Ticket to Ride

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

While he was growing up, Donovan went on annual ski trips with his family, but he wouldn't have characterized himself as a "big skier." It wasn't until he went to college in Virginia that he fell in love with the sport. "There's nothing more athletic and social and outdoorsy, all at the same time," he says.

After college, he worked at a New York finance company for three years. "I was at the point in my career where I was just about to make really big money," he remembers. "And I knew if I took that next step, I would be there for the next ten years."

Instead, he moved to Tahoe, California, hoping to ski but also looking for other opportunities. He found them in 1999, when he partnered up with a software designer and moved to San Francisco to get into the Internet boom. "Next thing you know, we raised about seven million in venture capital. We had thirty employees, an office," he says, then laughs. "It was totally crazy." But the fun ended soon enough when the market burst and Donovan's company disappeared. He decided to go back to school, this time to focus on something that really appealed to him: the ski industry.

Chris Avantaggio blasts a big one inside Winter Park's 
Dark Territory.
Dave Lehl
Chris Avantaggio blasts a big one inside Winter Park's Dark Territory.
Construction manager Grady Ham finally got the pipes 
to pump snow on Echo ParkSwhere it keeps snowing.
Anthony Camera
Construction manager Grady Ham finally got the pipes to pump snow on Echo ParkSwhere it keeps snowing.

In the spring of 2004, Petitt hired him to get Squaw Pass off the ground. Donovan flew to Colorado, reviewed the site and met with snow-park designers to discuss the pitch and size of the hill. While the wide, mellow slopes might make for a ho-hum day of skiing, they were the perfect angle and steepness for a terrain park. But as with any development in Colorado, there was a bigger concern: water. Since Squaw Pass was not connected to the public-works grid, any water for snowmaking would have to be trucked up the mountain or come through wells.

"Every geologist told me, 'Yeah, you can get maybe four or five gallons per minute out of a well up here.' Well, you can't sell a ski area on that," Donovan says. "But then I met some more of the mountain-men-type drillers who said, 'Plenty of water up here; don't listen to the fancy geologists.' And, of course, the guys who have been in the mountains forever know. They were right. The wells have been incredibly productive."

That summer, Donovan drilled wells and began the long process of rezoning the property. Clear Creek County didn't even have zoning codes until 1964, and had Squaw Pass stayed in operation, it would have been grandfathered in. But during the years of inactivity, the site had been zoned as "mountain residential."

"There was a huge fear in my head trying to get together all the pieces for this," Donovan says. "It's not like there's a handbook. If you're building an office development or you're building an apartment, there's pretty much rules, right? You've got to get the regulations; this is where you go. With a ski area, it feels like a blank slate."

The tabula rasa approach also had some advantages. "All the other resorts already have an established model that they are forced to work within," he explains. "So any changes that they make are going to be very surface. I knew that if we were going to make this snowboard mountain work, it would have to be something totally different."

Epiphany came one day when Donovan was sitting at the Denver Skatepark near his home in the Highland neighborhood. At any time of day, the free skatepark is packed with riders grinding on ledges and riding in the bowls -- a diverse group, with Latino kids from Five Points skating alongside white kids from the suburbs. Looking at the crowd, Donovan realized that his objective wasn't to build a ski mountain with snowboard features, but to build a skateboard park on the snow. The place should be the exact opposite of a traditional ski resort in every way, he reasoned. For starters, a lift ticket would be no more than $35.

And then there was the name, which was soon changed from Squaw Pass to Echo Mountain -- not just because of nearby Echo Lake, but also to recognize the "Echo Generation," a term social scientists had come up with to tag the children of baby-boomers.

Back in the days of Craig Kelly signature boards and bitchin' day-glo uni-suits -- you know, the '80s -- many resorts didn't allow snowboarders on their hills, and others enforced bans on any kind of aerial maneuvers. In its infancy, snowboarding was one trend shift away from becoming a wacky memory on an extreme sports blooper reel. Breckenridge caught on early, though, hosting such events as the 1986 Swatch World Championships of Snowboarding. Borrowing a concept from skateboarding, the contest featured a half-pipe with hand-shoveled walls no higher than seven feet -- pretty makeshift, by today's standards.

As snowboarding progressed, other Colorado resorts began to set aside small areas for jumps, but Breckenridge continued to lead the way. It added log rides, rails and bigger features, and became renowned for attracting snowboarding's elite. That image not only filled the lift lines with snowboarders, but the entire town of Breckenridge soon took on a youthful, cutting-edge vibe as riders from around the world moved to Summit County.

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