The Wasatch Shuffle

Will Deer Valley's luxury spoil the lunch-pail spirit of Solitude?

This story originally published in the November 2015 issue of POWDER (44.3). PHOTO: It’s a new day at Solitude. By Adam Barker

On the surface, it’s hard to see similarities between Park City’s Deer Valley Resort and Big Cottonwood Canyon’s Solitude Mountain Resort. Since its founding in 1981, Deer Valley has made much of its money through real estate, selling hobby-mansions to guests looking for ski valets, spa treatments, and mornings filled with immaculate low-angle groomers. Meanwhile, Solitude has spent the past three decades selling season passes to families who boot-up in the parking lot and, on any given powder day, would trade their minivan for one more run down Honeycomb Canyon.

So, many were surprised last October when Deer Valley bought Solitude. To some it felt personal. It’s one thing for Vail Resorts to buy Park City Mountain Resort—which happened the month before—that was one conglomerate buying another, and there isn’t a lot of wistful yearning for an old group of investment bankers over a new group of investment bankers. But Solitude is different. Its previous owners, the DeSeelhorst family, had catered primarily to Salt Lake City skiers for almost 40 years.

New Solitude general manager Kim Mayhew, who took over in May after 33 years at Deer Valley, says the long-time Solitude faithful have not been shy about sharing their thoughts. “I’ll have people come up to me and say, ‘Hey, I bring my family of five up here. How are we going to keep that going?’”

It’s a fair question—one that skiers may ask repeatedly in similar scenarios the world over as big companies continue to buy up and buy out the dwindling mom-and-pop hills. The local versus tourist demographic of the two Utah resorts shows an inverse relationship: 75 percent of Deer Valley skiers are destination tourists, with roughly the same percentage at Solitude coming from Salt Lake County and the surrounding area. Considering the spending trends for both groups, it’s fair to imagine Solitude’s new owners wanting to turn the resort into something of a mini Deer Valley, expanding its own antlered brand by funneling trickle-down luxury straight to Big Cottonwood.

The Big Cottonwood tribe has been so concerned about Solitude becoming Deer Valley that they’ve missed the various ways in which Deer Valley is becoming Solitude.

“Yeah, we hear that,” says long-time Deer Valley president and general manager Bob Wheaton. “But the response is that nobody needs to worry about it, because we saw the value in Solitude being Solitude. The DeSeelhorst family has done a very good job putting that place together, and—just like with Deer Valley—we’re in this for the long haul. It’s important for us to not go in and just blow the whole thing up.”

Skeptics will claim that Wheaton is just trying to finagle his way around the inevitable: Turning one of the most cultish powder stashes in the country into yet another enclave for One-Percenters. After all, isn’t there some sense of urgency for Deer Valley to keep pace with its neighbors—Park City Mountain Resort and (formerly) The Canyons—which now lay claim to the single largest ski area in the country? And aren’t all of these purchases just building toward the pending destiny known as One Wasatch, a controversial plan to connect all seven resorts in the Central Wasatch? Perhaps. But transportation concerns, land-swap delays, and other restrictions brought on by the Mountain Accord collaboration might put the whole “linked ski resorts” idea on hold for awhile. In the meantime, a closer look at both Solitude and Deer Valley reveals almost as many commonalities as differences, starting with the fact that both have a long roster of veteran employees.

I worked at Deer Valley during the winter of 1993, and when I visited the resort this past February, I was surprised by how many of my co-workers from that era were still there, including Wheaton, director of mountain operations Chuck English, and my old lift-ops boss, Paul Hedman. Twenty-three years is a long time in any industry, and companies don’t get that sort of loyalty and longevity without doing something right.

Like Solitude, Deer Valley is also privately held, and has had the same owner, the Stern family, since its inception. This has helped shield the resort from the whims of fickle shareholders, but the acquisition is still the latest case of the rich getting richer—a small resort being gobbled by a bigger one. (Like Vail buying Michigan’s Mount Brighton and Minnesota’s Afton Alps, or Intrawest buying Stratton in Vermont and Snowshoe in West Virginia.)

Yet this deal is different from those deals. For one, Deer Valley buying Solitude keeps Deer Valley’s investment dollars in Utah, allowing marketing efforts to more easily overlap. Second, reciprocal passes will actually mean something here, giving skiers at both resorts at least a few exchange days without needing to fly four states away to use them.

Talking to Wheaton, I got the sense that this last part of the agreement—enabling more locals to ski Deer Valley—is as exciting to him as anything that happens at Solitude. Indeed, the Big Cottonwood tribe has been so concerned about Solitude becoming Deer Valley that they’ve missed the various ways in which Deer Valley is becoming Solitude.

When the sale became official on May 1, 2015, several Solitude developments were announced, including replacing the resort’s two-person Summit Chair with a detachable quad, and building a new ski run from the top of the Apex Express down to the chair, giving powder fiends faster access to the renowned Honeycomb Canyon.

Less talked about was Deer Valley’s own expansion plans, which call for adding more than 1,000 acres of inbounds to the east side of Bald Mountain, below the Mayflower and Sultan Express lifts—a development that would add more steep terrain to the resort profile and essentially turn nearby Heber into a ski town.

Future developments at Deer Valley notwithstanding, all eyes currently remain on Solitude’s transition. Having drinks last winter at the Honeycomb Grill at the base of the resort, I asked a bartender named Jessica Cattle what she thinks of the sale. “This place just seems like a big pile of cookie dough right now,” said Cattle. “All the right ingredients are here, they just need someone to come and put it all together. And Deer Valley seems as capable as anyone of doing that.”