Ticket to Ride

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

Petitt had been born and raised in Denver. His father, who worked at the Great Western Sugar Company for over fifty years, took him and his older brother skiing at Winter Park. After graduating from Thomas Jefferson High School, Petitt earned an engineering and business degree at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, where he also learned "just how bad Eastern skiing is," he says. He eventually found himself in the hotel business and worked his way up to CEO of Best Western Hotels, which he ran for seven years before he and some other partners split off and created Choice Hotels, which he eventually left to start Creative Hotel Associates.

Petitt had never skied at Squaw Pass, so his interest in the place wasn't nostalgic. But the property piqued his business instincts. He'd made forays into sports as the owner of the Coastal Plain baseball league, a summer collegiate club that plays in the Carolinas and Virginia, and he'd also kept close tabs on the ski industry because of his resort hotels. "The hotel business is one of those industries where you have to sell your product every single day. Any hotel rooms that goes empty tonight, that revenue is lost forever," he explains. "And that's the same thing on the mountain. Any potential customer that we can't satisfy today is gone. We can't satisfy him the same way tomorrow."

Petitt called his brother, who runs a Denver marketing firm, and asked him to pick up an informational packet on Squaw Pass. A week later, he was in town on business and took a trip up to the property. He thought it was fantastic, with an amazing view of the Continental Divide. He could even see Idaho Springs at the base of the valley, where his grandfather had once worked in the gold mines. But the mountain was in bad shape. The runs were overgrown with trees and bushes, and the single narrow road and parking lot were rutted out. In fact, the only real indication that a ski area had ever operated there was the single T-bar lift, whose orange poles poked out at intervals up the hillside. Still, Petitt saw something else. "It had a lot of potential," he remembers.

Doug Donovan hopes that Knuckles will help put Echo 
Mountain on the map for gnarliness.
Anthony Camera
Doug Donovan hopes that Knuckles will help put Echo Mountain on the map for gnarliness.
Gerald Petitt bought the defunct Squaw Pass and 
retooled it for a new generation of jibbers.
Anthony Camera
Gerald Petitt bought the defunct Squaw Pass and retooled it for a new generation of jibbers.

In October 2002, he picked up the Squaw Pass property at auction for $698,750. For the next eight months, he looked at alternatives for the land. He thought about building houses or a hotel, maybe some kind of summer camp or recreation area. He considered reopening the resort as a traditional ski mountain, but that seemed doomed to failure. Over the years, dozens of small, family-owned ski areas like Squaw Pass had found they couldn't compete with large-scale operations funded by big-money investors who now built "resorts" with mountain villages, steakhouses and Starbucks, and bathroom glove-warmers. The ski industry was no longer about filling lifts, but selling real estate and retail.

Petitt started attending ski-industry conventions and heard about the growth of snowboarding -- and the decline of traditional skiing. In 1990, according to the National Ski and Snowboard Retailers Association, 9.4 million skiers hit the slopes in this country; in 2004, that number had decreased to 5.9 million. Meanwhile, the number of snowboarders was exploding: While 1.5 million rode in 1990, 6.3 million riders saw snow in 2004, with the biggest increase occurring in the past five years. And the snowboarding market was young, unlike aging skiers.

Rising costs were also changing the industry. With lift tickets averaging seventy dollars -- and parking adding fifteen bucks to that, not to mention another eight for a bowl of chili -- high prices had pushed snow sports beyond the means of many middle-class families. They'd also eliminated the Front Range teenagers who'd take a day off to hit the slopes. But now resorts were looking at ways to get that youth demographic back, and terrain-park-only mountains seemed like an answer.

In the spring of 2003, Petitt and his son Eric, a student at the University of California at Berkeley, visited Mountain High, a small, 230-acre ski area in Southern California. Ticket sales had been sagging until the owners converted Mountain High to a terrain park and launched a marketing scheme aimed at the youth market in inner-city Los Angeles, located just an hour away. One of Squaw Pass's greatest assets is its proximity to Denver. The property is located west of Bergen Park along Highway 103, with downtown just fifty minutes away. "And the more we looked at it, the more a snowboarding-focused terrain park made sense," Petitt remembers. "Not only because of the environment, but the size and the location so close to Denver."

This season, Boreal Mountain Resort -- home to the original Jibassic Park in the '90s -- became the first ski area in northern California to convert to an all-mountain terrain park; other small resorts like Bear Mountain have set themselves apart from nearby areas by filling their runs with kickers and rails. But Petitt's project would be the first to be built from scratch -- or close enough.

Six months after Petitt bought Squaw Pass, his son introduced him to Doug Donovan, a thirty-year-old graduate student at UC-Berkeley. Donovan, who was getting his MBA with a focus on the ski industry, recommended some trade books for the Petitts to read.

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