Entrepreneur Tim Blixseth was able to launch America’s first private ski resort thanks to the same process that enables Colorado developer Tom Chapman to own an inholding within Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park: land swaps with the federal government.
In the 1990s, Blixseth, a lumber executive, wound up with a large amount of developable land adjacent to Montana’s Big Sky ski area. He christened the Yellowstone Club in 1995, and before long could name as members Bill Gates, ski filmmaker Warren Miller, Tour de France winner Greg LeMond, former vice president Dan Quayle, senator Jack Kemp, Swedish golf star Annika Sorenstam, “Entertainment Tonight” host Mary Hart, and a host of less visible but far more wealthy venture capitalists.
Blixseth demanded members show net worth of at least $3 million. He charged them a minimum of $250,000 to join, plus the cost of a $5 million to $35 million mountainside home, plus annual dues of about $20,000. For that, Blixseth supplied a resort with 2,700 feet of vertical, 2,200 skiable acres, eight chairlifts and three restaurants. Most important: He furnished a fence, a barrier to keep the wretched public skiers of Big Sky at bay.
But that was the 1990s. In the years leading up to the Great Recession, the Yellowstone Club seemed doomed. Its bourgeoisie affectations burned rank-and-file skiers. The club actually trademarked the phrase Private Powder™ (history’s most loathsome use of the word “powder”). Afterward, SKIING Magazine sent a writer wearing a gorilla suit to poach Yellowstone Club from the Big Sky side as an act of civil disobedience, an opportunity to flip the script on habitat encroachment. Greg LeMond sued the club in 2006, saying Blixseth and his former wife had borrowed $375 million from Credit Suisse and took $209 million for themselves as a dividend, jilting him and other investors.
In 2008, the Yellowstone Club filed for bankruptcy. Its value tumbled. Though the club was valued at $400 million before the Great Recession, it was sold for $115 million in 2009.
For a while there, it looked like one-percenters would be forced to rub polylaminates with the filthy masses if they wanted to ski.
COUNTRY CLUB SKIING
AND ITS EARLY ORIGINS
Ski area management experts sometimes divide American resort skiing into two eras: Before detachable high-speed lifts, and After. Young sliders may never fully appreciate how inconvenient skiing was in the 1970s and early ’80s, when chairs hung from only one cable, moving at a constant velocity that was sufficiently slow to allow boarding. A fixed-grip lift can only attain so much capacity. Forty-minute lift lines were not uncommon.
Detachable chairs — which glide up and down on a fast cable before switching to a slower one for boarding and unloading — solved many crowding problems. But public ski areas still lacked exclusivity. In that regard, Yellowstone Club became the long-awaited answer to a rich person’s lament: If we can escape the rank and file when we golf, why can’t we do so when skiing?
In 2011, a developer named Jim Barnes took notice that an open-to-everyone ski area, Vermont’s Haystack Mountain, was for sale. Founded in 1964, Haystack was always a mess. It lacked artificial snowmaking (a key amenity in the East) and financial difficulties led to several closures and reopenings, sprinkled with seasons where the lifts never ran at all.
Still, Haystack featured 45 trails, six lifts, and a 1,400-foot vertical drop. Barnes bought the mountain and its adjacent golf course for $6.2 million in 2011, then turned around and launched the East’s only private resort.
Barnes renamed his collection Hermitage Club, and turned conventional thinking on its head. His strategy — charge fewer skiers a premium price for a premium experience — challenges the conventional ski management model, which relies on volume: The more skiers purchase lift tickets, the healthier the bottom line.
A COLORADO APPROACH
In 2005, an environmental lawyer named Jim Aronstein bought a 1,750-acre parcel of former logging company land on the north end of the San Juan Mountains. He knew he wanted to establish a private ski area there and that he’d call it the Cimarron Mountain Club.
Over the years, Aronstein explored a number of different methods of achieving his dream. The land — only 12 miles as the crow flies northeast of Ridgway — had been nicely gladed by the loggers and Aronstein commenced naming runs after Jimi Hendrix songs. At first, he planned to invite only 12 deep-pocketed buyers to join him beneath the Cimarron Range. Each would own a home on the property, and they would get together to go snowcat skiing.
