An Open Letter to Bill Killebrew and Eldora
Mr. Killebrew, sir:
Today marks the last day of skiing at Eldora Mountain Resort. It also marks the end of my fifth Winter as a ski instructor here. While it somewhat pains me to send this, I feel the need to document how I’m feeling at this point and attempt to offer advice from the rank and file of Eldora.
Firstly, I’d like to thank you and all our management over the years for working so hard to create a wonderful, professional environment for us. I’ve been able to grow as a man and as an educator working here. Bettering myself through PSIA and AASI as well as our internal clinics has been encouraged and supported both emotionally and financially. I’ve had the opportunity to help multiple departments, assisting Brian and then Ellie in rentals, working closely with Lee and Chris and our dedicated Food & Bev staff, helping the lifties under JT, Hayden, Jacob, Steph, Russ, and all the other leads, and getting to know most of the cashiers and retail staff on and off the mountain. I’ve learned more about the ski industry in my travels thanks to real deals and our recent exchange with Vail Resorts and the Epic Pass, and I’ve been welcomed in more places than I could’ve hoped. This is all thanks to the opportunity I was given at Eldora.
Snowsports, my prime department, has become a family to me. Alicia interviewed me when I first applied, Kate Rau, Captain Ron, Lynne Bulig, Ken Ray and Tony Baloney helped mentor me as I got my footing. I was in an excellent new hire class that created a team with Kevin Hueth, Pam Hill, Katie B., Matt Celesta, Steph Walton, the late Rob Tacchino, a fantastic crew with whom I couldn’t be happier. Jono, Timo, Molly, and many of our clinicians helped hone my teaching and skiing. Matt Chester, Jay Kaminsky, Kurt Baker, Greg Tinkley, Jess Newman, Ric Widenor, Nate Emerson, Ethan Houle, Clay Bedell, Chris Pappas, Marc Latolais, Doc, and Aaron Sanford, and so many others helped show me how to be supportive of my fellow instructors and create a true sense of camaraderie and mutual personal growth. And over the years, as I tried to instill the same sense of trust and familiarity in the new hires, I grew to know and love Molly Holmes, Tyson White, Brian Murray, George Mattison, Jenny Leksander, Scott Battat, Rumen, Ryan DeCesseri, Adwoa, Lauren Bond, Rachel Metz, Marilee Ives, Angie Zimmerer, and all the others who exhibited the same passion and dedication to the job. These are the people on whom I came to depend, with whom I skied and spent time outside of work, and through whom I saw all the joys of skiing come alive. I’ve already spent too long naming only a small portion of the people for whom I’m so appreciative of, and whom I never would’ve known with working at Eldora, and the list could go on.
I’ve always referred to Eldora as the Little Mountain that Could. But that’s a misnomer. When I began working here, we sported nearly 300 instructors in Snowsports alone. That’s now dwindled to just over200. Wolf Creek has a mere 130. Powderhorn only 150. For a mountain of our size, it’s clear that teaching is our bread and butter. I was told throughout college that Eldora wasn’t worth the trip, that it was smaller and wimpier than the Summit resorts. In truth, we have more skiable acreage than A-Basin. We are steeper than Keystone and Breck. We have more vertical and more lifts than Monarch or Powderhorn. We have gnarlier, tougher, more challenging trees than anywhere I’ve been in Colorado (which is every resort save Ski Cooper, Sunlight, Ski Hesperus, and Chapman Hill). We may be the Little Mountain that Could, but Eldora is a hidden gem that benefits from proximity and a lack of crowds. And I am so thankful that I discovered what could be considered a local’s paradise.
We also enjoy some of the best local crowds in Colorado. Wolf Creek told me their locals programs had dwindled down to one day a week over the years. Telluride doesn’t even offer a regular local kids program. Vail’s obsession with Lindsey Vonn is as painfully annoying as it is inspirational. I love seeing the same kids come back again and again. This year, around Christmas a beaming family with four kids came waltzing into the children’s center, excited to be back. I didn’t even know that they had made the trip from San Diego. Their mother told me that it was my red lesson the previous year that caused them to come back, that they had been talking about it for weeks, and that our attitude and friendliness is the only reason they returned to Colorado instead of traveling to another new locale. I see the excitement and joy on the faces our returning patrons. We have dedicated Eldora folk all along the front range. No other mountain can say that anymore. No other mountain feels quite like a home. Our name may say Resort at the end, but I wouldn’t trade for the crowds of out-of-towners the other resorts boast. And those out-of-towners who do come back seem more engaged in Eldora as a community.
