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Above and beyond

A new template for ski resorts is created at Utah's Powder Mountain — with untracked runs, limited ticket sales and an exclusive community of idealists

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The invite email for the Summit Series said to check in by 4 p.m. but it's 3:45 p.m. and I'm still roughly half an hour away according to my phone's map. It's hard to keep my eyes on the road because I'm passing incredible possibilities for untouched powder lines as I weave through Utah's Ogden Canyon. I had to make an emergency pitstop at Wal-Mart after the timely realization that I never took my underlayers out of the dryer. At least the lightbulb went off before I got to the hill.

Surely there has to be some buffer time to allow for late arrivals like myself, considering the majority of the guests for this weekend are flying into Salt Lake City on a Friday.  As I race through Eden — population 600 with only one gas station and no stoplights — I fail to consider that a lack of cell-phone reception prevents me from checking the directions in my email. I remember reading the check-in location is called Bower Lodge, so I speed uphill on Powder Mountain.

I ask a few people where to find Bower, only to meet puzzled faces with no idea what I'm talking about. I zigzag my way between lodges with no luck until I finally reach the top where a ski-patrol shack sits at the end of the road. Surely they will know where it is. They are friendly and welcoming, but after telling them my intention to write a story on the changes taking place here, the room goes quiet and they look around at one another. Another patroller remarks: "No comment" while everyone else laughs.  Another one pipes up: "Come back with a bottle of tequila and we'll tell you some stories."  The guy to my left realizes that the lodge in question is the old clubhouse at the golf course back down in the valley. I thank them and speed back down to check in with no time to spare. While weaving back down toward Eden, my first note-to-self is: Fun-looking mountain but at US$40 million they could probably afford a couple of signs.

The Summit Series started as an offer for a free ski weekend from a college dropout wanting to fast-track how to become a successful entrepreneur.  Elliot Bisnow and his "dream list" of 19 people has now blossomed into a community of more than 10,000 individuals who converge under the Summit banner several times a year.  According to their website: "Summit creates unique gatherings designed to catalyze entrepreneurship, creative achievement, and global change to create a more joyful world." To put it another way, they produce events that bring together people who want to meet other big-idea people.  

Four years ago, the same people crowd-sourced the funds to purchase Powder Mountain and the land that it's built upon. After 10 years as a brand, Summit now has a home as stewards of an old ski resort that bears the oxymoron of being famous for the fact that nobody knows about it.

The group intends to develop a town roughly the size of Telluride — at about 180 hectares with a population of about 2,300 — to serve as a hub for innovators, artists, and anyone else who dreams of a better society. But who doesn't, really? Especially when it comes to the jargon we see in developer's marketing collateral. What makes these guys different? Is it possible to balance their lofty ideals with the end goal that all investors will turn a profit?

Is the Summit weekend just an elaborately produced effort to attract buyers to a new purpose-built community in which a few investors stand to make a huge pile of money? That's certainly one way to look at it, and even if that were the only motive, it could be a brilliant marketing campaign in mountain-resort real estate.

The founders share high ideals and a grand vision that includes creating co-op work spaces, open venues to encourage interaction, and Burning-Man inspired art installations throughout their new town. But Summit's founders aren't from the mountains, they bought into it. Will the fast-paced city mentality influence the mountain community they hope to create? Or can it be the other way around where the landscape and open spaces help these high-profile influencers not take themselves and life too seriously?

FIRST STEPS

Powder Mountain has operated as a ski resort for more than 45 years. Rising high above Eden, the area is relatively unknown in comparison to nearby Park City and the resorts within the Cottonwood Canyons.  Eden itself is nothing more than a prime example of resort gentrification: large parcels of land subdivided over the past few decades to make room for townhouses that pack in weekenders from Salt Lake City and points beyond. The mountain's 4,000 hectares receive over 12 metres of Utah's famously dry snow yearly; enough to cause most snow-lovers to take notice. But until the latest change of ownership occurred just over three years ago, the local skiers and boarders rejoiced in their well-kept secret of the lack of crowds.It was their biggest asset. Now that Summit is at the helm, there is potential for Powder Mountain to show up on a radar of skiers and non-skiers: their market is the rich, elite city dwellers from New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and elsewhere who are keen to escape their urban habitat and connect with other like-minded individuals here.

