The Borges are going to fake it until they make it at Maverick. PHOTO: Adam Clark
Erik and Kristi Borge had a good life in Bozeman, Montana. He sold real estate, she taught at a middle school. They owned a Chevy Silverado and a three-bedroom house with a fenced-in backyard that was walking distance from downtown. But when Erik saw a listing for Maverick Mountain, a one-chair, 450-acre ski area in Montana's Pioneer Mountains, he was easily persuaded to give up the comforts of Bozeman to live the dream, even though he had never skied Maverick before. His wife took more convincing, but not much.
"I never thought it was possible, to be honest," says Erik.
Though both are lifelong skiers, neither Erik, 30, nor Kristi, 28, knew the first thing about ski resort operations—not the permitting, the point-of-sales systems, the vulnerability to weather, the mechanics of outdated chairlifts or groomers. But the couple's optimism, bordering on naiveté, sustained them through the winter of 2015-16, their first as the proud owners of Maverick Mountain Ski Area. Their learning curve was steep, but quick. And by purchasing the aging business, the couple saved a small ski area from closure. Here's a crash course in Ski Resort Operations 101.
Step One: Find the Money
The Borges were soaking in the Boiling River in Yellowstone National Park when a friend mentioned that Maverick Mountain was for sale for a million dollars. "I looked it up, and it was less," says Erik. It was listed for $600,000. "I said, 'No way. We could do this.'" After crunching some numbers, the couple realized if they sold their car, their house, pooled every dollar in their name—and moved into an RV on the far side of the ski area parking lot—they had enough for a down payment.
Except, a down payment wasn't enough. The bank also needed collateral and a stable income. Seeing as the Borges were both quitting their jobs, and spinning a chairlift doesn't exactly spell financial security, they brought in two investors: a couple of buddies from college.
They closed escrow three days before opening for business last winter.
Step Two: Learn the Ropes, Fast
The first time the Borges came to look at the ski area, after the lift had closed in spring 2015, Erik hiked to the top of the cone-shaped mountain. The A-frame lodge had shag carpet on the walls and a bar. The mountain still had snow on the ground. They made an offer immediately. "I don't get more comfortable than being in the mountains," says Erik. Shortly after his initial visit, he started training under Randy Schilling, 75, who had owned the ski area for the 25 years prior and had been trying to get out of the business for health reasons.
That summer, Erik climbed every tower on the mountain's only lift, a 47-year-old chair that includes: Hall towers, Riblet chairs and line gear, and a Miner-Denver drive. The paperwork was unending: a questionnaire, in-person interview, financial records, and background checks with the forest service, and an even more extensive process to secure the beer-and-wine license from the state.
"It's been a huge, huge learning curve," says Erik. "I'm still at the beginning of it."
Step Three: Open or Bust
"Everything that could break has," says Kristi. The chairlift broke midway through their first opening day, and the Borges had to arrange a full lift evacuation that took one hour and 20 minutes. The groomer breaks on the regular, so does the plow. "You really take for granted a groomed run and a chairlift that doesn't stop," she continues.
Erik didn't take a day off all winter and he didn't get paid—he also didn't have any expenses living at the ski area. "I eat lodge food. Can't you tell?" he says. "I gained a lot of weight this year." His workday usually starts with grooming at 3 a.m. He mans the fryer in the cafeteria for the lunch rush. Some nights, he works past midnight trying to fix one thing or another.
Step Four: Befriend the Locals
Most Maverick skiers live 40 miles away in Dillon, population 4,000, and smaller unincorporated towns like Polaris, where Kristi found a job teaching five students in a one-room schoolhouse. The couple made friends quickly, bringing the entire staff back on and respecting local deals like the gentlemen's handshake an elderly rancher has enjoyed: he skis in blue jeans and pays $2 for every run he skis. "He's been doing that for I don't know how many years," says Erik. "He comes into the bar at the end of the day and pays his two bucks, or however many runs he's taken, and then goes back to ranching."
"I feel like I fit in more here than I have elsewhere," says Erik. "Everyone sits at the bar at the end of the day and has a beer together."
Step Five: Remember Why You're Here
The Borges didn't buy Maverick to make a ton of cash, to flip a piece of property, or to build a cookie-cutter village. They did it to ski. And the skiing is good. "It doesn't feel real most days," says Erik. "I feel like I'm just doing my job. I just wake up and go to work. I love it."