Greetings from Snowy Range
What does it take to operate a small ski area? Steamboat’s Maddox family could tell you all about it — but the industry is experiencing a slow shift, according to the numbers. One thing is certain: The Maddoxes' operation of the resort near Laramie, Wyo., truly is a labor of love.
On the Monday of Presidents Day weekend, Hunter Maddox rose before daylight to warm up a gleaming yellow Prinoth snowcat and lay down some corduroy for the skiers and snowboarders who would come pouring into the parking lot of the Snowy Range Ski and Recreation Area about three hours later. It was the first of five job descriptions Maddox would fill by 1 p.m.
That’s the nature of life at a family-owned ski area.
For every glamorous destination ski resort in North America like Steamboat, Aspen, Vail, Deer Valley and Heavenly, there are dozens of smaller ski areas from Alabama to Wyoming that have their own vital roles to play in the ski industry. Snowy Range — just west of Laramie, Wyo., and owned and operated by the Maddox family of Steamboat Springs — is among them.
The smaller ski areas bring new skiers and snowboarders into the sport at a relatively economical level, provide a place for them to gain confidence and ultimately launch them on multiday ski vacations to the Rockies and the Sierras.
But it takes a high level of passion and a strong work ethic to persevere in operating a small ski area.
Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association, said ski areas like Snowy Range and similar resorts in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin represent the beginning of a pipeline that ultimately feeds destination resorts like Steamboat.
Berry, based in Lakewood and responsive to 325 Alpine ski resorts across the U.S., is familiar with Snowy Range and its five lifts, 27 trails and 1,100 feet of vertical.
But the typical Steamboat resident probably is oblivious to Snowy Range, even though it is independently owned and operated by a Steamboat family. Bob Maddox and his late wife, Cindy Maddox, along with investors in Wyoming and Steamboat Springs, purchased the ski area in 2010 just before Cindy Maddox was diagnosed with the cancer that would take her life in spring 2012. Today, Bob Maddox’s two adult sons and their significant others are pouring their energy and dreams into the small, secluded resort.
Aaron Maddox, who has a master’s degree in accounting and a prior career in banking, is the mountain manager. Hunter Maddox, who has an ongoing career as a critical care nurse that affords him the flexibility of working 13-week contracts, is working more than full time at the family ski area this winter.
Even as Cindy Maddox dealt with her illness, she stayed at Snowy Range during winter 2011-12, striving to make it the best it could be. Her family clearly misses her energy and her sense of humor.
“Cindy liked to say that what we bought was an old pirate ship that used to be a beautiful British frigate,” Bob Maddox said.
She would be pleased to know how well the ski area was operating late this winter.
Yes, and I loved it.
Yes, but I didn’t like it.
No, I haven’t skied there.
129 total votes.
The trails of the ski area were cut more than a half-century ago into a north-facing ridge topped with ancient, limber pines. Snowy Range takes a modest amount of water for snowmaking out of ponds along the North Fork of the Little Laramie River.
Many of the trails will strike Steamboat regulars as being narrow, or perhaps look familiar to New Englanders, who have migrated to the Colorado Rockies. And the chairlifts might look familiar to longtime Vail regulars — they were moved to Snowy Range after being replaced with high-speed quads.
The season lasts 121 days with an average snowfall of more than 200 inches. Nobody stands around waiting in lift lines at Snowy Range, and although the chairs are old-school, it’s a quick ride to the top of the ridge, ideal for turning laps on the well-groomed snow.
The younger generation is attracted to a professionally designed terrain park with jumps and tables that will challenge intermediates. Although there are short, steep pitches of moguls on the black diamond runs on the west side of the ski area, the best mogul skiing is at the top of the intermediate Sundance trail, served by the Sundance triple chair. A great way to finish that run is to dive into a black diamond trail called Geronimo that is reminiscent of Oops at Steamboat Ski Area for the way it demands that skiers make quick decisions in order to negotiate multiple fall lines.
Berry said ski areas like Snowy Range provide an essential element in the health of the industry — providing a place to start affordably and close to home on uncomplicated terrain.
