deer Valley standard.

As we head up Supreme to groom Empire Canyon, Deer Valley's newest and toughest terrain, we pass a woman in a Tyrolean sweater and knickers, tanned face beneath close-cropped gray curls, poling and jogging up the trail on telemark skis. A husky lopes beside her. "She's really not supposed to be here while we're grooming," says Cook, waving to her as we pass.

At the top of 9,570-foot Empire, the highest point in Deer Valley's domain, a winch cat, its cable anchored to a granite wall, is smoothing a path down the middle of the 40-degree pitch of Empire Bowl. I'd skied it that morning with Voelker, the resort's effervescent ambassador.

Now, strapped into the Bombardier's leather seat, I watch the Wasatch landscape darken from violet to mauve to purple as we make repeated passes. Heber City, site of the 2002 Olympic nordic events, twinkles 20 miles down valley, beyond the double-black Daly Chutes, beyond Flagstaff and Bald mountains, Deer Valley's two other peaks. "We're not judged by how much area we cover," says Cook, "but by how we leave the snow. If it isn't perfect, we do it all over again." With 18 machines working two eight-hour shifts, nearly 70 percent of Deer Valley's 87 trails are groomed nightly. "We spend $20,000 a night," Deer Valley President Bob Wheaton estimates.

As we start down Orion Ridge for Cook's supper break, we see fresh tracings in our headlights, elegantly carved on new corduroy, and alongside them the paw prints of a running dog. "Look at that, first tracks at sundown. She earned them," Cook says with admiration.

Since it opened in 1981, Deer Valley has set the gold standard in the United States for its immaculate grooming, attentive guest service, exquisite lodging, free ski concierges, and continuous investment in lifts, hospitality and skier comfort. There are 1,250 employees in winter, one for every four guests. As many serve food and drink (350) as teach skiing.

The man who built Deer Valley, Edgar Stern-grandson of Julius Rosenwald, once the chairman of Sears Roebuck-is, at 78, still an avid skier. Lifties call him "No Turn Stern." Before Deer Valley, Stern created such four-star hotels as the Royal Orleans in his native New Orleans and the Stanford Court on San Francisco's Nob Hill. He developed Starwood in Aspen, the gated community that is now peopled by Hollywood moguls and Arabian sheiks. On his Aspen ranch, he bred Tennessee Walking Horses, an easy riding breed and a favorite of Southern planters. Now his easy riding is on the manicured snow of Deer Valley, the resort he runs like a four-star hotel.

As it celebrates its 20th anniversary this season, on the eve of the Salt Lake City Olympics, questions arise: Can Deer Valley keep its cutting edge as America's best-run ski resort? Throughout the ski industry, resorts have learned from Deer Valley's success: Service-minded ambassadors and four-star restaurants are w essential parts of operating world-class ski resorts. But as Deer Valley continues its culture of service, is it in danger of becoming a country club for well-to-do aging skiers? Is Deer Valley tough enough to attract customers who get bored on easy-cruising boulevards? Will Stern's no-snowboarding policy drive families to adjacent Park City or The Canyons, only five miles away? Or, in Utah's biggest nightmare, to Colorado?

After a week at Deer Valley last spring, I predict there is very little reason to worry. Deer Valley has carved its niche-yet never stops polishing it.

"Even with a scarcity of snow at Christmas and Y2K fears keeping many travelers home for the New Year, Deer Valley was one of the few areas in the country that was up over last year," says Chuck English, chief of mountain operations. And, finally, expert skiers are learning one of Utah's best-kept secrets. "Hardcore skiers who have stayed away because they preferred ungroomed terrain now realize they have been missing 800 acres of tree skiing and still untracked aspen groves long after the snow is scraped off at Snowbird and Alta."

Empire Canyon, with its bowls and chutes, added 500 acres of advanced to expert bowl and glade terrain when its high-speed quad opened two seasons ago. Empire is such a draw that Mayflower Bowl, Fortune Teller and Morning Star, black and double-black descents on the other side of the resort, are now so thinly populated that new powder is there for days, not hours. "Our vertical doesn't equal that of Alta, but 90 percent of our skiing is in north-facing fall line and our lifts are so speedy that there is never a wait. At Alta the lifts are snail-like, and many a run is awkwardly tilted," says English, whose broadside at a nearby competitor shows a new aggressive attitude at the famously decorous Deer Valley resort.

One night I dined with Edgar and Polly Stern at their favorite table in front of the fire at the Mariposa in the mid-mountain Silver Lake Lodge. The chardonnay was from Matanzas Creek, a winery that was owned by their daughter, Sandra; and the Chilean sea bass was the kind of revelation that annually gets Mariposa the nod from Zagat as one of the top restaurants in Utah.

