Thirty years ago, Kevin and Nyla Taylor bought a small ski area in Montana and turned it into the pinnacle of the community. What happens when they retire?
“It hurts,” said Kevin Taylor. Great Divide Ski Area’s 61-year-old owner just finished hauling hoses and power cords back to the base after a day of snowmaking during the run-up to the area’s opening day, November 14, 2015.
It’s not the years; it’s the mileage. And in 30 years of ski area ownership near Helena, Montana, Taylor’s racked up a lot of miles.
His days begin at 5:45 a.m.; they sometimes don’t end until 11 p.m. Every Wednesday night, he runs things from the top shack of the chairlift during the Great Divide Ski Team’s night practices. He hasn’t missed a Wednesday in 20 years. That’s Taylor’s voice on the snowphone. And it’s likely him you’ll hear when you call customer service after the lifts close. In between, Taylor is a blur. He’s the general manager, marketing director, and human resources department among other things. His wife, Nyla, manages the lodge and its bar and restaurant, but that doesn’t adequately describe all she does. When things get crazy, “Call Nyla,” said Divide employees. “She knows everything.”
“It’s been [sustainable] up until now, but I drag a lot at the end of the day,” said Taylor. “It’s tougher and tougher to work the schedule we work. I’ve done it for four decades, three decades here. At 61 years of age it’s not that doable. But, you know everyone says, ‘Wow, that’s incredible.’ I say, it’s a short season, it’s five months.”
No matter how short the season may be, the reality is that the end is closer than the beginning and Taylor knows it. He knows what he’ll do after Great Divide: sail around the Caribbean, ski more, maybe return to driving snow cats part-time.
But what does Great Divide do after the Taylors?
Because without them, none of this would be here. Not the 107 trails. Not the 1,600 acres. Not the five chairlifts. Certainly not the house—the Taylors’ home—that is a few hundred steps from the lodge and overlooks the beginners’ slope and its rope tow. There, the Taylors often host employees who’ve had too much to drink and can’t make the winding drive down to Helena.
The house wasn’t built until 1999. In 1985, after Kevin tired of running others’ ski areas at Red Lodge and then Terry Peak, South Dakota, Nyla’s ties to Montana—she’s from Billings—drew the then-newlyweds to a foundering ski club area on Mount Belmont, 24 miles northwest of Helena, with three surface lifts, a dozen trails, and a 1,000-square-foot lodge.
After buying what would become Great Divide for the cost of the ski club’s debts and discounted season passes for life for the club’s members, the Taylors lived in a trailer at the base, eventually with three daughters. First a 12×60, then a doublewide.
“The early going was rough, but I’m a lift guy,” said Taylor. “So that’s where the money went.”
Talking about his lift projects, Taylor lights up. Within two years the first chairlift was built, one-mile long and 1,300 vertical feet. That same year, 1987, Taylor set up the first snowmaking machines, a necessary evil for Montana’s “sunniest ski area.” The improvements followed at a feverish pace as Kevin poured profits back into the mountain. In the next 15 years, Taylor built four more chairlifts, increasing the mountain’s vertical to 1,500 feet; added night skiing; quintupled the lodge’s size with additions; built the first of the Divide’s five terrain parks in 1994. Throughout, Taylor was creative. The lumber for the lodge additions came from the Great Divide’s trail cuts. He and a crew pulled the first two lifts from Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire. The later lifts were assembled from Big Sky’s, Schweitzer’s, and others’ castoffs.
“The early going was rough, but I’m a lift guy,” said Taylor. “So that’s where the money went.”
In 2001 the pace slowed, the mountain finally matching Taylor’s vision. Things were going well, and the debts incurred during expansion were being paid down until 2007 when pine beetles savaged the Divide’s treed areas, turning 140 trails into 107. Years of containing and eradicating the pest, with the last coming in 2014, leeched profits, but a big start to the 2015/16 season has the Divide poised for its best year yet in both profits and skier visits. What little debt remains will likely be gone within the year, said Taylor.
Despite the recent travails and erratic snowfall of recent years, Taylor’s made opening, and opening first in Montana, all but a certainty in his three decades at the Divide.
Opening day 2015 arrives with less than its usual gusto. This year, Big Sky beat the Divide by a week with a one-day opening event, November 7. It was the first time in 10 years that Great Divide was not the first Montana resort to open lift-served terrain. Thanks to Big Sky’s preemptive strike and spring-like temperatures, only 300 skiers and riders turn out to ride the lone lift and trail at the Divide’s opening. That’s less than half the skiers at last year’s opening.
He notices a rough patch in the ride near one of the first terminals. It’s imperceptible to any other skier, but Taylor can feel it. He’s a “lift guy,” remember.
This early season defeat depresses the hell out of Taylor. By midday, he seems to have recovered. Things are going smoothly. But they could be even smoother. Taylor takes the lift up for his first turns of the day. He notices a rough patch in the ride near one of the first terminals. It’s imperceptible to any other skier, but Taylor can feel it. He’s a “lift guy,” remember. The next ride up, by sound and process of elimination, he diagnoses a minor electrical issue; it’s fixed and the ride is smoothed out by afternoon without inconvenience or a single rider ever noticing.
