Changing of the guard

There will be a changing of the guard at Snowmass in 2019 as Susan Cross is soon to take over as mountain manager from Steve Sewell, who has worked for Aspen Skiing Co. for 41 years.

On Dec. 31, there will be the proverbial passing of the radio at Snowmass ski area, as Steve Sewell, who has worked for Aspen Skiing Co. for over 40 years, hands the operational reins to Susan Cross, most recently the mountain manager at Buttermilk.

Sewell, who is 66, will be retiring and has stayed on six months past his original end date to see through the final touches of the Lost Forest, as well as join the Dec. 15 celebration marking the completion of a key Base Village phase that includes the Limelight hotel.

Cross, whose tenure here dates back to the 1991-92 season, would also like to retire with Aspen Skiing Co.

Just not any time in the near future.

Cross and Sewell spoke last week in separate interviews of the different trails they took to management of Aspen Skiing Co.’s largest local operation, and the changing winds that prevail in the ski industry.

“I come to work ready, every day. You have to keep contributing and growing,” Cross said late last week. Raised in Boston, she learned to ski in Vermont and would eventually work in marketing, events and then ticketing at Sugarbush, Vt., one of the largest resorts in New England.

Summers were spent leading wilderness trips for youths for a Golden, Colo.-based company and a stepping stone to her move to Snowmass to work in an entry level guest services job for the 1991-92 season.

“I knew for sure I would do two winters here, then head home to Boston,” Cross said with a laugh from her second-floor corner office on the Snowmass Mall,

In October 2011, Cross was hired to run Buttermilk and made history as the first female mountain manager in SkiCo’s history.

“That’s what they tell me,” she said modestly. “There are women in different positions but not necessarily in the mountain manager position,” Cross said of the ski industry.

“Gender hasn’t been an issue for me. You can’t fall back on that. Set your goals and do your best and learn all different aspects of operations, from snowmaking to grooming,” Cross said.

Living the dream

Steve Sewell remembers the January day in 1977 his career trail took a turn for the better.

Sewell, then 25, was “waiting tables and washing dishes at the time,” and living the dream as a ski bum.

“I was skiing with Jeff Tippett. It was a powder day and we went into the (Sam’s) Knob. One of the patrollers said, ‘you gotta find Fred Smith. He wants to give you a job,’ ” Sewell recalled.

Smith, then ski patrol director, eventually connected with, and hired Sewell.

“My next job was patrol supervisor. Then patrol director,” Sewell said. The position expanded to include overseeing grooming, trails and snowmaking. In 1994, he was offered a year-round job, assistant mountain manager to Doug Mackenzie. That allowed Sewell to no longer have to build homes with Mark Rockwood during the offseason.

In 2000, former Aspen Skiing Co. senior manager John Norton made the surprise decision to move Sewell (who lives in Snowmass’ Crossings’ neighborhood) to Aspen Mountain. Rob Baxter, who retired in April as Aspen Mountain Manager after 45 years with the company, was shifted to Snowmass in the switch. He has been seceded by J.T. Welden.

Norton wanted to shake things up,” Sewell said plainly, but

the move to Aspen would end up being a good thing.

“It’s a different mountain, smaller but fun. It was a small crew so you knew everyone,” Sewell said.

He would return to Snowmass six years later and in time to help SkiCo with its investment “in the neighborhood of $100 million” for lifts and capital improvements, including a gondola, six-pack chair, the Sheer Bliss and High Alpine lifts, restaurants, snowmaking and finally, a summer plan that required U.S. Forest Service approval. The summer attractions include an alpine coaster and biking trails that Sewell will soon have more time to ride regularly.

“We’ve been working on this thing like 15 years, 20 years. To see it all come together. It was one of the reasons that I stayed on until the end of this year,” Sewell said. He further described his experience helping to make the Lost Forest a reality as, “Kind of like a kid in a candy store.”

Different paths

When Sewell went to pick up his employment papers back in January 1977, D.R.C. Brown, the legendary president of SkiCo, popped out of his office to tell the new hire, “You’re gonna cut that hair."

Sewell is proud of having worked for presidents Brown, Tom Richardson, Jerry Blann, Harry Holmes, Pat O’Donnell and Mike Kaplan. At his retirement party Sewell recalled how many presidents had signed his paychecks over the years.

