Tracing the road to ruin at bankrupt Yellowstone Club back to Vail
June 15, 2009 —
"Private Powder" -- a concept for most of us confined to first chair on the Vista Bahn, a back-country ski day or a once-in-a-lifetime heli trip -- is back in the news with a riveting Sunday New York Times piece on the rise and fall of the Yellowstone Club.
In the late 1990s I visited the private, Beaver Creek-sized ski retreat for those who don't like to share the mountain with 20,000 of their best friends, and I came away thinking it was an eerie place. To me, skiing is the most social of sports, and while I don't mind soloing down Seldom on a two-foot powder day, I'd rather be with my family or a few friends.
Timber baron Tim Blixseth started the Yellowstone Club as a private family mountain off the backside of Big Sky, Mont., but then expanded it to included friends and ultimately wealthy members like Warren Miller (who left Vail to become director of skiing), cyclist Greg LeMond (who later sued Blixseth) and the late Jack Kemp, a Vail homeowner who, according to the Times, helped recruit new Yellowstone members. Now the place is mired in bankruptcy in the wake of a super-risky Credit Suisse loan gone bad.
George Gillett, a former owner of Vail Associates who knows a thing or two about bankruptcy, once told me in an interview that private ski clubs would never catch on because they're like a restaurant with nobody in them. Who wants to eat there? The food must be bad, and there's absolutely no buzz about the place.
Well, I can testify that the food was not bad at the Yellowstone Club, and neither was the skiing. I got up into the mountain's steep upper chutes on a day that capped a weekend of 36 inches of snow. At the end of the day we skied down the mountain's front side and got fresh tracks at 3 in the afternoon.
Very cool, but would I pay millions for that privilege if had the money? No, I'd fly around the world trying different resorts and heli skiing if I really needed that much untracked snow.
Granted, now that I have three young sons, I see the value of avoiding mobbed runs where there are too may skiers and snowboarders acting like idiots. But for the most part we're able to do that here at Vail, even on weekends. That sense of exclusivity is unnecessary for most snow riders, but has its attraction, obviously, for a select few. This from the Times article:
"One club member — who, like many Yellowstone members, requested anonymity so as not to be seen as violating the club’s tradition of not blabbing about one another — recalls Mr. Gates’s saying that his family once tried Vail but their need for security 'made us look like jerks. Here, we don’t need it.' That’s because the club has long been kept safe by former Secret Service agents, and who can put a price tag on that?"
Maybe a guy like Microsoft's Bill Gates needed on-slope protection, but Vail has always ignored its wealthy guests, while Aspen drools all over theirs, which is what some in that set want. If Gates really wanted anonymity, he should take his family to Ski Cooper or Powderhorn. They'd have the mountain to themselves.
In recent years I've interviewed wealthy baby boomers who actually purchase places right in the heart of Vail Village because they like the noise. They want to be able to walk to a noisy bar and they like concerts and other big skiing events going off all around them.
Others buy into the heart of the action only to find it doesn't match their Swiss Chalet fantasy. For instance, Beverly Hills businessman Burt Sugarman, husband of “Entertainment Tonight” host Mary Hart and one of Yellowstone's first members, is quoted in the New York Times piece: “Once you ski there, you never want to go anywhere else."
One assumes that includes Vail, where Sugarman and Hart used to own a place above the Red Lion but then seemed surprised that there was loud rock-and-roll being played until late in the evening. They got into a dispute with the bar owners that I covered in the Vail Daily. Sugarman once called me to ask why I had to report on the incident in such detail. Even in a ski town, I answered, the story qualified as news.
Now the Blixseth bankruptcy qualifies as big news, and it should be noted that the ski retreat is the model for Bobby Ginn's Battle Mountain project off the backside of Vail Mountain.
Common denominator? Ginn raked in some big Credit Suisse loans that a couple of his projects down in Florida have since defaulted on.
"Private Powder"? Maybe just set some money aside for a heli trip to Canada.
4 Comments on "Tracing the road to ruin at bankrupt Yellowstone Club back to Vail"