With Stern in his seventies, the question of ownership succession is inevitable. "We are leaving Deer Valley in trust to a team that is charged with keeping it on this path for at least 10 years after we are gone," says Polly Stern, a gentle force whose concern for the comfort of guests equals Edgar's.

Succession aside, in today's Deer Valley Roger Penske is as important a figure as there is in achieving-and now maintaining-the resort's relatively recent accession to national prominence. Penske is the enormously successful owner of Detroit Diesel, Outboard Marine-including Criscraft, Evinrude and Johnson motors-Penske Trucks and Team Penske racing teams and arenas. He has a condo at the Stein Eriksen Lodge and his young son Jay is on the Deer Valley ski racing team.

Thirteen years ago, Penske persuaded Edgar Stern to let him buy 25 percent of the resort, and he brought a much-needed sharp pencil to Deer Valley's boardroom. "Before Roger came," says one member of the management team, "we used our budgets to explain at the end of a season why we hadn't met them. But we don't do that anymore.

Roger is a superb bottom-line manager who reels Edgar in when his enthusiasm for hosting gets too extravagant. We don't have any debt, and neither owner takes anything out of the company. It all goes back into Deer Valley."

Deer Valley is not quite the Kremlin, but it protects its operational and business practices as closely as any major resort. "We don't have to answer to banks, to Wall Street, to investors," Penske says. "We are not public. We will do what is best for our guests."

And those guests famously reject snowboarding, in a policy considered closed-minded, at best, by the industry and viewed as absolutely bigoted by many. "If in the future snowboarding becomes necessary to keep the guests happy, we will change-but not soon," Penske predicts.

Snowboarding may be the salvation of many resorts as skiing numbers flatten, but not here. "Every year our agency has the National Skier Opinion Survey query our guests, and 88 percent of them bless us for not permitting boarding," Bob Wheaton says. "Park City did us a big favor by opening its slopes to boarders four years ago, and it's a free bus ride away for any kid who wants to leave his folks and ride."

Deer Valley restricts its ticket sales to 5,000 skiers, and lowers that ceiling to 4,500 on stormy and frigid days when skiers tend to head indoors. That figure is the most skiers that Edgar and Polly Stern think can be comfortably seated for lunch at Silver Lake and Snow Park lodges. (Try to name another resort that limits its skiers due to restaurant capacity.) To relieve the lunch crush, foundations were laid this summer at the base of the Empire Express lift for the new Empire Lodge, which will be ready for 2002 Olympic season with 500 restaurant seats and an additional 250 on the deck.

Empire bookends the extreme western boundary of the ski area. Only a rope divides its summit from Park City's slopes. Rumors abound that this proximity will lead to dropping the rope by reworking the Silver Passport lift ticket, which now allows visitors to ski either resort, but not on the same day. "That rope will stay," Wheaton counters. "How else can we control our numbers and keep boarders off our terrain?"

Five miles to the east lies the other new bookend, an independently owned ski-in/ski-out real estate development named Deer Crest, planned as a sort of Pebble Beach in the snow, with ski runs as fairways. By last summer, 62 of 140 lots had been sold and 14 houses were under construction. The original Deer Crest developers spent an estimated $100 million on roads, bridges and underpasses to serve a community of mountain palaces. One spec house on top of Little Bald Mountain is listed at $7.5 million. At least $5 million of that must be for the view. And there also is a beautiful plateau reserved for a luxury hotel.

The original developers, however, with expectations of cashing in on the Deer Valley mystique, overextended themselves, and ownership has been taken over by one of the investors, a woman from Hong Kong who doesn't ski.

With parking for 400 cars, Deer Crest helps disperse crowds by providing a new access point to the resort. Still sparsely used, these trails have become a playground for young freeskiers. The terrain, lifts and snowmaking, an investment of about $18 million, including a $6 million leather-seated Garaventa gondola, will be deeded to Deer Valley in April 2001.

I tour Deer Crest with Wheaton and Eriksen, Deer Valley's director of skiing, Olympic gold medalist and skiing icon. At a spot that overlooks the bowl above the Snow Park Lodge, the resort's gateway, Stein stops and says, "This is where I will watch the Olympics." Below us are the lower mountain's steepest runs, Know You Don't, Champion and Solid Muldoon. They arc up a natural arena, bordered by evergreens, that will be the site of the slalom, mogul and aerial events in 2002.

"We'll build stands that will seat 10,000, and there is room for 10,000 more to stand. We'll schedule aerial practice sessions while they reset the courses between the two slalom runs," says a proud Wheaton. At the 2002 Olympics, Stein will celebrate the 50th anniversary of his Olympic gold medal in giant slalom and silver in slalom, both won on his home terrain at the 1952 Oslo games. They sparkle in a vast vitrine filled with his cups, medals and trophies in the lobby of the lodge that bears his name. It's as impressive a sight as there is in skiing for anyone who appreciates the history of the sport.

