LEADVILLE • Up the snowy drive is the hilltop campus near 10,200 feet, surrounded by tall pines that only slightly obstruct the panorama: some of Colorado’s highest peaks scraping the blue sky. Between the trees are six buildings. And at the corner of one of these is a door marked “SKI AREA OPERATIONS.”
Through the door, through the garage storing snowcats and snowmaking guns and other heavy equipment, and up the stairs is a classroom. Nine freshmen sit at varying attention, most with some still-maturing form of facial hair and locks falling from their caps, all tantalized by that view out the window. Up front is a man in a flannel whom they know as Goose.
Jason Gusaas is teaching with a slideshow, displaying a photo of a terrain park ramp that looks “sketchy,” according to one overheard mumble.
“You guys who jump,” Goose starts, referring to pretty much all of them, “what do you think that clearance is? Yeah, it’s probably 40, 45 feet. And my landing is probably about the same distance, and that’s no good.”
Remember the rule of thumb, he tells them. And weeks into their two-year pursuit of a degree in ski area operations, they know. For every foot of clearance, there should be 1 ½ feet of landing length.
Today’s lesson regards the fine details of construction behind the freestyle frenzy. Another day, the students might be at one of the ski resorts within an hour’s drive , as they were last month at Keystone’s A51 park, inspecting features. Another day, they might be shadowing staff at the local hill, Cooper.
Another day, Gusaas might be teaching about slope grooming and snowmaking. And another day, they might be in this room learning about lift maintenance and ski patrol from Gusaas’ counterpart, whose previous career was spent on that side of the industry.
This is one of Colorado Mountain College’s 11 campuses, where the students, like people their age everywhere, frankly aren’t too sure about the future. All they know is they want to be outside. And that’s CMC’s specialty.
“Three hundred acres of woods right out there,” says Claire van der Plas, an assistant dean at Leadville. “We get out in the woods.”
Here in America’s highest incorporated town, the no-frills outpost looking not long removed from the gold rush, “They don’t miss the fact Leadville doesn’t have a mall,” van der Plas says. “They come here because it doesn’t.”
And some come because they can’t find something like CMC’s ski area operations program anywhere else in the state.
“Just being able to say we get to ski for class, that’s pretty interesting,” says Danny Tafoya, one of the few here actually from Colorado.
Says Hunter Scanson from North Dakota: “I couldn’t see myself going to college for anything else. I’m a skier. It’s what I love to do.”
So they’ve gone where the fun is. “They’ve made a decision to choose a very fun career,” says Gusaas, who would know from more than 10 years at Copper Mountain and another five years building pipes and parks with contractor Planet Snow Design. He’ll still pick up graveyard cat shifts at Copper, just because.
“Yep,” replies Bryce Wood from Kansas. “Lifestyle over money.”
There’s money out there, Goose insists. Take the recent grad working as a regional sales rep for Snomax, the snowmaking company in Denver. He had another offer from snowcat manufacturer PistenBully, Goose says.
No, “you don’t need a college degree to work in the ski industry,” the instructor concedes. But no, he says, these students aren’t your average ski bums. These are the industry pros of the future, he says, “the cream of the crop” bound for something greater than the base of a lift or the driver’s seat of a cat.
Not that they would mind those gigs. Gavin McKay from Florida can see it now: He’ll work on cars in the summer, because he loves that work, too, “and winter I’m driving a cat,” he says. “Living the dream.”
For now, they’re just ready to get out of class. Goose has a few more points, more examples from ski areas that stir the students’ imaginations, including an intricate maze of half-pipes. That’s the work of a mini excavator and skilled sculptor who nobody sees or appreciates, Goose says. “That’s a very challenging build. People that know better are like, How in the world did that happen?”
His students know better. And they can practice in the place behind the residence hall, where snow is known to pile so high that top-floor residents ski or ride out of their windows. Goose’s crew goes there now.
They watch some snowboarders — fire science students between classes — using the ramps and rails that the ski area operations class already placed, using the handiwork to shred and flash tricks midflight. Then the work begins. In the cat, McKay drops another long rail that the others pick up and place at the edge of a ramp.
If only Jake Harris’ parents in Florida could see him now. “They were just glad I was going to school for something,” he says. “They know me and school don’t mesh.”
But this suits him and the others. They use metal rakes to shape and smooth ramps, chopping ice and clearing it, making the take-off surface soft and safe for whoever uses it next. It might just be them.
“Keeping it fresh,” Harris says. “Keeping it fun.”