Oct 10 • 1HR 37M

Podcast #99: Brundage Mountain General Manager Ken Rider

Taking stock of an Idaho gem as new ownership accelerates the master plan

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

Ken Rider, general manager of Brundage Mountain, Idaho

Recorded on

Oct. 3, 2022

About Brundage

Click here for a mountain stats overview

Owned by: Brundage Mountain Holdings LLC, which Rider describes as a collection of “Idaho families.”

Pass affiliations: Indy Pass

Reciprocal pass partners – view full list here:

  • 5 days at Red Lodge

  • 4 days at Diamond Peak

  • 3 days each at Loveland, Monarch, Ski Cooper, Sunlight, Mt. Bohemia, Snow King, Mt. Hood Meadows, Beaver Mountain

  • 2 days at Homewood

  • Limited tickets available at Powder Mountain

  • Half off lift tickets at Alta

Located in: McCall, Idaho

Closest neighboring ski areas: Little Ski Hill (10 minutes), Tamarack (47 minutes)

Base elevation: 5,882 feet

Summit elevation: 7,803 feet at Sargents

Vertical drop: 1,920 feet

Skiable Acres: 1,920 acres

Average annual snowfall: 320 inches

Trail count: 70 (46% black, 33% intermediate, 21% beginner)

Lift count: 6 (1 high-speed quad, 4 triples, 1 surface lift - view Lift Blog’s of inventory of Brundage’s lift fleet)

Uphill capacity: 7,900 skiers per hour

View historic Brundage trailmaps on skimap.org

Why I interviewed him

In April, I put together a list of 11 ski areas offering bomber reciprocal season pass benefits. Since the passes I chose are inexpensive and offer free days at up to 50 partners, they’ve become a bit of a cheat code for the adventure set ready to break from (or supplement) Epic or Ikon - even for skiers who live nowhere near the mountain. With that wink-wink in mind, I contacted each ski area to ask whether they mailed season passes. Brundage’s answer led to an email exchange that led to this podcast.

Some version of that story is how around half of Storm Skiing Podcasts are booked, but the timing was fortuitous. I’d been meaning to reach out anyway. What was this big mountain with big snow that was an Indy Pass favorite? How does a place that’s larger than Aspen Mountain and Aspen Highlands combined, that’s roughly the size of Beaver Creek or Deer Valley, that gets as much snow as Winter Park, stand so unassuming on the national scene? Yes, the place only has one high-speed lift and no on-slope lodging. It’s far off any interstate and not particularly close to any large cities. But it’s up the road from a great resort town (McCall), and close enough to supernova-ing Boise to catch some of the ambient heat.

Who are you, Brundage? And why are you so shy about it? It was time to talk.

Something tells me this wasn’t an accident. Photo courtesy of Brundage and Indy Pass.

What we talked about

Determining this year’s opening date; snowmaking at Eldora; going from grad school to $10-an-hour peddling Copper Mountain lift tickets; working at heyday Intrawest; Tamarack in its Wild West 2004 grand opening; Tamarack’s decline and current renaissance; Grand Targhee; McCall 101; the Little Ski Hill; how mountain-town pricing pressures are hitting Idaho; wage bumps and creative employee housing at Brundage; modernizing Brundage; the ski area’s ownership history and the group that purchased it two years ago; Brundage’s aggressive, expansive master plan; the Temptation Knob beginner/intermediate pod and what sort of lifts we could see there; Brundage’s 320 average annual inches of snow falls at its base; potential lifts up Hidden Valley and Sargents; whether the Centennial triple could make its way to another part of the mountain; potential expansion off the East Side/backside of Brundage; how large Brundage could become if the master plan is fully built out; whether Brundage could be or wants to be a national destination; whether Bluebird Express could ever be upgraded to a six-pack; the evolution of BEARTOPIA!!!; Brundage’s snowmaking capabilities, potential, and water source; the incoming new lodge; fixing the flow from parking lot to lodge to rentals to ski school; finally slopeside housing; the tension between the keep-it-wild crowd and people who want to sleep on the mountain; season passes; why Brundage was an inaugural Indy Pass member; the percentage of Brundage skier visits that are Indy and whether the pass is causing peak-period crowding; why the ski area introduced Indy Pass blackouts last year; and why Brundage continues to offer reciprocal lift ticket partnerships (for now).                

