New Wolf Ridge Owners to Change Name, Revive Dormant Lifts, Upgrade Frontside Double
Plus, a chat with the owner of Steeplechase, Minnesota, on reviving that lost ski area
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“We want to give the mountain a new era and a new life”
North Carolina has six ski areas. How is that possible? The base and summit elevations solve that mystery:
For comparison’s sake, Killington’s lowest base area sits at just 1,165 feet, and its peak is at 4,241. Sugarbush ranges from 1,483 feet at the bottom of Mt. Ellen to 4,082 at the top. In fact, the highest base elevation in New England is Saddleback, which at 2,460 feet sits more than 1,000 feet lower than five of the six North Carolina ski areas.
Still, elevation doesn’t make the fact any less amazing: North Carolina has six ski areas. And, as a group, they seem to be thriving. Sugar Mountain rocks a pair of high-speed quads and a sixer, and has replaced five of its six lifts in the past eight years. Beech has installed five new lifts since 2001, three of them – all new fixed-grip quads – in the past five years.
Large-scale infrastructure investment has lagged, however, at Wolf Ridge. Here’s a look at the joint:
Here’s a less-weird version:
In fact, Wolf Ridge has gone backwards, eliminating two chairlifts and several trails from the map following a 2014 fire that destroyed the upper-mountain lodge. Here’s the 2011 trailmap:
A 2007 version outlines ambitions to expand further:
Even that was diluted from these 1989 plans:
Even as ambitions shrank from the trailmap, the snowmaking system failed to evolve to the moment. Wolf Ridge closed for the season on Feb. 24 this year.
It was time for a reset. In March, Deb and David Hatley, a Tennessee-based couple who are in the midst of developing a high-end non-ski resort called Coffee Ridge, purchased Wolf Ridge from longtime owner Orville English. Their stated goal: to position Wolf Ridge “as a competitive boutique ski resort and adventure destination.”
That means, according to the press release announcing the sale, “an updated lodge, re-branding, restaurant, locker rooms, retail, VIP lounge, operating systems, new top-of-the-line rental equipment, and enhancements to the snow-making capabilities” this year. Future enhancements “include year-round operations, swimming club, tennis courts, ‘leaf peeping’ lift rides, adventure course/zip-line, Mountain biking, and additional lodge/accommodations.”
But it also means, according to a follow-up interview by The Storm Skiing Journal with Deb Hatley, reactivating those dormant lifts around the burned-down lodge. The Hatleys are “100 percent committed” to revitalizing that terrain, known as Breakaway, but could not commit to a timeline to start that work. The old double, Deb said, is operable, but the quad needs a new drive. The lifts will not be restored in time for the 2023-24 ski season.
“When you purchase something like this, you want to do it all,” she said. “Then you are humbled with your timeline and reality. I was hoping to be able to get Breakaway back in shape, but once I really realized what I was up against, I was like, that's just not feasible this year.”
The frontside Laurel double chair, a 1971 SLI, is “definitely” going to be replaced, possibly with a high-speed lift. “We’re looking at replacing that next year,” Deb said. The quad, a 1988 Doppelmayr, will stay put for the time being.
As for that expansion teased on the 2007 trailmap, Deb would not rule it out, only saying that they “have not gotten that far” yet, “so hold on.”
While the lift upgrades will take some time, extensive snowmaking improvements have already begun, with new 16-inch pipe (the old pipe measured between eight and 12 inches), 35 new snowguns, and an upgraded pump house with new drives. Snowmaking enhancements will focus on skier’s right this year, and skier’s left next year, Deb said. Automation will be a focus, as will adding snowmaking to the trails that currently lack it.
The Hatleys are novice skiers. Deb said she has skied “maybe five times.” But they are self-described serial entrepreneurs, bringing “fresh eyes” to this industry. “We feel like everything is figure-out able,” she said.
And they have a clear vision: “we’re trying to position Wolf Ridge as the premier boutique ski resort,” Deb said. “We still want to be very competitive in our ticket prices, but really just focusing more on the quality experience and not so much the quantity, because so many of the competitors around, the focus is quantity and not so much quality.”
The ski area is not adrift without experienced operators, however. General Manager Terry Spaulding will stay put. As will Orville’s son, Andy English who, “was basically raised on the mountain,” said Deb. “He has been a wealth of knowledge” and “has worked every facet of the business and really knows what it takes on the snow capability side and the infrastructure side.” Andy English will act as the ski area’s facilities manager, and has been leading the snowmaking upgrades.
The Hatleys background is in hospitality, and the real opportunity at Wolf Ridge lies in developing the full 450 acres that they purchased into a year-round resort. This, in the Southeast, is crucial. Most of the region’s surviving ski areas – Snowshoe, Massanutten, Wintergreen, Bryce – thrive in spite of, not because of, the fact that they are ski areas. These are true resorts, with 365-day amenities to keep their second-home-owners interested outside of the 12- to 15-week ski season.
“We want to make it a year-round experience for our guests and for the region,” Deb said. The first step will be a baselodge remodel for the upcoming ski season, which will focus on “delicious food and restaurant accommodations in a yet-to-be-built bar.” Future additions include short-term rentals to provide weekend accommodations, a mountain-bike park, and rebuilding the upper lodge. Deb says that she’s brought in a manager who “has managed several premier luxury resorts around the world,” to hire a more service-oriented staff.
The first tangible step: changing the ski area’s name. Deb says they have “gone back and forth on a couple different names,” and she anticipates a rollout within the next two months. “Wolf Ridge,” is not one of the options, she confirmed. “We want to give the mountain a new era and a new life,” Deb said.
The Hatleys view the name change as an evolution of a strong legacy. “I think the world of the English family,” said Deb. “They’ve put their heart and soul into the mountain. They've done a phenomenal job. They've really created a family-owned environment. It's challenging being in the ski industry in the Southeast, and he did it really well. We really want to celebrate the history that he made there, and add to it. His dream was to always see this mountain flourish, and so I think he's excited to see it come into the hands of people that are committed to that, and who have a lot of creative forward thinking for it.”
The best-case scenario here is a Timberline-style resurrection. That mountain has evolved from one of the most run-down in the region to one of the best under new owners, who invested millions in new lifts and snowmaking after purchasing it in 2020. But the Perfect family, who rescued Timberline, are experienced operators, who had run a ski are in Indiana – of all places – for nearly 40 years before voyaging into the West Virginia highlands.
Deb seems aware of the fact that ski areas are capital-hungry monsters. “This is something that’s going to take an endless amount of capital and investment,” she said. “This is a passion project. We think that this mountain is really special and we’re super committed to enhancing the overall experience and bringing something super unique and cool to our area.”
Below the paid subscriber jump: a conversation with Justin Steck, who bought and revitalized Steeplechase, Minnesota, and much more.