[part three of four]
We awakened Sunday morning to a land of plenty: 10 inches of powder so light that every turn left a cloud of it lingering in the air like exhaled smoke. When I met Gadbaw and Hornstein for first chair at nine, Tone was already helping the liftie shovel out the loading area and knock the snow off the chairs. The snow had us all in a buoyant mood.
Riding the lift, Hornstein told me about his first visit to the Tushars, in 1984, when he was in school in Flagstaff, Arizona, and decided on a whim to check it out with friends. “It was a Sunday—like today!—and there was 30 inches and maybe a dozen people,” he recalled. “I was sold.” He went on to train as a backcountry and heli guide in Canada, and when he began looking around for a place to establish his own guiding operation, the Tushars came immediately to mind.
By my second run of the morning, my perspective had shifted completely. The mountain is no longer private, but it can certainly feel that way. We had hardly come across another track. There were no lines, no crowds, nothing but joyously unjostled skiing.
The inbounds side of the resort is divided into two distinct areas. The upper Elk Meadows area is as gentle-sloped as its name might suggest, catering to the beginners and home to the tubing track and terrain park; the Mount Holly side, which occupies a deep ravine, is what makes this place worth visiting. Its steep runs are long enough to get a burn in your legs. That’s where we spent our time. I asked Tone if he ever skied the Elk Meadows side. “Well, if my wife wants to ski, maybe,” he said, “but otherwise I’m over here.”
At noon, we were still getting fresh tracks and I felt relaxed enough to join Gadbaw and Hornstein for lunch in the lodge (a competitive powder frenzy would have precluded such a luxury at another mountain). Gadbaw and Hornstein seemed to have noticed the change in my attitude, but they wanted to make sure. “See? You can get fresh tracks here all day long,” Gadbaw said. Hornstein piled on: “Right, versus somewhere like Alta, where people stand on a liftline for 45 minutes before it opens on a powder day, and then it’s all skied off in half an hour.”
Definitely a positive, but I still wasn’t entirely convinced. What, I asked Gadbaw, makes you think you can succeed where so many have failed? He was prepared. “The first reason is cost. We don’t have as much sunk in as prior owners, so there’s not the same urgency,” he said. “Second is that Vegas is bigger and more populous than it was even eight years ago. And third is a willingness to take it at the right pace. I just want to get the ski hill running.”
Hornstein agreed. “It’s all about taking that approach: step by step.”
This, their second season, had been a terrible snow year, and they didn’t open until January 27, but they’d managed a number of baby steps forward. Gadbaw made some infrastructure improvements as well as the decision to go to a four-days-per-week schedule, opening Friday through Monday.
“This schedule’s not conventional, but it’s working for us,” Gadbaw told me. “And who cares about conventional—we’ll get to conventional in 10 years or whenever.” The four-day week not only allows for a tighter operation, but it makes it easier for people to plan. If, say, there’s a Wednesday storm, Gadbaw said, “they have 48 hours to get here and still get fresh tracks.”
“Step one,” Gadbaw said, “is getting skier visits up.” They had about 15,000 skier visits their first year, less than the 20,000 Gadbaw had been hoping for, but not bad. The late start and the four-day schedule notwithstanding, they did about the same this year. They need to average about 200 skiers a day to break even. For now, Vegas is the target market, and regional dominance seems within reach. “I believe strongly the product is exceptional, at least regionally, and that’s all we want,” Gadbaw said. “We’re not going to be Deer Valley, but if we can get the word out that we’re the best skiing in the region, I think it can really work.”
Which is not to say he’s lacking for plans. “We already know what we want to do with this place, ideally,” said Gadbaw, “but we have to take it bit by bit.” This season, which kicks off on December 21, Gadbaw is planning to offer snowcat-assisted backcountry tours and some very interesting promotional deals, including free skiing for California residents for the entire 2012–2013 season.
Hornstein glanced out the window at the near-blizzard conditions. “It’s nuking out there again. Let’s go.” As I was clicking into my bindings after lunch, I caught the eye of a guy coming off the lift, smiling widely. “That does not suck out there,” he said to me. “And I think it’s gonna not suck even more tomorrow.”