Podcast #101: Sun Valley Vice President and GM Pete Sonntag
"Sun Valley is so special to the Holding family and really represents so much of what they believe in... and it's going to remain independent."
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Pete Sonntag, Vice President and General Manager of Sun Valley, Idaho.
October 10, 2022
About Sun Valley
Click here for a mountain stats overview
Owned by: The R. Earl Holding family
Pass affiliations: Ikon, Mountain Collective
Reciprocal pass partners: Challenger Platinum and Challenger season passes include unlimited access to Snowbasin, Utah
Located in: Ketchum, Idaho
Closest neighboring ski areas: Soldier Mountain (1:10); Blizzard Mountain (1:20); Chipmunk Hill (2:10); Magic Mountain (2:30); Pomerelle (2:45); Pebble Creek (3:00); Bogus Basin (3:10); Kelly Canyon (3:10) - travel times likely to vary with wintertime weather and road closures.
Base elevation | summit elevation | vertical drop:
Bald Mountain: 9,150 feet | 3,400 feet
Dollar Mountain: 6,638 feet | 628 feet
Skiable Acres: 2,054 acres (mostly on Bald Mountain)
Average annual snowfall: 200 inches
Trail count: 122 (100 on Bald Mountain; 22 on Dollar) – 2% double-black, 20% black, 42% intermediate, 36% beginner
Bald Mountain: 12 lifts (8-passenger gondola, 8 high-speed quads, 2 triples, 1 carpet - view Lift Blog’s of inventory of Bald Mountain’s lift fleet)
Dollar Mountain: 6 lifts (2 high-speed quads, 1 triples, 1 double, 2 carpets - view Lift Blog’s of inventory of Bald Mountain’s lift fleet)
Bald Mountain: 23,680 skiers per hour
Dollar Mountain: 6,037 skiers per hour
Why I interviewed him
In certain #SkiTwitter circles and ski-oriented Facebook groups, Ski’s annual reader resort rankings can be polarizing. I’ve critiqued them myself. Readers, en masse, can lack the context of how Their Very Favorite Mountain fits into the broader ski realm. So Wachusett (nice mountain, convenient access), ends up out-ranking Stowe (legendary mountain, but cold and far), on an annual basis.*
So when Sun Valley wins this trophy for the third consecutive year, as it just did, this can puzzle the Radbrahs. They wander their homes, bumping into furniture, knocking over piles of torn-off sleeves. “How Sun Valley better than Jackson. No good as rad.” The Big Groom winning the continent does not compute.
But most skiers ski groomers most of the time. It’s what makes skiing viable as a mass-market product. And no one out-grooms The Big Groom. I asked Sonntag how many snowcats Sun Valley rolled out nightly. He wouldn’t say. But I imagine it would be a sufficient number to launch an invasion of Vermont. Or they could just move the place there. It would fit right in. Sun Valley is the most Northeast-esque mountain in the West in the way it manages trails: all grooming, all the time. Fortunately for Sun Valley skiers, the place has the elevation to hold the snow and fend off the rain that bedevils New England’s best. And that vert: 3,400 feet of straight down. It may be the most beautiful pure ski mountain on the continent. And most of the time, it’s empty. You can find that beautiful corduroy all day.
Not that you can’t rad out a bit if you want to. The new Sunrise area delivers the sort of vast treed zones that so many of us seek from a western rise. There are glades everywhere, really. See map above. Most Sun Valley skiers ignore them. All the better for you. Brah. Enjoy.
*There’s an important bit of historical context missing from Ski’s annual list-drop: this reader survey once complemented a similar resort-ranking list in sister magazine Skiing. Editors and writers chose that list. It was a bit like the AP (writers), and coaches’ polls in college football. Skiing’s list would drop in August, Ski’s in September. Or vice-versa, depending upon the year. If Skiing were still around (it shuttered in 2017), their top-five for 2023 would probably be far more palatable to the Radbrahs. The 2004 top-10, to choose a random issue from my archives, was 1) Whistler, 2) Alta/Snowbird, 3) Vail, 4) Palisades Tahoe, 5) Jackson Hole. In Skiing’s absence, Z Rankings probably does the best job lining up resorts to the expectations of RB HQ – their current top five: 1) Jackson, 2) Telluride, 3) Snowbird, 4) Alta, 5) Vail.
What we talked about
Scoring the top spot in Ski magazine’s reader poll for the third consecutive year; when Dad tells you to go be a ski bum; ski teaching at West Mountain, New York; back West and working at Beaver Creek, Copper Mountain, and Keystone; watching Vail Resorts grow from within; King Whistler; the challenges of integrating big bad Whistler into the Vail Resorts portfolio; cross-border cultural differences; how Sun Valley stands out in spite of its remoteness and relatively low snow totals, even among skiing’s biggest, baddest, and raddest powder dumps; the chances of Sun Valley staying independent over the long term; how Sun Valley and Snowbasin work together; staffing up for the season; the resort’s updated masterplan and how it will transform the resort; wave goodbye to the Yan high-speed quads; the massive Challenger lift upgrade; why the mountain is removing Greyhawk and not replacing it; bringing back and massively upgrading the Flying Squirrel lift; why Challenger will be a D-Line lift but Flying Squirrel will not be; why Mayday and Lookout upgrades aren’t coming anytime soon; “there is something to the fixed-grip that is still really valuable”; which lift upgrades are next after Challenger and Flying Squirrel; whether a six- or eight-pack chair would make sense anywhere else on the mountain; Bald Mountain upgrades beyond chairlifts; why an Elkhorn upgrade at Dollar Mountain is unlikely; long-term snowmaking upgrades at Dollar; thoughts on the proposed gondola network that would connect both ski area base areas and the town; Sun Valley’s unbelievable snowmaking firepower; assessing Sun Valley’s water supply; creating a more balanced mountain with the Sunrise expansion; how the expansion helped mitigate fire risk; replacing the Cold Springs double with the Broadway high-speed quad and how that’s worked out; expansion potential; Sun Valley’s grooming army; solving the employee-housing puzzle and where the biggest gap is; why Sun Valley left the Epic Pass and whether the mountain could ever return; whether Vail’s record Epic Pass sales contributed to Sun Valley’s flight; and selling a $2,000-plus season pass in the era of the $841 Epic Pass.