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

Brundage is one of many indie resorts across the West that are leveling up. Under an Idaho-strong group that took ownership a few years ago, the ski area is reworking its master plan. The scale of this thing is pretty incredible. Observe:

Stare at this thing for a few seconds and it all makes sense. Image courtesy of Brundage.

Compare that to the trailmap above. The new plan would add:

  • A new beginner/intermediate pod on Temptation Knob, adjacent to the existing Beartopia pod. Rider told me that he foresees a high-speed quad rising up the knob’s 650-ish vertical feet and a surface lift off the backside.

  • A fixed-grip quad serving Hidden Valley from the base area.

  • A pair of lifts serving Sargents, which is currently on the trailmap as unpatrolled terrain. Rider said that he imagines both Sargents and Wayback as fixed-grip doubles or quads.

  • Two large intermediate/beginner pods off the backside, both likely served by fixed-grip quads – labelled “Lift G” and “Eastside” on the map.

If completed, these expansions would vault Brundage into Bogus Basin/Sun Valley territory size-wise, but there’s a lot more happening here: a new lodge that isn’t 700 steps above the parking lot, on-site residences, extensive (and creative) employee housing, serious snowmaking investments, and much more.

Brundage is also a bit of a barnstormer, among the top two Indy Pass resorts in the West every year since launch. New England, of course, is Indy ground zero, but this year Brundage finished 10th in redemptions out of 82 Indy Pass partners. The only Western resort to top out higher was Utah A-bomb Powder Mountain.

That really surprised me. My guess would have been Indy’s big Washington ski areas – Mission Ridge, White Pass, 49 Degrees North – and Silver Mountain plopped dead off Interstate 90 an hour east of Spokane. Yes, the Tamarack/Brundage combo – the mountains sit less than an hour apart – is one of Indy’s best, but the McCall Miracle was a top draw even before Tamarack joined in 2020.

Brundage is telling a good story, and it’s getting better. Now was a great time for a check-in.

When you’ve skied all Brundage has to ski off the lift, you can head to the Cat. Photo courtesy of Brundage Mountain and Indy Pass.

Questions I wish I’d asked

I meant to ask about the Rainbow Fire, which hit Brundage last month but ended up leaving minimal damage. An article on the resort’s website summarizes the whole ordeal pretty well anyway:

Just five days after lightning sparked a fire at the top of Brundage Mountain, the Forest Service has declared the Rainbow Fire to be officially under control.

The Rainbow Fire was sparked by lightning during a thunderstorm event on the evening of Wednesday, September 7 and was immediately visible from both McCall and New Meadows. Initial attack efforts kept the fire from spreading beyond the upper Hidden Valley area, which is located to the north of Brundage Mountain’s main front side runs.

Smokejumpers and engine crews engaged with the fire the first night, and an aerial assault from helicopters and scoopers doused the flames with water and applied fire retardant at the top of Brundage Mountain the following day.

Ground crews circled the fire zone with hoses and worked through the weekend to monitor the perimeter and put out hot spots. The fire was contained to an area of less than five acres.

“The Brundage Mountain team would, once again, like to thank the smokejumpers, firefighters and fire managers who sprung into action to quickly control this fire,” says Brundage Mountain General Manager, Ken Rider. “Wednesday night’s lightning event resulted in a number of new fire starts on the Payette National Forest. The efforts to contain and control those new fires, while continuing to make progress on larger, existing fires in the area, speaks to the skill, dedication and hard work of our friends at the Payette National Forest and partner organizations like SITPA, the BLM and Lone Peak Fire Department from Utah.”

Brundage Mountain crews will be assessing the Rainbow Fire scar but the impacts on skiers and riders are expected to be minimal.

“The torching and visible flames the first night of this fire were alarming,” added Rider. “We are beyond grateful that it will have such a minor impact on our overall operations and on the skiing and riding public.”

