Podcast #95: Bogus Basin General Manager Brad Wilson
"Because we're a non-profit, every dollar we make goes right back into the ski area."
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Brad Wilson, General Manager of Bogus Basin, Idaho
July 11, 2022
About Bogus Basin
Click here for a mountain stats overview
Owned by: The Bogus Basin Resort Association Inc., a group of approximately 100 people who own the ski area
Located in: Boise National Forest, Idaho
Closest neighboring ski areas: Tamarack (2.5 hours), Soldier Mountain (2.5 hours)
Base elevation: 5,790 feet
Summit elevation: 7,852 feet
Vertical drop: 1,800 feet
Skiable Acres: 2,600
Night-skiing acres: 175
Average annual snowfall: 250 inches
Trail count: 88 (24% double-black, 49% black, 20% intermediate, 7% beginner)
Lift count: 10 (4 high-speed quads, 3 doubles, 3 carpets, - view Lift Blog’s inventory of Bogus Basin’s lift fleet)
Why I interviewed him
For many years, I lived in West Harlem. Specifically, a slice of bricks and concrete called Morningside Heights. It’s beautiful. The streets straightline up from the river with San Franciscan steepness. Walking and bike paths line the Hudson and above this looms Riverbank State Park, a neat grid of basketball courts and plazas and a full 400-meter track and west-facing benches where I would write and watch the sun set over New Jersey. I lived on the fourth floor of a rambling prewar building of four- and five-bedroom apartments, in a small corner room set with enormous river-facing windows, bracketing the Palisades and the George Washington Bridge twinkling over the swarm.
Harlem is a big, busy neighborhood – a neighborhood of neighborhoods, as they say around here. It was a part of the city that still acted like the old city, vibrant with life beyond transit, kids running and inflatable pools dragged onto the sidewalk and on hot days the local fire brigade would pop open the hydrants and let the water gush. Men played Dominoes on folding tables. It was a primarily Dominican neighborhood, and the bodegas stocked heaping crates of wild exotic fruits.
This was wonderful, but the place had shortcomings. It was hard to find basic items, such as a toothbrush. I once found myself in need of bug spray and had to take the 1 train down to the Upper West Side – 51 blocks – to find it. I was frequently offered drugs while walking down the street. There were no bars and few restaurants.
Every New York-based newspaper and magazine would point to Harlem, with its lovely building stock and dense network of subway lines and irreplaceable Manhattan location, as the “next Brooklyn.” What that meant, of course, was gentrification. That’s a heavy subject, and one I’ll skim over here. What I wanted was to be able to restock my medicine cabinet without an excursion across the island, like some sort of uptown Laura Ingles Wilder. When a chain pharmacy finally moved into four combined storefronts in my third or fourth year in the neighborhood, I was relieved. I thought maybe a nice pub would follow.
It never did. I moved back to the Upper East Side in 2014. For four years, I kept the apartment and rented out the rooms. A chichi wine bar popped up here and there, but Morningside Heights today looks much the same as it did in 2009, when I moved in: smoke shops and sex shops and bodegas and variety stores that look as though they are stocked by dumping out the contents of random shipping containers. It’s lively and raw and interesting, but Harlem was not, in fact, the next Brooklyn.
And that’s kind of how I view Idaho. It’s skiing’s next big thing that never quite gets there. And why not? There is plenty of snow. Lookout Pass scores 400 inches per year. Pomerelle rocks 500. Brundage, Schweitzer, Silver, and Tamarack each claim 300. If you count Lost Trail, which straddles the Idaho-Montana border, the state has nine ski areas* with more than 1,000 acres of terrain and 12 with a vertical drop of more than 1,000 feet**. The southern part of the state is well-served by Boise airport, and the northern part by Spokane.
So why, as Colorado and Utah overflow from Epkon skiers, do Idaho lifts continue to spin empty so much of the time? Most skiers not from Idaho can name one Idaho ski area: Sun Valley. And then they’re stumped. Or maybe they get Schweitzer, whose profile is rising thanks to Ikon Pass membership. Or they’ve heard about once-troubled Tamarack, launched with gusto in 2004 and soon shuttered by a rash court-appointed receiver (it’s back now, and I had a great, extended conversation with current resort president Scott Turlington about the resort’s past and future earlier this year). But, mostly, this is a prime ski state that is not at all perceived as one on the national scene.
I’m not exactly sure why. Bogus Basin encapsulates this mystery better than any other Idaho ski area. The mountain is less than an hour (on good roads), from the Boise airport. It’s roughly the size of Copper Mountain and is larger than Beaver Creek, Telluride, Deer Valley, or Jackson Hole by inbounds skiable acreage. It is, in fact, larger than Sun Valley, which is far more remote (a fact somewhat obviated by a good airport). It has four high-speed quads. Coming expansions could further supersize the place.
What gives? I put this question to Wilson in the podcast, and his answer is enlightening (and inspiring), for anyone wondering if all big mountains are destined to become Disney-at-Altitude.
*Schweitzer (2,900 acres), Bogus Basin (2,600), Sun Valley (2,434), Brundage (1,920), Lost Trail (1,800), Silver (1,600), Soldier Mountain (1,142), Tamarack (1,100), and Pebble Creek (1,100).
