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Earl Holding: The Complete Interview

Earl Holding: The Complete Interview

Features
By Andrew Slough
posted: 09/25/2000

Following is the complete transcript from SKI senior contributing editor Andrew Slough's rare interview with Snowbasin and Sun Valley owner Earl Holding at his home in Sun Valley, Idaho.

THE EARLY YEARS

SKI: Why do you go with Earl instead of your given first name Robert?
E.H.: Well, because my parents called me Earl, I don't know why they chose that over Robert.

SKI: You are 73?
E.H.: (Laughs) Unfortunately it's true.

SKI: What is your date of birth?
E.H.: November 29, 1926 (he laughs). Now you don't need to tell the whole world how old I am.

SKI: No, we don't have to tell the whole world. This is a question and answer you can be as old as you want. How does 68 sound? (He laughs)

SKI: How many hours a day do you work?
E.H.: I get up early and start cranking away around 5:30 or 6 a.m. I try to get through my paperwork early.

SKI: Until?
E.H.: I've got so many things on my plate right now, but I get pretty weary around 6 or 7 at night.

SKI: Which works out to around 13 hours per day?
E.H.: I like what I do, so it doesn't seem like that much time.

SKI: I have heard from others that you and Mrs. Holding are a perfect match, almost soul mates. Where did you meet her?
E.H.: We were both going to the University of Utah and I met her in the Salt Lake Public library. We met in 1946 and were married in 1949.

SKI: Do you have brothers and sisters?
E.H.: One brother and two sisters

SKI: What did your father do for a living?
E.H.: My father worked for the Covey Brothers (who would later hire Earl Holding to help run Little America) running a large apartment house.

SKI: That's where you met the Coveys?
E.H.: That's correct.

SKI: Did you ever string wire on their ranches?
E.H.: No, I have big ranches in Montana and Wyoming but never worked on the Covey's ranches.

SKI: Do you claim residency in Wyoming or Utah?
E.H.: Wyoming. It's still where we have most of our things. I have two refineries in Wyoming, a lot of our pipelines are in Wyoming and a lot of ranch land, some production of gas and oil, two Little Americas. It's the biggest part of our empire. (He laughs at the notion of his empire.)

SKI: Were you raised in Utah?
E.H.: I was born in Utah and lived there until I was about 17 1/2 then joined the Air Corps for a couple of years. After that I got my degree in engineering at the University of Utah. After school, I worked for the Bureau of Reclamation as a construction engineer for two or three years. I had a chance to go out to Wyoming to Little America. It had been built a year or two before and was doing very badly. Later I had a chance to buy part of it, then all of it.

SKI: I understand you had a chance to go to Iran for the Bureau of Reclamation. Why didn't you?
E.H.: Iran would have been exciting, but there was a pretty exciting opportunity in Wyoming (at Little America) also.

SKI: Is it true that one of the Covey brothers had gone to rescue some sheep in and was forced to overnight in a blizzard? During that night he promised if he ever survived he'd build a place where travelers could get out of the weather? Little America was built on that spot?
E.H.: That's right. The three Covey brothers ran around 150,000 head of sheep and owned every other section, 40 miles wide that ran from 30 miles east of Evanston in an area called the Red Desert for 80 miles where they would winter sheep. Little America got built about six or eight miles from where that story took place. It was a very small operation with a dozen rooms and a cafe with a dozen seats, and service station...at that time, it also had slot machines. Old U.S. Highway 30, which ran in front of it, was not much more than a trail.ou could stay for five dollars per night, hamburgers were 35 cents, ice cream cones were a nickel, gasoline was 16 cents a gallon. Times have changed a lot since then. When I left the Bureau of Reclamation I was making $3,120 per year. The first year at Little America, I got rid of the poor quality employees and got some very good people in there. I think that first year my share was $200,000 or $300,000.

SKI: How old were you at that time?
E.H.: 25

SKI: Was Little America successful because there was no place else out there?
E.H.: We think it was because we gave good service. Through the Fifties and Sixties, 52 percent of all the cars would stop there. And 25 to 30 percent of all the trucks would stop there. At one time, it was the largest volume service station in America. Of course there's more competition now than we used to have.

