Risk-Ski Business

It's just after 7 a.m. in late July, but at 9,500 feet the early morning air already has an autumn slap.

Aaron Brill, chief executive officer of Core Mountain Enterprises, the first company to build a new ski area in Colorado in twenty years, skids into work in his 1974 Toyota Corolla and walks stiffly up to his employees. They have been waiting for instructions at the base of the mountain, stomping and milling about to keep warm. In all, the complete workforce of Core Mountain today is eight men, a young woman and six dogs.

As the thirty-year-old Brill gives out instructions for the day's laborers, they turn and begin trudging up the mountain in pairs, leaning on ski poles and carrying backpacks. "Not everybody gets to say they commute 1,500 vertical feet by foot every morning," says Chris Haaland. At forty, he is the old man of the group. The hike takes about an hour.

Like all of Core Mountain's workers, Haaland heard about Brill's project through word of mouth -- a friend heard it from a colleague who told someone else. And, like the rest of Brill's crew, he is more believer than employee. He has made the hajj to the isolated mountain town of Silverton not to make money, but because he loves extreme skiing. His work here, Haaland believes, will rekindle the sport's golden era; most of today's riders have only heard about it in stories.

"It's a revisit of Colorado in the '60s, like Pete Siebert at Vail or the Tenth Mountain Division -- guys who had a dream to make a ski area, and that was it," he says. "They loved to ski, and so they built a ski area. This is going to be an area driven by a dream, not money and exploitation."

This morning's job involves final prep work on the holes that will be used to hold the fifteen lift towers, purchased from a California resort and being retrofitted in a metal shop outside of Durango. The holes -- four feet wide and up to nine feet deep -- have all been dug by hand to minimize impact to the mountain. No trees will be felled to make ski runs. For each tree cut down to clear a path for the lift, Brill has promised to plant two new ones in Silverton.

As the sun creeps up the slope, Brill, Haaland and two helpers begin setting rebar tower bases into the dark holes, wrestling the 200-pound steel skeletons into the trenches by hand. The atmosphere is a cross between an early Mickey Rooney movie ("I've got it! We'll put on a show!") and a Berkeley sit-in.

"How often do you see the CEO of a ski company do this?" asks Haaland, who worked as an engineer for a major lift company before quitting to work for Brill. "I mean, George [Gillette, former owner of Vail] used to drive by in a truck and wave, but that was it."

"I may be going out on a limb here," adds Brill, "but that's what's wrong with the industry today. You got guys sitting in offices in suits dictating what the industry should do."

Haaland nods. "People have forgotten what it's all about: Getting out there on a good powder day," he says.

Just forty miles south on Route 550, as the road descends from the high San Juan peaks into Durango, sits the antithesis of Brill's shoestring operation. After 35 years of local family ownership, the Purgatory ski area was sold last year to a Florida real-estate investor. Confirming the worst fears of ski-sprawl opponents, the new owner, Chuck Cobb, actually headed Disney's real-estate development arm before buying Purgatory and immediately renaming it Durango Mountain Resort.

Cobb already has installed a new high-speed "six pack" detachable lift, and he has announced his intention to rename some of the runs. But most of his plans involve not the ski mountain itself, but the ground around it. "At this point," says Nancy Lauro, the La Plata County planner charged with reviewing Cobb's vision, "it's a real-estate project."

The developer -- who was an ambassador to Iceland for the first President Bush -- has proposed building more than 1,600 new housing units on 600 acres of land adjacent to the ski hill in the coming years. "If you assume three or four people for each new housing unit, that would be almost half again Durango's population" of 13,000, says Jeff Berman of Colorado Wild, a Durango-based environmental organization. "It's a monstrous proposal that relies on real-estate development for its viability."

Beyond adding to the population, Durango Mountain Resort is almost certain to change the social fabric of the surrounding area. "We need some more exclusive communities that we don't have, that Telluride has," Cobb explained to a local reporter, adding that a cornerstone of his development would include "several hundred" million-dollar homes, needed to attract the clientele necessary to compete with Colorado's best resorts.

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Eric Dexheimer
Contact: Eric Dexheimer

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