**Sun Valley (3,400 feet), Tamarack (2,800), Schweitzer (2,400), Silver (2,200), Pebble Creek (2,200), Brundage (1,921), Bogus Basin (1,800), Lost Trail (1,800), Soldier Mountain (1,425), Lookout Pass (1,150), Pomerelle (1,000), and Kelly Canyon (1,000).
What we talked about
A record financial season at Bogus Basin; reopening in April after putting the mountain away for the year; learning to ski in the early ‘70s hotdog scene; Heavenly in the Killebrew days; Gunbarrel lunchbreaks; the legendary team in the Goldmine-transitioning-to-Big Bear days; what made that team disperse; stumbling upon Brian Head; Sugarbush in the American Skiing Company days; yet another testament to the virtues of Sugarbush; yeah I forgot the name of the Slide Brook Express shoot me; fixing up Mountain High; SoCal as snowboard mecca; from 180,000 skier visits to 577,000 in four years with very little capital investment, dethroning Snow Summit as king of SoCal; Alpine Meadows in the Powdr Corp days; why Wilson didn’t become the general manager at Alpine; the difference between the two sides of the resort now known as Palisades Tahoe and thoughts on the base-to-base gondola; how Wilson wound up living and working on Catalina Island, 24 miles off the California coast, for several years; becoming a ski consumer; the unique governance structure of Diamond Peak and how that makes it challenging to operate; finally a GM; how Diamond Peak is different from other Tahoe ski areas; that one season Diamond Peak had the best season of any ski area in Tahoe, and why; trying to market a ski area where the skiers don’t want any other skiers; master planning Diamond Peak; Bogus Basin’s complex ownership structure; Alf Engen’s role in founding Bogus Basin; the ski area’s evolution; the dire financial situation at Bogus Basin when Wilson arrived and how he turned it around; the legacy of Mike Shirley and the birth of the mega-bargain season pass; the incredible, exponential increase in pass sales when the first $199 sale hit; where the discount-pass strategy faltered; what happened when Wilson finally raised the price after more than two decades; Bogus Basin’s expansive reciprocal season pass lift ticket program and why the mountain began charging extra for an upgrade to that pass; what percentage of the ski area’s pass holders upgrade; why Bogus Basin hasn’t (and probably won’t) join the Indy Pass; Bogus Basin’s incredibly low walk-up lift ticket prices; the amazing number of night-skiing passes the mountain sells and the importance of night skiing to the mountain; the tremendous value of the twighlight family pass; the two trails that Bogus Basin is in the process of adding to its night-skiing footprint as soon as the 2022-23 ski season; puzzling through the elaborate equation of night skiing, grooming, avalanche mitigation, and everything else that goes along with big-mountain management; grooming in a low-snow year; coping with Boise’s explosive growth; where Bogus Basin could expand terrain next; when we could see an update of the ski area’s 2016 masterplan; where new trails could be cut within the mountain’s existing footprint; which chairlifts may get an upgrade next; where Bogus Basin may upgrade a high-speed quad to a six-pack; where the ski area may install a new lift within the existing trail footprint and what sort of lift we may see there; is Deer Point the most-used chairlift in the country?; ideas to reconfigure the Coach liftline and what sort of lift could replace the existing machine; the improved and widened beginner trail debuting off the top of Morningstar this coming winter; how Bogus Basin discovered it had water and built a snowmaking system from scratch; expanding the system in the future; and what’s keeping 2,600-acre Bogus Basin from becoming a national destination resort.
Why I thought that now was a good time for this interview
It started with a comment on one of the most-popular Storm stories I’ve ever written: Rob Katz Changed Skiing. What Comes Next for Vail Resorts?, which I published last December:
Let's set the record straight, Vail did not create the concept of cheap passes driving volume. That piece of history should go to Bogus Basin in Boise, Idaho. In 1998 the ski area lowered their anytime season pass rates from $450 to $199. They went from 5,500 passes sold in 1997 to 25,000 in 1998. The rest of the industry took notice and many, if not most ski areas jumped on board. Rob may have expanded on the concept, largely because he had a much larger audience, but he in no way came up with the concept. I'm sure SAM could pull up some old stories. Thanks and Happy New Year-Brad Wilson, GM Bogus Basin Mountain Recreation Area.
Well that was a nice surprise. Perhaps Brad wanted to set the record straight on the podcast, rather than in the comments section alongside various Angry Ski Bros and one guy who said the article was too long for him to read “while riding in the car,” (which really should describe any bit of writing longer than the name of your radio station)?
It took us a while, but we finally arranged the chat. Idaho has turned out to be fertile ground for The Storm – the Tamarack pod landed well, and the general managers of Brundage and Sun Valley are scheduled to join me in the fall. As I attempt to sort out both the mystery of Idaho’s secret radness and the market forces and historical events driving the modern U.S. American ski landscape, this sort of insight and historical perspective from the people who lived and are living these things is invaluable.
