Winning by losing and showing no care or concern for the end user (skiers and riders) while doing so.

By Andrew J. Pridgen

A couple weeks ago, the marketing office at Squaw Valley came up with a strange and context-free Instagram rant about silencing the “trolls and haters” on their “corner” of the internet. By way of background, the post was sparked by a number of incidents of questions on the social medias (as well as inquiries to the Squaw front office directly) about the Squaw and Alpine’s reticence to open terrain.

Though several dry years in a row have prevented the resorts from turning every lift, a snow year that is shaping up to be the best, if not most tumultuous, in the Basin this century and perhaps the wettest year in California since ‘82-’83, has raised questions among longtime Squaw skiers whether the private equity firm-owned resort isn’t sandbagging with its terrain accessibility.

By now you may have perused Truckee resident and a former Squaw employee Erik Hurst’s critical letter to the front office, which seems to have been the smoking gun. On January 22, Hurst sent an email to Squaw CEO Andy Wirth calling out the front office for a number of transgressions, most notably, a consistent culture of deceit.

Here is a link to his complete email, but the two most pivotal paragraphs are below:

You have pushed this new development at the base area as a wonderful, job creating, community benefiting, non-environmentally damaging, godsend, that is in fact fiscally and environmentally irresponsible. You can’t even fill the beds you now have available. You don’t have the demographics to fill new ones and yet you tout this as a can’t miss, and Must have. You have ingratiated yourself into the community in outreaches, supporting Organizations like the High Fives, in an effort to win approval for this nonsense. Your unstated goal, to increase the eventual sale value of the resort, not to become a part of this community for the long haul.

The on mountain experience, the “soul of skiing” as you’ve marketed it and paraded around is hypocrisy walking. You think that selling 70,000 season passes, then opening as little terrain as possible, is providing any soul at all? We’ve lived through budget closures long before you ran this mountain, and no amount of obfuscation will change the truths we find self evident. Now I find that you have a new committee for safety that makes the decisions on whether or not to run lifts, whether to cover an injured worker or release him/her form [sic] their position after an accident, and who knows what else.

Squaw’s response came on January 25 from Debbie Stansell, a vice president at Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows.

Mr. Hurst,

We are sorry you feel that way. Your pass has been fully refunded.

We don’t believe having you as a guest at our mountain benefits either one of us.

Moving forward you will not be allowed to purchase a season pass with Squaw Valley or Alpine Meadows. Your email has also been removed from our mailing list and you can no longer email us and we will cease to communicate with you.

So, for the record, a longtime resident, a second-generation employee and a lifetime advocate of the mountain was summarily banished — for life — by the corporation for voicing his opinion.

Sound familiar Squamerica?

There are two ways of looking at Mr. Hurst’s struggle with Squaw Valley and their reactionary and draconian response to permanently ban a dissenter over an email:

  • Perhaps there is pretext and bad blood there that may not be summed up in just a pair of emails. That would be a fair estimate if it weren’t for the fact that legions of Basin residents including current and former Squaw employees have come forward with similar stories/results when they chose to question the dealings of the parent organization or the company’s higher-ups. KSL-run Squaw has, if nothing else, shaped a solid reputation for zero tolerance when it comes to speaking up or second-guessing during its seven-year tenure here.
  • KSL is a private corporation and they have every right to pick and choose who gets to enjoy their product, just as the rest of us as consumers have every right to choose not to use theirs.

KSL Capital Partners, the Colorado-based private equity firm that purchased Squaw in November 2010, is following the private equity firm blueprint which is to acquire a company, cripple it with debt and make it go through rounds of cost-cutting measures (including trimming employee pool and and pulling back on services) to survive.

In the meantime, KSL has driven itself and the mountains it owns further into debt coming up with plans for expansion they have no intention of completing, based not only on lack of need and clear public disdain and pending legal action but an untenable, quarter-century timeline to build out.

