Change you can read: Steamboat Resort’s sign shop manager makes a difference one trail at a time
March 9, 2019
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — It took 60,000 pounds of wood, 170 gallons of stain and about 40 beers, but Mike Ward and a crew of seven other Steamboat Resort employees replaced all of the ski trail signs on the mountain last summer.
For the past three years, Ward has worked as the resort's sign shop manager. His office and the shop itself dwell in a concrete, cavern-like back room under Thunderhead Lodge.
"We're kind of in the dungeon," he said.
It's a room filled with worktables, computers and various tools to design, cut and fine-tune a bevy of posters and banners. Old trail signs and maps cover most of the white walls, some that Ward replaced during the summer project. They still have the random stickers that guests pasted on, including one that reads, "Steamboiz" superimposed on the NASCAR logo.
On Friday morning, Ward was busy crafting new signs for the Outlaw Mountain Coaster at the base of the ski area.
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Zerek Twede, Ward's assistant, said that their work varies from day to day. They are responsible for crafting nearly all of the signs for Steamboat Resort’s businesses and operations, plus whatever the marketing department needs for advertisement.
"I tell people that if it has text on it, we most likely touched it," Twede said, who helped with the summer trail sign project.
Ward and Twede enjoy the diversity of their work, and the fact that they can visibly see how it makes an impact.
While Twede was born and raised in Steamboat, it took his boss a handful of decades — plus a welter of bad Midwest winters — to finally seek some good ones in the Yampa Valley.
Before moving to Steamboat, Ward had never budged from his hometown of Claremore, Oklahoma. It's the place that composers Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein set their groundbreaking musical, "Oklahoma!"
For Ward, his career has been a family affair. His parents bought a screen printing business when he was in high school. They added sign-making to their operation in 2000, which Ward took over after graduating.
He later opened up his own business, making custom signs for shops around town. In true, life-on-the-prairie fashion, he eventually married and had six kids.
While Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical depicts Claremore as an idyllic pastureland — by the end, the settlers are all singing "Everythin's goin' my way" — Ward and his wife couldn't wait to leave.
"We started saying 15 years ago that as soon as the kids were out of school, we were going to move north into some mountains," he said.
His main complaint was with Claremore’s weather.
"In Oklahoma, you can have four seasons in a week," he said. "It's horrible."
He described one winter when the temperature changed by 100 degrees in the span of 24 hours. The low at night dropped to minus 25 degrees, which rocketed to a balmy 75 degrees the next day.
To choose their next stomping grounds, Ward and his wife laid out a map of Colorado and perused the possibilities.
"We circled I-70 and crossed it all out," he said. "We didn't want to live anywhere close to that."
They eventually landed on a house in Clark, north of Steamboat. Ward said he chose the place because of the plentiful winter snows and the sunny summers, with beautiful bits of spring and fall colors in between.
"It's perfect," he said.
Ward likes a challenge, which he gets plenty of on the job.
"We're problem solvers, first and foremost," he said.
The mountain put those skills to the test last summer, when Ward and his seven-man crew were responsible for installing 327 sign bases and 228 new trail signs around the resort.
The project required meticulous planning to ensure the job was done before September, when snowfall could make reaching the summit impossible. Ward said he worked 104 out of 109 days at one point just to stay on schedule.
He and his team started in May, replacing the trail signs at the base of the ski area. They then made their slow way up the mountain, waiting to replace the signs at higher elevations until the snow had melted and the mud had dried.
Despite their best planning efforts, some unforeseen snags made things interesting.
The steep slopes took a toll on the machines that had to carry hundreds of pounds of sign equipment. Some broke down. A transmission blew. One skid-steer even caught on fire.
The complexity of the project required Ward and his team to get creative with their solutions.
When the crew reached the trail runs around Pony Express, their machines hit a breaking point.
"The terrain is so rough, we couldn't get equipment up there," Ward said.
Perhaps drawing inspiration from the lift's name, they recruited a horse to drag a small trailer of sign posts, each of which weigh 220 pounds, up the trails. Ward and his team had to sit on the posts just to keep them from rolling downhill.
It was a grueling slog, one that tested almost everyone's limits.
"The horse did great," he said. "The problem was the humans that the horse was dragging."
Ward finally wrapped up the project in August, just as the leaves on the trees were blushing into fall. Now that time has softened the memory of it, he remembers the work fondly.
"It was a fun project," he said. "But I wouldn't want to do it every summer."
Finding his place
Ward has truly left his mark on the ski area. Some of the signs he made were for entirely new trails, like the ones that go from the top of the Sundown and Sunshine Express to the Morningside lifts.
Cheesy Grits, Gravy and Biscuits are the most recent additions to the breakfast-themed runs in the area, joining the likes of Hot Cakes and Cowboy Coffee.
Trail names at other parts of the resort follow their own themes. Three runs near Rendezvous Lodge — One O'Clock, Two O'Clock and Three O'Clock — correspond to the time of day when the sun usually hits them.
Ward's favorite trail sign is the one at the intersection of Why Not, Vagabond and Surprise, about halfway between Thunderhead Lodge and the base area. Each of the three runs has varying degrees of difficulty, corresponding with a colored icon: a green circle for beginners, a blue square for intermediates, and a black diamond over a blue square that's somewhere between moderate and difficult.
"The mountain frames up beautifully behind it," Ward said. "The aesthetics with the colors are just great."
It may have taken him a while to flee the prairie for these peaks, but now that he's here, he plans to stay. As he watches confused guests checking the resort maps he installed for directions or taking pictures in front of the mountain's more picturesque trail signs, he can't help but feel fulfilled.
As he put it, "At the end of the day, you know the work you did really made a difference."