“People don’t come to skiing because of advertising,” Berry said. “It’s because someone they know introduces them to the sport at the closest place to home. Very few people wake up in the morning in Cleveland, decide they’re eager to try the sport and fly to Aspen to take up skiing.”
More typically, he said, it’s a cold winter afternoon in Cleveland, a family has grown bored with watching basketball or hockey on TV, they have a friend who has fallen in love with skiing, and through that connection they discover skiing as a healthy activity the family enjoys together.
Ski areas in North America
Ski areas in North America with more than three chairlifts
A numbers game
At first glance, the reason for the urgency Berry and his organization feel about bringing new skiers into the sport isn’t apparent. Thanks in part to regional ski areas, the estimated number of skier visits in the U.S. reached a record 60.54 million in the bountiful snow winter of 2010-11 before plummeting to 51 million — the worst in 20 years — in the snow-starved winter of 2011-12. The National Ski Areas Association reports that the number of skier visits has averaged 57.5 million throughout the past 10 years.
The number of individual skiers participating in the sport stood at 6.9 million (2.4 percent of the population) in 2011 and has bounced around between 6.4 million and 7.4 million since 2000.
In the meantime, snowboarding at ski areas has grown from 4.2 million participants in 2000 to a peak of 6.2 million in 2009.
But there is a reason for concern hidden in the demographics of skiers. The average age of male skiers in 2011 was 35.5 and the average age of female skiers was 32, according to the National Ski Areas Association. Those age figures often fluctuate from year to year, but Berry knows the aging of the baby boomers means the ski industry needs to convert more first-time skiers into repeat business, or face a steady decline as members of the Woodstock generation inevitably drop out.
“Time is not on the industry’s side,” the National Ski Areas Association wrote in a published report. “The Baby Boom Generation will ultimately hang up their ski and snowboard gear for good. If we do not improve our efforts to introduce new participants to the sport, and convert them to lifelong enthusiasts, overall ski and snowboard visitation figures could decrease by 2.5 percent per season.”
The National Ski Areas Association has issued a challenge to ski areas it calls the Conversion Cup. The goal is to increase the numbers of introductory lessons it teaches and increase efforts to sell multiple-lesson packages to beginners.
Snowy Range, with its no-pressure environment and professional ski school staffed by some faculty members and students from the University of Wyoming, fits right into that equation.
Skier visits and participation, 2000-11
All the way from Wichita
The Wenzel family from Wichita, Kan., visited Snowy Range during Presidents Day weekend in the midst of a visit to relatives in Fort Collins. They’re a prime example of how a small ski area can contribute to the growth of the overall industry.
Jenny Wenzel said her twin 9-year-old daughters Kate and Jane were skiing for the first time, and it was her first time on skis in more than a decade.
“I learned to ski at Conquistador,” the now-defunct resort along the central Front Range near Westcliffe, Wenzel said. “I don’t like the big places; they make me nervous. And the three of us are skiing for under $100 today.”
Wenzel’s daughters, clad in matching outfits of pink ski pants and polka dot jackets, started out on the magic carpet lift serving the beginner slope at Snowy Range, and they didn’t immediately take to the sport.
“It started out rough, but we went into the lodge and had a snack, and now they are going up and down as fast as they can,” Wenzel said.
By midafternoon, Kate and Jane were whizzing down one of the lower intermediate trails at Snowy Range.
“This is just an ideal place for families,” Wenzel said.
Charlie Troy, of Fort Collins, brought his wife and daughter for a mini weekend getaway and took advantage of discounted lift tickets with a night at the Quality Inn in Laramie.
“My little girl, Jessica, is 9 years old and has never been skiing,” Troy said. “I thought it was a crime.”
Berry said the fact that skiing is a winter activity that can be enjoyed by adults and children is significant.
“I grew up in upstate New York, where hockey is a big deal,” Berry said. “But hockey’s not a family deal. The parents watch the kids play hockey. Skiing stands alone as a shared activity in terms of spanning generations. That’s why it’s so powerful.”
The Sailors connection
In addition to the Maddox brothers, Aaron and Hunter, there are three Steamboat Springs High School alumni who work at Snowy Range.
Cody Marshall is the director of marketing and does the buying for the retail shop, where it’s difficult to keep Giro ski helmets in stock.