Summit began 10 years ago on the Utah ski slopes. The then-22-year old Bisnow wanted to connect with bright minds. In 2005 Bisnow and his father founded Bisnow Media, which last year they sold for a reported $50 million. But early on, as a fresh college dropout, Bisnow admittedly was in over his head.

"In my quest to just meet other entrepreneurs and get advice I cold-called 20 people that I'd read about," Bisnow said. "I invited Blake (Mycoskie) from TOMS shoes, and Ricky (Van Veen) and Josh (Abramson) who started (the popular video website) Collegehumor. We went skiing in Alta, which is just over an hour from Powder Mountain. I actually paid for the trip on my credit card and got sponsors to cover the costs. And that was the first Summit."

That first meeting was so successful that the group decided to meet again six months later — that time inviting a few more friends and business associates. Steadily the word got out of a gathering of like minds across a wide spectrum of industry with the shared assumption that humanity as a whole is greater than the sum of its individuals. The events became more polished and headline speakers included Quentin Tarantino, Erin Brockovich, and Kendrick Lamar. Additionally you can meander between a full slate of activities including yoga, meditation sessions, even arts and crafts: I made a leather bracelet on Sunday afternoon that I'm pretty proud of. Deals were made and companies were born. Over a short time, the Summit events blossomed and became a destination for self-professed visionaries who were keen to interact and rub shoulders with each other.

PURCHASING A MOUNTAIN

Greg Mauro, Venture capitalist by day and skier by heart, had been looking for a mountain home for some time. His parents owned a house in Aspen, where his love of the mountains was fostered. But by the turn of the millennium, Aspen had morphed into an overwhelming monstrosity of a resort destination that had lost its small-town charm. He tried living in different areas, including Whistler in 2001. Eventually he discovered the relative solitude of Powder Mountain and fell in love. He invited friends to visit, but on the condition that any photos they took or tales of endless powder runs should be misrepresented as Park City in fear this secret would get out.

In 2011, the owners put Powder Mountain up for sale. Originally the plan was to develop three golf courses and a town of 10,000, a vision that sounded all too familiar to this Whistlerite. But those owners couldn't cut it. It was the aftermath of the 2008 recession and their vision was dead in the water. Mauro saw the opportunity to make a deal and approached Summit with an out-of-the blue offer.

"We flew out the next day," Bisnow said of the response to Mauro's offer. "He (Mauro) said there's this unbelievable 10,000-acre ski area called Powder Mountain. I think we can get in there and buy it for an unbelievable price and could do something really special."

As the Summit members and Mauro looked over the expansive Wasatch mountain range and Salt Lake Basin on a site that would eventually become the Sky Lodge, an unexpected alliance formed virtually overnight. Mauro would ensure that the day-to-day operation of the resort was profitable and the Summit team would focus on building a community by attracting buyers through their trademark events.  In 2013 Powder Mountain changed ownership for $40 million with a consortium of young Millennials at the helm — the first time a group from the new generation was in charge of this type of resort development.  To finance the deal, they crowd-funded the purchase and had no trouble raising the money. The new owners produce events, but they didn't know squat about mountain-community development.

"We studied about 30 different mountain communities from all over the world," Bisnow said. "We looked at Aspen, Park City, Telluride. We also looked to communities in Europe and even places like SoHo and Windward Walls in Miami."

Bisnow's main concern is the ski-resort explosion of "McMansions" and the "era of huge houses."  In an effort to prevent that from happening at Powder Mountain, they are limiting house sizes to 4,500 square feet, with the majority of the homes taking up around 2,500. The ideal is to blend the homes with the natural environment.  And lots are selling like hotcakes, ranging from $225,000 to more than $2 million.

WHO BUYS INTO THIS?

