Four decades at Steamboat Ski Area and still loving their jobs | SteamboatToday.com
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Four decades at Steamboat Ski Area and still loving their jobs

Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp. Director of Lift Operations is in the midst of her 45th year working for the ski area. She began in the ticket office and supervises 175 employees in ski season.
Tom Ross

Roster of 40-year Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. veterans

As of the end of the 2014-15 ski season, six Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. employees had put in four decades or more on the job. They include:

❄ Director of Slope/Vehicle Maintenance Davey Crisler, 46 years

❄ Ski patrolman Larry Schnackenberg, 44 years

❄ Director of Lift Operations Deb Werner, 44 years

❄ Ski school instructor Nancy Gray, 43 years

❄ Ski Patrol Director John Kohnke, 41 years

❄ Competition Services Manager Roger Perricone, 40 years

By the end of the 2015-16 ski season, three more

Ski Corp. employees will have completed their 40th

season. They include:

❄ Lift Systems engineer David Herman

❄ Ski instructor Larry Freet

❄ Kids Vacation Center Manager Lenny McNeill

Among the nine of them, these employees have put in

375 seasons combined at Steamboat Ski Area.

Alternative snow names

Everyone knows about Champagne Powder but have you ever skied flat beer? The following is a partial list of locals’ words for various snow conditions that can’t be simply describes as powder, packed powder and hardpacked powder. Blower pow (it blows over your head), pineapple sherbet (very skiable slush), dust on the crust (a skiff of powder on top), crud, windblown, breakable crust, hero snow, mashed potatoes (not so-skiable slush), surface hoar (forms after several cold clear nights that suck the moisture out of the snow and transforms it into sharp crystals), chowder (chunky powder), corduroy, Nancy Gray’s starched corduroy, sastrugi — credited to polar explorer Robert Scott after an expedition to the South Pole. Sastrugi describes windblown snow that resembles wavelets on the ocean.

— Veteran employees, such as Davey Crisler, Deb Werner and Nancy Gray, and their other colleagues with decades on the mountain, continue to find joy in their jobs on a daily basis and play a significant role in defining the culture of Steamboat Ski Area.

Roster of 40-year Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. veterans

As of the end of the 2014-15 ski season, six Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. employees had put in four decades or more on the job. They include:

❄ Director of Slope/Vehicle Maintenance Davey Crisler, 46 years



❄ Ski patrolman Larry Schnackenberg, 44 years

❄ Director of Lift Operations Deb Werner, 44 years



❄ Ski school instructor Nancy Gray, 43 years

❄ Ski Patrol Director John Kohnke, 41 years

❄ Competition Services Manager Roger Perricone, 40 years

By the end of the 2015-16 ski season, three more

Ski Corp. employees will have completed their 40th

season. They include:

❄ Lift Systems engineer David Herman

❄ Ski instructor Larry Freet

❄ Kids Vacation Center Manager Lenny McNeill

Among the nine of them, these employees have put in

375 seasons combined at Steamboat Ski Area.

When Nancy (Barrows) Gray came to work at Mount Werner as a ski instructor, it was 1972 and Steamboat Ski Area actively was building its brand as a destination ski resort in a friendly Western town. Naturally, ski instructors were required to wear felt cowboy hats.

“Those cowboy hats. People loved them, but we hated them,” Gray recalled. “They were freezing cold. I started with LTV (the Dallas aerospace company Ling Temco Vaught, that purchased the ski area in 1969), and they wanted Western culture to become part of the ski area. They had a different colored cowboy hat for every department. Billy Kidd had the perfect Western name, and they put him in a cowboy hat.”

Gray said the atmosphere of the LTV era was magical.

“LTV was such a fun owner, because they weren’t trying to make money,” Gray recalled. “It felt like this was their playground to bring customers to visit. I just felt like that was when skiing was exploding.”

Forty-three years later, Gray has built a list of clients for personal lessons who have become personal friends. And she still begins every ski season with the intention of skiing 125 days. Her personal philosophy is that every day on the ski mountain is special, even a day that dawns under dreary gray skies and a lack of fresh snow.