Marshall actively markets Snowy Range on the University of Wyoming and Colorado State University campuses.
Sailors also employed at Snowy Range include Mark Gillaspie, who works in the ticket office, and Andrew Porter Merrell, who works in lift maintenance.
53 years of history
Equipped with the eyes of an eagle and blessed with a clear sky, one almost can see Snowy Range from the spine of the ridge that leads to the Rabbit Ears rock formation southeast of Steamboat Springs. Medicine Bow Peak, the highest summit in the Snowy Range at 12,014 feet, is just to the west of the Maddoxes’ ski area and plainly visible from the Rabbit Ears.
The student body at the University of Wyoming in Laramie numbers about 16,000 this winter and provides a built-in clientele for Snowy Range, particularly with its terrain park. And an increasing number of people from Fort Collins and students from Colorado State University are skiing Snowy Range.
“We have $43 tickets, and you never have to drive an interstate to get here,” Bob Maddox proclaims.
Steamboat Springs is 116 miles from Snowy Range if a person knows the shortcuts beginning at the little Wyoming crossroads of Woods Landing and avoids driving all the way east to Laramie before turning back to the west on Wyoming Highway 130 to climb into the mountains.
The ski area has been in continuous operation since 1960, longer than Steamboat Ski Area. Before the Maddox family and their investors purchased the ski area from First National Bank of Wyoming in 2010, it had been operated for 16 years by Rick and Terri Collings.
The turning point for the Collingses and Snowy Range goes back to New Year’s Day 2003, when fire consumed the original A-frame lodge at the resort. The Collingses were ambitious, perhaps too ambitious, and built a 32,000-square-foot, two-story day lodge.
The cafeteria dining room on the second level rivals the size of the third-floor dining room at Thunderhead atop the Steamboat gondola.
Aaron Maddox learned through banking connections that after two seasons of operating a ski area from 2008 to 2010, the bank in Laramie needed to sell Snowy Range or close it. He urged his parents to visit the ski area, and he set out on a roadshow to find investors.
He raised about $1 million in investment money to help with the purchase, but his father is the primary owner.
The family members agree that if they had to pay retail for the ski area with its modernized buildings, they could not have made the business work.
Snowy Range Ski and Recreation Area trail map
Making it work
There’s a pretty good reason why members of the Maddox family work such long hours: Their 200 employees (many of them part time) represent 60 percent of the ski area’s total costs. Any shift a Maddox pulls improves the margin.
The Maddoxes resolved early on to keep the ski area open every day of the season, even if there were fewer customers on the hill than there were employees. They had learned from interacting with guests that while the bank operated Snowy Range, it often closed on weekdays. That disappointed customers who sometimes drove hundreds of miles to begin a four-day ski trip during a long weekend.
On slow weekdays, the ski area can operate on 100 man-hours a day. And the mountain manager micromanages payroll.
“Every day of operations, we manage our staffing budget,” Aaron Maddox said. “We’re so flexible, and we phase down like crazy.”
Bob Maddox, a serial entrepreneur, also has a bed and breakfast in Steamboat. He seemingly can’t find enough work to keep him occupied.
On the Friday morning before Presidents Day weekend, he rose early to fill in as the breakfast cook at his B&B in Steamboat, then shuttled over to Oak Street to put in a full day at Valuation Consultants. He left Steamboat in time for a late dinner with his family at Snowy Range, then walked outside to climb into a snowcat and groomed the slopes until midnight. When he arose Saturday morning, it was to greet customers on the busiest day in his three years at the ski area.
He said the ski area lacks lift ticket scanners, so they estimate daily skier visits based on a rule of thumb: on average, three skier days can be attributed to each car in the parking lot.
On Saturday of Presidents Day weekend, with more than 500 cars overflowing into the secondary parking lot and a couple of school buses in the mix, Maddox estimated more than 2,000 people were on the slopes.
“This is our busiest day in three years,” he said.
A small cast of veterans
Bob Maddox’s son Aaron Maddox is the family member most wrapped up in the ski area.
“I own a home in Laramie, and I’ve slept there 11 nights since Halloween,” he said with a note of weariness in his voice. Fortunately, his wife, Becky Maddox, infant daughter, Chloe, and toddler, Charlie, can share living quarters with him at Snowy Range.
