When Boyd proposed his plan to clear the hillside above the golf course and install a chairlift, bankers across St. Louis laughed him out of their offices.
First I see a mom and her two daughters tracing perfect S curves, dressed in sleek North Face soft shells and woven beanies. Nearby, teens rocket out of the terrain park, pulling 360s. Around a bend I see the Carhartt brigade, decked out in camo hats, orange hunting vests, and welding goggles. A dude on a snowboard whizzes by in a gorilla suit. St. Louis Cardinals jerseys are ubiquitous.
In the distance stands not a ridge of jagged peaks but St. Louis’ Gateway Arch. Astonishingly, I’m carving man-made corduroy at Hidden Valley mountain, in Wildwood, Missouri—which, at elevation 860, offers a grand total of 310 vertical feet.
My guide is 24-year-old ski patroller Dan Arnold, a clean-cut Missouri native wearing black-frame glasses and a weathered baseball cap. Arnold is touting Hidden Valley’s night skiing, which includes red-eye runs till 3 a.m.. on Fridays and Saturdays. “It’s beautiful up here,” he says, “especially at night with the view of the city lights.”
We ski over a well-groomed run not far from a metal shed where families refuel on nachos, chicken strips, and a St. Louis original: toasted ravioli. Our next stop is the patrollers’ hut, which houses zero woolly-faced, wind-burned ski bums. The safety squad here is comprised mostly of middle-age professionals, including a fireman with mutton chops, a nurse, and Beale Luebben, 51, who works for a home-inspection firm by day. She returned home to Missouri in 1995, after living in Park City, Utah, for four years.
“When I moved back, I did the snobby thing and said, ‘I don’t ski at Hidden Valley,’” says Luebben. “Then I finally did and thought, Why haven’t I been coming here? It’s so much fun.”
IT ALL SEEMS SO small, friendly, and Midwestern, but Hidden Valley, with its 19 average inches of snowfall per year, is home to one of the ski industry’s most rapidly expanding companies. Missouri entrepreneur Tim Boyd opened Hidden Valley 30 years ago, and now Peak Resorts, Boyd’s firm, operates a total of 12 ski areas, the most in the country. The newest, Wildcat Mountain in Pinkham Notch, New Hampshire, was acquired in October 2010. That winter, some 1.8 million skiers visited Peak Resorts properties, and the company recorded $98 million in revenue, ranking it among the nation’s top five ski outfits in both categories. It may soon go public, with Boyd considering a $100 million IPO. And here’s the really surprising thing: Boyd doesn’t even ski, treating his business less as a labor of love than as a money-churning chain. Think Ramada on snow.
“I never really have liked skiing, but I’m passionate about the ski business,” Boyd, a trim 60-year-old with close-cropped gray hair, tells me while seated in his office, a converted two-story A-frame house overlooking Hidden Valley. “That’s better. My decisions are more pragmatic and less emotional.”
“Few in this industry think of someone coming from St. Louis and building a ski company like Tim has,” says Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association. “He has a relaxed demeanor, but underneath he is intensely competitive.”