By Tim Mutrie
By car, the North Lake Tahoe resorts of Alpine Meadows and Squaw Valley are 10 or 15 minutes apart. But to the ski bum brain, they might as well have been worlds apart: Hippies at one place, aggros at the other, with each resort operating under separate ownership and lift passes… and not even a shuttle running between them. Not any more.
Tuesday morning, Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows announced that the resorts are combining ownership under a new, common entity for the 2011-12 winter season, meaning one lift pass will now serve both resorts, among other things. The deal is set to close in 30 to 45 days, pending U.S. Forest Service approval, officials said.
Rumors of just such a deal have been circulating for months (or decades, depending on who you ask), and beyond that how a certain 460-acre block of private land that lies betwixt the two resorts as the crow flies may factor into future plans. For now, it seems, shuttles—and not skis—will serve to link Alpine and Squaw.
Reached at home in Tahoe City today, longtime Squaw skier and filmmaker Scott Gaffney said of the news: “I think it’s awesome.” After a moment of reflection, he added, “The ultimate chair we have for storm days is KT-22, and now it could just be overrun. On real big storm days, Alpine shuts down more and doesn't have terrain of that caliber. That's the one real negative thing I see.”
Then Ingrid Backstrom made an entrance—”We need to talk about this,” Gaffney said—and we let him go.
Later, via cellphone, Andy Wirth—Squaw’s president and CEO, and the president and CEO of the new entity—described how the deal was first discussed on a chairlift ride last winter. He was riding KT-22, between towers 10 and 11, with Todd Chapman, president and CEO of JMA Ventures, owner of Alpine Meadows, when the conversation advanced. The partnership, Wirth said, “Had been talked about if not dreamt about for many, many decades. And that day on the lift, we said, ‘Are we the guys who are actually gonna get it done?’ And now we find ourselves today making this announcement.”
(“To call it a merger is technically inaccurate; that's why we chose combining of entities,” Wirth noted. “The result is there's a new company formed and there will be majority and minority ownership; KSL [Squaw’s parent company] will have the majority position, and JMA [Alpine’s parent company] will have the minority.”)
Wirth was apparently walking through the Squaw village during the interview because at one point he paused and said, “Hey, there’s Debbie Dutton on her bike. She still looks great.” And later, at a different locale, he said, “Yes, please, I’ll have some red wine.”
Down at Tahoe Dave’s ski shop in Tahoe City, the staff was pretty stoked, too. One employee said she checked with an online “pass decoder” at Alpine’s website this morning to see whether the ski pass she purchased months ago to Alpine and Homewood for $359—cheaper than the cheapest-priced new combined Squaw/Alpine pass, announced today, at $439—would be honored. It will be, she learned. And there were other reports of skiers who bought passes to both resorts who learned that one pass will be refunded.
“I bought an Alpine pass, and now it works at Squaw too,” said Molly MacGregor, from Tahoe Dave’s. “I’m pretty excited, and we’re excited for our customers too—we think they’ll like having the option.”
Employees at Tahoe Dave’s were previously split, about 50/50, with passes to Alpine and Squaw. “Now we don’t have to choose. This is pretty big news here today,” MacGregor said.
Local skier John Morrison said he grew up skiing at Alpine with his family before “graduating” to Squaw. “I'm pysched,” he said today. “I've been calling around and talking to different people to see how they feel about it. I know some real die-hard Alpine [Meadows] skiers, and they're a bit upset with the fact that things are going to change there. But I'm like, ‘Well, you get KT on storm days. Your mountain doesn't have that.'”
"I think the same sorta thing went down between Alta and Snowbird with the interconnect, and that all these people were gonna be coming over to Alta from Snowbird and ruining their mountain. But I don't think that ever happened, did it?” Morrison continued.