ON SKIING AND SUN VALLEY

SKI: When did you become interested in skiing?
E.H.: When I bought Sun Valley.

SKI: What originally attracted you to Sun Valley?
E.H.: Carol and I had driven from Salt Lake City to Montana and on our way back stopped in Sun Valley for a couple of hours. We had lunch in the mall and walked around the lodge and area. We thought it was a nice place, well run...I liked it a lot, but I didn't think a thing about buying it. It wasn't long afterward that Carol and I were in Santa Barbara at a condo we own and Carol came in with a Wall Street Journal and said, "I don't think I ought to give this to you." On the front page, in a small column, it said, "Disney is negotiating to buy Sun Valley." I called up Sun Valley and asked for Bill Janss and told him I might be interested in buying it. I came up and met him and looked around the lodge a couple of times and struck a deal and bought it.

(Laughing) After a year or two here, I wondered if it might have been better if I never saw that Wall Street Journal.

SKI: 1976-1977 was a desperate drought year. Estimates suggest you've spent $15 million in snowmaking, which has since insured the season. When did you make that decision?
E.H.: Would you mind if Carol sat with us? She may care to add something. (Carol comes in and Earl says, "He's asking some interesting questions, I thought you might like reliving this.") When we made the deal to buy it, I think it was February and neither one of us had ever skied. Bill Janss sent one of the Austrian Ski Instructors to ski with us, I think it was Ferdle, and we started on the lower part of Warm Springs. At that time, there was a little bit of snowmaking on Lower Warm Springs and a little bit on Squirrel, but it wasn't really snow. It was ice. Neither one of us knew what we were doing, but it wasn't snow and when we came back to the condo after that first day, Carol was black and blue from falling. I think that first day or two and I saw the lack of any business and the frustration of people working here. I thought I should start with the snowmaking because it's very difficult to run a business that is so weather dependent. When we started, the snowmaking amounted to mostly water sprayed in the air with a little air added to it. The first thing we did was add some air compressors, which made the snow a little bit better. Since then we've spent $22 or 23 million on snowmaking. We didn't do that all at once, and we also cut some new runs. I don't think the people who were working for Bill Janss were all that knowledgeable about snowmaking. It was only later when we hooked up with York Snowmaking that we got quality guns that would make dry powdery snow. We continued to add more and more air until, between the compressors, pumps and wells, we were running 16,000 to 18,000 horsepower. Snowbasin now has 20,000 horsepower. I know you ski the mountain and are a better judge than I am about it, but I think we make a good quality snow.

SKI: The winters are much warmer now than when you bought Sun Valley.
E.H.: That's true, and without the snowmaking, it would be very difficult. My recollection now is over the last five or six years we've been open by Thanksgiving.

SKI: You've owned this resort Sun Valley for almost a quarter century. Looking back was it a good business decision?
E.H.: (He pauses.) The bottom line is I think it was a good business decision. I'd say most of our years have been profitable. We own something like 2,500 or 2,800 acres, and we've done some things. I'd like to do some more and with the cooperation of the city, I think we could. The value of what's here has appreciated a considerable amount, but it's not a red-hot investment in comparison to other things we have. It's been a labor of love...Sun Valley is beautiful. I think you'd have to say it was a good decision financially. Aside from one parcel that Bill Janss had subdivided into lots and which we sold the remainder of, we haven't sold any of the land.

SKI: If the land has appreciated, it was, in part, because the lifts, lodges and snowmaking improved the mountain.
E.H.: It wasn't only the mountain. The resort was run down and many things were worn out. We went through and tiled the kitchens and replaced the old busted equipment and re-roofed every building in the resort. We rebuilt everything with cold roofs to prevent the leaks, then got started inside the buildings, cleaning them up...it was a massive job. I think the railroad let it go because there wasn't any profit there. Right after I first bought Sun Valley, Averell Harriman invited me to come to Washington to tell him what I was going to do with it. While he was in government, he had turned Union Pacific Railroad over to his brother Roland and with some force let me know how disappointed he was that Roland had sold Sun Valley. Here was one of the wealthiest guys in America interrogating me on what I was going to do with Sun Valley and wanting to know every detail. For many years afterward we spent time together. We'd go on the mountain and have a picnic together at Trail Creek Cabin. He truly loved Sun Valley. He (Harriman) was pleased that we were putting everything back in good order on the mountain and in Sun Valley. We've worked at it and worked at it hard, but the airline costs are so high from Salt Lake to Sun Valley, you could go to Europe for the same fare. Everything I ever built, I built it the best I know how...as the years go on, I think we're able to do better than in previous years, but I think we've helped this place.