Talk of expansion is almost moot at this point anyway, a distraction, a loss leader. As a private equity firm — because they act as both manager and investor — KSL is looking to dump the mountain properties and move on ASAP.

The next likely big move for the firm will be to declare bankruptcy and in the interim continue to use tax laws like carried interest (which enables investors and to take a pre-emptive dividend while driving the company further into debt) to enrich those at the top while the on-mountain product and the reputation continues to suffer.

The worst-case scenario for KSL is actually a best-case for their coffers.

Even if Squaw and Alpine Meadows end up being liquidated in bankruptcy, top brass like Wirth and his bosses will profit through the transaction and come out fiscally ahead with their hands washed clean of the place and its pesky users.

Speaking of Wirth, Squaw-Alpjne’s president and CEO sent out a fireside email blast Friday afternoon in attempt to pass along vague assurances that the Field of Dreams-esque lines of cars and lift queues to nowhere due to in large part to shortages of staff and lack of open terrain this winter are an anomaly that is pretty much, you know, to be blamed on inclement weather.

But wait, isn’t it a ski resort operator’s chief responsibility to mitigate serious weather conditions and make skiing and riding as safe and accessible as possible? (<– Sorry, rhetorical question.) It’d be like me saying I’m a famous chef and I’m going to cook you the best cherries jubilee you’ve ever had, the only problem is fire is dangerous — so I’m not going to cook you cherries jubilee, here’s a cracker instead…but pay me for the liqueur-soaked cherries.

Wirth opens with his favorite (and my favorite of his) use of the word “literally” and slips into a miasma of reactive disaster-profiling woe-is-me verbiage from there.

Take a look:

Dear mail-merged skier name,

This has literally been a historic season for our mountains and the region in terms of the nature and severity of the weather, with hurricane force winds, impressive and rapid snow accumulation, extreme flooding, intermittent and sometimes long lasting power outages, mudslides, avalanche conditions and more. From general operational challenges to very specific tragedies, this has been a winter we won’t soon forget.

OK, I have to interject here, I love how he can sum up the death of a veteran member of the ski patrol and the day-long idling of a Walnut Creek family’s Land Rover just outside Mountain Mike’s Sports in one throw-away predicate: this has been a winter we won’t soon forget. I’m definitely going to use that one: “From his authoritarian call out of the free press as ‘evil’ and the ‘enemy of the people’ to his constant and damaging lies, the Trump administration is one we won’t soon forget.”

Wirth then goes on to show with his words how KSL is working to fix the issues that were are apparently not a result of the overselling of season and day passes and understaffing on-mountain.

With that said, I wanted to acknowledge specifically how our company is working to improve its performance. Despite factors that are materially out of our control such as sustained high winds over the mountain tops and varying snowpack layers, we are working hard to refine the intense, safety-first choreography that goes into opening these remarkable, high alpine mountains. We readily acknowledge your zeal and passion to hit the slopes and enjoy the snow, and are just as frustrated when we’re unable to provide access. I can assure you that we too, are passionate about the skiing and riding experience. While we simply cannot compromise safety as it relates to our team and guests, our intention is to open terrain as soon as conditions permit.

This whole “working hard to refine the intense safety-first choreography” part (besides, wow) begs for a few examples of how. I already know these mountains are remarkable and “high alpine” (whatever that means) but this is what I want to see:

“We recognize staffing has been an issue and for the remainder of the season we will triple our seasonal work force, from an increase in base guest services personnel to bringing in more parking attendees to hiring extra patrol, we cannot change the recent past but we can finish strong. A guest-to-skier ratio is tantamount to success in this business and we will do our very best to make the rest of the season feel more like Deer Valley and less like Kodiak Valley.”

…Then he goes on to talk about something called a Gazex that sounds like a prescription-strength laxative for those with severe opiate problems. I guess it’s a “remotely controlled avalanche mitigation system that uses propane gas and oxygen to create a concussive blast, triggering controlled avalanches before they can become a hazard.”

