Podcast #55: China Peak, California CEO Tim Cohee

An oral history of the modern ski industry

  
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Who

Tim Cohee, Managing Partner, CEO, and General Manager of China Peak Mountain Resort, California

Recorded on

September 28, 2021

Why I interviewed him

Because China Peak, an independent operation situated on the Southwest side of California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, sits at the bullseye of multiple issues shaping the modern lift-served skiing landscape. Climate change is descending in all seasons: seven winter snow droughts in the past 10 years; wildfire scraping the resort’s edges and damaging buildings in 2020. The mega-resorts with their super-cheap megapasses beckon the local Fresno skiers that are China Peak’s core constituency. And not just California’s many Epic and Ikon gems – Palisades Tahoe, Kirkwood, Heavenly, Northstar – but the resorts dotted all around the West – it takes the same amount of time to fly to Salt Lake City from Fresno as it does to drive to China Peak. But, like most mid-sized ski areas around the country, China Peak is stamping out a model to survive and hopefully thrive in this era of consolidation, cheap travel, and climate catastrophe: banding together with other independent mountains on the Indy Pass and Powder Alliance, and investing in a powerful New England-style snowmaking system capable of burying the place and (hopefully) fending off fires. And if you’re going to initiate such massive and dramatic change, it helps to have a charismatic leader with more than 40 years of experience dealing with every possible circumstance a snowy mountain can churn out. Skiing needs the China Peaks to thrive if skiing itself is to survive long-term, and I wanted to see how Cohee planned to do that.

What we talked about

The Southern California ski scene in the 1970s; the Cohee family ski diaspora and their potential future at China Peak; the 1970s vacuum in ski-area marketing; the surreal reality of Southern California skiing; when the massive city below doesn’t know about the abundant skiing in the mountains above; what it took to get same-day snow conditions video from the mountain to the local news station 40 years ago; working for Bill Killebrew at Heavenly; the smartest guy in the history of skiing; quadrupling skier visits at Bear Mountain né Goldmine; how “skiing’s dream team” emerged from a 1990s version of Bear Mountain to run some of the largest ski areas in the country; moving east and working under Les Otten in the heyday of the American Skiing Company; reviving a declining Kirkwood; leaving the ski area after 17 years to buy China Peak (known at the time as Sierra Summit); what happens when a ski area ignores the customer; How and why China Peak overhauled its snowmaking system and how that’s going to change the resort; and what happens when your snowmaking manager quits over Christmas break.

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

For most of its first two years, The Storm Skiing Podcast focused mostly on the Northeast. In order to capture the true breadth and spirit of the region, it was important to me to maintain a balance between monster, conglomerate-owned ski areas and the-owner-drives-the-Snowcat family-owned hills. So episodes featuring Killington, Sunday River, Sugarbush, Sugarloaf, Loon, and Mount Snow lived alongside interviews with the folks running Plattekill, Berkshire East, Bolton Valley, Titus, Whaleback, Mad River Glen, and Lonesome Pine. The ski world is big and messy, and the podcast had to reflect that.

As I expand the pod’s focus from the Northeast to the entire country, I will deliberately follow that same template. My first two western interviews – Taos and Aspen – are ski-world A-listers, checkbox items for the Ikon set, places with deep resonance and meaning for generations of locals and tourists. China Peak is something different. Once knowns as Sierra Summit, it’s a local bump that no one’s flying across the country to ski. But that’s exactly why I’m here: what the hell is this place, this mysterious Indy Pass partner wading in a purgatory south of the Sierra badboys? It’s been there for 63 years and no one outside of Fresno has ever heard of it. But like all ski areas, it means a tremendous amount to a lot of people out there, and it’s an important part of this American ski story that I’m trying to tell.

Questions I wish I’d asked

For a typical Storm Skiing Podcast interview, I’ll write 25 to 30 questions and manage to get to around 80 percent of them. This time, I got through six. Cohee’s 40-plus-year journey through the ski industry during its decades of explosive change was so compelling that we didn’t even get to China Peak until we were nearly out of time. So all of my normal questions about chairlifts, trail networks, local markets, snowfall, fire danger, the Indy Pass, the Powder Alliance, and the wild world of Covid will just have to wait until next time – and you will want there to be a next time after you hear this.

Why you should ski China Peak

China Peak is an interesting place. It’s more or less at the end of the road, on the way to nowhere, close to nothing at all. Mammoth, 30-ish miles away as the crow flies, is a five-hour drive. Because it’s not big enough to merit destination status in a state overloaded with alpha ski resorts, it’s mostly a day tripper’s hill for Fresno, an hour-and-a-half southwest. But there’s no rule that it has to be. An Indy Pass and Powder Alliance member, China Peak is a walk-up proposition for many skiers on their existing passes. The trail map looks fun, especially after a big snow, but the mountain’s new megahose snowmaking system ought to guarantee more stable conditions even when the snow fails to materialize. This would make a nice stop on any California ski tour.

Additional reading/videos

  • Cohee on video:

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