The Great Recession gave investors cold feet, though, so Aronstein looked at other options. He considered selling the whole shebang to a billionaire. That didn’t work either, as the potential buyer wanted to establish a 120-room hotel on the property.
Eventually, Aronstein chose to make Cimarron Mountain Club a powder preserve with a 14,000-square-foot clubhouse (which will be built this summer) and three four-bedroom guest cabins. As of today, six people are committed to memberships at the club, whose initial buy-in costs anywhere from $3.2 million to $3.4 million and gives you a 35-acre lot. Annual dues are $60,000. There are nine remaining memberships. No longer will members be required to build mansions: If they wish, they can leave their lots au naturel and use the lodge instead, which will have six guestrooms.
Aronstein’s wife lobbied for more conventional slope names at CMC and now the only one influenced by Hendrix is Watchtower. But irreverence was never the point: Powder was. CMC already has 1,000 acres of ski terrain with a 1,610-foot vertical drop. It’s currently seeking Forest Service approval to ski steep couloirs on the south side of the property.
The club will never sell day tickets. It will always be served by snowcats, never by chairlifts — an important distinction between CMC and the Yellowstone and Hermitage clubs. Aronstein never even contemplated a lift due to the impact it would have on the surrounding scenery.
“A lift would stare at you year-round,” he says before going on to add that high-speed quads shouldn’t be the draw for those prospective members. “Here, powder is the big draw.”
Essentially, CMC emphasizes wilderness over civilization: In winter, members won’t even be able to drive to their homes, instead arriving on snowmachines or Jeeps retrofitted with revolving tracks in place of wheels.
PRIVATE SKIING AND
THE GREAT RECESSION
The Great Recession is said to have lasted, roughly, from 2007 to 2012. During that span, the notion of a private ski club must have seemed like trust-funder folly, attainable only by geniuses who managed to short the market. Except for the struggles and litigation surrounding the Yellowstone Club, the ski industry heard nary a peep about Private Powder.
With the beginning of the economic recovery, however, the concept slowly stirred back to life. The Hermitage Club has seen a 225 percent increase in membership since 2012. Quite different from CMC, it optimizes its proximity to big cities with a wide range of memberships, including a two-week “limited exclusive membership” for $20,000, in which guests stay in a “ boutique Vermont country inns.”
The assorted purveyors of private clubs clearly surveyed the landscape and recognized the wants of potential customers had significantly changed. Golden Kleenex boxes were no longer a draw; solitude was.
Think about what really grew during the recession: Smartphones. Social media. Partisan politics. Universal connectivity. Suddenly, wealthy people needed an escape from the noise more than they needed butlers and valets.
CMC responded in kind. The company hired the esteemed filmmakers at Matchstick Productions to make two lavish promotional videos. One is aimed at hardcore skiers and contains compelling video of steep couloirs and powder turns.
The second — a lifestyle video — is more representative of current society. It hammers home a message of escape with nature shots only marginally influenced by humanity. There are equestrians on galloping horses set against the backdrop of Cimarron Ridge. Lonely mountain bikers. A solo hiker. Campers dwarfed by a brilliant canopy of stars. High Park Lake — the largest of 14 bodies of water on the property — patrolled by a single canoe.
The voiceover, by a dulcet-toned woman, explains the CMC experience is “too pure to share with too many.” She breathily urges viewers to “Unplug. Simply be. Reconnect to what matters.” And no, that doesn’t mean logging on to Facebook.
“Everyone is so plugged in these days,” frowned CMC’s listing broker, Brian O’Neill. “More than ever, people want to disconnect and spend time with their families. CMC is designed to be a retreat.”
He described a recent encounter with skiers from Miami.
“They have a second home in Mountain Village, which they like, but they run into other people from Miami all the time.”
Said O’Neill: “It’s hard to find private land parcels that have the right aspects and the right characteristics for erecting a ski area. That’s why most resorts remain on public land.”
Like national forests, which have a mandate to serve the people ... all the people, not just the ones with private jets.
These days, each private ski club is going about things differently, selling different appeals to different types of wealthy skiers, whether CMC’s powder hounds or Hermitage Club’s New Yorkers. This far into the recovery, America has plenty of rich people, with plenty of money to spend on themselves.