It’s not until the end of the day, when it’s just Taylor and a few employees at the bar, that you notice the fatigue around his eyes, the lines. Some latent mischief within, the wry comebacks and perpetual motion make you believe he’s younger than his stated 61 years.
These early weeks, the opening of a new season, these are the times that energize him, he said a few days earlier. The lifts stopped turning almost three hours ago. Such a statement seems less believable now that he too is stationary as the evening winds down in the lodge. But then the tickets supervisor comes up the stairs from the room that houses both ticket office and rental shop. There’s a problem. I know it’s late, she says to Kevin, but a young skier and her father have come to pick up a season’s rental; all the rental techs have gone home. Taylor puts aside his glass, and a moment later he’s downstairs fitting a teenage skier’s boots. There’s a choice to be made as Taylor brings out several pairs of skis to choose from. The last pair, a versatile, rockered pair of Elan skis, Kevin describes as “magic.”
Smart girl, she tells her father she wants the “magic” skis. She has dreams of a season of Great Divide steeps and a trip to Whistler powder in her head. Taylor goes to work adjusting the bindings and setting the DIN. He does so with the enthusiasm reserved for college grads on their first gap year. These are those energizing times.
The Taylors’ days still end as they often have, around the lodge bar, stories and a few drinks shared with youngish employees, skiers, and friends—the three categories nearly indistinguishable.
It’s Sunday night; the Divide’s 2015 opening is eight days old. Kevin’s behind the bar, the last of the guests gone. It’s just a handful of employees, a writer, and a friend. Nyla tells a story: a hot tub, a box of wine, and how she and Kevin planned an entire life in a single night. Things did not go according to plan. It’s a cautionary tale with no ending, but Nyla invests it with a boisterous charm. She’s a handful of years removed from Kevin’s 61; she could lie about it without question, still pretty in the Montana sort of way so that it comes as no surprise to learn she’s operated heavy equipment, wrangled horses, or tended bar in Red Lodge. Nyla continues the story. The lesson, if there is one, echoes one found in famous survival lit: “The plan, a memory of the future, tries on reality to see if it fits.”
Nyla tells a story: a hot tub, a box of wine, and how she and Kevin planned an entire life in a single night. Things did not go according to plan.
The difficulty of planning for an uncertain future is a lesson not far from mind as the king and queen of this mountain do not have a clear line of succession.
The Taylors have three grown daughters. All with promising careers outside of the ski industry. There was a time when the oldest, Emily, was considering managing the family business but all three daughters have seen the onus of ownership, said Adrienne, the youngest.
Kevin wouldn’t mind continuing on in a reduced capacity, in a supporting role to a qualified, younger GM. There are problems with that plan, although the Taylors have a cadre of experienced department heads. The ones who might be able to tie together the myriad facets of the ski area as GM all have bright futures outside of the industry.
There was another plan. A promising one. Taylor’s “grand idea” was to set up a non-profit community ski area association modeled after the one that runs Bridger Bowl. Talks with Helena community members began in the spring of 2014. The Divide skied until May of that year. Taylor put together a buy-out plan that included a small down payment and a prime rate annuity to be paid over 20 years. Enthusiasm peaked in the fall and winter of 2015 with groups of 50-60 community members meeting at Great Divide’s lodge to talk specifics, Taylor said.
And then, in January, it started to rain. Interest in a community ski area “vaporized,” Taylor said.
The plan, a memory of the future, tries on reality to see if it fits.
A ghost town separates Great Divide Ski Area and its 1,600 acres from the outside world, from Helena. The state capitol is 40 minutes away and home to 60,000. It always feels farther and smaller, though, as you follow the two-lane road through what’s left of Marysville, now down to 80 residents from its mining boom high of 4,000 during the 1890s. The mix of crumbling wood and brick facades look like the abandoned set of a Western. It’s easy to imagine nothing but scaffolding and rigging behind them, but Marysville’s gone moments later as the road climbs to the base of the ski area.
It would have been convenient for this story if the ski area at the end of this road were stuck in the past; if when the pavement gave way to a dirt and gravel track two miles below Great Divide your car became a time machine, transporting you back to some abstract, better “back then.”
But the terrain parks and snow guns aren’t far from sight and the future and its questions are too close to the present. Save for a few knotty pine walls and a rock fireplace, Great Divide doesn’t look much like the area that preceded it. It looks little like it did 30, 20, or 10 years ago. Taylor made improvements and additions until it matched his vision. Then nature intervened. Great Divide has changed; it will change again when Taylor’s reign comes to a close. When that time will be is up to him, providence, and factors of health and age that can’t be accounted for until they must be.
Something will be lost when he’s done; ten years later, young skiers won’t even know what it was.
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