“It’s like the lunatics taking over the asylum,” says Greg Mauro, chairman of Powder Mountain. But a glance around the sleek mountain-top lodge we’re in, set high in the snow-choked Wasatch mountains above northern Utah’s Ogden Valley, and at Mauro’s fellow lunatics – successful entrepreneurs in baggy ski pants and beanie caps – suggests that there’s nothing ordinary about this asylum, or its inmates.
I’m in Powder Mountain as a guest of Summit: a group of twenty- and thirtysomething high-flyers that holds networking conferences for young businesspeople. The organisation has its roots in a weekend ski trip arranged in 2008 by Elliott Bisnow. Aged 23 and already running a multimillion-dollar digital media business with his father, Bisnow cold-called a number of fellow young movers and shakers, inviting them to Park City, Utah. Nineteen accepted, including Blake Mycoskie, founder of Toms Shoes, and word began to spread.
Soon, Summit had grown into a regular series of events, sometimes drawing more than 1,000 delegates, with speakers including Bill Clinton, Sir Richard Branson and Ted Turner, and venues ranging from Washington DC to a cruise ship in the Caribbean. Forbes has likened the meetings to a “Hipper Davos”; Wired called them “TED meets Burning Man”; and Ski magazine said they were “like a TED conference on spring break”.
Even on the smaller-scale “Salon Weekend” that I’m attending, with 70 delegates, there is a palpable sense of energy and drive. As Mitch Lowe, co-founder of Netflix and president of Redbox, says on the first evening: “I haven’t met anyone here who isn’t on a mission.” The weekend, one of six taking place this winter, espouses the same principles as the original Summit conferences but with an additional purpose: to introduce attendees to Powder Mountain, which the group bought last year and intends to develop as its permanent base, or “an epicentre of entrepreneurship, innovation, artistic achievement and thought leadership”.
Powder Mountain, or Pow Mow to locals, is remarkable even without the Summit connection. It claims to have a larger ski area than any other US resort – more than 7,000 acres – with terrain ranging from gentle bowls to steep drops and tree runs. Add to this an annual average of 500in of snowfall and a mere 120,000 visitors (compared with 1.6m at big Colorado resorts such as Vail and Breckenridge).
Yet, even in the US, Powder Mountain is little known outside hardcore skier circles. One reason is its perceived remoteness, though it is only 90 minutes’ drive from Salt Lake City; another is the lack of development. Though offering all that snow, there are just seven lifts (skiers need to ride in snowcats, or walk, to reach much of it). There are just a few private homes and apartments and a couple of restaurants – most visitors stay in the small town of Eden, six miles away.
Pow Mow was founded in 1972 by Alvin Cobabe, who transformed his family’s sheep grazing fields into a small “mom and pop ski town”. When he retired in 2006, aged 88, he sold his resort to Western American Holdings, which unveiled grand plans for a complex of five villages with hotels, shops and a golf course. Locals opposed the scheme and challenged it in court using $25,000 raised from producing a protest play called Curse of the Powdervillains. In 2011, as the dispute ground on, WAH put Powder Mountain up for sale.
Enter Greg Mauro. A passionate skier and successful venture capitalist, Mauro had fallen under the spell of Pow Mow a few years earlier and bought a home there. News that the resort was for sale reached him a few months after he had attended a Summit Series conference. Reasoning that the Summit community of outgoing entrepreneurs could be ideal investors, he flew to Malibu to meet Bisnow. By April 2013, Summit owned Powder Mountain, having raised $40m and secured an $18.5m infrastructure loan from the local county. Investors include Sir Richard Branson, WPP founder Sir Martin Sorrell, Island Records’ Chris Blackwell and Timothy Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Work Week.
I spent my first morning skiing with Bisnow before the Salon Weekend kicked off. There was much whooping as we ploughed through the powder but as we rode the chairlifts, he earnestly expounded his commitment to nurturing a new Powder Mountain community, above making profits from skiing and development. “We’re taking a start-up business approach to building a community,” he said.