I understand that Eldora is a business and that many of the changes we saw happen over the last year had to do with that business, but Eldora is also a family, a community and a home, and I would hate to see it be any other way.
Some of the changes are purely cosmetic. The loss of our old locker room, disheveled as it was, wasn’t much of a loss. Our new locker room, once up and running, was still actually an improvement, though many instructors would argue otherwise. The lockers, when filled with skis and snowboards, could barely accommodate two instructors, unlike our old lockers. The lack of benches made busy mornings a pain. The promised boot-dryers never materialized, and the generators on several occasions ran out of fuel, leaving our gear frozen and cold. All these things we could deal with. Separating us into two separate trailers, while necessary due to our numbers, however, hurt our camaraderie. I pride myself in knowing every instructor on the mountain and learning the entirety of one other department each year. This year, there are still instructors to whom I’ve never spoken because they’re segregated into a separate building.
Other changes, while small, can make a world of difference not only for our sense of community, but for the mountain’s coffers. For my first three seasons, there was never a complaint when instructors headed to the bar after work for an adult beverage. We would break down lessons, ask advice, and build and grow in our personal time. And we would spend money at the bar, purchasing beer, supporting the other staff, and mingling with the other departments. This year, our pants, which do indeed say Eldora Mountain Resort Staff on the leg, became an issue. Our new lockers don’t provide enough space for spare pants; the glass doors on the locker room mean changing in view of the public; and the time and difficulty of changing our pants meant the bar was quickly abandoned. Very Nice Brewing kindly offered a two-for-one deal that made drinking there more affordable and comfortable as well. It’s never been our intention to drink to excess or cause issues, and I’ve not known of any Snowsports instructors causing problems at the bar, but the end result of this policy wasn’t simply a loss of business for the bar from employees; it was the loss of community. I can’t help but wonder how injurious the policy was to cross-department fraternization, to the tips and income of the bartenders and to the personal and professional growth of our department. I understand that drinking in our uniform is frowned upon and it’s an attempt to create professionalism, but we live at this mountain and the folk we teach know us whether or not we’re in uniform. Though it’s only a small policy, it too contributed to making Eldora a little more segregated and a little less familial.
Eldora has, for a long time, been somewhat of a cowboy mountain. We run a little looser than other mountains, a little more wild and fun. And yet our policies are more restrictive, and, when enforced this year, they surprised many who transferred from bigger, “more professional” mountains. Our grooming policy limiting dreadlocks, beards, tattoos and piercings is archaic and prevents many good people from working here. The nature of Nederland, Boulder, and our feeder towns and cities is one of liberal permissiveness and we should reflect that. I had a full beard from the time I graduated high school until the day I started working here. I didn’t complain, as many people do, simply happy for the opportunity, but many instructors I learned from growing up had beards and most other mountains don’t alienate so much of their prospective staff. I would much rather work with good people than prim and proper looking people. And while I appreciate that the rules and regulations are an attempt at reining in our cowboy reputation and purporting ourselves in a more professional manner, perhaps it’s to our detriment and not our benefit to shirk what makes this part of Colorado unique and wonderful. It costs us excellent staff, and this, in turn, costs us returning lessons when we hire someone who looks the right part but can’t perform the job well.
A few of this year’s changes I mourn. For instance, we throw away our unsold food at the end of the day instead of handing it out to hungry and poor employees or donating it to a shelter or those in need. I miss Little Hawk running on week days, the jump to EZ from Tenderfoot often too large mentally for our students to handle. I am disappointed that we did not have a little terrain park this year, and that we are still denied the ability to take our classes where they so often want to go even when we’re certified for the terrain park; every season, we’re turning way money by not offering park lessons or building a terrain park early enough or with progressive difficulty built in. I envy the napkins at the Vail resorts which list the skier’s code of responsibility, and I wish we had access to the race course for lessons, to more equipment to make better changes to our own gear. All season long, the fencing for Sunkid was falling apart, but we were never given the tools or resources to repair it because we are simply instructors. When I did make repairs, I had to bring tools from home, a running theme for many of the improvements and changes we needed. In previous years, the deteriorating ski racks in the Snowsports locker room were a safety hazard that could’ve been easily remedied with some wood, a few tools and some time, but permission was never granted. It’s now moot in our new locker rooms as we don’t have ski racks at all, skis and boards left out falling constantly and continuously on our staff as we move about.
