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Davey Pitcher, CEO of the Wolf Creek ski area, takes a break to soak in the Colorado sunshine during a recent “test” of the company product. After owning the low-key ski area for 36 yeras, the Pitchers are looking to expand terrain to inlcude glade, expert and heli-skiing./Photo by Brandon Mathis

Model T to heli-ski

The little Wolf that could
by Brandon Mathis

Wolf Creek has come to be known as the original renegade ski resort. Perched at 10,300 feet and rising to 12,000, “Wolfie,” as it is affectionately known in local circles, has always been the unofficial king of snowfall in Colorado. Situated at the top of Wolf Creek Pass in a mysterious snow vortex, it often boasts season totals of more than 400 inches.
And now, with plans to expand with everything from beginner to expert and heli-skiing options, the little Wolf may soon hold its own with the likes of Silverton Mountain, Crested Butte and Telluride.
In the meantime, the Pitcher family, which has owned the ski area since 1976 and recently concluded a long legal battle with developers, can once again focus on what they do best: run a ski mountain.
“There has always been snow on Wolf Creek Pass,” says Rosanne Pitcher, part marketing director, part sports shop manager, part ticket seller, from her office by the ticket windows. “It was the potato farmers from the Valley that started it,” she said of the area’s humble beginnings, “they called themselves ‘ski enthusiasts.’”
San Luis Valley ski enthusiasts were people like Kelly Boyce. In 1938, Boyce and other spud-farmers-turned-ski-racers modified an old truck, hauled it to a wide spot on the pass and began operating a tow rope across from Wolf Creek’s current location, all to bomb a run on skis the size of canoes. You can still see the trail.
A familiar sight at Wolf Creek: A lone rider takes the Treasure Chair to the Alberta Face amid a whiteout. The ski area is a bit of an anomoly when it comes to adundant snowfall./Photo by Brandon Mathis
“Had it gone in another direction they probably would have expanded into the wilderness before it was wilderness,” interjects Rosanne’s husband,
Davey Pitcher, CEO, official pilot and executive “hamburger taster” at Wolf Creek. “Now, that would have been a tremendous mountain.”
But it was all about access, and Pitcher would know. He grew up watching his father, Kingsbury, build ski areas all over the West, from New Mexico to Montana, and even Iceland. Born in Silverton, Kingsbury was grandson to railroad entrepreneur Otto Mears, the “pathfinder of the San Juans.”
For the Pitchers, pioneering paths through the mountains runs in the blood. Before acquiring Wolf Creek, the Pitcher family owned Ski Santa Fe.
“These are my roots,” said Davey. “I grew up skiing Taos, Santa Fe and learned a lot about pushing snow around. Probably logged 20- to 30,000 hours in a snow cat,” he said. “I’ve been blasting (avalanche control) since I was in junior high.”
“Was that legal?” Rosanne asked.
Joking aside, Davey is so knowledgeable on the subject that he holds a patent on a fixed-location avalanche exploder and even helps CDOT get the pass open when it closes.
When not participating in the more explosive side of ski area operations, the Pitchers are hands-on doing the less glamorous jobs such as ticket sales, snow removal and lift maintenance.
But that doesn’t mean they can’t find time occasionally to “test the product,” as they say in the business. On one early season afternoon, Davey, Rosanne and their dog Spencer head out to take a few runs and look in on things slopeside. Davey stops and consults with a member of the maintenance crew. Rosanne pauses to greet guests. The lifties see Spencer and slow the chair so he can jump on, finding his usual spot in Rosanne’s lap, and the chair takes off.
“My father calls them the sharp pencil boys, the accountants,” said Davey from behind his sunglasses. “They say there is no money in opening early, and there probably isn’t, but there is some customer service. It’s working toward an end goal of those big days with a better product.”
Wolf Creek made headlines with a 3 foot dump for an Oct. 8 opening this year. The tremendous storm gave way to spring skiing conditions for the rest of October, and the skier count dropped accordingly. But there are those good ol’ ski enthusiasts that make the trip up the hill, and November has seen terrific conditions.
Skiers and snowboarders slide by intermittently under the lift. Spencer is the first one off the chair every time. It appears that he, too, is a ski enthusiast.
“For some people just coming up for lunch and taking a few runs is a great day,” said Rosanne.