I don’t know what that means, I think it has something to do with the future though. Too bad there’s no Gazex machine for dating: “I knew our breakup was going to be ugly so it enabled me to remotely control us not dating in the first place before he/she can become a hazard.”

Oh, and then there’s real-time bitches. I love real time btw, it’s the best. It’s like is it now? Is this real time? Or how about this…now. Is that real-time? How about…ready…wait for it…now. Is this right now real real-time? …Keep it going bro.

We are also striving to communicate to you on a near-real-time-basis, primarily through our new app, website and Mountain Ops Twitter. For guests looking for a more in-depth understanding of our day-to-day operations, we also maintain a detailed Operations Blog. We have identified areas where we can and will improve, including a very real-time view and perspective of what winds, in particular, are doing across the top of the mountains.

Fucking apps. Fucking websites. Fucking blogs. Lots and lots of nonsense for you to take in while the one-and-a-half parking lot attendees is giving you the international sign for, “I don’t know bro, my roommate/co-parking compadre slept in and it’s just me. Just park wherever the fuck you can find a spot…if you have four-wheel-drive maybe on that slope up next to the Auld Dubliner. I don’t give a shit. For some reason I make less than minimum wage because they gave me a pass I never use and everyone’s pissed at me and nobody ever tips the parking guy, so fuck it — just don’t run over my feet. Also, your music sucks and your family smells like breakfast farts.”

Then, FINALLY, a mention of traffic:

Toward the goal of improving the decades old, region-wide issue of road congestion, we’ve been working with, if not challenging, our civic leaders in the region to develop real solutions – in the present tense – for regional mass transit and traffic congestion reduction on Highway 89. We have been actively working on in-valley “micro mass transit” for Olympic Valley and Alpine Meadows with Chariot, incentivizing High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) use with our POW Parking program, and improved communications via real-time road signage (along Highway 89, Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows Roads) in addition to our app.

OK. OK. Congestion. Got it. OK. In-valley. OK. OK. Yep. Not our problem. Talk to our civic leaders. Yep, no responsibility taken here…um, working on something that makes no sense but it has the word micro in quotes. Good deal. Again, no accountability because for whatever reason Squaw has been able to mitigate traffic since 1948 even when Alex Cushing had to get out there himself with airport glow sticks and take care of it and…now that it’s a total clusterfuck — go to the app.

Um, fuck you.

The Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows leadership team and I remain very open to feedback and suggestions.

No. No you don’t. See: the “haters and trolls” post and a lifetime ban from a local’s email that spoke truth to power. If by open you mean when someone says they’re in an open-relationship but their partner doesn’t know, then yeah — that’s an accurate depiction.

Then some more bullshit lip service and self-aggrandizement:

Through many channels, we welcome feedback on your experience, whether it’s related to our grooming, service or operations. We will always be open to your input, but ask that it be respectful in its construct. Our team works extremely hard to provide a great experience, and while we recognize areas where we can and will improve, it is imperative that respectful dialogue be the guidepost—predominantly with respect for the dedicated and hardworking men and women that comprise our team.

…And ending with a sentence that talks about being “real and very genuine” as if it’s a Mea culpa for an email blast spent the previous 600 words being anything but:

Our passion for these mountains is real and very genuine. We recognize that in the context of remarkable and historic weather circumstances, we can and will do better…by way of our commitment to review and improve our operations so we can more effectively communicate with you. This is our commitment, and we remain very appreciative of your support and understanding, and look forward to sharing many more powder days with you this season. It’s not a question of if, but how far into June we will be open. And it’s not a question of if, but how many lifts we will be running over 4th of July!

Cue video:

The fallacy promulgated in Wirth’s every communication is that private equity firms perform for anyone but shareholders and outpace other types of service businesses for the end user.

They do not.

