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Wyoming’s first ski hill has carved one man’s path to the throne.
A rickety chair lift cranks up the deserted, blustery mountain. On the biting ride to the top, dense forests ensconced in snow sparkle but barely quiver. The trees, flanking every corner of Snow King Mountain and blanketing its south, east and west aspects, contain vast secrets. For most skiers and snowboarders forgo the forest’s steep labyrinthine pathways.
The motionless Snow King summit is a galaxy away from the hordes of sleek Gore-Tex jackets and GoPro-helmeted masses at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. A handful of skiers and snowboarders exit the Summit chair lift and quickly pick their way down the mountain. The modest “Panorama House” and creaky observation deck look out humbly onto the Tetons rising behind the town’s grid of gleaming lights.
At 1,571 feet of leg-burning purgatory, Snow King is one of the country’s steepest mountains of its size. It is largely used as a training ground for Jackson’s fledgling ski racers. Most others, meanwhile, overlook the King. After a big storm, beanie-clad residents cruise past the quiet mountain, en route to Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. Snow King, after all, is no match for JHMR and its shiny tram with 4,139 feet of vertical rise.
Already, Snow King has undergone a transformation since Max Chapman, president of SKMR LLC, bought the then-floundering resort in 2014. The hill, where Teton ski pioneer Bill Briggs opened his ski school in the 1960s, is now outfitted with a mountain coaster and ropes course that draws summer tourists to its canopied forest. Chapman and company have also added a number of other improvements: a new Rafferty ski lift and ski runs, an updated miniature golf course, new snow making machines and brighter lights for night skiing. The most significant changes to the mountain, though, are still on the horizon.
Some Jackson residents who affectionately know Snow King as “the Town Hill” worry about high-priced renovations; that the 80-year-old resort could become a soulless spectacle. Still, Snow King urges that its plans will keep the King alive and viable. Part of the King’s master plan, the publicly scrutinized blueprint for how it will grow, includes a road that would cut into the steep frontside of the mountain; expansion to the east and west to accommodate beginner and intermediate skiers; a large restaurant at the top and eight-person gondola cars. Those proposed changes hinge on an ongoing environmental analysis by the U.S. Forest Service which will come out sometime in 2019.
How the King should evolve is a battle local snowboarder Shane Rothman, of Free Snow King, wages with vigilance. If time spent on a mountain equates to gold then Rothman sits at Snow King’s throne. On a quest for powder, he arrived in the valley 14 years ago from New Jersey and worked at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort for several years. Then in 2011, after he moved into a home at the base of Snow King, he left JHMR and applied to work at the King. Wyoming’s first ski resort became his new backyard and he was intent on exploring every untold line, every patch of dense forest. He did. Today, Rothman is the King’s most visible and vocal denizen.
If it lived on the East Coast, people would herald the King. It would be called ‘The Snow God.’
Like a mad scientist with the mountain as his laboratory, Rothman was constantly brainstorming about the King while he worked there, scribbling his ideas on sheets of paper, “trying to solve little everyday problems and over-analyzing things to the max,” he said. His Snow King job application for snowmaking and terrain park included a plan titled “Snow King 2020,” his vision for how the King could progress into the future.
His blueprint described a town hill rooted in community, scarcely focused on profit. He called for local lifetime passes for the same price as a JHMR season pass (in 2011, that meant roughly $1,700). Snow King Hotel (then the Ramada), meanwhile, would house a hospitality college/trade school. A volunteer board of directors would manage the hill and a nonprofit would operate the mountain complete with terrain parks and a halfpipe. While most of those ideas didn’t take hold, a few of his suggestions did in fact come to fruition: A Snow King hall of fame, Latino outreach efforts, and safety bars for the Cougar chair lift.
Rothman realized one other part of his plan. From the forest he dragged rainbows, logs and stumps and built an “all-natural terrain park.” Though the resort never marketed it, the park gained popularity. People were riding the King just to lap the park. Still, he had little support from the resort. “I felt like Marty McFly trying to explain how to make terrain parks, and why they need to make a commitment to win back hardcore locals and the next generation of kids,” Rothman said.
With new owners, change ensued. When Snow King built the coaster and bulldozed Rothman’s favorite forest zone, home to a jib line and myriad wildlife, he grew despondent. How much more would the King change? Someone needed to document what was happening and provide a forum for discussion. Rothman “really didn’t have a choice,” he said. “Staying silent would’ve driven me into a pathetic state of depression.” Free Snow King was born.