On this weekend in late January, the candle-lit steps direct us upstairs toward the commotion taking place inside the Timberline Lodge. At 40 years old, it's the closest thing to a historical building on the mountain. I introduce myself to anyone and everyone and in less than half an hour I meet venture capitalists, app-developers, real-estate tycoons, a New York Times columnist, and a famous movie director as we gather at a long-table dinner that encourages a family-style meal among strangers.

Summit co-founder Jeff Rosenthal tells us that the mission "is to inspire entrepreneurs and innovators from different backgrounds." The criteria has always been the same, he says: "Are you innovators of your discipline, regardless of your level or age? And are you nice people who we want to be around, regardless of personal or professional success?"

It sounded fairly clichéd to me. Of course, you want to be around the people you are around, nothing profound there. But at the same time it hints at exclusivity: who judges whether or not a candidate is someone they want to be around? And what if that perception changes? Human nature being what it is, what he said sounded nice, but I know that you can't build a community under those pretenses, no matter how hard you try.

He also set a few ground rules: No social media content inside the lodges; and no drinking and driving. Through a Cadillac sponsorship the event featured brand-new black Escalades as shuttles to the venues between mountain and valley. Riding in the $100,000 SUV helped me feel special, but it isn't enough for me to want to drink the Kool-Aid.

This event took place a week after Donald Trump was inaugurated as the 45th president of the U.S., a fact that is unavoidable in conversation. To my relief, many here are as dumbfounded as I am at what had happened. Through dozens of discussions I realize this crowd is well-off, but they're not ostentatious.

As everyone finds seats at the table, I sit down next to Colin Eckles: He's in his early 30s and made his fortune selling real estate in China. He now splits his time between Los Angeles and Hawaii, and is developing his own community on 200 hectares on Hawaii's big island — a community that will feature biodynamic agriculture and follow permaculture principles. He wants to construct seven buildings to serve as spiritual centres, coinciding with the seven chakras.

"I did the tour," he says, referring to the Summit realty team's guided mountain tour. "And I'm in. I bought a lot."  

Eckles was not the only person I spoke to over the weekend who purchased a lot after seeing the land and Summit's plans to orchestrate a new community.  Sitting down for a rest at the Sky Lodge on Saturday afternoon, I met a board member of a high-profile sports brand who made the deposit last year and finally pulled the trigger this weekend to secure his lot. "Now I just have to tell my wife," he says with a nervous grin. At prices up to $2 million or more per home site, it is similar to the Sea to Sky market; although this purpose-built community has a collective intention for 'good business.'

The people I meet seem to have an earnest desire to grow a community that differs from other mountain towns. Bisnow himself is building a family home where he plans to raise his kids in this exclusive little hub. This is not a pump-and-dump scheme, and the endgame will be — for now — a mountain community in which everyone is from a similar socio-economic background and shares the same modus operandi of getting rich off of really big, successful ideas.

Comparisons could be made: Is it a rich-kids' club? Cult-like? Maybe a bit of both. The people running the show regard art, intelligence, and community as their biggest assets, at least on paper. Their plans promise a respect for Mother Nature and the hope to symbiotically coexist and not to conquer. But come on, don't we all buy into this? And haven't we been duped before?

What was obviously missing from the weekend was the dirtbags. This was an affluent, educated bunch of people, but they weren't from the mountains. The group was still coated with their veneer from New York or San Francisco, showing that it's easier said than done to take the city out of the city folk. Mountain culture is much different from SoHo or the Mission district and a big indicator of success will be whether this community can adapt to mountain life by not taking itself too seriously. Will they buy a new jacket when it rips after shredding through the trees, or easily fix it with a strip of duct tape? The urban intellectuals have descended upon the mountains, but will these guys rent out one of their rooms to the dishpig in the back of the kitchen working tirelessly at one of their marquee dinners?

