There’s a Change on the Mountain Top
“Before we end, & then begin, we’ll drink a toast to how it’s been.”
No, it’s not an old WWII 10th Mountain Division toast, from when the Camp Hale soldiers when would gather at the Silver Dollar Saloon, but perhaps, this tribute is telling of Ski Cooper’s more recent history.
But as Leadville’s local ski hill makes a management change at the mountain top, Leadville Today is taking a look back at the last 18 years under Ski Cooper’s outgoing GM, Clint Yant, as well as taking a peek into what the future may hold with incoming President and General Manager Dan Torsell.
But first, a reminder that (tomorrow) this Saturday, October 27 @ 1 p.m., the Ski Cooper Board of Directors and new GM Dan Torsell will be hosting a public information meeting out at the ski hill.
The Yant Years
Seems like anytime anyone tells a story in this town, it always relates to mining. And this one – about Ski Cooper – is no different.
It was 1994 and Clint Yant had worked his way up to General Manager at the Climax Mine. It was during the time after the big “heyday,” after the massive lay-offs, although Yant had worked maintenance at the facility for years. That same year, Cyprus came in and took over Amax, offering Yant a severance deal he simply could not refuse. So, he didn’t, and from there he seemingly stepped right into the position of General Manager at Ski Cooper, albeit at one third his Climax salary.
Managing 145 employees might seem like a challenge to most, but Yant’s easy-going, friendly style made it look easy. In fact, Ski Cooper had an 80% return rate for seasonal employees during Yant’s 18 year reign as King of the (Ski) Hill.
“And they’re definitely not paid that well,” added Yant. But leadership style along with creating a positive work environment, can off-set a lower wage. Yant was famous for opening every season with a speech that encouraged employees “to have fun, but work hard when you gotta work.” That proof was in the snow last season, as loyal Ski Cooper employees spent time moving snow around by hand, to assure that guests still had an enjoyable, safe experience during one of the leanest snow years they’d seen in decades.
“Attitude is everything,” stated Yant. “Guests are out of their element, so we should treat them well, teach them.” And for Clint, the success of this approach wasn’t measured in some high-tech marketing survey, but rather by simply walking through the lodge, talking one-on-one with guests, many surprised that Ski Cooper’s President was taking the time to visit with them.
But being the boss also meant “laying down the law,” although most old-timers would agree that there wasn’t much of that going on before Yant’s tenure.
“I was kinda the bad guy to start off with,” recalls Yant. “But I figured if you were going to ski, you were going to pay. Because when I first came on, there were a lot of free rides.” And while he didn’t eliminate the comp passes all together, he did made management accountable for them. The number of free rides diminished as a result.
“They went down, they went way down,” recalls Yant with a grin.
Yant enjoyed his 18 years at Cooper, along with his wife Connie who worked as Cooper’s Office Manager from October, 2001 until June of this year. During the conversation, they shared some of their favorite memories including the annual Ski-In tributes for the WW II Tenth Mountain Division Soldiers.
Tenth Mountain Division Ski-In Tribute 2012
The Yants also appreciate that fact that you can still ski in your Carharts at Cooper and not be looked down on, but rather as a local carpenter, taking in a few afternoon turns on the mountain. But that’s not to say, they didn’t have some star struck memories, generally reserved for the neighboring glitzy resorts.
“Garth Brooks skied Cooper,” announced the Yants in unison. “He was a nice guy,” added Clint as he showed off his personal autographed memento, sitting in a place of honor in the couple’s living room. “I told him ‘don’t wear your cowboy hat,’ but by the end of the day, word had gotten out anyway. He was a real nice guy about it, signing autographs, taking pictures with fans,” said Yant.
“I definitely enjoyed the job,” but as the years accumulated, Clint and his wife Connie decided that they wanted more time to themselves – to travel, and for home improvement projects. In fact, Yant was finishing off a new garage for all the “toys” that have stacked up around the couple’s Leadville home.
The conversation turned more thoughtful as Yant, by his own admission, stated that a bit more transparency (about Ski Cooper’s operations) would have gone a long way in recent years. “It would have went a long way and I think everybody sees that now,” Yant concludes. It was that oversight or often-described “veil of secrecy” that stirred up the local community pretty good a couple of years ago. Two years ago, the Ski Cooper board was in early negotiations with the Board of County Commissioners for another 20-year contract, which was to expire in 2012 (their lease has renewed this year, although somewhat altered from the original proposal).
Ironically, the pressure from the local community to have a more open approach in managing the 400-acre, 26-run ski hill, led to a “Community Presentation” in the Lake County Courthouse two years ago, that outlined and highlighted the capital improvement projects that went on during Yant’s tenure.
The list is sizeable, but perhaps most impressive is that ALL of the projects were done with cash generated from operations. No loans (although there was a brief line of credit extended for the double lift upgrade).
- Ski Lodge (1994 – 2010) – A 5,000 square foot addition to the existing lodge, paint and log siding.
- Rental Shop (1997) – Improves the guest experience and increase rental revenues. Later, Rental Equipment purchased to provide safe up-to-date equipment and help to grow the snowboard market.
