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Jim Rochford Jr., Owner and General Manager of Trollhaugen, Wisconsin
July 10, 2023
Click here for a mountain stats overview
Owned by: The Rochford family
Located in: Dresser, Wisconsin
Year founded: 1950
Pass affiliations: Indy Pass – 2 days
Reciprocal partners: None
Closest neighboring ski areas: Wild Mountain (18 minutes), Como Park (1 hour), Afton Alps (1 hour, 3 minutes), Elm Creek (1 hour, 3 minutes), Hyland Hills (1 hour, 18 minutes), Buck Hill (1 hour, 22 minutes), Welch Village (1 hour, 33 minutes), Christie Mountain (1 hour, 24 minutes), Powder Ridge (1 hour 54 minutes), Coffee Mill (1 hour, 56 minutes)
Base elevation: 920 feet
Summit elevation: 1,200 feet
Vertical drop: 280 feet
Skiable Acres: 90 (2023 expansion will increase this total)
Average annual snowfall: 50 inches
Trail count: 24 (28% advanced, 43% intermediate, 29% beginner)
Lift count: 9 (4 fixed-grip quads, 5 ropetows – lift count includes new Partek fixed-grip Chair 1 that Trollhaugen is installing this summer – view Lift Blog’s inventory of Trollhaugen’s lift fleet)
Why I interviewed him
What if the greatest ski town in America is not Aspen or Telluride or Park City or Jackson, but Minneapolis? Within an hour of downtown, eight ski areas: Elm Creek, Como Park, Hyland Hills, Buck Hill, Afton Alps, Welch Village, Wild Mountain, and Trollhaugen. Not one of them tops 360 vertical feet or collects more than 60 inches of snow in an average season.
Underwhelming stats that underscore the point: only the hardcore would swarm such bumps, endure the windblown cloud-cluttered upper Midwest dead-winter, in pursuit of the turn, the loft, the float, that singular moment of ski-high. There’s a reason Vail’s first stop on its march east was Minneapolis – this is a ski town (and one you can actually afford to live in).
Midwest skiing is a bizarre world for the uninitiated. Chairlifts everywhere, often side-by-side, trolling up clear-cut hillsides seemingly conjured from the flats. Between these chairs, high-speed ropetows, hauling more skiers than you’d thought possible, faster than you can believe. You assume the ski areas are small, but they just keep going, rolling hillock after hillock over vast snowy complexes. At Afton, 17 Hall chairlifts ordered in industrial rows, threading a chutes-and-ladders labyrinth of gullies and tunnels and wide-open faces. At Welch, a mini-Vail Mountain, endless linked trailpods terminating at the Back Bowl, a spiderweb of burners diving through the trees. At Buck, every inch reserved, the place a vast school for racers, for bumpers, for flippity-flap flip-flap Brahs.
Trollhaugen is a little bit of all of these things: four quads and five ropetows serving a hunk of Wisconsin countryside that feels bigger than 260 vertical feet on 100-ish acres. The Rochford family – which has owned the bump since the ‘60s – has resisted the urge to clear-cut, instead carving tree-lined tracks through the gullies. Wide-open faces aplenty, still, and zones for ropetow rockers fast and slow. The base area is themed Euro-Alpine, Bavarian perhaps, or Scandinavian.
Don’t let the Midwestern kitsch, wicket tickets, Rube Goldberg beginner tows, or pair of vintage ‘70s Borvig quads distract you: this is a terrific, and modern, ski area. The grooming is excellent. Snowmaking and night-skiing cover 100 percent of the hills. Trollhaugen erected a brand-new Partek quad two years ago, and it’s installing another this summer. It was an inaugural Indy Pass partner, hyper-aware of the rapidly evolving lift-served skiing landscape and its competitive place within it. When you have seven direct competitors, one of which belongs to the Epic Pass, excellence is your only option. Trollhaugen delivers.
