Note: The bulk of this story originally appeared on Death of the Press Box in April, 2015. Two years later and absolutely zero work has been done to scope the gondola. No feasibility study. No scoping. No community input. No renderings or pretty drawings of a big hanging ball sack over some untrammeled terrain. No follow-up press release or mention of it on local media. Nothing. Nada. …Though you can fill in your email here for ‘updates’. That’s not to say stuff hasn’t happened in that time. It has. KSL did buy Mammoth. So maybe the new proposed gondola will stretch 177 miles, over the lake and down 395 and connect the two resorts as Mammoth Lakes residents are just waking up to a private equity firm nightmare of their own. Dream big!
When I was 19, my favorite item of clothing was a black ‘X-Files: I want to believe’ t-shirt (late-bloomer). My X-Files shirt was not only aligning my sci-fi/Gillian Anderson fandom but hopes for something greater, something better out there. To me the key word in the statement is “want”. In this context, I want to believe it’ll snow like 2017 again. I want to believe a #squalpine sale back to locals will happen once KSL’s effort to shoot the moon fails. I want to believe my son will grow up in a state where he doesn’t have to take a bucket in with him each time he showers (or not have to shower from a bucket).
But sometimes, most of the time, want is all we got.
This year was the perfect storm of no storm in the Sierra. Two things happened that essentially ruined the ski biz’s model in Tahoe:
- Megadrought and the Earth’s megarevolt is here: There have been off years. There have been off-decades even. But climate change—dust-instead-of-snowflakes blowing in your face, Miracle March celebrated in terms of quarter inches and exposed granite faces year-round—has come to the Sierra. It isn’t an aberration, it isn’t a micro-trend, it’s here. It’s happening. Here is a good report to read: California’s Most Significant Droughts: Comparing Historical and Recent Conditions. While only Tyler Durden might want it on his nightstand, there’s some significant nuggets. They are: a) Since 2001 there have been a pair of wet years (2006 and 2011) there have been wet months sprinkled in there as well—an above-normal spring in 2014 prevented the state from declaring an all-out emergency last fall. And b) 2014 marked the first time the US Bureau of Reclamation (the second-largest supplier of wholesale water and hydroelectric power in the West) received no water allocation. No water allocation this year either. And no water allocation for the foreseeable future. Each year this decade has set new water temperature highs and precipitation lows since record-keeping began. It is all part of what California Governor Jerry Brown calls, “the new normal.” 2017 was a break from that new normal, but the extreme weather was also the Earth trending toward major “eff off” winter territory.
- No more broadcasting the un-truth: Ski resorts have to be their own best hype men. It costs money to clear-cut forests and turn ski lifts and the majority of people who pay to ski need to buy the image of how a ski weekend is going to look before they come anywhere near driving five hours to swipe the card. So the resort media machine has to work harder than its snow-blowing equipment. The only problem is 2015 will go down as the year social media caught up with and surpassed anything the resorts’ PR departments could turn out. Even good days when a dusting would cover the mule ears and Manzanita were offset with Instagram images like this. For decades it wasn’t a fair fight; some resorts were even accused of doctoring weather cams to loop storm footage (see: the premise behind the Ocean’s 11 heist), but now everyone’s got a phone and the mind to post. There is no hashtagging over what isn’t there.
So that leaves the resorts with a single out: Manufacturing good news to keep skiers and riders engaged. Give ‘em something to believe in and they’ll keep coming back (maybe). The Field of Dreams marketing mentality is last-ditch, but for a region so reliant on the fractured ski business and so desperately in need of something good to report, it’s all there is.
Ergo, The big announcement from Squaw: A base-to-base Gondola connection between Squaw and Alpine may (someday) happen.
Cue prehistoric-sized drought-proof crickets.
For starters, this news broke in 2011 when the resorts first announced their partnership. At the time Squaw CEO Andy Wirth called the merger a “combining of entities” with his employer, Denver-based private equity firm KSL taking the lead and San Francisco-based real estate investment firm JMA (Alpine’s parent company) with a minority stake. Monday’s announcement did not include a firm date for ground-breaking. No plans have been submitted. No public hearings have been scheduled. No budget has been released. No timeline for feedback and comment has been established.
In other words, the release was an attempt to stoke a fire in April, the slowest of ski news months. And the only entities that may actually be stoked are the attorneys and enviros who got busy sharpening their axes upon reading.
Though the story did not advance, there is still minor intrigue with this proposed connector project in the form of 50-year Tahoe Basin resident Troy Caldwell.