But there was another interesting element to this that I didn’t realize until I began researching the resort for my interview: for a long time, Bogus Basin wasn’t a very good business. For several years, it lost money. And while it never seemed to be in danger of closing, it was in desperate need of new management. Enter Wilson, who, since 2015, has orchestrated one of the greatest big-mountain turnarounds in modern U.S. American skiing. In less than seven years, he has grown revenues from $8 million annually to $18 million. Operating surpluses have grown from negligible to $5 million per year. One hundred percent of that goes back into the mountain, which operates as a nonprofit.
This is rare. Most nonprofit ski areas lose money (profitable Bridger Bowl is another exception). Many are taxpayer subsidized. Wilson, who carried four decades of ski industry experience into the corner office with him, has so far been able to navigate whatever bureaucratic and organizational hurdles hobble these other organizations and transform the mountain into an understated gem of the Upper Rockies, a place no one has heard of that everyone could try if they spent about two minutes on logistics. It’s a good mountain that is getting better, and it was a good time to talk about what that better could look like.
Questions I wish I’d asked
Bogus Basin has now explained to me a couple of times why they aren’t interested in joining the Indy Pass, and it has come down to some version of “we don’t want our passholders to have to pay extra for the partner resort lift tickets.” Indeed, Bogus Basin has one of the most phenomenal reciprocal programs (see chart below) in the country – but they charge extra for it. A Bogus Basin-only pass is $549, while the “True Bogus” pass, which includes the reciprocal days, is $80 extra. Granted, that is far less than the $199 Indy AddOn Pass would cost passholders, but it also weakens the rationale that the reciprocal days ought to be embedded in the pass as a native benefit. Wilson explained that the True Bogus pass is a year-round pass and also includes access to all the summer stuff, including scenic lift rides and the MTB trails. He also said there’s a lot of crossover between Bogus Basin’s reciprocals and the Indy Pass - 23 Indy Pass partners are also Bogus Basin reciprocal partners. I’m still not sure that I really understand the fundamental equation here, and I would have liked to have asked a follow-up question or two. But it wouldn’t have really mattered – whatever they’re reason, the mountain is not interested in joining the Indy Pass.
What I got wrong
I stated in the intro and a couple times throughout the podcast that Bogus Basin was “publicly owned.” That is untrue. While the mountain is registered as a nonprofit organization, it is in fact privately owned by the Bogus Basin Resort Association Inc., which, according to Wilson, is a group of “about 100 volunteers” who own the ski area. If they were ever to sell it, Wilson said, the operation would go to the state.
My understanding was that Bogus Basin was running a $1.2 million surplus prior to Wilson’s arrival, but this was, according to Wilson, an isolated figure from one standout year. Most years, the ski area lost money – enough that it totaled “millions of dollars” over the decades, according to Wilson.
I stated a couple times in the interview that Bogus Basin was “almost as big as Sun Valley.” It is, in fact, larger by 166 acres. Who knew?
In the middle of our conversation, I attempted to call out the name of “the long lift between the two peaks” at Sugarbush, and I blanked. Like a dumbass. Slide. Brook. Express. Maybe if I have a ski publication I ought to be able to remember the name of the longest chairlift on the planet?
Why you should ski Bogus Basin
Bogus Basin seems to have everything a ski resort needs to transform itself into a major name in the U.S. American ski scene: good terrain, plenty of snow, fast lifts, proximity to a major(-ish) airport. It’s larger than the state’s one true legendary destination, Sun Valley, and a bit easier to get to (access road excepted). So why, I asked Wilson, isn’t Bogus Basin lobbying for Ikon membership and tying all these attributes together into a come-ski-me package?
Because, he said, the mountain cares about locals and locals alone. That’s its mission: make sure the people of Treasure Valley, Idaho have access to outdoor recreation. So that’s where the mountain focuses its marketing, and that’s what guides its pricing decisions. Peak-day walk-up lift tickets were $73 last year. That’s insane. Who cares if the mountain isn’t on your ULTIMATE FLIPKICK PASS!!! – you can just walk up and ski like it’s Keystone in 2003.
There’s another something cool about this local’s focus. When I swing through a locals’ bump in New England, the pace and sense of comfort and urgency is completely different than if I’m at Stratton or Okemo. There’s a sense of, “hey, no need to hurry here. We’re home.” Typically, that sort of place-building self-confidence only exists at places stripped of high-speed lifts and triple-digit trail counts. The big joints – outside of northern Vermont – can rarely retain it. But here is one of the 20 largest ski areas in America, and you’ll find almost no tourists. It’s a place by and for locals, a big ski area that acts like a little one while still skiing like a monster. And that’s pretty cool.
Wilson came up with Tim Cohee, who is now CEO and part-owner of China Peak, at Heavenly and Big Bear. Cohee joined me on the podcast last year, and there is a ton of crossover between their stories:
It’s worth noting that we recorded this podcast on July 11, a week and a half before Gunstock’s senior management team resigned en masse to protest the micromanaging blockheads on the Gunstock Area Commission (GAC), which oversees the county-owned mountain. The parallels between the intransigent GAC and the way that Wilson describes the five-person board of stay-off-my-lawn locals at Diamond Peak are eerie. Certainly we would have made an explicit comparison had it been available to make. Timing.
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