The Storm Skiing Journal and Podcast
The Storm Skiing Journal and Podcast
Podcast #173: Kirkwood Vice President & General Manager Ricky Newberry
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Podcast #173: Kirkwood Vice President & General Manager Ricky Newberry

"There is really not much between us and the Pacific Ocean to get in the way of storms."
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Who

Ricky Newberry, Vice President and General Manager of Kirkwood Ski Resort, California

Newberry, with the ceremonial bell that Doppelmayr presents to its customers at new lift openings, on Heavenly’s North Bowl Express in 2022. Photo courtesy of Vail Resorts.

Recorded on

May 20, 2024

About Kirkwood

Click here for a mountain stats overview

Owned by: Vail Resorts

Located in: Kirkwood, California

Year founded: 1972

Pass affiliations:

  • Epic Pass: unlimited access

  • Epic Local Pass: unlimited access with holiday blackouts

  • Tahoe Local Epic Pass: unlimited access with holiday blackouts

  • Tahoe Value Pass: unlimited access with holiday and Saturday blackouts

  • Kirkwood Pass: unlimited access

Closest neighboring ski areas: Heavenly (:43), Sierra-at-Tahoe (:44) – travel times vary significantly given weather conditions, time of day, and time of year.

Base elevation: 7,800 feet

Summit elevation: 9,800 feet

Vertical drop: 2,000 feet

Skiable Acres: 2,300

Average annual snowfall: 354 inches

Trail count: 86 (20% expert, 38% advanced, 30% intermediate, 12% beginner)

Lift count: 13 (2 high-speed quads, 1 fixed-grip quad, 6 triples, 1 double, 1 T-bar, 2 carpets – view Lift Blog’s inventory of Kirkwood’s lift fleet).

View historic Kirkwood trailmaps on skimap.org.

Why I interviewed him

Imagine this: 1971. Caltrans, the military-grade state agency charged with clearing California’s impossible snows from its high-alpine road network, agrees to maintain an additional wintertime route across the Sierra Crest: Highway 88, over Carson Pass, an east-west route cutting 125 miles from Stockton to US 395.

This is California State Route 88 in the winter:

Photo courtesy of Caltrans.

A ridiculous road, an absurd idea: turn the industrial power of giant machines against a wilderness route whose wintertime deeps had eaten human souls for centuries. An audacious idea, but not an unusual one. Not in that California or in that America. Not in that era of will and muscle. Not in that country that had pushed thousands of miles of interstate across mountains and rivers and deserts in just 15 years. Caltrans would hammer 20-foot-high snow canyons up and over the pass, punching an arctic pathway into and through the howling angry fortress of the Sierra Nevada.

And they did it all to serve a new ski resort.

Imagine that. A California, an America that builds.

Kirkwood, opened in 1972, was part of the last great wave of American ski resort construction. Copper, Northstar, Powder Mountain, 49 Degrees North, and Telluride all opened that year. Keystone (1970), Snowbird (1971), and Big Sky (1973) also cranked to life around this time. Large ski area building stalled by the early ‘80s, though Vail managed to develop Beaver Creek in 1980. Deer Valley opened in 1981. Outliers materialize: Bohemia, in spite of considerable local resistance, in 2000. Tamarack in 2004. But mostly, the ski resorts we have are all the ski resorts we’ll ever have.

But there is a version of America, of California, that dreams and does enormous things, and not so long ago. This institutional memory lives on, even in those who had no part in its happening. Kirkwood is an emblem of this era and its willful collective imagining. The mountain itself is a ludicrous place for a commercial ski resort, steep and wild, an avalanche hazard zone that commands constant vigilant maintenance. Like Alta-Snowbird or Jackson Hole, the ski area offers nominal groomed routes, a comfortable lower-mountain beginner area, just enough accommodation for the intermediate mass-market passholder to say “yes I did this.” This dressing up, too, encapsulates the fading American habit of taming the raw and imposing, of making an unthinkable thing look easy.