According to a recent column in The Intercept about a Trump executive order that gives private equity firms access to rape and pillage people’s individual retirement accounts with unfettered access to 401ks, “a 2014 SEC study found that over half of the private equity firms examined shifted costs to benefit themselves”, which means no matter what they say is happening on-mountain, you can guarantee the only ones getting anything out of the current Squaw-Alpine experience are a board room full of salty men and women cracking their rotted teeth on dry bagels looking to see whether the red line bottom line is trending up and to the right.

Squaw doesn’t need longtime skiers like Erik Hurst on their mountain. And they certainly don’t need you, me or the rest of us trying to keep warm in line waiting for any sign that Scott is going to turn today. Basin residents, end users and seasonal employees are more of a distraction, an annoyance, profit inhibitors — something they don’t want to trifle with. For them, the real payout is coming at the end of the inevitable crash.

The foundation of Squaw, its long-time local supporters, riders and employees, has been shaken and feels betrayed. In their wake, weekender guests are continuously frustrated by all-talk from a firm that is essentially a golf-course flipping, money-laundering tax credit-deploying ponzi scheme. The “high alpine” resort’s veneer may still look the same and with enough snow to both mask problems and shift blame, the shell game persists yet another season.

But take a big bite this winter and you too will find the entire enterprise is literally rotten from its core.

Andrew J. Pridgen is the author of the novellaBurgundy Upholstery Sky”. His first full-length novel will be released in late-2017.

 

13 COMMENTS

  1. I keep reading that Andy Wirth ripped apart some professional snowboarder recently. Do you have the details about that? What happened?

  2. You lost me with the politicized bs. Stay on topic. Neither has anything to do with the other. To make such a correlation takes away from your argument and makes you start to look like you have been triggered. Not a redeeming quality in my opinion. Yet i totally agree that squaw has been managed terribly much like hillarys campaign but politics has no place here.

  3. In other words, your political biases prevent you from otherwise seeing that the mendacity of KSL is the same as the creep you just elected President. They are, quite obviously, the same thing.

  4. I used to think that Vail Resorts was the evil empire, but I gained a lot of respect for them in the way that they managed the Kirkwood acquisition. They understood the unique nature of Kirkwood, and didn’t try to change it. I think they still sell a Kirkwood-only season pass (can you imagine KSL selling an Alpine-only pass?).

  5. Yes Kirkwood does still have a Kirkwood only pass. Yes Vail can be evil, but no where near as bad as Andy Wirth and Squaw. My ski shop, with many dozen employees worth in size refuses to send our ski customers to Squaw Alpine, and only because of Wirth and how bad he lies and bs’s people. Pretty lame that they can not take constructive criticism or complaints like those of Eric Hurst and many others like him who are very frustrated with the lies and bs of Squaw. The sooner they sell it the better off everyone else in the middle will be.

  6. Brutal truth, and I’ve been witnessing it first hand over and over this season like so many others. They don’t give two squirts of piss about you and I, but they sure love money. I’m wrong and it’s my fault for feeling that way right? Calling frustrated lifelong customers trolls and haters was especially eye opening. It kills me that Alpine has to be wrapped up in all of this. If the vampires cash out does that mean we can somehow get the Alpine/Homewood pass back?

  7. I must be the only one who doesn’t see a major problem? I just figured dropping pass prices made skiing more accessible to people who couldn’t otherwise afford to bring their whole family. I must be the most naive person on the planet. I am pretty happy, though. Sorry the rest of you are having a bad experience. I really hope it gets better soon. In the meantime, can you drop a pound of ground coffee at the patrol shacks? They deserve a little love every day : )

  8. How does a PE firm declaring one of their companies bankrupt help them? I guess they can restructure some debt, but a court would first try and sell off assets to meet liabilities right? I agree with the post in general (that a drive to push costs down to make a business more profitable can hurt service), but the financial details are where someone could pick this apart.

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