FAIRFIELD, Idaho -- Imagine riding a snowcat to untracked powder at 9,000 feet surrounded by pine glades, rocky cliff bands, and spectacular views of Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains.
This is the inevitable future of Soldier Mountain -- one of Idaho's smallest ski areas, but also one of its most promising. That's because the folks who run Soldier have big plans for its 1,400 vertical feet of terrain.
The area is scheduled to reopen Wednesday, December 26 as a non-profit, largely relying on volunteers.
When it does, a new board of directors will pick up where previous owner/actor Bruce Willis left off. Which is to say, they've got a lot of work ahead of them.
WHY IT DIDN'T WORK UNDER WILLIS
Boise-based Attorney Will Varin knew he had to act fast when word spread that Hollywood actor Bruce Willis wanted to donate Soldier Mountain to a nonprofit.
Willis had purchased the resort in 1996, and managed it from afar.
Doing so, the ski area experienced several years of financial loss and saw few improvements. One notable exception was a new lodge Willis built after an electrical fire destroyed the original structure in 2009.
Varin, whose law firm specializes in business, tax, and estate law -- among other areas -- knew the timing had to be right to put Soldier back on track.
He helped organized a five-member board, clocked double hours at his law firm, and sealed the deal with Willis' financiers that would put Soldier Mountain the hands of a non-profit, community-based organization.
The entire process happened in just a few months.
Why didn't Soldier Mountain prosper under Willis?
"He was an absent owner," Varin says. "He didn't have the same involvement in the community, and passion that we have."
NON-PROFIT STATUS WILL PRESERVE TIES TO COMMUNITY
Varin says the nonprofit status means any profits Soldier Mountain can squeak out will be tax-exempt and must go back into the operation.
Board members say they'll use the money to keep ticket ticket prices low, and plan for future expansion, including backcountry and snowcat access, new lifts, and better facilities.
"It makes a lot of sense on a lot of levels," Varin said. "People are excited it's in the hands of the community. They see it as their mountain."
SOLDIER WILL DEBUT NEW LEARN TO SKI PROGRAM
Russell Schiermeier is a mechanical engineer-turned alfalfa farmer who lives near the Bruneau desert. Like many in Camas County, he grew up skiing the slopes of Soldier Mountain in the 90s.
He says it's still a place where skiers wear Wranglers and cowboys hats and "ski on straight sticks from the 70s."
Schiermeier's passion for Soldier led him to seek a place on its newly formed board of directors. He says the board's short- term goal is to make skiing available and affordable for locals -- just like it was when he was a kid.
"Our goal is to get it open, get cheap lift tickets, and get school kids back on the slopes," Schiermeier said. To do so, board members plan to offer cheap ski lessons with incentives for kids.
Here's the plan:
kids pay $57 for three days of ski lessons (the cost includes ski equipment rental). Upon completion, each new student qualifies for unlimited $15 lift tickets and free equipment rentals for the remainder of the ski season.
Schiermeier says Soldier Mountain has about 30 schools interested in the program already. He says getting more kids on skis is the key to getting more families on the mountain.
"The master plan is if the kids learn to ski, their parents are going to want to come up with them on the weekends," Schiermeier said.
SNOWCAT OPERATIONS WILL RETURN
One of Soldier Mountain's best kept secrets has long been its down-home cat ski operation.
That's because while the ski lifts stop at just over 7,400 feet, the surrounding peaks tower over 10,000. Here, mile-wide bowls, serrated ridge lines, and rocky chutes dominate the landscape.
Skiers and snowboarders have been able to access this area via snowcat since the mid-90s. However, mechanical issues with the mountain's aging snowcats have lately meant trips to the peaks have been few and far between. In fact, for the past two years the mountain hasn't offered cat skiing to anyone.
That will change in 2013.
Last week, the mountain took delivery of three newer Pisten Bully snowcats meant for replacing several older models.
Schiermeier says the operation is also looking to upgrade its custom made cat ski passenger cab.
Two snowcat options will be available.
The first will be a unique in-bounds snowcat ride to the resort's Bridge Creek area. Schiermeier says this unguided experience will let skiers cruise down north facing, in-bounds slopes that aren't lift accessible. The cost will be free, to minimal.
The second option is a $275 "premier" snowcat experience. Here, riders will be transported to the top of the peaks where they'll have access to more than 3,000 feet of vertical powder during a day-long guided ski or snowbird trip.
"I was just up there and there was 8-feet of fluff up there," Schiermeier said. "its ridiculous"
THE FUTURE OF SOLDIER MOUNTAIN
32-year-old Jamon Frostenson is a youth basketball coach who is working to develop an organic vegetable farm in rural Camas County.
As a member of Soldier Mountain's new nonprofit board, he's also rather unique.
That's because Frostenson's family is steeped in the history and lore of Soldier Mountain. His grandfather was the mountain's original owner. His great uncle oversaw the installation of Soldier Mountain's original chairlift in 1948.
As a child, Frostenson remembers "a special small community" present on the mountain. "You would go inside and see everyone from the lift operator to the owner eating lunch up there," Frostenson said.
Frostenson sees that vision of the past when he contemplates the future of Soldier Mountain.
"Our vision of the future is to get lots of families and lots of kids plugged back into there," Frostenson said. "Over the last 15 years or so, Soldier has lost a lot of its followers for a lot of reasons."
How does the 32-year-old see Soldier Mountain in 20 years?
"I know that we'd like to expand, and whether that includes adding a lift or two -- I'm pretty sure that's in the future," Frostenson said. "But I'm not sure if being big resort is right for us."
Instead, Frostenson says he'd like to see the focus placed on "side country" and backcountry operations, along with snowcat skiing.
Varin says he'd like to see Soldier as a "compliment" to the nearby Sun Valley resort, including limited real estate development in the area.
Schiermeier says the north facing bowls and chutes high above Soldier Mountain are as tough and steep as expert runs at Snowbird and Jackson Hole. He says the terrain could attract skiers from around the world if the resort was to expand.
All board members agree that any future expansion must positively impact the area's economy and community as a whole. They want the resort to serve the people of Fairfield -- not the other way around.
"It's quite an honor, actually," Frostenson said. "It's been very humbling and exciting to become able to get back involved in it."
The area will reopen on Wednesday, December 26. Lift tickets are $35 for adults, and $19 for kids ages 7 to 17. For more information, visit Soldier Mountain online.