But nothing about Kirkwood is easy. Not the in or the out. Not the up or the down. It’s rough and feisty, messy and unpredictable. And that’s the point of the place. As with the airplane or the smartphone, we long ago lost our awe of the ski resort, what a marvelous feat of human ingenuity it is. Kirkwood, lost in the highlands, lift-served on its crazy two-mile ridge, is one of the more improbable organized centers of American skiing. In its very existence the place memorializes and preserves lost impulses to actualize the unbelievable, to transport humans into, up, and down a ferocious mountain in a hostile mountain range. I find glory in Kirkwood, in that way and so many more. Hyperbole, perhaps. But what an incredible place this is, and not just because of the skiing.

What we talked about

Coming down off a 725-inch 2022-23 winter; what’s behind Kirkwood’s big snows and frequent road closures; scenic highway 88; if you’re running Kirkwood, prepare to sleep in your office; employee housing; opening when the road is closed; why Kirkwood doesn’t stay open deep into May even when they have the snowpack; the legacy of retiring Heavenly COO Tom Fortune; the next ski area Vail should buy; watching Vail Resorts move into Tahoe; Vail’s culture of internal promotion; what it means to lead the ski resort where you started your career; avalanche safety; the nuance and complexity of managing Kirkwood’s avy-prone terrain; avy dogs; why is Kirkwood Vail’s last Western mountain to get a new chairlift?; bringing Kirkwood onto the grid; potential lift upgrades (fantasy version); considering Kirkwood’s masterplan; whether a lift could ever serve the upper bowls looker’s right; why Kirkwood shrank the boundary of Reuter Bowl this past season; why the top of The Wall skied different this winter; why Kirkwood put in and then removed surface lifts around Lift 4 (Sunrise); Kirkwood’s fierce terrain; what happens when Vail comes to Rowdy Town; The Cirque and when it opens for competitions; changes coming to Kirkwood parking; why Kirkwood still offers a single-mountain season pass; and the Tahoe Value and Tahoe Local passes.  

Bowl skiing at Kirkwood. Photo courtesy of Vail Resorts.

Why I thought that now was a good time for this interview

Maybe last year, when the stacked snows transformed Tahoe into a Seussian mushroom village, would have been a better moment for this interview. Kirkwood – Kirkwood – beat a 700-inch single-winter snowfall record that had stood for 40 years, with 725 inches of freaking snow. By the time I arrived onsite, in late March, the snowpack was so deep that I could barely see out the windows of my condo – on the second floor:

File under: “Tahoe Isn’t Real.” Photo by Stuart Winchester, March 2023.

This winter marked a return to almost exactly average, which at Kirkwood is still better than what some ski areas clock in a decade: 370 inches. Average, in draught-prone Tahoe and closure-prone Kirkwood, is perhaps the best possible outcome. As this season settled from a thing that is to a thing that happened, it felt appropriate to document the contrast: how does 370 feel when it chases 725? Is snow like money, where after a certain amount you really can’t tell the difference? Or does snow, which, like money, occupies that strange space between the material and the ephemeral, ignite with its vanishing form some untamable avarice? More is never enough. Even 725 inches feels stingy in some contexts – Alta stacked 903 last winter; Baker’s 1,140-inch 1998-99 season bests any known season snowfall total on Planet Earth.

But Californians, I’ve found, have little use for comparisons. Perhaps that’s an effect of the horizon-bending desert that chops the state off from the rest of the continent. Perhaps it’s a silent pride in being a resident of America’s most-populous state – more people live in California than in the 21 least-populous U.S. states combined, or in all of Canada. Perhaps its Surf Brah bonhomie drifting up to the mountains. Whatever it is, there seems to be something in Cali’s collective soul that takes whatever it’s given and is content with it.

Or at least it feels that way whenever I go there, and it sure felt that way in this interview. At a moment when it seems as though too many big-mountain skiers at headliner mountains want to staple their home turf’s alpha-dog patch to their forehead and walk around with two thumbs jerking upward repeating “You do realize I’m a season passholder at Alta, right?”, Kirkwood still feels tucked away, quiet in its excellence, a humble pride masking its fierce façade. Even 12 years into Vail Resorts’ ownership, the ski area feels as corporate as a guy selling bootleg purses out of a rolled-out sheet on Broadway. Swaggering but approachable, funky and improvised, something that’s probably going to make a good story when you get back home.

