The Man Between Mountains
July 24, 2008
Troy Caldwell moved to Tahoe as a teenager in the late 1960s.
“Ended up being a ski bum and never left,” he said.
Now, the 58-year-old mountain man could significantly influence the future of the Basin ” maybe enough to one day bring the Olympics back to Lake Tahoe.
Caldwell owns the property between Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows ” dubbed White Wolf ” and is building a ski lift in his backyard. About 60 percent of his desirable 460 acres is skiable, but who will ski his slopes has yet to be determined.
Caldwell said the future ski area will either serve friends and family as a private ski resort or will become the gateway that connects the two major resorts that rest on either side of his land.
“Both are gonna be a lot of fun,” he said.
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Connecting the two major resorts is something that has been talked about since Alpine opened in 1961, Caldwell said.
“When I stand up there and look down the mountain, I don’t understand why this didn’t take place 30, 40 years ago,” he said. “But it didn’t. It’s politics.”
If the resorts connect, the new runs would be mostly groomed and meant for intermediate skiers, Caldwell said. The main run would be equivalent to the Mountain Run at Squaw, and skiers could access the new runs from near Squaw’s KT-22 peak.
“It’s pretty exciting trying to lay out a whole ski area like that,” he said. “We take that for granted.”
Connecting the ski areas or having his own private resort both sound good to Caldwell, he said, but the decision is largely up to the owners of the two existing resorts.
“I’m sure there’s a lot of conversations being held in the back rooms about that,” he said. “I’m a pretty small potato out there.”
For now, Caldwell is working on projects that will work in both scenarios. He is installing water, sewer and electrical and is three-quarters of the way done building a ski lift that will hold three people in each chair, but can be changed into a quad chair.
But at some point a decision needs to be made about what will happen at White Wolf, and Caldwell said he thinks that decision will come in the next five years.
“I think it would be a nice attribute for North Lake Tahoe … but it has some logistical challenges,” Squaw Valley’s Vice President Tom Murphy said.
The project faces environmental issues, such as the U.S. Forest Service land that borders Squaw and Alpine that is designated as a wilderness area. Putting infrastructure on that land may not be feasible, but other solutions might be possible, he said.
All the Squaw officials have skied to the area and seen how nice the terrain is, Murphy said.
“It’s an exciting concept to think that the resorts could be connected,” he said, but the project is not “on the immediate radar.”
Squaw’s owner Nancy Cushing was not available for comment on the issue.
Murphy said the project would have a bigger infrastructure impact on Alpine than Squaw.
Art Chapman, president of JMA Ventures which owns Alpine, was also not available for comment, and Alpine’s General Manager Jim Kercher is out of town this week.
Alpine’s Public Relations Manager Rachael Woods said there is nothing to talk about.
“As of right now, it’s not happening,” she said about connecting the ski areas.
Caldwell said that he wouldn’t say Alpine is rooting for the idea, but resort officials are listening and seeing if the project would benefit their resort.
Caldwell said he has had a good relationship with resort staff. Alpine sponsored Caldwell when he was on the U.S. Freestyle Team for five years, and he and his wife both worked there.
Progress at White Wolf is moving slowly these days because Caldwell said most of his time and money is going to lawyers, as he has been involved in a lawsuit with Squaw Valley USA since 2005.
Caldwell owns the land underneath two of Squaw’s runs ” Olympic Lady and KT-22. He leases that land to the resort and said he has never anticipated closing the runs.
“They obviously would like to have that property,” he said.
The current lease lasts another six years, but will be much longer when it is resigned. Caldwell said he and Squaw are working toward a settlement agreement, but he does not want to close any doors by signing contracts too soon.
This litigation is not the first regarding this issue. Another lawsuit filed more than 10 years ago ended in a settlement agreement. Caldwell said he was supposed to trade his land on Squaw’s side for Squaw to build a chair lift on his land, but it did not work out.
Caldwell said he wants to work with Squaw and hopes to have a good working relationship with the resort once they reach a settlement.
If all goes well, Caldwell said he should be able to use the lift towers he and volunteers installed three years ago during the 2009- 2010 winter.
If White Wolf becomes a private resort, it will only be open to Caldwell’s friends and family. Caldwell will not be allowed to charge for tickets, and only 25 people could ski the mountain at once.
Several friends offered to help Caldwell build the lift.
“They’re basically earning their privileges to go skiing,” he said.
The volunteers each took avalanche and other classes and are qualified patrolmen that would be their own rescue team. These people would also operate the resort.
“You’re not only skiing,” Caldwell said. “You may be running the lift, too.”
The possibility of a private resort is exciting because usually corporations build ski areas, Caldwell said.
“The local community is just totally pulling for me,” he said. “I’m having a great time with the project.”
Caldwell’s dreams for White Wolf extend way beyond a single lift connecting Alpine and Squaw.
Maybe in 20 years there will be a monorail connecting the three ski areas, he said, each with its own niche. Maybe where his home sits now, he will build a village similar to The Village at Squaw. People could ski each of the three areas, staying at a different lodge each night, similar to some European ski resorts, Caldwell said.
“I don’t want to copy Europe,” he said. “But if we had three different villages that were separate in design … it would be nice to have three separate types of environments.”
Caldwell’s ideal ski resort built on the White Wolf property could cost in the $250 million category, he said. But the owner said he thinks there is a real good chance the Olympics will once again be held in Lake Tahoe.
“I think we have a lot to offer,” he said. “We’ve come a long way since the 1960s.”
Caldwell has been involved with the skiing industry since grooming and high speed chair lifts didn’t exist, and he said he is trying to anticipate the next 40 years of changes in the industry.
Several studies have been done on his land to help Caldwell prepare for future obstacles such as more people, global warming and more high-speed collisions that come with fewer moguls and smoother runs.
When he started skiing, he would have never guessed that resorts would soon have melting sidewalks, huge snow equipment and summertime activities. Caldwell said he needs to plan ahead.
“Maybe we’re flying up to the tops of the mountains with jet packs,” he said. “Maybe chair lifts are eliminated.”
Whatever the future holds for White Wolf, Caldwell said he wants to make it a quality place to be. Caldwell said he is not interested in making the big bucks and flying to Tahiti. White Wolf, with its 33 varieties of wildflowers, is where he wants to retire.
“Home sweet home in the mountains,” he said. “This is really where I want to live and die.”
Troy Caldwell bought the property between Alpine and Squaw in 1990 from Southern Pacific Land Company when the 460 acres were not being used by railroads. When the negotiations were finalized, Caldwell signed handwritten documents on the land from 1897 that were signed by former President Grover Cleveland.
Caldwell and his wife, Suzie, named the property White Wolf after Caldwell rescued a big, white dog that had fallen off a ledge and was stranded on the mountain. After hearing the dog barking for a week, Caldwell went searching for the animal on a misty day, earned its trust with a few doggie cookies and hoisted it off the shelf with a rope. Caldwell said the dog looked at the man like he saved its life, and the animal followed Caldwell around until its owner was found.