Indeed, the green chili at the Prospector lodge goes fast, and the carrot cake is a secret family recipe.
“It’s kind of funny,” said Davey, “we consider ourselves a Midwestern ski area at certain times of the year. You see intermediates and beginners having a good time. It’s really rewarding to be involved in the business of skiing for skiing’s sake.”
Now the mountain is in full throttle, and snow is abundant.
While the Pitcher family has had great influence on a number of ski areas (Kingsbury encouraged the developments of Aspen and Snowmass while farming in Summit County) their interests come down to skiable terrain, and not the real estate that surrounds it.
As Rosanne puts it, “We’re ski area operators, because we like to ski.”
But it’s no secret that developer Red McCombs of Texas has a stake of coveted land near the base area. McCombs is proposing a 2,000-unit “Village at Wolf Creek” on nearly 300 acres near the base of the Alberta Lift, which the Pitchers opposed. After years of legal red tape, and a restructuring of McCombs’ development team, both parties have reached an agreement.
“We had an amicable settlement,” said Davey.  “Basically, 106 acres of their 300 acres is now permanent open space, so that took care of 90 percent of our concern, which was the impact on the skiing.”
The Village at Wolf Creek is now focused on a land exchange that would swap 174 acres of a private inholding on wetlands for 204 acres of Rio Grande National Forest land outside sensitive areas. “We are in support of the land trade proposal,” said Davey, “All that does is move them totally out of the skiable terrain. Our development plans for the future aren’t going to change whether the village goes in or not.”
As for its future plans, Wolf Creek is poised for change, and the Pitchers are motivated.  They have scouted out terrain, with a little something for everyone, from first-timers, to in-bounds hikers to seasoned heli-freaks. On both sides of the hill and beyond.
To the west, there’s the new Raven’s Nest, offering warm bathrooms and a bite to eat. There are plans to add a bar  and grill as well as novice and intermediate terrain with groomers and inviting glades.
And to the east, there’s the Silver Creek drainage, which Davey describes as “a little like Silverton.” All extreme skiing, it would offer 2,200 vertical feet of top-to-bottom skiing. In all, the expansions will total less than 1,000 acres.
“We’re proposing a tram. Low capacity. It’s incredible terrain,” said Rosanne of Silver Creek. “It’s a roadless area, so the four lift towers will have to be flown in.”
And speaking of flying, the buzz in the air over your certified organic Salazar Ranch Burger on the Prospector deck isn’t just après ski gossip. It’s a helicopter. Davey has been scouting backcountry terrain for years and is now in the process of acquiring the permits to fly skiers from the base to various powder stashes.
“It’s a model we have been working on,” said Davey. “Availability would be offered and you sign up, but for locals, it would be more affordable. The guy bussing tables’ number could be called, and he’s on a heli the next day.” Davey also said that the operation would strive to be respectful of other backcountry users. “We don’t want to steal someone else’s powder.”
In fact, the Pitchers say they take a different approach to expansion than most resorts.
“We want to show the Forest Service and the public that expansion isn’t based on trying to jam people up the mountain, but a sustainable experience for the future,” Davey said. “We really feel that Southwest Colorado as a whole has a lot of promise. This trend of a southern tour: people skiing here, Durango, Silverton, Taos - it paints a good economic picture for all of these communities.”
In fact, one could argue it’s tied to why Kelly Boyce dragged a Model Ford up the pass in the fist place. “It’s about access, and helis are a modern tool for access in the ski business.”
The Pitchers, busy with their own plans, are also lending a hand. In Lake City, where locals started up their own ski area, using box springs to groom the runs. While some might poke fun, Davey recognized old-fashioned dedication.  “That is very much what all of these ski areas started as … so we got involved,” he said, “they don’t use mattresses anymore.” Wolf Creek donated a snow cat, skis and other equipment.
Back on the lift, the Pitchers suggest a hike out to Alberta Peak to find good snow in Montezuma Bowl. Spencer is game. Under the chair a familiar skier glides by. “She’s always here,” said Rosanne.
Davey watches as she links her turns. “And that’s why we’re open.”

Rosanne Pitcher and Spencer, the dog, take a run recently at Wolf Creek.