Kirkwood. Photo courtesy of Vail Resorts.

Why you should ski Kirkwood

Oddly, I usually tell people not to go here. And not in that stupid social media way that ever-so-clever (usually) Utah and Colorad-Bros trip over one another to post: “Oh Snowbird/Wolf Creek/Pow Mow sucks, no one should go there.” It’s so funny I forgot to laugh. But Kirkwood can be genuinely tough to explain. Most Epic Pass-toting tourists are frankly going to have a better time at Heavenly or Northstar, with their fast lifts, Tahoe views, vast intermediate trail networks, and easy access roads. Kirkwood is grand. Kirkwood is exceptional. Kirkwood is the maximalist version of what humankind can achieve in taming an angry pocket of wilderness for mass recreation. But Kirkwood is not for everyone.

There. I’ve set expectations. So maybe don’t make this your first Tahoe stop if you’re coming west straight from Paoli Peaks. It’s a bruiser, one of the rowdiest in Vail’s sprawling portfolio, wild and steep and exposed. If you’re looking for a fight, Kirkwood will give you one.

This is probably steeper than the black diamonds at Wilmot. Photo courtesy of Vail Resorts.

That’s not to say an intermediate couldn’t enjoy themselves here. Just don’t expect Keystone. What’s blue and green at Kirkwood is fine terrain, but it’s limited, and lacks the drama of, say, coming over Ridge Run or Liz’s at Heavenly, with the lake shimmering below and miles of intermediate pitch in front of you.

**This message is not endorsed (or likely appreciated) by the Kirkwood Chamber of Commerce, Vail Resorts, or Kirkwood ski area.

Podcast Notes

On former Kirkwood GMs on the podcast

Sometimes it seems as though everyone in skiing has taken their turn running Kirkwood. An unusual number of past Storm Skiing Podcast guests have done so, and I discussed the resort with all of them: Chip Seamans (now at Windham), Tim Cohee (now at China Peak), and Tom Fortune (recently retired from Heavenly). Apologies if I forgot anyone.

On Apple Mountain

Apple Mountain wasn’t much: 200-ish vertical feet (pushed up from an original 30-footer) with a quad chair and a bunch of ropetows. Here was the 2000 trailmap:

But this little Michigan ski area – where both Newberry and I learned (partially, in my case), to ski – moved nearly 800,000 students through its beginner programs from 1961 to ’94, according to the Michigan Lost Ski Areas Project.

It’s been closed since 2017. Something about the snowmaking system that’s either too hard or too expensive to fix. That leaves Michigan’s Tri-Cities – Midland, Bay City, and Saginaw, with a total metro population approaching 400,000 – with no functioning ski area. Snow Snake is only about 40 minutes north of Midland, and Mt. Holly is less than an hour south of Saginaw. But Apple Mountain, tucked into the backwoods behind Freeland, sat dead in the middle of the triangle. It was accessible to almost any schoolkid, and, humble as it was, stoked that fire for thousands of what became lifelong skiers.

What skiing has lost without Apple Mountain is impossible to calculate. I would argue that it was one of the more important ski areas anywhere. Winters in mid-Michigan are long, cold, snowy, and dull. People need something to do. But skiing is not an obvious solution: this is the flattest place you can imagine. To have skiing – any skiing – in the region was a joy and a novelty. There was no redundancy, no competing ski center. And so the place was impossibly busy at all times, minting skiers who would go off to start ski newsletters and run huge resorts on the other side of the country.

The most frustrating fact about Apple Mountain is that it continues to operate as a conference center, golf course, and apple orchard. The ski lifts are intact, the slopes mowed in summertime. I stopped in two summers ago (I accidentally said “last summer,” implying 2023, on the podcast), and the place was immaculate:

Apple Mountain in Freeland, Michigan. Photos by Stuart Winchester, June 2022.

