Podcast #62: Jackson Hole Mountain Resort President Mary Kate Buckley

On the glories and the fault lines that define America's alpha resort

  
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Who

Mary Kate Buckley, President of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort

Recorded on

November 15, 2021

Why I interviewed her

In a nation machine-stamped with endless copies of Burger Kings and Sunoco stations and cut-out-of-a-cornfield housing developments, very few things truly stand out. Your buddy gives you a house tour and you’re like, “Wow Seth five bathrooms that’s so many more bathrooms than I expected you would ever have when we used to throw stale donuts at backyard racoons for sport.” But really do you care about Seth’s bathroom inventory? You don’t care.

I don’t know how many bathrooms Jackson Hole has. And neither do you. And neither does anyone else, because no one has ever counted them. Because the point of Jackson is not boujee American materialism but the tram blowing 4,000-plus feet up the mountain and the rowdy endless kingdom of snowy lines beneath it. This is a place that stands out. In any context. It is the peak of U.S. skiing. It has biggers but no betters. A few peers, maybe. Alta-Snowbird. Palisades Tahoe. Big Sky. What else? For raw terrain, no one. Not in this country. It may be – it probably is – our greatest ski resort. If the aliens arrived and said “Hey you’ve got 24 hours to evacuate before we blow up your planet and I’m sorry but you’re only allowed to bring one ski area per country,” I have little doubt that U.S. Americans would choose Jackson Hole to load aboard the space ark. Lines are gonna be long though because I heard the aliens floated by Costco and picked up a few crates of Ikon Passes on their way off the planet. Sorry bros.

What we talked about

Mary Kate’s globe-trotting decades with Disney and Nike at the dawn of ecommerce; running a vineyard in Tuscany and how that connected back to skiing; settling down in Jackson Hole after living and skiing all over the world; why she joined the ski area’s board of directors and eventually accepted an offer to become the resort’s president; how much the head of Jackson Hole gets to ski; taming the beast to open pieces of Jackson’s vast terrain to beginners and families; the mountain’s fierce terrain; how to prepare to drop into Corbet’s Couloir; whether Jackson Hole could ever expand its managed footprint out onto the gated terrain that surrounds it; where the ski area thinned glades over the summer; why the Jackson Hole Tram is the true alpha lift of American skiing; whether the mountain would ever install a redundant lift to the summit; the benefits of limiting uphill capacity; details on coming replacements for Thunder and Sublette; where the mountain could install an all-new lift; whether we could ever see a lift on the Hobacks; whether we could see a six- or eight-pack on Jackson Hole; how and why the resort limits the number of skiers on the mountain; where the mountain widened trails over the summer; why Jackson Hole closes down in early April despite a healthy snowbase remaining on the mountain; the mountain’s growing reliance on and commitment to renewable energy; the Ikon Pass lands like an asteroid; the persistence of anti-Ikon sentiment; why the resort can’t share Ikon Pass visit numbers and why it wishes it could; why Jackson Hole moved off of the Ikon Base Pass and how that decision turned out; how Jackson Hole season passholders reacted to the inclusion of an Ikon Base Pass with their JHMR season pass; whether the ski area would ever leave the Ikon Pass; how JHMR locals and tourists can get along; why Jackson Hole has stayed on the Mountain Collective Pass even as the Ikon has taken root; the impossible puzzle of mountain-town housing amid the short-term rental phenomenon and Covid-era remote-worker relocations; staffing challenges as ski season closes in; thoughts on diversifying Jackson Hole’s workforce and clientele; developing more opportunities for women to run a ski resort; reflections on the 2020-21 ski season versus expectations over the uncertain summer of 2020; looking forward to fully loading lifts this season; Covid-era adaptations that will stick and those that will fade; and thoughts on Jackson Hole owner Jay Kemmerer’s political activities and their fallout.

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

Because there seems to be few issues inside or outside of skiing that Jackson Hole is not sitting dead in the middle of. It is a ski area too grand not to visit, irresistible to the resort-hopping megapass set who blow into town on the ever-improving transit routes, which have transformed a once-semi-hidden ski-bum paradise into skiing’s Times Square. It’s the archetype of the broken mountain town, its housing model shattered by short-term rentals and cityfolk Covid refugees, a place struggling to keep its sense of place. On the hill, it’s a living experiment in skiing’s ongoing calibration between uphill capacity and overall capacity. It’s the flagship resort for a white-majority sport in an increasingly diversifying nation; an enormous, energy-intensive operation reliant on historical weather patterns to survive; and a woman-led institution in a sport whose gender-diversity efforts have been, historically, poor. It’s seated in a state determined to have it out with the federal government over vaccine mandates, owned by a rich benefactor to Qanon conspiracists, turned upside down by the Covid disruption that’s undone us all to some degree. Name a modern controversy, and it’s unfolding in some form or another beneath this amazing mountain, a place as complex and labyrinthian and nuanced as the nation it’s stationed in.

Why you should ski Jackson Hole

I mean do I really need to include this section? For Jackson Hole?

OK fine. First, some historical perspective, from the 1966 edition of America’s Ski Book:

Just below the Aspen-Vail-Sun Valley quality are a series of resorts of more specialized appeal. At Jackson Hole, Wyoming, a massive complex is taking shape offering the longest vertical drop in the United States – 4,135 vertical feet. It is too early to tell what role Jackson will play in the Rocky Mountain scheme of things, but it is bound to loom large.

Then this, from Jeremy Evans’ In Search of Powder:

…Jackson Hole opened in 1965 with minimal success, totaling about 19,000 skier visits that season. … Jackson Hole had some built-in disadvantages in its quest to become a major player in American skiing. It had a visionary owner, sure, but Paul [McCollister] wasn’t very realistic. Jackson was more isolated than Aspen and Vail, which were within five hours of Denver, and to a lesser degree Sun Valley. All three were considered the finest places to ski in the country. … After numerous complications involving funding, weather, and construction, the Jackson Hole Aerial Tram opened in 1966, and the resort experienced low visits that season as well. … [But] regardless of who owned the resort or how many hotels, shops, and restaurants were in Teton Village, Jackson Hole had a problem no amount of infrastructure could solve: nobody was good enough to ski it.

Well I am happy to report from the future that Jackson Hole turned out just fine. Gear got better, skiers got better, access got easier, and here we are. Jackson Hole is it. For U.S. Americans, it’s the closest thing we have to a skier’s pilgrimage. You have to do it. Lap the tram, peer over the edge of Corbet’s, go for it or don’t. Meander back down or race the tram. Repeat as long as you can take it.

What I got wrong

Several times, I referred to Mary Kate’s job as resort “CEO,” when she is in fact resort president. 

More Jackson Hole

  • Lift Blog’s inventory of Jackson Hole’s lift fleet

  • Historic Jackson Hole trailmaps on skimap.org

  • Mary Kate is a cofounder and co-owner of Urlari wines.

  • A note on my claim in the intro that Jackson Hole has the largest contiguous lift-served vertical drop in America: yes, Timberline now claims more vert, at 4,540 feet. But it’s a convoluted route available only when the upper mountain is open and roads between the core Timberline ski area and tiny Summit Pass are snow-covered. The return trip to the top takes a shuttle, a chairlift, a hot-air balloon ride, a rope bridge across a chasm, a swim through an alligator-infested swamp, an the A-Team-style assembly of a combat vehicle from a barn full of old parts near the summit. So yeah not the same thing as just taking a tram to the top.

  • More on Big Red:

Some basic stoke:

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