“I always feel like something magic happens on the mountain on those days,” she said. “We might find perfect snow in the trees, or I meet somebody really great. It’s almost always connected to the snow.”

Gray recalled one windy day, years ago, when the gondola didn’t open until 2 p.m.

Normally, that’s a recipe for breakable wind crust that challenges even the most experienced skiers, but not on this magical afternoon.

“The wind had groomed the mountain so that it was perfectly soft,” Gray said. “We were like, ‘Oh my God,’ and because the gondola opened so late, we had it to ourselves.”

It’s that kind of unwavering faith in skiing and a great mountain that characterizes some of the longest-tenured employees of the Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp., who have carried on through changes in ownership, low-snow winters and economic downturns.

They are eternal optimists. They are can-do skiers. They are old school.

Ski Corp. is particularly fortunate to have a core of devoted employees who have decades on the job as 2015-16 ski season cranks up. During the second week in December, the ski area sent out an email recruiting fresh faces for more than 40 unfilled job openings. The list of open positions stretched from a journeyman electrician to a childcare supervisor and assistant restaurant managers, as well as parking lot and cafeteria attendants. Oh, and cooks. Lots of cooks.

It will take a veteran team to offer the services Steamboat guests are accustomed to through the December holidays before January offers a little respite and more time to fill out the employee ranks.

And the competition among ski area operators to attract employees is ratcheting up more than a couple of notches.

Vail Resorts announced Dec. 2 that it would commit $30 million to developing more employee housing in partnership with resort communities, other businesses and municipal and county governments.

Forty years plus and still devoted to the team

Among the Ski Corp. veterans who have put in more than four decades at the ski area is Director of Lift Operations Deb Werner. She is not only responsible for lift operations, but also ticket checking, night lift operations, summer gondola operations, the summer gondola evacuation team and summer operational projects. Her supervisory role takes in 18 lifts, including the eight-passenger gondola and seven high-speed chairlifts, not to mention a lift crew of 175 employees.

An example of how challenging her job can be came up Dec. 12. Werner was anticipating she would have another four or five days before it was time to crank up the quad chairlifts that serve trails in Priest Creek, known as Sundown and Elkhead. But after the Meadows Parking Lot filled up by 10:45 p.m. on that powder day, and the available terrain was inundated with skiers chasing fresh tracks, there was a realization in the executive suite that the skier turnout demanded more uphill capacity.

Werner said she was asked if it was possible to open the lifts the very next day. Werner hesitated only a moment, consulted Director of Lift Maintenance Kurt Castor and other department heads, before saying “yes.”

It was the decades of working with key colleagues that allowed them to take on that challenge, Werner said.

“It’s really what keeps people here — the teamwork that we do,” Werner said. “I think that (recently retired Ski Corp. President) Chris Diamond built a very good team, and it feels like (new President and Chief Operating Officer) Rob Perlman will continue that. He’s really shown an interest in the work that everyone does.

“One of our core values is that we really have a deep sense of pride in what we do,” Werner explained. “At the level of directors, we all work so well together. It’s just special.”

Werner began her first 44 years with Ski Corp. working in the ticket office during the 1971-72 season, and by summer, she had transitioned into making trail signs.

“I realized I wanted to work outdoors and moved to lifts the next winter,” she said.

Working near mechanical equipment, such as the Steamboat gondola, is a big part of Werner’s professional life.

“I grew up around heavy equipment (in Golden) with my dad and brothers being a big influence. We always had a lot machinery around, and they made sure I knew how to take care of my own car,” she said.

After all these years, Werner said she still works as many hours as required to get the job done. Happily, work includes skiing.

“Being on the mountain is an important part of my job,” she said.

Back in 1971, she was skiing on a pair of Head Standards, but today, she really enjoys her Nordica Hell’s Belles.

Werner has a longish daily commute to Mount Werner (yes, she’s married to Steamboat Olympian Loris Werner), but in some ways, the drive is a good thing.

“It allows me quiet time,” she said. “In my free time, it’s skiing, snowshoeing and hiking.”