- Developed a Master Plan (2000). Planning for special use permit for land held by Lake County.
- 10th Mtn Chair Rebuild (2001) – Improved reliable operation and ensured skier safety.
- Chicago Ridge Tours (2002) – Offers unique high alpine Snowcat Tours, establishing a new business model to attract extreme skiers and riders.
- Rebuild on triple chair Lift (2002) – Old technology was replaced PC driven, more operator friendly
- Children’s Center (2007) – This new building upgraded the daycare facilities by increasing the space by 50% and improving the safety and well-being of the kids. This is Clint Yant’s proudest Ski Cooper accomplishment!
- Grooming Snow Cats (2007 – 2009) – Improved grooming quality, creating safer terrain for skiing and boarding.
- Terrain park was developed to attract the youth market
- Magic Carpet (2011) – Tore out the old the Printer Boy lift, with the 1962 platter style lifts and replaced with the new 780 foot magic carpet – the longest in the state and alas Yant’s last (completed) project.
Yant feels good about the legacy he leaves behind, expressing that the mountain could go another ten years without having to invest or upgrade things, “aside from the snowcats which require constant upkeep.”
In fact, if there’s anything left behind on Yant’s wish list, it appears to effortlessly match up with the top priorities of incoming GM Dan Torsell’s list.
Ski Cooper’s New General Manager: Dan Torsell
“The very worst thing that could happen,” said Ski Cooper’s new President and General Manager Dan Torsell in regard to his new position, “would be for someone to come in, and change the down-to-earth, homey feel of Ski Cooper.”
In fact, for a guy who’s had 35 years in the ski industry – with big and small operations – Cooper’s friendly reputation was one of the top three assets Torsell listed during a recent interview with Leadville Today.
So what’s at the top of that list? “Unspoiled Snow Quality. Cooper is 100% natural,” stated the proud new King of the (Ski) Hill. “And the savvy skier knows the difference when you start mixing the man-made and natural snow,” adds Torsell. Rounding out his top three assets was affordability, something Ski Cooper’s been building its reputation on for years, especially with young families.
Torsell’s extensive ski industry background began at Powder Mountain, Utah, where he worked in Lift Operations. He then went on to spend several years at Killington in Vermont, supervising all operations of the resort’s Bear Mountain Complex, including lift operations, parking and guest services. After serving as general manager of all ski area operations at Tussey Mountain in western Pennsylvania, Torsell spent a number of years serving as Director of New Business Development for a high-tech firm. He was eventually drawn back to the ski industry, most recently at Sugar Bush a year-round Vermont resort.
Which generally brings the reader to the standard “Why Leadville?” question. The short answer is his son went to Colorado Mountain College in Leadville a few years back and naturally, Torsell checked out the local ski mountain during a visit. While it was the overall Ski Cooper experience that captured his heart, it was the Chicago Ridge Snowcats that caught his attention.
So, it should come as no surprise that Chicago Ridge would appear at the top of his “focus” list. While the overall operation of the Chicago Ridge experience will not change, package opportunities for the extreme sports experience will expand. And the natural partner for that is someone who has already seen success out at Cooper Hill: Ty and Roxanne Hall of the Tennessee Pass (Nordic Center, Cook House and Sleep Yurts).
“There are some other snowcat operations – some very good ones in the state, in addition to Chicago Ridge,” stated Torsell. “But I don’t know anybody that would have something this unique to offer because we’d be offering them a day of skiing on the ridge, with the lunch and the whole package that we would normally offer, then come back to the lodge for après ski. Afterward it’s across the way for dinner at the Cookhouse and then spend the night in one of the Sleep Yurts.” Certainly a one-of-a-kind package.
Another area that Torsell has his sites set on approving is the overall flow of the mountain – from the parking lot to lift lines to food services. Already in the works is the addition of a new drop off zone including a (possible) re-configuration of the parking area. Torsell hopes to also remedy the bottleneck situation at the bottom of the double lift to make that area safer for different level of skiers intersecting.
Another change skiers and rider will see immediately is the return of a guest services area. The bottom floor of the ski lodge will be reconfigured to include an information kiosk, manned by a guest service attendant. Now, this is something local businesses have been asking about for years: a strong partnership between the mountain and main street restaurants, shops and celebrations. Any businesses interested in being represented in the guest services area can contact Becca Brandeau at 719-486-3684.
But ultimately, Torsell is a realist and sees any sizeable expansion plans for Ski Cooper will need to be made from the ground up, a sensible approach.
“The lodge limits what we can do on the mountain,” says Torsell “because if the lodge is overcrowded now, adding more lifts will only add to that situation.” In addition, Torsell sees Ski Cooper’s fiscally conservative “pay-as-you-go” approach as a true asset. He admits that Ski Cooper could very easily be on that list of lost ski areas due to default on expansion loans or poor business decisions on the heels of a lack of snowfall.
“It’s the most unique business structure I’ve ever seen in my life, but it works,” concluded Torsell.
Welcome to Leadville and Lake County, Dan. Welcome!