SKI: This is not false flattery, but many local skiers say that Earl Holding is the best thing ever happened to Sun Valley.
E.H.: Well, you remember that bumper sticker that was going around during the first year I bought Sun Valley? Earl is a Four Letter Word. He laughs.

INTRODUCTION TO SNOWBASIN

SKI: When did you first see Snowbasin?
E.H.: That's an interesting story. I'll give you 10 times more than you want. I was working at the (Sinclair) Oil Offices one day and Seibert (Pete) called and said, "I'd like to sell Snowbasin, and I'd like for you to come up and look at it." And I said, "Pete, one ski area is enough, I'm not going to even come look at it." And three or four or five different times, Pete gave me a jingle and caught me in Wyoming or Salt Lake and I said, "No way, one is too many. I don't even want to look at it, I might get tempted." The last time he called me he said, "Earl just come up and hike it with me. I'm not going to twist your arm to buy it, I just want you to see it." When I went up there, I took my youngest daughter with me and we hiked across the top of the mountain from No Name to the far side of Strawberry, where we hiked down through Strawberry Bowl...the chaparral was clear up to my armpits, and Pete was going like a mountain goat. He was in great shape, and on the way dowuch warmer now than when you bought Sun Valley.
E.H.: That's true, and without the snowmaking, it would be very difficult. My recollection now is over the last five or six years we've been open by Thanksgiving.

SKI: You've owned this resort Sun Valley for almost a quarter century. Looking back was it a good business decision?
E.H.: (He pauses.) The bottom line is I think it was a good business decision. I'd say most of our years have been profitable. We own something like 2,500 or 2,800 acres, and we've done some things. I'd like to do some more and with the cooperation of the city, I think we could. The value of what's here has appreciated a considerable amount, but it's not a red-hot investment in comparison to other things we have. It's been a labor of love...Sun Valley is beautiful. I think you'd have to say it was a good decision financially. Aside from one parcel that Bill Janss had subdivided into lots and which we sold the remainder of, we haven't sold any of the land.

SKI: If the land has appreciated, it was, in part, because the lifts, lodges and snowmaking improved the mountain.
E.H.: It wasn't only the mountain. The resort was run down and many things were worn out. We went through and tiled the kitchens and replaced the old busted equipment and re-roofed every building in the resort. We rebuilt everything with cold roofs to prevent the leaks, then got started inside the buildings, cleaning them up...it was a massive job. I think the railroad let it go because there wasn't any profit there. Right after I first bought Sun Valley, Averell Harriman invited me to come to Washington to tell him what I was going to do with it. While he was in government, he had turned Union Pacific Railroad over to his brother Roland and with some force let me know how disappointed he was that Roland had sold Sun Valley. Here was one of the wealthiest guys in America interrogating me on what I was going to do with Sun Valley and wanting to know every detail. For many years afterward we spent time together. We'd go on the mountain and have a picnic together at Trail Creek Cabin. He truly loved Sun Valley. He (Harriman) was pleased that we were putting everything back in good order on the mountain and in Sun Valley. We've worked at it and worked at it hard, but the airline costs are so high from Salt Lake to Sun Valley, you could go to Europe for the same fare. Everything I ever built, I built it the best I know how...as the years go on, I think we're able to do better than in previous years, but I think we've helped this place.

SKI: This is not false flattery, but many local skiers say that Earl Holding is the best thing ever happened to Sun Valley.
E.H.: Well, you remember that bumper sticker that was going around during the first year I bought Sun Valley? Earl is a Four Letter Word. He laughs.