Why I thought that now was a good time for this interview
Sun Valley has been making moves. In March, the resort ended its three-year run with Epic Pass and, along with sister resort Snowbasin, jumped over to Ikon. The same day, the mountain returned to the Mountain Collective, which it had originally joined in 2015. Then, in August, the resort announced a massive upgrade of one of North America’s most iconic lifts: the Challenger high-speed quad, the tallest top-to-bottom chairlift on the continent. The detachable quad, built in 1988, would make way for a high-speed six-pack, one of Doppelmayr’ s bomber D-lines. A midstation would let skiers off near the top of the adjacent Greyhawk high-speed quad, which will also come out next summer. And last week, completely unrelated to any of these developments, Ski magazine readers ranked Sun Valley their top ski area in North America for the third consecutive year.
But there’s something else. We’ve entered the era of overdoing it. The Epic and Ikon Passes are a little too good for their own good. I’m not sure how long Colorado and Utah and Tahoe can really handle them before they crack. I mean traffic-wise and I mean liftline-wise and I mean the-price-of-everything-but-the-pass-itself-wise. I don’t think the passes will fail, but I think that the interconnected systems that they impact just may. There are only so many people you can jam into the same two dozen mountain towns before everything unravels. The passes, in their current form, are probably not sustainable indefinitely.
Sun Valley is not immune to this fallout, of course, and the mountain has participated in big passes for years. But it has resisted the maximalist tendencies of its peers. The mountain’s remoteness helps. But so do owners who have a skiing-first philosophy, a general undercurrent of “let’s not ruin this.” Sun Valley could have All the People but instead it is content to just have some of them. We saw what happened when Ikon emptied the Higgins boats onto the shores of Jackson and Aspen. The indignant gasps echoed from the 12-bathroom slopeside mansions to Mr. Beards tucked into his oatmeal sleeping bag behind tower 17. No one’s exactly getting the skier balance right, but Sun Valley has found a way to stand on a megapass masthead without drawing liftlines out to the parking lot. And that’s something worth talking about.
What I got wrong
I entered the interview with an understanding that Sun Valley’s masterplan had last been updated in 2005, and that the ski area had hired Ecosign in 2020 to update that plan. Sonntag corrected me in the interview, stating that the masterplan was in fact updated.
I also stated that the current Challenger lift ride time is nine minutes. I’m not sure where I picked that up from – Sonntag pointed out that it’s closer to 13, but will go significantly lower once the new lift – a D-line six-pack – comes online in 2023.
Why you should ski Sun Valley
This is what you’re trying to get to. On any five-turn repurposed landfill with a double chair or good-for-five-minutes New England burner laced beneath a high-speed lift. When you hook into the morning cord raw and perfectly drawn into the incline and your ski accelerates along the curve slinging you like some kind of snowbound acrobat into the next turn and you think “yes ninjas are real and I know this because I am one,” and you want that sensation to repeat forever or at least for as long as you can handle it, like sex or food or winning, this is where you’re ski compass is pointing. Because at Sun Valley you can expect to ride that sensation for-basically-ever. Thirty-four-hundred feet. Like Aspen it is all fall line. Unlike Aspen it is big, spread out, with more ways down than most skiers have the endurance to last.
Some big mountains are all muscle, sparring contests from top to bottom, daring you to take one more turn. Sun Valley can give you that. But it’s not the point of the place. This is not Snowbird. This is magic carpets unfurled for miles. Ride them. No rush. They won’t get skied off. This isn’t Okemo, where the cord is eaten alive by 10 a.m. This is Idaho. There’s no one here. Hook-and-sink. Repeat hundreds of times. High-speed lift back to the top. Again.
Skiers use social media to ask all sorts of questions, most of which would be better answered via Google search. “I’m looking for lodging recommendations for my family of 12 for Park City over Christmas break. We don’t want to spend more than $5 per night. Slopeside preferred. Hottub a must. Also we don’t want to wait in any liftlines so we’re wondering if we can drive our family van up the mountain instead?”
Here’s another common question: what’s the best ski area for an advanced skier who likes long groomers all day long? If that is what you seek, there is only one answer: Sun Valley.
More Sun Valley
Most of the 2005 master plan has been rendered moot by the coming Challenger upgrade and the Broadway Express, but this slide, showing the potential line of a gondola connecting the two ski areas and resort village, could still happen:
In 1988, Sun Valley installed a trio of high-speed quads: Greyhawk, Christmas, and the spectacular Challenger, a marvel even 34 years later with its full-mountain vertical rise. It’s impossible to overstate how thoroughly these additions transformed the experience of skiing Idaho’s most-famous ski resort. Observe the tangle of lifts puttering up the incline in 1986:
And just for fun, here’s the 1959 trailmap:
And if you think that’s a party, check this version from 1945:
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