What we talked about
The Covid outdoor surge just keeps on surging; limiting lift tickets; how different Covid-era policies impacted ski areas near the Wisconsin-Minnesota border; Wild Mountain; Trollhaugen’s tradition of early-season openings; why Trollhaugen closed April 1 after a 10-inch snowstorm; post-closing railjams; what happened when Vail Resorts bought nearby Afton Alps; whether the Epic Pass’ arrival contributed to Trollhaugen’s decision to join the Indy Pass; how Indy visitation has evolved over time; three generations of family ownership; remembering an era in which a mailman and a firefighter could start a ski area; the non-skiing dentists who bought a ski area to party; a brief history of Trollhaugen’s lifts; growing up with a ski area as your backyard; the surprisingly circuitous route that Rochford took to eventually run the family business; respecting the family legacy while building upon it; going deep on Trollhaugen’s expansion; glade skiing at Trollhaugen; why the conceptual expansion map shows a triple chair but we’re getting a quad; the quiet brilliance of Partek chairlifts; stepping up to automated snowmaking; how the expansion may change the annual terrain-opening plan; connecting the expansion to the ski area proper; parking expansions; the story behind the parking lot sign equipped with old double chairs; Welch Village; ropetows versus carpets; the fate of the Summit ropetow; high-speed ropetows rule; a fenced ski area; 3 a.m. Fridays; and behind the Trollhaugen name and theme.
Why I thought that now was a good time for this interview
Trollhaugen is the only one of the eight metro Minneapolis-St. Paul ski areas that sits in Wisconsin. It’s four miles east of the state line, and 18 minutes from Wild. Usually, that doesn’t matter. U.S. state borders, practically speaking, are mostly roadside signs. No checkpoints or paperwork. Perhaps a speed-limit adjustment. Perhaps a slight state-of-mind shift.
But during Covid, that address mattered. Wisconsin, for the most part, introduced less stringent Covid safety measures than its neighbor, and relaxed them faster. No need to itemize them here: the net impact was a clanging cash register for Trollhaugen. Record numbers of skiers dumped record revenues into the joint. And, as Rochford tells me on the podcast, “if the skiers are going to invest in us, then we’re going to invest in them.”
So Trollhaugen ripped out a 52-year-old Hall double chair and stood up a brand-new Partek quad in 2021. That was phase one of a three-year capital project and expansion that is set to open this coming winter, with three-and-a-half new trails and yet another new Partek quad.
It’s hard to overstate how big of a deal this is for a small Midwestern ski area. Skiers acclimated to New England or the Rockies would be stunned at the condition of the average lift fleet in Michigan, Wisconsin, or Minnesota. Lots of Riblets. Lots of Halls. Very few detachables. Very few safety bars. It’s vintage skiing, often quite good – snowmaking tends to be excellent – but unadorned by the trappings of big-time resorts in other regions. In this neighborhood, two new lifts in three years is an enormous flex.
Trollhaugen is not the only family-owned Midwest ski area investing this year. Buck Hill, Wild Mountain, Nub’s Nob, and Perfect North are also erecting new quads this summer. And the big Midwestern operators have fully activated their cash cannons: Boyne is dropping a D-line sixer onto The Highlands and a fixed quad and triple at Boyne Mountain; Midwest Family Ski Resorts is building six-packs at Snowriver and Lutsen; and Wisconsin Resorts is adding a second high-speed quad to Mt. Holly and a triple to Alpine Valley, Michigan. But Trollhaugen’s new lift will serve the region’s only terrain expansion for the 2023-24 ski season. That’s a really big deal, and worth taking a deeper look at.
What I got wrong
I said in the intro that Trollhaugen had been the first ski area to open in America for the 2022-23 ski season. It was actually the first to open a chairlift, on Oct. 19. Wild Mountain and Andes Tower Hills, both in Minnesota, opened ropetows on Oct. 18.
I intimated that Loveland was in Summit County, Colorado, along with Keystone and Arapahoe Basin. Loveland actually sits just across the border, in Clear Creek County. Breckenridge and Copper Mountain also sit in Summit County.
I said that Welch Village “must have had a dozen chairlifts.” It has eight.
I said that Trollhaugen had a “Bavarian” theme, but the backstory that Rochford told us suggests that the ornate buildings clustered at the ski area’s base are better classified as “Scandinavian.”
