Jan 21 • 1HR 27M

Podcast #70: Timberline Lodge, Oregon President and Area Operator Jeff Kohnstamm

The family-owned past and enormous future of America’s tallest ski area

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Everyone’s searching for skiing’s soul. I’m trying to find its brains.
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Who

Jeff Kohnstamm, President and Area Operator of Timberline Lodge, Oregon

Timberline Lodge, with Mount Hood rising in the background. Photo courtesy of Timberline.

Recorded on

January 11, 2022

Why I interviewed him

Because the big, family-owned ski area is increasingly an anachronism, a thing unlikely and surprising and kind of amazing. Ski areas are so expensive, so complicated, so capital intensive, and so all-consuming that it’s a rare individual who can command the whole enterprise. The industrial-corporate model of ski-area domination makes sense for a lot of reasons – scale, access to capital, and geographic breadth that helps to mitigate bad weather. But something is lost with that, too. Timberline, family-owned since Kohnstamm’s father showed up to a swath of rustic and remote slopes carved out of the Oregon wilderness in 1955, retains that “something” – a coziness that includes a pair of St. Bernard mascots, a lodge spectacular and Transylvanian, and a shared pass with the local night-skiing bump down the road.

Still, this is big-time skiing, with a season that spans most of the calendar, a vertical drop that looks down on Jackson Hole, and a high-speed lift fleet shooting all over the mountain. Over the summer, Timberline finally connected the lower slopes of the main mountain with the beginner terrain at Summit Pass, giving it the longest contiguous vertical drop in the country. Even if it’s patched together through a series of shuttlebuses, lifts, and Cat rides, that’s a big deal. And it’s just the first step in the grand evolution of this snow-bombed volcanic ski area, a showcase of how a family-run mountain can operate on a grand scale.

Timberline Lodge’s trailmap now includes the longstanding Summit ski area. The two formerly separate areas are now connected, giving Timberline a 4,540-foot contiguous vertical drop, the tallest in the United States.

What we talked about

The wild start to the 2021-22 ski season; building the spectacular Timberline Lodge during the Great Depression; the intricate process behind keeping the national historic landmark and its décor up-to-date; how Kohnstamm’s father acquired the ski area in the 1950s and what it looked like when he arrived; the decades-long evolution of Timberline from a backwater into a modern ski area; the evolution of the ski area’s original chairlift, Magic Mile, from a single to a double to a high-speed quad; how Timberline keeps its above-treeline chairs from icing overnight; the evolution of the Palmer chair, the immense ongoing challenges of operating it, and why it doesn’t run in the winter; growing up at Timberline; Kohnstamm’s early years working at the ski area and how he ended up running it; the sense of duty behind being steward of the family legacy; how Kohnstamm’s father saved the lodge from demolition back in the ‘50s; why Timberline bought the smaller Summit ski area down the mountain; how and why they connected the two ski areas; the incredible European-esque journey from bottom-to-top and top-to-bottom; the history of the trails connecting Timberline and Summit; how Kohnstamm envisions Summit evolving; the expansive Euro-esque experience of skiing top-to-bottom on Timberline’s full 4,540-foot vertical drop; an update on the scope and timing of the ski area’s master plan; the proposed alignment, size, type, and length of the coming Timberline gondola; the future of the Summit chairlift; the maintenance advantages of old chairlifts; the future of Bruno’s and the beginner area at Timberline; potential future lift upgrades on the current fleet of high-speed quads; whether we could ever see a six-pack at Timberline; the future of parking and transportation at the ski area and how the gondola could help; summer skiing on Mt. Hood; the great meltdown of summer 2021; why Timberline “will be the last ski area standing”; why Timberline created the Fusion Pass with Mt. Hood Ski Bowl; and the Powder Alliance.

The Palmer Snowfield is the key to Timberline’s long season. Photo courtesy of Timberline.

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

This is a ski area that never stops trying to become the best version of itself. The lightspeed lift fleet, the summer skiing, the high-altitude camps, the engineering miracle of the Palmer lift, the jury-rigged biggest-in-the-country vertical, the amped-up shuttle and Cat service to actualize that, the modernization of that wonderful lodge – this is a place that’s easy to admire.

But nearly 70 years into family ownership, the resort is still evolving, and in a big-time, visionary way. The proposed gondola would knit together Government Camp and the ski area with a city-to-mountain connection that is rare in American skiing. It would detangle some of Timberline’s high-altitude parking issues and take cars off the road, and it would create a fabulous, expansive ski experience reminiscent of the Alps, with its above-treeline access and tiered ski experiences. The plan is with the Forest Service for review, and we are a ways from seeing gondy towers rise off the mountain, but this seemed like a great time to check in on the overall vision and progress.

I also wanted more insight into this: Timberline is one of the largest ski areas in the country that has not yet partnered with the Epic, Ikon, or Indy passes. I imagine it would have an open invitation from any of them, especially Vail, which has no presence in Oregon and never met a high-speed lift it didn’t like. The ski area is part of the reciprocal Powder Alliance – granting its passholders three days each at more than a dozen other ski areas of similar size – and it has the Fusion pass in conjunction with Mt. Hood Ski Bowl, but it has resisted the greater urge to consolidate. How, and why? The only thing more interesting than the trend toward megapass skiing is those who buck the trend.

The double chair at Summit Pass, which is now connected to the higher slopes of Timberline, dates to 1980. Photo courtesy of Timberline.

Questions I wish I’d asked

I would have liked to have discussed whether Timberline had ever considered a joint pass with Mt. Hood Meadows, which is right next door.

What I got wrong

I referred to the Palmer Snowfield as the “Palmer Glacier.”

Why you should ski Timberline

Well where else can you ski in August in the United States, first of all? I mean outside, and with a chairlift, and alongside some of the best skiers in the world. I spent a September afternoon lapping the Palmer lift, and the sort of flip-doodle springy amazingness I witnessed was something out of P.T. Barnum. It was like seeing LeBron and K.D. roll up on your local court and start blitzing fools.

But that’s just a small part of Timberline, both the ski area and the culture. The rest of the year, it’s a workaday place, a big-but-not-too-big joint with manageable terrain, a terrific lift system, and a dab of novelty and adventure in the big ski down to Summit. Plus it gets pounded with snow and it’s fairly easy to get to in this access-road-as-Armageddon ski-commute era we’ve entered. Put this one on your PNW ski swing, whether it’s on your big pass or not.

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