Not Santa, but close: Ragnar’s longtime sleigh host still serving drinks at 9,300 feet
January 26, 2019
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Santa Claus might be able to drive a sleigh across the world in a single night, delivering presents along the way, but he can he mix a martini at the same time?
While Santa could not be reached for comment, local sleigh driver and bartender Zach Hale confirmed that the feat is possible.
He does it every Friday and Saturday night with a big smile curved under his thick, salt-and-pepper beard. On a good powder day, it collects enough frost to make his resemblance to St. Nick suspiciously close.
For the past 20 winter seasons, Hale has been the host and bartender of Ragnar's sleigh-ride dinner at Steamboat Resort.
The night features a sleigh ride from the top of the gondola to Ragnar's restaurant inside Rendezvous Lodge. There, guests tuck into a five-course, Scandinavian-inspired dinner along with a full-service bar.
During a busy night, as many as 90 people reserve a spot for the sleigh-ride dinner. On those evenings, Hale estimates he makes about 100 cocktails.
Some celebrities have been among Hale's sleigh passengers, including actors Bill Murray and Danny DeVito.
The job can be demanding, but after two decades, Hale still looks forward to his nights on the mountain.
"I can’t think of anywhere else I'd be as good at working," he said. "I'm definitely not an office guy."
Hale was born and raised outside Chicago. He started coming to Steamboat on ski trips with his father when he was 10.
He remembers his first visit, in 1982, like it happened yesterday. His father drove to Steamboat from Denver up Colorado Highway 131. Hale gazed wide-eyed out the window as they passed Oak Creek, Yampa and other small communities blanketed in snow and nestled at the feet of mountains.
"It was just a magical feeling," he said of the drive.
That magic silver-lined the entire trip. Hale remembers snow falling through the night and waking up to bluebird powder days. He quickly fell victim to the Yampa Valley curse that beckons people back to the area no matter how far away they may travel.
For the next 12 winters, Hale returned to Steamboat with his father.
"He would ask every season if I wanted to go somewhere different," he said. "I'd always say 'No, let's stay in Steamboat.'"
Now, Hale calls the mountains his home. When he isn't working at the resort, he skis its backcountry terrain. His goal is to ski at least 100 days each season. He has learned about out-of-bounds routes that few others, especially tourists, traverse unless they are lost.
During last week's heavy flurries, Hale enjoyed some of the best powder days on the backside of Mount Werner. He showed a selfie taken on a ski lift, a thick crust of snow on his beard and an icicle hanging from his chin. He looks as happy as a kid at Disneyland.
Hale tries to bring that same joy to his work on the sleigh. On sold-out nights, when he is hosting those 90 people, things can get hectic. Time management is vital.
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Guests arrive at the top of the gondola by 6 p.m. to leave for Ragnar's by 6:15.
The sleigh is pulled not by a team of horses, but by a snow groomer that takes passengers along the Why Not service road to the Duster cat-track. Then, it winds gradually down the slopes to the Rendezvous lodge.
"As a sleigh host, my job is to make sure that people have a really nice ride before they even get to dinner," Hale said.
On clear nights, he points out constellations. He knows the popular ones that can be seen from the sleigh route: the Big Dipper, the North Star and Cassiopeia, among others.
Even on the busiest nights, he observes the changes in the night sky with the reverence of a poet.
"As the moon starts to set, the sky darkens and you can see the Milky Way," he said.
When the sleigh arrives at the restaurant, Hale rushes inside, changes into his bartending uniform, and prepares to make cocktails.
“I’m basically shaking martinis and mixing Old-Fashioned’s as fast as I can,” he said.
One of his specialty drinks, the Ragnar's Glug, is based off a recipe he found in an old, Swedish cookbook and tweaked to his own tastes. He mixes Burgundy, brandy and spices — he wouldn't disclose any specifics — with brown sugar. He garnishes the concoction with golden raisins, almonds and cinnamon.
"It kind of smells like Christmas," he said.
Dinner lasts until 9:30 p.m., at which point Hale hurries out of his bartending uniform and dons his sleigh gear.
The show must go on
It takes a lot to stop Hale's sleigh from completing its evening course. He has taken people out in blizzards, rain and subzero temperatures as low as minus 40.
Wind and lightning are the two types of inclement weather that can complicate things. Hale remembers a New Year’s Eve about 10 years ago when gusts suddenly ripped over Mount Werner while guests were having dinner at Ragnar's.
The gondola could not operate in the high winds, which meant people could not get down from the mountain in the usual way. So, Hale and his coworkers improvised.
The man driving the snow groomer guided the sleigh down 3 miles of Why Not, the longest run on the mountain, back to the base area. The trip added almost an hour to the evening, but Hale ensured that his passengers had a good time.
He served hot cocoa in paper cups during the descent, and even mixed a few simple cocktails for the adults.
"When something like that happens, we make sure that guests are 'properly prepared' for a 45-minute ride down," he said.
This winter marks Hale's 20th season as a sleigh host. He told himself years ago that this season would be his last. Now that the time has arrived, he changed his mind.
"Why would I give up something that means this much to me?" he said.
He thought about the future, about his dark beard turning grey, and wondered if another job existed that he could like as much. He couldn't think of one.
He laughed and said, "There's always a chance I could become the Santa Claus sleigh-bartender."