Cue strangely off-key faux-folksy marketing video drawing lines in the dirt symbolizing places you’re hellbent on destroying:
Caldwell is a kind of folk hero in the Sierra. While Alpine and Squaw were asleep at the snowcat wheel in the late-’80s, he started buying giant tracts of land from Southern Pacific. The land would eventually become his own 460-acre ski area. His property starts near the parking lot at Alpine Meadows and runs to Squaw Valley. It includes the 70-plus acres of the legendary KT-22 (his purchase price: around $400k), which Squaw Valley leases back from the world’s wealthiest (on paper) ski shuttle driver.
Squaw founder Alex Cushing spent the early ‘00s trying to sue Caldwell into submission, attempting to stop the jack-of-all-trades from building his own 1,300-vertical-foot chairlift. Litigation be damned, Caldwell went ahead and completed his project the same way he threw his boot toe in the doorjamb of the ski biz, by the sweat of his brow. During that time, he also got a conditional-use permit to operate a private ski area and dubbed it White Wolf. Since KSL acquired the resort from the Cushing family, talks became friendlier and, presumably, the dollars stacked up.
Caldwell may be feeling his mortality a bit as it seems KSL finally got a handshake on a sale or long-term lease. The deal was announced in the form of a “partnership” with a slick 24-year-old-marketing-assistant-ghost-written soundbite that included the extraneous use of the word literally: “Connecting Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows through White Wolf is literally bringing my long-time dream to fruition,” Caldwell said. “I’ve waited years for this to happen.”
It makes sense that Caldwell would ink some kind of deal now. Not only is his age a factor but the property’s viability in the context of skiing may also be on borrowed time. Like every renter in Tahoe, Squaw has always despised the landlord. If a deal was struck between KSL and Caldwell for the coveted KT-22 land, it’s a lot sexier to splash a gondola-related headline than announcing you now own the best part of your backyard.
Let’s say the clock does rewind and snow does come back. Let’s pretend local government and the USFS approve the construction before the end of the next Bush or Clinton administration. Let’s give KSL the benefit of the doubt to dig into its coffers and come up with the money to build the goddamn thing. Let’s make-believe each of the first million skiers who step onto the gondola get a free 12-pack of PBR, an artisanal apple bong and a plush Lakey the Lake Tahoe Care Bear.
The question remains, is this the right move for the ski biz in the Basin and the right use of the land?
The answer: Not by a longshot.
Read just three paragraphs into Sunday’s New York Times’ puff piece about the new ownership of Utah’s Powder Mountain, 7,000 skiable acres whose custodians are VC guys, app creators, musicians, artists, actors and even professional athletes (a retired NFL linebacker and Truckee’s own Danny Davis). The resort, perched on top of a single-stopsign town called Eden on the scenic side of Ogden about an hour’s drive from SLC Intl., aims to be all-things a new gondola isn’t: Picture a vehicle-free Main Street lined with farm-to-table restaurants and pop-up stores and co-working spaces and second-story condos. It will have funding for public art and only environmentally responsible hotels; naturally, the cafes will provide almond milk without your having to ask for it. A mash-up of postmillennial civic and lifestyle ideas, with an ethos of social entrepreneurism: Telluride meets the Mission District, perhaps.
Ok, so the NYT’s Andy Jackson had me till Telluride meets the Mission…but you get it, right?
There’s a difference between throwing around shopworn press release rhetoric like sustainability and iconic and unique culture which have no meaning or relevance (especially in the context of a giant dangling metal can) and actually incorporating some next-gen leadership, foresight, and, let’s face it—money behind planning.
A gondola is not the answer. Hell, anything skiing-related may not be the answer. Duh.
Destroying both Squaw and Alpine’s parking lots and turning them into year-round, mixed-use community-based planned housing, retail and restaurants may be a start. Access to White Wolf and other pristine acreage only by skin or snowshoe is probably a step in the right direction. Electric shuttles running 18 hours/day between the two resorts and charging stations in the underground parking would be nice. Living roofs for growing year-round and solar-powered chairlifts which harness the 320-plus days of Sierra sun would be noteworthy.
The world’s idea and innovation incubator is just 230 miles west of the Basin on I-80 but instead of the best peeking into their own playground, Powder Mountain’s owners jumped ship to do business in a state that just approved execution by firing squads. Do they know something about the Sierra the rest of us don’t? Or maybe it’s just time for some new blood and fresh ideas beyond cutting down trees and grading more mountainside for a mode of transportation that reached its technological peak during the Kennedy administration.
I’m hoping it’s the latter. Because when it comes to Tahoe, I still want to believe.