INTRODUCTION TO SNOWBASIN

SKI: When did you first see Snowbasin?
E.H.: That's an interesting story. I'll give you 10 times more than you want. I was working at the (Sinclair) Oil Offices one day and Seibert (Pete) called and said, "I'd like to sell Snowbasin, and I'd like for you to come up and look at it." And I said, "Pete, one ski area is enough, I'm not going to even come look at it." And three or four or five different times, Pete gave me a jingle and caught me in Wyoming or Salt Lake and I said, "No way, one is too many. I don't even want to look at it, I might get tempted." The last time he called me he said, "Earl just come up and hike it with me. I'm not going to twist your arm to buy it, I just want you to see it." When I went up there, I took my youngest daughter with me and we hiked across the top of the mountain from No Name to the far side of Strawberry, where we hiked down through Strawberry Bowl...the chaparral was clear up to my armpits, and Pete was going like a mountain goat. He was in great shape, and on the way down we were hiking down Penny Lane. My daughter was on one side of me and Pete was on the other, and she tugged at my sleeve and when I leaned over, she whispered in my ear, "Dad, you ought to buy this." When I asked her why, she said, "Because it's so unspoiled!" And we hiked back to the base camp, and it really was unspoiled. Pete hadn't done anything to hurt it at all. It was quite an impressive place. And we did eventually buy it, and I thought if I was going to own Snowbasin, I would like to protect it. There was a 7,000-acre block of land that Honolulu Federal owned, and 3,000 more that bordered it, and so we had 10,000 acres at the base, and I know we're not going to have anything that will spoil it close to it. I think it's going to be quite a nice place." I never drive over the top of Inspiration Point on the road to Snowbasin without stopping...that view is one of the reasons I bought it. Mrs. Holding adds, "He always stops." Holding laughs, "Even when I go the other way, I stop to look at the mountain. There is another view that is just as good. You'll have to drive the new road. It will blow you away. You drive straight into the peaks for three miles. When the snow is on the peaks, it is absolutely dramatic. I've never seen anything like those skiers down there. Coming down off Strawberry Peak, there are chutes that are 4 or 5 feet wide. My god, when they come out of there, they must be doing 80 or 90 miles an hour. (He shakes his head at the wonder of it.) Scary. Mrs. Holding adds, "Quite an inspiration." Holding puts his hand on her shoulder. "This is the real power right here." "No," she shakes her head, smiling.

SKI: Was your decision to buy Snowbasin based on the Land Swap?
E.H.: (Mrs. Holding puts her face in her hands at this question and shakes her head. She is clearly exhausted and bothered by the subject.)

Holding sighs then pauses and begins, "As much as I liked Snowbasin, I wouldn't have bought the resort if I didn't believe we would be able to buy land for a base area. The 7,000 acres (Holding purchased shortly after he bought the resort) was at the base of Strawberry. At the base of the ski area proper was Forest Service land. And I did seek assurances from the Salt Lake Office that they would do a trade. Without that assurance, I don't think I would have purchased the resort. I think the Forest Service felt we'd done a very good job in Sun Valley completing the building of two lifts and doing all kinds of things...and I think they were pleased when we did buy Snowbasin. When I bought Snowbasin, the wiring was so bad that one of the previous owners had been electrocuted on one of the lifts. I looked at it and told the local Forest Ranger, who was a good guy, I'm not going to open it unless I can put some new lifts in. The Forest Service really moved their tails and within three weeks I had permission. Mrs. Holding, who is clearly stressed by the questions, adds, "We've had more than enough controversy over this subject."Earl continues. "When Salt Lake started to talk about (bidding for) the Olympics, the Save Our Canyons People (who opposed any events held up the canyons) started raising hell. The Olympic Bid Committee, Bob Welch and others agreed they wouldn't hold any events in the Cottonwood Canyons. When the Save our Canyons people got that commitment, they felt that there would never be an Olympics because there wasn't any other site for a downhill. Now a downhill had been run at Snowbasin, but it had grown over. When the Olympic Committee learned that we had the potential to hold a downhill at Snowbasin, they wanted to show the IOC. I ordered a lift from Yan to go up there and about the time it was scheduled to be erected, the Save Our Canyons people filed a suit to stop us. The lift was laying down there on Yan's lot, and we paid him for it, but the Save our Canyons people fought tooth and toe nail against the lift being erected or building an access road to the top of t

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