There have been many changes that were beneficial this year as well, such as the excellent work in glading Jolly Jug Glades, the hard work at improving our snowmaking, and excellent effort put in by Hayden, Doc and all of base ops making the changes that needed to happen. The Igloo seems to improve every year. We now have more hooks for instructor jackets and helmets in the children’s center, and Ryne, Emily, Steph and Coquette helped the programs run as smoothly as they could given the strange turnover in the snowsports staff. The women’s program, though smaller, thrived, and our rental department, though stretched thin, seemed to work even harder and perform more than adequately when fully staffed.
Snowsports in specific had an incredible group of rookies join our ranks this year, many of whom rose to the occasion and proved themselves to be great employees and instructors. It was a pleasure watching instructors like Will Ford, Addison, Mary Catherine, David Dunlap, Amy Barfield, Katherine Stuart, Whitney Quigley, and others grow and excel. It’s for them that I’m writing this. It’s for the people coming back next year who deserve the same home, the same sense of family that I’ve had, and who have earned the right to experience the Eldora I grew to love.
Some of the changes this year have baffled me. Our treatment of Ignite created terrible publicity and alienated many. The loss of the DoJo fostered ill-will with some of our most loyal patrons. We were terrible about promoting Retro Day, sorely missed the CU Race Team, and we seemed to have fewer bands, events, and opportunities to truly enjoy ourselves outside the norm than ever before. Choices with regards to employee parking were at times understandable, and at times damningly bothersome. Our staff in general has seemed unhappy, and that has translated to less excitement, sales, and happiness on the mountain for everyone. The lack of new demo skis and boards, and the restrictive policies with regards to renting them to staff in need of new equipment, has made our lives a little less exciting and cost Eldora sales. I understand that many of these things don’t seem to pay off on our bottom line, but as an experienced businessman you know that taking a loss in one area can actually increase our profit in several others.
We introduced 4-6 Snowboarding officially this year, and we charge the same as we do for ski. We should charge more per kid, have a better ratio of instructors to kids (2-3 max class size), and offer appropriate terrain-based teaching. The Yard this year was set up fine for skiers, but the berm didn’t have the slope needed for snowboarders to learn on, making our job more difficult. Other mountains charge more for their products, many don’t even offer 1-hr privates anymore. They offer bonuses to instructors based on class size, returning patrons, and hours worked. We start our staff reasonably, but we see none of these things. Our raises based on certification and experience are reasonable, but the only way we can see a pay increase is to invest money and time. We are told that our pay scale reflects that we receive tips, yet Eldora sees some of the fewest and paltriest tips in all of the industry. This makes it a severe logical disconnect between expectation and reality.
Over the course of this year, I watched many of my friends and colleagues leave. Some under strange or unfortunate circumstances, some because it was the right time to go. Today, those people are off at other mountains, doing other jobs, and preparing for summer. Eldora has provided me a network of friends and colleagues across the Rockies and beyond. But I keep asking myself why these people are so gung ho to leave, especially when Boulder is so near and Eldora can be so wonderful. Ultimately, all I can think of is that we aren’t being treated well enough.
There will be more changes, of course, some for the better, some not. Our expansion plans have been rumored for years, and with our constantly failing lifts, it would seem that should be our priority, regardless of cost. Rumors of the destruction of Jug Glades, the best teaching trees on the mountain, worries me. Rumors that Nordic won’t even exist next year is scaring staff. Rumors that we’ll continue to curtail passes for grad students, seniors, and many of our long-time loyal patrons mean I’m constantly bombarded with questions I can’t answer. Rumors that we’ll be announcing a sale tomorrow to a non-Vail resort is exciting. And talk that we’ll hire even fewer new staff next year, continuing to shrink our staff despite being short-staffed most of this year, is a terrible thought.
Still, I’m hopeful for the future, hopeful for what might be in years to come. Tomorrow, I’ll be unemployed once more, trying to figure out how waste another summer until next ski season. I hope I have the opportunity to return to Eldora and that we will fix many of the problems of this year.
If you’re still the owner and/or General Manager of Eldora next season, Mr. Killebrew, you have an opportunity to turn the changes of this year around. You have a chance to make Eldora not only more profitable, but better for all of us. All I ask is that you consider the concerns of the staff, think about how the little things can really make a difference, and remember that we are not cogs in a machine but a family that loves this mountain. If you can do all that, I know we’ll have more returning staff, more returning patrons, and a better reputation among the mountains.
Thank you for your time, the mountain, and your effort moving forward.