Keeping the slopes manicured

Another four-decades-plus Ski Corp. loyalist is Steamboat’s Director of Slope and Vehicle Maintenance Davey Crisler, who came to stay in 1969, the same year the LTV paid $4 million for the ski area (and no, that’s not a typo).

Alternative snow names

Everyone knows about Champagne Powder but have you ever skied flat beer? The following is a partial list of locals’ words for various snow conditions that can’t be simply describes as powder, packed powder and hardpacked powder. Blower pow (it blows over your head), pineapple sherbet (very skiable slush), dust on the crust (a skiff of powder on top), crud, windblown, breakable crust, hero snow, mashed potatoes (not so-skiable slush), surface hoar (forms after several cold clear nights that suck the moisture out of the snow and transforms it into sharp crystals), chowder (chunky powder), corduroy, Nancy Gray’s starched corduroy, sastrugi — credited to polar explorer Robert Scott after an expedition to the South Pole. Sastrugi describes windblown snow that resembles wavelets on the ocean.

Crisler has a big job in summer and winter. He oversees snowmaking, snow removal, vehicle maintenance and grooming of the ski slopes using the resort’s fleet of snowcats with price tags that range from $380,000 to $480,000 apiece. He thrives on days that begin at 6:30 a.m. and end at the reasonable hour of 5 p.m., and require him to ski part of the day three to five times per week.

“Working at a ski area all my life has made each day a dream come true,” Crisler said. “Get up, do some reports, ski.”

Crisler grew up on his family’s ranch outside of Crawford.

“My first experience with equipment was driving our John Deere (tractor) on the ranch, helping my dad feed cattle,” Crisler said. “It wasn’t very complex, but man, did I love it.”

Crisler’s father, Loren Crisler, who pursued a career with the Colorado State Patrol, was eventually stationed in the Steamboat area. The first ski area Davey Crisler ever skied was Howelsen Hill, across the Yampa River from downtown Steamboat.

It was “1964, and I went straight down from the first landing (on the T-bar) and hit a mogul that broke my adult wooden skis with cable bindings,” he recalled. “What a thrill. I borrowed my sister’s skis after that.”

His skiing career was put on hold in junior high school when the coach threatened any boy who risked his season on the grappling mat by snow skiing.

“I didn’t ski until after graduation, but after that, I worked as a lift operator for half a season,” Crisler said.

Not content to watch other people ski, Crisler went to the home of the ski patrol director at the time seeking another career path.

“I asked for a job on ski patrol and he said, ‘yes,’” Crisler said.

In his younger days, Crisler competed in several ski racing series, launched from the historic 70-meter and 90-meter ski jumps at Howelsen on Alpine skis and even spent one summer riding bulls in the rodeo.

Today, he’s keeping up his standards after knee replacement.

“I have worn out my old knees, and I’m on my next set, which is working very well,” Crisler said.

At the end of a long day at work, Crisler kicks back at home.

“Nowadays, I go home, have a beer, maybe two, and watch Super Girl (with his wife, Marti Irish) or a (re-broadcast of the Longmire series about a modern day sheriff in Absaroka County, Wyoming, on Netflix).”

Bend zee knees, and follow me, pleeze

Gray grew up racing for the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club and competed for the University of Colorado Ski Team. When she came home to Steamboat after graduation, the brother-sister ski school team of Olympians Gladys “Skeeter” Werner and Loris “Bugs” Werner were old friends, and she was a natural hire for ski school.

Gray says that through the years, a key phrase in her quiver of ski-teaching strategies has been to tell students to “just let it go!”

“It just means that if you don’t let your skis go downhill, then you’re fighting it all the time,” she explained. “If you do let it go, everything can develop more easily.”

The need for skiers to commit to the fall line and “let it go,” figures into one of her favorites stories about a client.

“I had this lady that I skied with before and after she had cancer,” Gray recalled. “She said when she had cancer, she laid in bed and she thought of me saying, ‘let it go, let it go.’ She said she realized, ‘I can’t fight this cancer; I have to let it go so my body can heal.’

“That was so profound for me,” Gray said. ❄

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email tross@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1


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