With his background in accounting, Aaron Maddox, who graduated from Steamboat Springs High School in 1996, is the obvious choice to watch the books. But he’s also the lead snowmaker, snowplow driver and everything else you can imagine.
Director of Lift Maintenance Bill Naylor, a veteran of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, has Aaron Maddox’s back. And Ski School Director Michael Foley is a veteran of two ski areas in Washington state.
On Sunday night, the entire Maddox clan stayed late at work to greet more than 100 teenagers who arrived from small towns across the southern tier of the state in vans from Bible schools. As soon as they arrived, they were fitted with rental skis and snowboards in preparation for the following morning. And then the Maddox family staffed the cafeteria line to serve them a lasagna dinner.
Wind and snow
Wind is a fact of life at Snowy Range, and the trail grooming that typically takes place at night is devoted to a great extent to cutting through drifts of snow and dragging it back on the trails where it’s needed.
Hunter Maddox drew the lucky ticket and began grooming before daylight Monday. He revved his machine up the mountain with unidentifiable music coming out of the speakers behind the muffled roar of the turbocharged engine.
“We can have 4 feet of snow over there and bare spots on the edge of the trial,” he said as he worked and reworked the snow around chairlift off-ramps.
As soon as he was done grooming, Hunter Maddox hustled off to the parking lot where his father had been waving a tattered, blaze-orange flag at incoming vehicles to park them in neat rows. But for Bob Maddox, it’s about more than parking cars as efficiently as possible; he takes advantage of the chore to create a friendly first impression for guests and to learn from what his customers have to say.
Thirty minutes later, Hunter Maddox has changed hats again and joined employees lined up in a row behind boot-fitting stanchions as they worked through the morning rush of ski rentals.
It’s a blessing and a challenge that a large share of Snowy Range skiers rent their equipment.
Maddox called on longtime Steamboat ski retailer Patrick Browning to streamline the rental flow in his shop. Browning, who once managed the Inside Edge Ski Shop in downtown Steamboat, has been able to significantly reduce the amount of time patrons must wait for their gear on busy weekends.
Path to financial success
Bob Maddox said his ski area’s balance sheet is in the black, and he is confident his goal of reaching 50,000 skier visits this season will be exceeded. He said 60,000 isn’t out of reach this season.
Berry said Snowy Range’s owners would be on stronger footing when the Maddoxes can add another 10,000 to 20,000 annual skier visits.
“If they can push the number up into that 60,000 to 70,000 number, they’re going to find themselves in a pretty good place,” Berry said. “The perfect place is to move toward 100,000 visits. There’s that perfect point where it’s busy, but not too busy, where all of a sudden the buzz feeds back into Fort Collins, Cheyenne and Laramie that this is a great place to go.”
There was a time, Berry said, when there were more than 700 ski areas in the United States. But everything changed for the small ski areas when snowmaking became essential. The cost of adding snowmaking put some small ski areas out of business. As a result, the number of ski areas nationally slipped into the low 400s. As of the 2010-11 season, the number had rebounded to 486.
“The good thing is that small ski areas aren’t closing anymore,” Berry said.
The ski industry took note this year when Vail Resorts purchased the Afton Alps Ski Area outside Minneapolis/St. Paul and Mount Brighton outside Detroit from two family operators for a combined $20 million.
Berry said he expects more ski areas to mimic that pattern to form relationships and guard their competitiveness.
“I think what we’ll see is that independent operators, principally in the Midwest, will use this as a motivator to establish marketing relationships with independent ski areas in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah,” he said.
Snowy Range already has a relationship with Steamboat and has been able to rely on Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. for technical advice and even the use of specialized tools needed to maintain its chairlifts.
And it goes further than that. Adults who purchase a season pass at the smaller Wyoming ski area for $259 in the early season can add five days of skiing at Steamboat for just $140, or less than $30 a day. And the base pass also includes three free days at Monarch Mountain west of Salida.
After all, the pipeline must continually be primed with a new generation of skiers and snowboarders. And that’s good for the Maddoxes and the Intrawests of the skiing world.
To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com