I haven’t given up on Apple Mountain just yet. The hill is there, the market is there, and there is no shortage of people in Michigan – home to the second-most ski areas after New York – who know how to run a ski area. I told Ricky to tell Vail to buy it, which I am certain they will not do. But a solution must exist.

On Mount Shasta and “the big mountain above it”

Newberry references his time at “Mt. Shasta and the big mountain above it.” Here’s what he meant by that: Mt. Shasta Ski Park is a mid-sized ski area seated on the lower portion of 14,179-foot Mt. Shasta. The lifts top out at 7,536 feet, even after an uphill expansion last ski season. The trailmap doesn’t really capture the scale of it all (the ski area’s vert is around 2,000 feet):

Shasta is a temperamental (and potentially active) volcano. A previous ski area called Mt. Shasta Ski Bowl ran chairlifts up to 9,400 feet, but an avalanche wiped out the summit lift in 1978. Ski Bowl never ran again. Here’s a nice history of the lost ski area:

On Vail Resorts’ timeline

We talk a lot about Vail’s growth timeline. Here’s the full roster, in order of acquisition:

On Heavenly

We discuss Heavenly - where Newberry spent a large part of his career - extensively. Here’s the mountain’s trailmap for reference:

On Ted Lasso

If you haven’t watched Ted Lasso yet, you should probably go ahead and do that immediately:

On Ellen at Stevens Pass

Newberry mentioned “Ellen at Stevens Pass.” He was referring to Ellen Galbraith, the ski area’s delightful general manager, who joined me on the podcast last year.

On Vail’s lift installations in the West

Given its outsized presence in the ski zeitgeist, Vail actually operates very few ski areas in Western North America: five in Colorado, three in California, and one each in Utah, Washington, and British Columbia. The company has stood up 44 (mostly) new lifts at these 11 ski areas since 2012, with one puzzling exception: Kirkwood. Check this:

Why is Big K getting stiffed? Newberry and I discuss.

On Kirkwood’s masterplan

As far as I know, Vail hasn’t updated Kirkwood’s Forest Service masterplan since acquiring the resort in 2012. But this 2007 map shows an older version of the plan and where potential lifts could go:

I can’t find a version with the proposed Timber Creek lift, which Newberry describes in the pod as loading near Bunny and TC Express and running up-mountain to the top of the bowls.

On the shrinking border of Reuter Bowl

Kirkwood’s 2023-24 trailmap snuck in a little shrinkage: the border of Reuter Bowl, a hike-in zone on the resort’s far edge, snuck south. Newberry explains why on the pod:

On Kirkwood’s short-lived surface lifts

We discuss a pair of surface lifts that appeared as Lift 15 on the trailmap from around 2008 to 2017. You can see them on this circa 2017 (earlier maps show this as one lift), trailmap:

On The Cirque

The Cirque, a wicked labyrinth of chutes, cliffs, and rocks looming above the ski area, was, somewhat unbelievably, once inbounds terrain. This circa 1976 trailmap even shows a marked trail through this forbidden zone, which is now open only occasionally for freeride comps:

On Kirkwood’s parking changes

Kirkwood will implement the same parking-reservations policy next winter that Northstar and Heavenly began using last year. Here’s a summary from the ski area’s website:

Skiers get pretty lit up about parking. But Vail is fairly generous with the workarounds, and a system that spreads traffic out (because everyone knows they’ll get a spot), across the morning is a smart adjustment so long as we are going to continue insisting on the automobile as our primary mode of transport.

On Saginaw, Michigan

Newberry and I share a moment in which we discover we were both born in the same mid-sized Michigan city: Saginaw. Believe it or not, there’s a song that starts with these very lyrics: “I was born, in Saginaw, Michigan…” The fact that this song exists has long puzzled me. It is kind of stupid but also kind of great.


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The Storm publishes year-round, and guarantees 100 articles per year. This is article 40/100 in 2024, and number 540 since launching on Oct. 13, 2019.

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