In between Squaw and Alpine Meadows lies federal (capital W) Wilderness and White Wolf, a dream project of sorts for its owner, Troy Caldwell, a 40-year valley resident. Caldwell bought the White Wolf property 22 years ago, and four or five years ago, Caldwell and his crew installed lift towers on the 460-acre parcel to service a 1,300-vertical-foot chairlift. He also obtained a conditional-use permit to operate a private ski area at White Wolf. (The chairs and lift cable have yet to be installed at the site.) Caldwell’s White Wolf parcel stretches into the Squaw resort boundary, near the top of KT-22, and Squaw has a long-term lease with Caldwell to operate on it.
Said Morisson, “In my mind, Caldwell’s this dreamer who has this vision in his head that just may come true—or, I should say, is well on its way to coming true. He's sort of a lost breed type of person. He never seemed to be one who's after the money. He's more after the dream of having this ski resort that links it all together, his frontyard and backyard."
"You can go up there on any given day and he's out scraping around on his backhoe. He loves that land, and he really wants to make something of it. So we'll see. It's tough for him to admit his dreams for the place, I think, out loud, so a lot of what people think he's doing is based on conjecture,” Morrison added, laughing, “and here I am, giving you conjecture…”
For now, backcountry access off the two resorts remains as is—open gates at Alpine and closed gates at Squaw, including off the backside of KT-22 where it dips down onto Caldwell’s White Wolf, officials said.
“There are no plans to join the two resorts, but that vision is not lost either. We're just not there yet,” Amelia Richmond, PR manager at Squaw, said today. “The focus now is on a seamless transition and bringing everything together and making sure the guest experience is impeccable for the season ahead.”
Added Alpine-Squaw CEO Wirth, “We've got to get together operationally. The vision of linking the two areas doesn't escape me, but the priority now is managing a smooth transition. … But Troy’s a friend, and we'll be continue to be a great neighbor to him.”
Later on, we finally got Troy Caldwell on the phone. He was in a good mood—like everybody else we talked with.
"We're pretty excited about the whole event,” Caldwell said. “It's a real positive thing going on. And we're certainly comtemplating the future, too. Who knows where it goes down the road. But we've got a good rapport with the neighbors and we're lucky for that and we're looking forward to working with them.”
Caldwell got his first ski pass to Alpine 40 years ago, when he was 19; he paid $75 for it. Alpine sponsored him during his freestyling days, and he was on the U.S. team for five years, he said. “I’m probably like you in a lot of ways,” he said. “I really enjoy skiing; it’s been my whole life. It’s just been what I wanted to do. So for me to participate in a development like this is pretty darn exciting. I don’t know what the final outcome will be, but we’ve kept all the doors open.”
It could mean a private club, a residential development or a combination of the two, he said, in addition to ski lift. “We attacked some of the projects that we knew we needed to get done, and that starts with the ski lift. But with the economy running the way it is, we didn’t think it was a real smart decision to rush to the finish line. We’re slow, but we’re getting ‘er done,” he said. “So I guess our dream’s getting closer, and I guess we’re gonna try to sort that stuff out in a little while.”
As it stands now, the ski route across White Wolf from Squaw to Alpine is not a straight-forward proposition, according to Morrison. “Groups of people occasionally ski off the back [of Squaw], and that's a no-no. But that links you to Alpine Meadows Road. And from there you're an eighth of a mile from the parking lot and lifts at Alpine. … It’s just a very short skin to maintain the vertical you need to traverse in.”
"When Troy's lift is finished, that’s sure is gonna make it easier to get between,” Morrison added.
And, of course, it’s always fun to dream.
“I look forward to the day you can head up KT, ski off the back, then hop on the Summit 6 at Alpine, then head out the ridge for some backcountry skiing toward Twin Peaks. And then make your way back to KT to bang out some vertical in the afternoon,” Morrison said.
Today’s greater North Lake Tahoe party extended to Caldwell’s White Wolf, too. Caldwell said he’d been fielding a lot of media inquires and calls from friends and his crew. “Later,” he said, “we’ll sit back and say, ‘Well, let’s tip the Champagne bottle and celebrate.'”