Ticket to Ride

After thirty years, Squaw Pass is ready to make a comeback as Echo Mountain Park.

Doug Donovan hadn't been sleeping much lately. It was 3:30 a.m. on a day in early February -- the darkest, coldest time of the night during the darkest, coldest time of the year. The ground was frozen, the air subzero, and his hands were snowballs with icicle fingers. He wondered what the hell he was doing up here, high on Chief Mountain, separated from his bed 35 miles away in Denver, a place that seemed as distant as a warm dream where everything was comfortable and complete and not going to total shit before his eyes.

But up at 10,600 feet, where Donovan was managing the creation of Echo Mountain Park, Colorado's newest/oldest ski-and-snowboard resort, the night took on a dreamlike quality. The deafening whirr of the snow guns filled the mountain's silence with another kind of quiet, a surreal hum that cluttered Donovan's thoughts as he racked his brain for a solution. The problem was that the snowmaking system's newly installed pump, designed to pull water from the small reservoir a hundred yards uphill with 400 pounds of pressure, wasn't working. Barely a trickle flowed from the pipes, making Donovan wonder if he'd just manufactured the world's most expensive water fountain.

He saw Grady Ham riding toward him, piercing the blackness with the six-wheeler's headlights. A Carhartt-wearing, tobacco-chewing construction guy from South Dakota, Ham was cut from different cloth than Donovan, who'd grown up in Boston and had a background in finance. But at times like this, Donovan was glad he'd picked Ham rather than some office-bound manager to oversee construction.

Anthony Camera
Anthony Camera

"Without Grady, this thing doesn't get open this year," Donovan said. Having the hill open sometime during the current ski season was not only an ambition he'd expressed to his construction crews, but it was a goal that Donovan and Gerald Petitt, the mountain's owner, had announced to the public several times over the past year. Built on the long-dormant Squaw Pass Ski Area, the project had attracted plenty of attention as the first resort to be resurrected solely as a terrain park. It was being billed as an entire mountain playground of rails, boxes, jumps and who knew what else. But the target market was getting restless, and rumors of construction snafus had been rumbling through the lift lines and Internet message boards.

This was the third straight day that Ham worked through the night, trying to get the snowmaking equipment running. He and Donovan were the only human beings for miles around as they darted back and forth between the pump house and the snow guns. Ideally, they would have tested all this during the summer, when the ground was soft and the birds were chirping high in the Ponderosa pines. But the schedule kept getting pushed back.

"Everyone always says, 'Oh, yeah, we can finish the job in two months, three months,'" Donovan sighed. "The reality is it takes four to five." That put the most technical parts of the construction in the dangerous territory of December, January and February, when one cold snap had the potential to leave the project high and dry.

Now Donovan and Ham discussed their most recent dilemma. Obviously, the pipe was obstructed, but that was about all they knew. It could be that a rock was blocking the reservoir drain or the conduit was damaged at some point. Most likely, the frost had penetrated six feet into the earth and had seized the pipes with ice, which meant that simply waiting for the morning sun wouldn't do the trick. Frost can linger for months and years -- and sometimes never thaw. The word permafrost tumbled through Donovan's mind. He shivered.

Still, as he stood there on a mountain completely barren of snow on this cold, early-February morning, he was determined to open this season. Goddamned determined.

"Well," Ham said finally, after calling every snowmaking expert he could find. "It looks like we've stumped the industry."

That's when Donovan knew he was in for many more sleepless nights.

Every morning at his office in suburban Maryland, Gerald Petitt spends fifteen minutes or so at his computer, clicking through an e-mailed real estate newsletter. Petitt runs Creative Hotel Associates, a company that owns a Comfort Inn and Suites near Aspen, a Marriot Fairfield in Steamboat Springs, and several more properties in Colorado, Florida and New England.

Petitt usually just skims the headlines, but one morning he saw a link to an article about an upcoming auction of the former Squaw Pass, a ski area built in 1961 by John Creighton in the middle of Arapaho National Forest near Mount Evans. In the beginning, lift tickets there cost just three bucks, and Creighton's wife and four kids helped run the place. There was no big lodge, just a warming hut, some restrooms, a small dirt parking lot and a few beginner and intermediate runs.

Chief Mountain gets an average of 200 inches of snow each year, but in times of drought the snowfall can be as little as 75 inches -- and Squaw Pass didn't have snowmaking capabilities. After insurance costs hit the roof, Creighton shut Squaw Pass in 1974 and sold the 235-acre property not long after. It changed hands several times over the next two decades. In the mid-'80s, it was used by Marines from South Carolina for winter-survival training. In 1987, a Greeley-based investment group purchased the old ski area for $3.6 million with plans to build a Christian-oriented ski resort, then auctioned it off the next year to a Denver real estate investor for $3.25 million. After that, the property sat on the market for ten more years with a "For Sale" sign nailed to a tree off the main road and a $1.5 million price tag. By 2002, the owners were ready to dump Squaw Pass for a fraction of its onetime value: Opening bids for the parcel were set to start at $250,000.

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