Those who think of the resort as a geriatric paradise for graying Stein worshippers should see Deer Valley's nursery, its children's centhe future snowboarding becomes necessary to keep the guests happy, we will change-but not soon," Penske predicts.

Snowboarding may be the salvation of many resorts as skiing numbers flatten, but not here. "Every year our agency has the National Skier Opinion Survey query our guests, and 88 percent of them bless us for not permitting boarding," Bob Wheaton says. "Park City did us a big favor by opening its slopes to boarders four years ago, and it's a free bus ride away for any kid who wants to leave his folks and ride."

Deer Valley restricts its ticket sales to 5,000 skiers, and lowers that ceiling to 4,500 on stormy and frigid days when skiers tend to head indoors. That figure is the most skiers that Edgar and Polly Stern think can be comfortably seated for lunch at Silver Lake and Snow Park lodges. (Try to name another resort that limits its skiers due to restaurant capacity.) To relieve the lunch crush, foundations were laid this summer at the base of the Empire Express lift for the new Empire Lodge, which will be ready for 2002 Olympic season with 500 restaurant seats and an additional 250 on the deck.

Empire bookends the extreme western boundary of the ski area. Only a rope divides its summit from Park City's slopes. Rumors abound that this proximity will lead to dropping the rope by reworking the Silver Passport lift ticket, which now allows visitors to ski either resort, but not on the same day. "That rope will stay," Wheaton counters. "How else can we control our numbers and keep boarders off our terrain?"

Five miles to the east lies the other new bookend, an independently owned ski-in/ski-out real estate development named Deer Crest, planned as a sort of Pebble Beach in the snow, with ski runs as fairways. By last summer, 62 of 140 lots had been sold and 14 houses were under construction. The original Deer Crest developers spent an estimated $100 million on roads, bridges and underpasses to serve a community of mountain palaces. One spec house on top of Little Bald Mountain is listed at $7.5 million. At least $5 million of that must be for the view. And there also is a beautiful plateau reserved for a luxury hotel.

The original developers, however, with expectations of cashing in on the Deer Valley mystique, overextended themselves, and ownership has been taken over by one of the investors, a woman from Hong Kong who doesn't ski.

With parking for 400 cars, Deer Crest helps disperse crowds by providing a new access point to the resort. Still sparsely used, these trails have become a playground for young freeskiers. The terrain, lifts and snowmaking, an investment of about $18 million, including a $6 million leather-seated Garaventa gondola, will be deeded to Deer Valley in April 2001.

I tour Deer Crest with Wheaton and Eriksen, Deer Valley's director of skiing, Olympic gold medalist and skiing icon. At a spot that overlooks the bowl above the Snow Park Lodge, the resort's gateway, Stein stops and says, "This is where I will watch the Olympics." Below us are the lower mountain's steepest runs, Know You Don't, Champion and Solid Muldoon. They arc up a natural arena, bordered by evergreens, that will be the site of the slalom, mogul and aerial events in 2002.

"We'll build stands that will seat 10,000, and there is room for 10,000 more to stand. We'll schedule aerial practice sessions while they reset the courses between the two slalom runs," says a proud Wheaton. At the 2002 Olympics, Stein will celebrate the 50th anniversary of his Olympic gold medal in giant slalom and silver in slalom, both won on his home terrain at the 1952 Oslo games. They sparkle in a vast vitrine filled with his cups, medals and trophies in the lobby of the lodge that bears his name. It's as impressive a sight as there is in skiing for anyone who appreciates the history of the sport.

Those who think of the resort as a geriatric paradise for graying Stein worshippers should see Deer Valley's nursery, its children's center and its ski school in operation. One morning at breakfast a queue of little helmeted trolls tromps through the Snow Park Lodge, holding onto a red rope that keeps them in line, trebling "Hi Ho, Hi Ho, It's Off to Ski We Go."

On a good weekend, Deer Valley feeds lunch to 800 ski-school kids. "We gave 35,000 lessons to children this season," Ski School Director Sal Raio says in support of both his resort and the sport of skiing. "Deer Valley is so filled with young families that it should comfort anyone who wonders where the next generation of skiers will come from."center and its ski school in operation. One morning at breakfast a queue of little helmeted trolls tromps through the Snow Park Lodge, holding onto a red rope that keeps them in line, trebling "Hi Ho, Hi Ho, It's Off to Ski We Go."

On a good weekend, Deer Valley feeds lunch to 800 ski-school kids. "We gave 35,000 lessons to children this season," Ski School Director Sal Raio says in support of both his resort and the sport of skiing. "Deer Valley is so filled with young families that it should comfort anyone who wonders where the next generation of skiers will come from."

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