The Salon Weekend turns out to be a blend of business, sport, philanthropy and partying. It begins with a dinner at the mountaintop Sky Lodge followed by a talk by Mitch Lowe on “building company culture”. Over the next two days there is time for skiing, yoga, snowshoeing and ice-fishing, interspersed with eclectic talks. Human rights activist Somaly Mam speaks about slavery in Cambodia; Belgian sex therapist Esther Perel talks on “reconciling the erotic and the domestic”; 24-year-old Khalida Brohi gives a talk on her Sughar Empowerment Society, a non-profit enterprise dedicated to helping Pakistani women.
Also on the itinerary for many was the chance to visit the site of Summit’s planned new village, to be built on a sheltered saddle just below the peak. The 3,000-acre area (chosen after consulting a “sacred geometrist”) will have minimal impact on the ski area, only being visible from one ridge line. Surrounded by aspen and black pine trees, with unbroken views across an elk reserve to Salt Lake, Bisnow describes it as “Narnian”.
Construction starts this spring, and the plans are far more modest than those mooted by WAH. The village will comprise 500 family homes of a maximum of 4,500 sq ft (selling for $400,000-$2m), and a small central area with boutique hotels, rental apartments, shops and restaurants. Strict architectural and environmental guidelines will be imposed – “strictly no McMansions or faux Bavarian”, Mauro insists. There will be year-round concerts, workshops, a health facility, artist-in-residence programme and education facilities.
Some existing residents have raised concerns, and a local paper ran a critical story, largely focusing on worries that the character of the ski area will change. Summit is keen to allay such fears and has resisted the temptation to immediately install high-speed lifts and glitzy restaurants (although the original dive bar-style Powder Keg now serves kale salad along with its burger and fries). Daily lift tickets still cost a mere $65 (Vail’s cost $110).
Nevertheless, the influx of entrepreneurs will inevitably change the social mix. The Ogden Valley recently enjoyed a recital from hip-hop poet Sekou Andrews and the Wailers are due to perform on Pow Mow in March. And while skiers won’t get high-speed lifts, they will enjoy some of the world’s most cerebral lift-chat. I found myself discussing 3D printing of body parts, human trafficking policies and private equity tips. Another chair was shared with a protective local who said: “Come back, by all means. Just don’t tell your friends about us.”
Although the boundless optimism, unwavering self-belief, man-hugging and high-fiving of team Summit might raise a few hackles, it’s hard to doubt their intentions. As Mauro says: “The power of nice, particularly on a compound basis, creates a magical environment that can achieve great change. We’re going to build the coolest little mountain town on earth.”
Gabriella Le Breton was a guest of Summit (summit.co), Ski Safari (skisafari.com) and United Airlines (united.com). Ski Safari offers tailor-made ski trips to Utah visiting several resorts; self-catered accommodation in Powder Mountain costs from $120 per night. United flies to Salt Lake City from Chicago, San Francisco, LA, Washington, Denver and Houston. A return from London via Chicago costs from £575. See also powdermountain.com and visitutah.com
Ski you in court: Snowboarders fight back
Skiers and snowboarders have always viewed each other with a certain amount of mistrust, but now their problematic relationship is to be examined in court.
A group of US snowboarders has begun legal action against Alta – a Utah resort famed for its deep snow and steep terrain but which is also one of the few areas to ban snowboarding outright.
The group tried to snowboard at Alta on January 12 but were stopped from boarding the lifts. Their response was to file a lawsuit in the district court in Salt Lake City, arguing that the ban violates their constitutional rights. Alta’s slopes are on public land that is governed by a permit from the US Forest Service, requiring it to be kept open to the public for “all lawful purposes”.
The complaint argues that the discrimination against snowboarders “is based on antiquated stigmas and stereotypes that snowboarders are immature, inexperienced, reckless, disrespectful and/or ‘out of control’.”
Bans on snowboarding were relatively common in the US in the 1980s as the sport gained widespread popularity, but today are maintained by only a handful of resorts, including Deer Valley in Utah and Mad River Glen in Vermont. Unlike Alta, both are on private land.