Why you should ski Trollhaugen
There’s something about Midwest skiing that is extremely gratifying. Even for those who have other options. Remember that 2000 movie, The Family Man, where a rich a-hole played by Nick Cage is shoved into an alternate timeline where he’s stripped of his Ferrari and closetful of $10,000 suits and self-important Wall Street job? And suddenly he’s living in suburban New Jersey as a tire salesman who drives two kids around in a minivan. And at first he’s like, “Oh boy this sucks a fat one.” But by the end of the film he’s bitching about the price of a bag of rock salt and relishing domestic life in his messy falling-apart house in Maplewood or wherever.
Midwest skiing is kind of like that. If you’re accustomed to RFID and superfast lifts and 3,000-acre playgrounds stuffed with chutes and glades and 15-foot bases of natural snow, you may be unable to imagine skiing unadorned with those jewels. But what if you forced yourself to? What if you pulled up to a Midwest bump on a jam-packed Saturday and skied just for the sake of doing it? Surrounded by thousands of skiers who didn’t seem to give a damn that the chairlifts didn’t have heated toilets or Netflix-equipped safety bars? Who act like they’re at the best party ever? Who seem as giddy as any skiers you’ve ever seen anywhere?
It's odd that the people who seem most insecure about Midwest ski areas are those who’ve never been within 50 miles of one. I see this every time I write a post about the Midwest – the hate, the impulse to belittle a thing that so many people love. It’s all so stupid and tedious, so boring. Midwest skiing is about relishing what’s there, not bemoaning what isn’t. Yes, it’s a different sort of skiing than you get in the Rockies or New England. But it’s fun. An often-overcomplicated thing boiled down to its essence.
If you love skiing, you will love skiing at Trollhaugen. Yes, it demands a certain creativity to stay engaged, to draw new lines out of the hillside, to sink into the moment between frequent chairlift rides. But, just as a minivan gets you to the same place as a Ferrari, this stripped-down version of skiing can get you exactly where you need to go. If you let it.
On the view from Spirit Mountain
The view from the summit of Spirit Mountain, overlooking the St. Louis River just before it drains into Lake Superior. At the base of the lifts (Spirit is an upside-down ski area), the mountain is only about a half mile from the Wisconsin border.
On Wisconsin’s lost ski areas
Rochford’s grandparents purchased Trollhaugen in the 1960s. During the podcast, he commented that “of the ski areas we had in Wisconsin in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, I bet half of those are open today.” It’s hard to get exact numbers on what may or may not have existed 50-plus years ago, but I did dig up these old maps from the Wisconsin Lost Ski Areas Project:
For context, here’s a complete list of active Wisconsin ski areas. In some cases, ski areas have changed their names: Rib Mountain is now Granite Peak, for example. I’d love to do a side-by-side here, but that would be a project I just don’t have time for at the moment:
On other ski area expansions happening this summer
Trollhaugen’s expansion is one of seven happening at U.S. ski areas this summer. Here’s an overview:
On Trollhaugen’s parking lot chairlift
We briefly discuss the cool chairlift structure (which I referred to as a “sign”) at Trollhaugen’s entrance. Here it is:
On Trollhaugen’s ropetows
Trollhaugen has two types of ropetows – these whacky Rube Goldberg contraptions in the beginner area that look like they’re about 175 years old:
And these burners for the Park Brahs:
On the border fence
Trollhaugen, like the vast majority of Midwest ski areas, still trades in metal wicket tickets. But rather than station an attendant at the bottom of each lift, the ski area fences off the base area, leaving just one access point to the lifts. One attendant checks the ticket one time – a pretty brilliant (and inexpensive), fraud-prevention system:
On the spring skiing surcharge
Many ski areas use free spring skiing as an incentive for new passholders. Buy your 2023-24 season pass in February 2023 and ski the rest of the 2022-23 season for free. But many ski areas in Minnesota and Wisconsin charge for the spring skiing option. Trollhaugen is one of them, charging new 2023-24 passholders $75 for spring 2023 access if they wanted spring skiing. Not a bad deal, actually, as that’s probably not much more than the cost of a weekend lift ticket. Here are the other ski areas in the region that charge new passholders for spring access:
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