[part one of four]
“Nothing left to ski.”
It was St. Patrick’s Day, my second day at Eagle Point, a small ski resort in southwestern Utah’s infrequently visited Tushar Mountains. The lean snow year meant bad spring conditions and thin cover on what was already limited terrain—1,500 vertical feet, with 40 runs and five lifts spread over 600 acres. So I’d taken to the journalistic equivalent of talking to myself: scribbling my dejection in my notebook. “Today is fine, but what am I going to do with two more days here?”
The hill, formerly known as Elk Meadows, is tucked away in the Fishlake National Forest, occupying a high meadow and plunging canyon 18 miles east of the town of Beaver, a waypoint roughly halfway between Las Vegas and Salt Lake City, three and a half hours from each. It opened in 1971, catering mostly to a regional clientele, and though it seemed like a place with big potential, it always struggled. Over its first 30 years, it ran through a succession of six owners and a few bankruptcies. Then, from 2002 to 2010, it was shuttered while a rotating cast of investors attempted to turn it into a private resort on the model of the Yellowstone Club. One investor in that scheme, known as the Mount Holly Club, was a New York hedge fund called Xe Capital. When the club plan imploded in 2008, several of Xe’s principals, led by a Michigander named Shane Gadbaw, bought the resort at auction and hustled to reopen it for the 2010–2011 season as Eagle Point.
The Elk Meadows saga is a classic tale of the American West, full of hucksters and charlatans, entrepreneurs and escapists, big dreams and big mountains and big failures, with the possibility of redemption at the end of it all. I’d come to investigate the resort’s reopening and answer a pretty basic question: Was Gadbaw, now 37, just another dreamer lured West with visions of grandeur, or did this place really have a shot?
I’d also come primed to ski, having heard rumors of untracked mountains hiding a vast, snowy treasure. Out there in southern Utah, it was whispered, far from the madding, powder-hungry crowds of the more famous Salt Lake area resorts, lies a skier’s paradise of 12,000-foot peaks and empty backcountry lines in mountains once familiar to the Paiute, who, as local legend has it, named them T’shar: “high white place.”
But as I rode a lift on the upper mountain—“Ten minutes up, two minutes down,” I wrote—and stared down at the mostly melted remains of a terrain park, I had in mind the hobo minstrel Harry “Haywire Mac” McClintock and his best-known song, which is rumored to have been inspired by the Tushars. A few lines rattled around in my head as I scraped downhill: “Oh I’m bound to go / where there ain’t no snow… / In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.”
Getting here had not been easy. Heading south from Salt Lake City on Interstate 15, the speed limit jumps from 65 miles per hour to 75 and then, as you cruise-control into the absolute middle of nowhere, to 80. Somewhere out in that zone sits Beaver, a dusty little speck of 3,100 people carved from the high-desert scrub, its downtown grid mostly confined to an island of land hemmed in by the straight line of Main Street on one side and the gentle arc of the highway on the other, bracketed at either end by the hotels and gas stations that attend its two highway exits and cater to long-haul truckers. Beaver’s most profitable establishments, I was told, are its jail and its animal shelter.
“In most ski towns, if you saw someone wearing a cowboy hat, you’d think, what a poseur,” Gadbaw had told me on the phone before I arrived. “But in Beaver, they’re probably a real cowboy.” Now, surveying the town, I had to agree. But just as you’re not going to confuse a poseur with a cowboy, nobody would confuse Beaver with a ski town. Driving down Main Street I was reminded of nothing so much as the town from the movie Footloose. The idea of a luxurious private ski club, in this place, seemed delusional.
Turning east off of Main Street at Beaver’s lone stoplight, I left the grid and entered a winding canyon. I gained altitude, rising into Fishlake National Forest. The temperature cooled, the air grew crisper and less dusty, and steep mountains rose up all around me. “The great mountain wall leaps at once from the narrow platform of the valley to nearly its greatest altitude,” wrote geologist Clarence E. Dutton of the Tushars in 1880, noting that the range’s peaks and ravines were “well calculated to kindle the enthusiasm of the mountaineer and task his energy.” They are striking mountains, and by the time I arrived at Eagle Point, 18 winding miles later, my enthusiasm was indeed kindled.
But by my second ski day, having covered the mountain several times over the day before, I was bored. What’s worse, I had come to really like the place and the people but was growing concerned about its prospects. The lack of snow was one thing; the lack of skiers was another. It was Saturday, the resort’s busiest day, and there were perhaps 25 cars in the upper lot. You had to take a weird shuttle from the main lodge to the upper mountain. The lifties seemed over-friendly, like puppies starved for attention.
“How’s it going, bro?” one liftie asked me later that afternoon.
“OK,” I replied, trying to smile. “Could use a little more snow.”
“It’s on the way,” said the liftie. “Tomorrow.”
Indeed, there was a big storm forecast for that night, and as the afternoon wore on, a cautious optimism began to build among those I spoke with, including the mountain’s snow-maintenance manager. “That’s what we’re known for,” he said. “We’re a powder playground. Hopefully you’ll get to see some of that.”