For Free Snow King, Rothman has written nearly 1,000 online posts that scrutinize development at the King, its owners, the way local government responds and how media covers it. But he doesn’t hide behind a screen alone. For nearly five years, Rothman has attended almost every Jackson Town Council meeting with a Snow King agenda item. He has marched up to the podium and spoken during public comment dozens of times despite his lukewarm feelings about public speaking. He is “still shaky up there” but when it comes to the King, Rothman “will debate anyone” in a public forum.
In his quest to free the King, Rothman amassed a trove of Snow King paraphernalia. He has a huge drawer full of notebooks, papers, planning documents. Hundreds of unsent emails sit in his inbox and scores of open browser windows bog down his phone. He estimates nearly 10,000 images and screenshots of King related content live on his computer and in hard drives, including videos of Snow King descents and wildlife encounters from cameras he set up near his home. One such video made local headlines for capturing a collared white wolf feasting on an elk carcass. He has footage of a collared mountain lion, too.
Rothman winces at the notion that he is just another NIMBY (not in my backyard) type, of which Jackson has no shortage. He says he is advocating merely for the King’s responsible growth especially given the majority of the land is public, owned by the U.S. Forest Service and the Town of Jackson. Instead of the proposed eight-person gondola that could shuffle up to 2,400 people per hour, Rothman suggests a small eco-friendly tram. He also sees little reason to expand the King’s boundaries. Its backcountry terrain is a treasure, he said. It is home to wildlife that are members of a dynamic ecosystem: cougars, coyotes, fox, pine martens, deer, elk, moose, flying squirrels, weasels, owls, hawks, goshawks. Oh, and the occasional hungry wolf and mountain lion.
Rothman’s obsession with the King stems from the notion that the Town Hill is an anomaly. “There really isn’t much to compare it to,” he said. “It’s an antique ski area that basically went back to being wild. It’s the backdrop of town that’s overlooked by 99 percent of the winter people, always overshadowed by the Tetons.” If it lived on the East Coast, for example, people would herald the King. “It would be called ‘the Snow God.’” For those who do ride its precarious, often rutted face, its dense trees, the King compels one to bow down to nature. It is a north-facing, icy obstacle course of natural features and variable conditions. Snow King’s history, meanwhile, exemplifies this area’s pioneering outdoorspeople, making it all the more important to preserve, Rothman said.
A 2016 Planet Jackson Hole article detailed its storied past: “By the 1920s, the popularity of alpine skiing began to overtake traditional nordic skiing as the preferred winter leisure sport. In 1926, innovator Mike O’Neil made the valley’s first documented ski jump on Snow King. He was also the first to use two poles instead of one. The ‘Hoback Boys’ (Banty Bowlsby and the Hicks brothers—Sam, Ed, and Joe) entertained locals through the 1930s with their trick skiing. Their high-speed ski circus show featured jumps through hoops of fire.
Neil Rafferty, Fred Brown, Jack Yokel, and Grover Basset all helped promote skiing in the valley and Rafferty, in particular, was instrumental in establishing Snow King as the state’s first ski resort when he fashioned a rope tow with cast-off equipment from a Casper mining company and an engine from an old Ford tractor. Snow King officially opened in 1939. By 1946, Rafferty put in a chairlift, this time powering the apparatus with an army pickup truck.”
Fast forward nearly 72 years from Rafferty’s pickup-truck powered chairlift to a mountain grappling with growth, in the midst of an identity crisis of sorts. For Rothman, the way to solve such a dilemma is simple. The King “should be a reflection of everything that the community and surrounding environment represents.” That means reminding the public their stake in public lands.
In one of his recent Free Snow King posts, Rothman wrote:
“Ski resorts have increasingly ‘privatized’ these public lands over the years, and have been inviting huge amounts of commercial development along the boundaries, while influencing local politics with their economical desires to keep growing. Mountain communities are disappearing as they become transformed into ‘resorts.’ Very few ski areas that lease public lands are operated by the public. Snow King Mountain has the potential to be a much needed voice, and role model for the industry. … You own Snow King Mountain, it’s time for every local to take on the responsibility of guiding it into the future with a smarter and balanced approach.”
Before the King, Rothman was never all that vocal about, well, anything. He didn’t consider himself political let alone an activist. His time spent trading secrets with the trees, though, has convinced him the value of protecting sacred natural spaces, of fighting for what’s wild. In the process, he’s learned about himself, too. “I’m a lot better at caring about issues than I used to be,” Rothman said. “I feel happier and mentally stronger than when I was just a selfish snowboarder that didn’t care about much beyond the forecast.”
Robyn Vincent is the editor of Jackson Hole Snowboarder Magazine.