What I got wrong

I say in the intro that Rider began his ski career at Intrawest. As we discuss in the conversation, his first ski job was actually at Eldora. I also asked Rider about going to the “new ski state” of Idaho when he went to work at Tamarack – I meant to say “new-to-you ski state,” since Rider was moving there from Colorado. I also have it stuck in my head that Beaver Creek, opened in 1980, was the last major ski resort developed in the U.S. prior to Tamarack in 2004, but Rider correctly reminded me that it was Deer Valley, in 1981. One could also argue for Yellowstone Club (1997), Mount Bohemia (2000), Silverton (2001), or even Whitetail (1991). But those all have some sort of asterisk: too oligarchy, too minimalist, too borderline-backcountryish, too Pennsylvania. The NSAA keeps a list here, though it’s missing quite a few ski areas (Wolf Creek), and has a bunch that haven’t operated in a while (Gateway, New Hampshire; Elk Ridge, Arizona).

Why you should ski Brundage

If you’re reading this far down the page then you don’t need much of a nudge to pencil “ski 2,000-acre, 2,000-foot-vertical-drop ski area with 300-plus inches of snow” into your winter calendar. The skiing, like most Idaho skiing, is pretty great. But I always feel a sense of urgency when describing ski areas that are poised to unfold like a pop-up book into something far larger. It’s only going to take a few more seasons of Epic and Ikon mountains disgorging the Epkonotron onto their slopes to turbocharge the Skipass Hack-O-Matic 5000. Savvy vacationers are going to figure out the McCall + a growing Brundage + a growing Tamarack = a-good-ski-vacation-without-feeling-as-though-you’re-re-enacting-the-invasion-of-Normandy equation at some point.

Brundage will never be Park City or Palisades Tahoe. But it will get bigger and better and busier than it is today. So go now, while their longest lift is still a fixed-grip triple crawling 1,653 vertical feet up the incline, over hillocks and pine forests and with the lakes placid in the distance. Enjoy the motion in the midst of stillness, the big mountain with the little-mountain vibe and prices and energy. And look around and imagine what it will one day be.

It’s all yours, Cuz. Photo courtesy of Brundage Mountain and Indy Pass.

Podcast notes

Rider and I discussed the Beartopia map briefly. It’s a pretty brilliant rework of Brundage’s beginner corner. If you don’t have kids, perhaps you don’t agree. But I recently sat beside my 5-year-old for a flight across the Atlantic, during which time he became obsessed with the route map displayed on the seatback monitor. The touchscreen offered two options: the regular map or the “kids’ map.” The kids’ map was nothing more than the regular map with some skunks and deer and bears superimposed over the atlas. And yet so extreme was his delight that you would have thought I had just invented cookie burgers. Yes Son it’s just like a hamburger but instead of meat there’s a giant cookie in there and yes of course you can have seven of them.

Anyway, here’s the map:

Rider at one point compares the Brundage baselodge to “a steamship on the Mississippi Delta.” It was not meant to be a compliment. The lodge, like those antique riverboats, is staggered, boxy, imposing. An anachronism in our architecture-at-peace-with-the-earth moment. Still, as an avid reader of Twain, I found the comparison interesting, a literary-historic reference in a podcast about an Idaho ski area. Those sorts of thinkers, fecund and surprising, are the sorts of folks I want running my local.

The Brundage lodge. Photo courtesy of Brundage Mountain and Indy Pass.

I also mentioned in the intro that Brundage is my third Idaho podcast this year. In January, I went deep on the Tamarack story with the resort’s president, Scott Turlington:

The Storm Skiing Journal and Podcast
Podcast #73: Tamarack, Idaho President Scott Turlington
Listen now (85 min) | The Storm Skiing Podcast is sponsored by Spot and Mountain Gazette - Listen to the podcast for discount codes on subscriptions and merch…
Read more

Then, this summer, I chatted with Bogus Basin General Manager Brad Wilson:

The Storm Skiing Journal and Podcast
Podcast #95: Bogus Basin General Manager Brad Wilson
Listen now (121 min) | To support independent ski journalism, please consider becoming a free or paid subscriber. This podcast hit paid subscribers’ inboxes on July 27. Free subscribers got it on July 30. To receive future pods as soon as they’re live, please consider an upgrade to a paid subscription…
Read more

The Storm publishes year-round, and guarantees 100 articles per year. This is article 109/100 in 2022, and number 355 since launching on Oct. 13, 2019. Want to send feedback? Reply to this email and I will answer (unless you sound insane). You can also email skiing@substack.com.

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