Where the Summit team will really have to prove itself is in how well they coexist with the third and fourth generation of Weber County locals who call Powder their home mountain; who love it for its lack of outside attention.  After Summit bought Powder Mountain, Facebook comments were quick and dirty:

"Just a bunch of trust-a-farian douchebags that are going to ruin the valley. If you like waste, conspicuous consumption, and rich, overprivileged assholes that drive Escalades in $500 worth of couture "winter apparel" that has never seen actual use, by all means keep making these human-shaped bags of spiders more rich by buying lift tickets to their private mountain. To the very last person, they are a complete waste of blood and organs..."

After I followed up with the guy who posted that, he had this to say:

"I was unfortunate enough to work for Powder Mountain during the buyout, and subsequently walked off the job with most of the food and beverage staff because they fired the long-time F&B (food and beverage) director with no notice, to bring on a Summit kid."

That Feeling

The frigid morning air stings my face as I step outside the condo, a gorgeous unit that Summit must have rented from a local family. I can only assume the family owns it from the abundance of creepy portraits where everyone wears the same outfit. The clear blue sky is accentuated with a purple alpenglow sunrise on the eastern hillsides, beckoning all the early-birds who had the discipline to get home at a reasonable hour last night. I run into my new buddy Eckles and we head up the lift.

It hasn't snowed for more than five days so I'm not hopeful of finding fresh powder. Yet Powder Mountain's slogan is: Preserving the Powder. There are still countless untracked lines right next to the lift that opened only today. The policies here differ from other resorts: They don't open every lift immediately, which ensures they can still open new terrain in between storms; and they cap day-ticket sales at 2,000 a day. Yes — so across this 4,000-hectare terrain, it means there is always plenty of untracked snow for everyone, even five days after the last storm.

For an extra fee of $18 you can take a snowcat up Lightning Ridge toward James Peak for some of the longest off-piste freeride terrain in Utah — something I see as a selling point but may be deemed as extreme by most. The terrain can't hold a candle to what we have in the Coast Mountains, but to be fair, not much can. If Summit is true to its slogan and wants to preserve powder, my main wish would be to save these incredible runs for those who really work for it.

Although tracks are present in the trees, the most difficult lines are still fresh for me to leisurely shralp without the pressure to go, go, go like I do at home. Whether hiking, taking a cat or bus, or just eyeing good runs from the lift, there is enough terrain to keep me interested. I find challenging, yet easy-access lines that would have been tracked out at resorts with a bigger scene. This is not an advanced group of skiers and boarders attending this weekend, and for the majority the rolling terrain is more than enough to satisfy. But the Paradise chair was ripe with enough cliffs and pillows to keep even the most discerning powder hound content until the closing bell. It gives me a sense of privacy and solitude that I haven't felt at a ski resort, and it is enough for me to consider that if I were wealthy enough to buy a lot, I would also see a return beyond the financial. I'd be one of the best skiers or boarders on the mountain and would have my pick of challenging terrain without fear of it getting tracked out.

My riding partner and I differ greatly in ability but it doesn't matter. Part of the magic of snow sports is the ability to choose your own line and meet up at the bottom of the pitch. As I learn more about Eckles and his past I see how much this trip means to him: He tells me of his high-stress, high-stakes real-estate ventures and the resulting epiphany that life is not all about money. I admire his altruistic intentions for his own development plans, which give me a bit of reassurance that I chose the right path for myself by neglecting the city life and opting to live in the mountains. Like most of us, we come alive when we are given the freedom to creatively express our movement in nature. It's a decidedly first-world luxury that does have its purpose: it helps us lighten up and be present.  The world certainly needs more of that.

As much fun as it is to make a new friend, the urge to push myself is too great and I split with Eckles to find some more challenging terrain. I find it in Powder Country, a zone that has no lift at the bottom but instead has a bus that takes you up the canyon back into the resort. Deep snow, a steep pitch, and a few drops are enough to satisfy my craving before heading back into the Sky Lodge for lunch.

Steve Andrews was a guest of the Summit Group. He really enjoyed the buffets, free beer, meeting amazing people, and exploring those untracked lines. But for the price tag of $1 million to $2 million, he would put his lessons learned at Summit toward building his own mountain utopia somewhere up north.

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