Susan Cross’ route to Snowmass mountain manager included coaching, attending Boston University, working in a sporting goods store and learning practical skills like bookkeeping.

“I came from a concrete jungle, Somerville, Mass. I never thought I’d sit in this chair doing this job,” Cross said. One of six children who grew up in what she called a “tough neighborhood.”

“I think it’s crazy I ended up in a place like this,” she said.

The transition from Sewell to Cross started in June and Cross said she has tried to be respectful of her colleague as he closes out his long SkiCo career “with grace and dignity.”

Still, their management styles are as different as Fanny Hill and AMF.

“It’s probably 180 degrees different,” Cross said, with a laugh.

Challenges and opportunities

There was one time in particular in Sewell’s 41 seasons with SkiCo that he questioned that decision to stay on.

“Last year was the most challenging year that I had to deal with. It was fun in a perverted kind of way,” he said about the drought season. “It was a challenge and you’re just trying to figure out how you’re going to get terrain open and keep it open,” he said.

When was the easiest year he can recall?

“Any year when there’s abundant snow and the numbers are good,” Sewell said.

He’s leaving at a time when the employee housing crunch is growing more severe and sees that as a challenge that tops the list for the company’s future.

“We have to provide more employee housing. We’re struggling trying to find people to run our lifts, take care of things that need to be taken care of to run a ski resort. All tied to the housing,” Sewell said.

Cross said the new amenities in Base Village, including the skating rink, climbing wall and crepe shack, will help the resort in its future and said growing the sport will rely on factors including developing skiers through feeder resorts and continuing to “provide the service is Aspen Skiing Co. is known for.

“It’s a big expense to come out here,” she said flatly.

And that means setting goals and “raising the ratings from the survey results. I think we have great grooming. Our guests tell us otherwise [at Snowmass],” she said, noting the mountain finished behind Buttermilk in a recent survey.

Travis Benson, who was trails director and in charge of snowmaking, winter and summer trails at Buttermilk last year, is Cross’ successor as mountain manager.

Special events are also on Cross’ radar, having been part of the successful X Games partnership at Buttermilk

“After X Games, I would certainly bring events here,” she said. Cross recalled how Snowmass hosted the U.S Grand Prix in 2018, a pre-Olympic event when Shaun White scored a perfect 10 in the Snowmass pipe. She said the NASTAR nationals are another example of a big event that was well executed.

“I would hope we’ll see more events like the Grand Prix. This mountain has a good crew and we’ve got the terrain,” Sewell said, noting the challenge the crews faced during one of the worst natural snow seasons on record.

Despite the fact that lower Powderhorn was homologated for FIS racing — super-G races were once run here — Sewell said, “You’re never going to see alpine World Cups here, though we certainly can do park and pipe and maybe freestyle.”

He’s feeling good about the future of the Snowmass Mall under owners the Romero Group, who bought the property last summer.

“I worked with Dwayne Romero for a short period when he was involved in Base Village. They’re smart. I think they’ve got a passion for Snowmass.”

Sewell’s passion for Snowmass will continue even when he’s a citizen and not a SkiCo executive and community leader.

“It was moving to see all those people” at the Dec. 15 Base Village opening. “The ice rink was packed. People were having fun. I feel strongly this is the final piece of the puzzle for this mountain to be the best in North America. We’ve needed this finishing touch at the bottom of the hill.”

He recalled some of the resort’s past heyday, when there was a rocking nightlife.

“I remember liar’s poker with John Denver and Spider Sabich downstairs in the Tower. This village used to go off. There would be live music in three or four different bars.”

“This has been the greatest job in the world,” Sewell said.

Amity Brereton-Preis, his longtime assistant, said, “He’s straightforward and fun. We’re going to miss him a lot.”

“You need some real skis,” Sewell yelled back at Amity.

In another part of the building, Cross continued to map out her vision for Snowmass that includes becoming acquainted with some of the 450 people who work in operations on the mountain, not counting ski school, ticketing, food and beverage and retail. She has eight people who are direct reports.

Head down, lead by example, look professional, act professional are her mantras.

“Success is important. Excellence. You don’t want to to settle for mediocrity,” said Snowmass’ new mountain manager

Madeleine Osberger is a Contributing Editor for Aspen Daily News. She can be reached at madski@aspendailynews.com or on Twitter @Madski99