There aren’t many ski resorts that lose $200,000 in a good winter. That’s the loss Snow King Mountain projects for the next four months as it struggles to find a sustainable operating model in downtown Jackson, Wyoming. The ski area opened in 1939, decades before its more famous neighbors even existed. Snow King’s alpine slide, opened in 1978, sees many times more riders in the summer than the entire mountain attracts each winter. Beginner and intermediate destination visitors simply don’t choose to ski the rugged, north-facing mountain with a 12-minute double chair ride to the top.
Last year, an investment banker with local ties named Max Chapman, Jr. led a group of investors in purchasing Snow King Holdings from the ownership group that struggled with the ski area since 1992. This past summer, Chapman and company spent a crazy $14 million to build an alpine coaster, base lodge, retail store, ski school building, quad chair and fully-automated TechnoAlpin snowmaking system. General Manager Ryan Stanley overhauled ticketing systems, bought new uniforms and even commissioned a brand new trail map and website. This week, the King held a community open house at Snow King Hotel to outline a vision for phase 2 expansion and begin a multi-year public process in hopes of pushing Snow King to consistent profitability. SKMR operates on a mix of private, federal and town land so Chapman knows he needs the community’s support.
The anchor of the project is a base-to-summit gondola to an all-new complex that will serve a variety of visitors year-round. The facility up top would include a movie theatre, planetarium, cafeteria and fine dining overlooking the town of Jackson and Teton Range. As of now the building would also include gondola cabin storage/maintenance and takeoff for a quad zipline plunging into town below at speeds up to 75 mph. Chapman noted, “we want everything we build to be the best.”
To address Snow King’s terrain challenges, the ski operation would expand east with a fixed-grip quad that would also serve a downhill bike park in the summer. This is interesting as the new lift would not start at the base of the mountain, meaning Rafferty would also have to shuttle bikes. I think running bikes and an alpine slide from the same fixed-grip quad would be challenging. The only other new lifts envisioned are two magic carpets in a new beginner pod at the top of the gondola. The Summit double would be removed but the newer Cougar triple would remain.
Snow King backers cannot move as quickly as they did on the Rafferty lift replacement and alpine coaster. Those projects weren’t required to go through the full Forest Service NEPA review which became controversial. The timeline outlined today sends a plan to the Forest Service this spring with two years of study and implementation starting in 2018. I get the sense the gondola/summit building (and associated revenue) will come before any expansion to the east. Mr. Chapman really wants to build that planetarium.
Learn more about the project at snowkingmountain.com/phase2.