Adventures in Mountain Hosting with Michael O’Malley

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How long have you been a Deer Valley Mountain Host, Michael?

This is already my sixth season, and I can certify that this is the best job there is in the State of Utah!

What is the job of a Mountain Host at Deer Valley Resort?

It’s like being an on-slope concierge; we are here to help our guests, to answer their questions, to direct them to the best skiing possible, to let them know where they can rent their equipment or where the best dining can be found.  We’re sort of social problem-solvers for our guests.

How many Mountain Hosts work at Deer Valley Resort?

We are about three dozen strong. First and foremost, our Mountain Hosts are all excellent skiers; they can take skiers safely anywhere on the mountain. We are a personable and lively group. Most of us are part-timers and our ranks include lawyers, engineers, real estate agents, entrepreneurs, sales people, river guides, medical professionals, a retired fire-fighter, a judge and several marketing people.

This diversity makes for some very interesting morning meetings. We all share a common love for skiing, a commitment to professionalism and we love helping people. We may laugh and joke, but we take our job extremely seriously. When we take guests on a tour, we want them to really relax so they can enjoy the mountain and we hold the privilege of putting the icing on the cake of a wonderful mountain experience.

What else do you do besides assist your visiting guests?

Well, over the course of a season, we end up helping almost every other department in a multitude of little ways. For example, we stamp-out lift lines on powder days, we help Ski Patrol by doing guest downloads on chairlifts, we empty the trash and the recycling cans, we restock the trail map boxes at the ticket windows and so forth.  As we all know, anything can happen any day and we, the hosts, try to be good, creative problem-solvers on behalf of our guests and fellow employees. Did I mention that we won’t hesitate to give a good morning scrub at the toilets on the top of Bald Mountain?

mh2 (1)What do you generally do when you are stationed by the trail maps?

When someone comes up to a trail map, we try to assess their needs. We ask them simple questions, like “What kind of terrain do you want to ski?” and they may say, “We like blue groomers…” and we direct them to the best groomed slope on that mountain, that day. One of their frequent questions is “How do we get from point A to point B?” We ask them “Do you want to ski a blue run or a green run?” We think on our feet and answer their questions on the spot, as there might be other people waiting with their own needs. We often hear the same questions, but we always get to the heart of the matter quickly and efficiently so guests can fully enjoy their day at Deer Valley.

So, what are the most typical questions you get asked?

It’s essentially about directions.  Most of what I hear could almost be just answered by “Go down Blue Bell and take every right-hand turn…” And there is “How do we get to the Empire Lodge?” or “Where’s the way to Lady Morgan chairlift?” sometimes, “Where’s the base of Silver Strike?” and always “What’s the best way to get back to Snow Park?”

First-time Deer Valley skiers invariably need to get oriented and must learn how to take either Homestake or Crown Point chairlifts to get to the top of Bald Eagle before they can reach the bottom of Snow Park.  It takes a little explaining that Snow Park is at the base of everything… Another daily question we get is “What’s the best green run?” Or “where’s the best snow” or even “where’s the sun?” as most runs at ski areas are facing North and they don’t get direct sun exposure at all times of the day…

mh1Deer Valley is famous for its complimentary Mountain Tours; what are they exactly?

These tours exist for our guest’s enjoyment. Each day, we offer five of them. We start at 9:30 a.m. with an expert tour that stays on Bald Mountain and includes the Mayflower and Sultan areas, then we have a 10 a.m. intermediate tour with two options, a “mellow” and a more aggressive one. Both tours stay on blue groomed runs and while they use the same terrain, they only differ in their pace. These three tours depart from the base of the Carpenter Express.

Then, at 1:30 p.m., we have an intermediate tour and an expert tour that both depart from the Sterling Express. Before each tour, we conduct an assessment run to determine the level of each participant. Occasionally we have to advise someone that a tour may not be suited to them, but most of the time, we can fit each skier into a homogeneous group; we’re a little more demanding on the level of participants during the morning expert tour, but there’s more flexibility on the intermediate tour.

Are you also the ears and the eyes of Deer Valley Resort on the mountain?

We certainly are on the front line of hearing what our guests are thinking or what they’re experiencing and we can feed that information back to management. For the most part what we hear is extremely positive. Deer Valley is known for its outstanding service and our guests appreciate what all of its employees do for them, from the parking attendants to the valets, the groomers, the snow-makers, the ski school staff, all the way to the chefs at each one of our day lodges.

We’re also an extra set of ears, eyes and even hands for our ski patrol. We all have radios and can communicate with them in the case of an incident or when a patroller needs help with traffic or some situations demand it.

What’s the weirdest things you’ve have ever heard?

I didn’t hear that one personally and it’s almost an apocryphal question asked of a Mountain Host some long time ago: “At what elevation do the deer turn into elk?”

What’s the most fun stuff you do?

I’d say that first and foremost, it’s leading an expert tour on a powder day. This said leading any tour on any day is always great fun. I also really enjoy running as the “rabbit” (lead skier) on the Deer Valley’s First Tracks program. Of course, answering questions at the trail map on a sunny day and helping people in a myriad of ways like rescuing a dropped pole or a glove on a fun trail, like Square Deal.

And what’s the most challenging part of your job?

Answering questions at the Bald Mountain trail map when it’s only 10 degrees and the wind is blowing sideways, loaded with snow pellets. It can also be doing speed control at the “Slow” signs on Success after the sun goes down and the evening cold begins to bite, it’s also re-assuring guests that there’s no blue or black run from the top of Flagstaff to the Empire Canyon Lodge.

What do you do when the unexpected happens?

As I just said, getting an expert tour on a powder day is always a privilege. A couple of weeks ago, I was being assigned such a tour and was on my way to the meeting place at the bottom of Sterling Express. I was coming down Homeward Bound at about 1:10 p.m. and I suddenly spotted a guest, a novice skier, who had gone off the trail, under the rope and down into the ski embankment.

She might have had a brief, wonderful powder run 30 feet down below, but was totally unable to climb back the steep drop on her own. I reassured her and called the ski patrol to bring a rope and help her back to the run. But by the time the patrol came and we safely rescued the skier, I had missed my 1:30 p.m. tour and I can only hope that my supervisor will take pity on me and reschedule me very soon!

And to conclude, what’s the weirdest incident that you’ve witnessed?

I was on station at the Bald Eagle trail map when someone alerted me that a beginner skier had just unloaded from the Carpenter Express chairlift with one of her skis on backwards. While it sounded hard to believe, I thanked the concerned guest and headed down Success in hot pursuit. Sure enough, halfway down the first pitch of the run, I spotted the beginner and could see that one of her skis was on backwards. She was doing a reasonable wedge despite the mismatched tips.

I managed to get her to slow down and pull over without startling her. She was from overseas and could only manage rudimentary English, but I had no difficulty communicating the issue to her.  Quickly, I got her straightened out and on her way.  How she jammed her boot into the binding to survive the lift ride, the unloading, and making a number of turns was beyond me, but clearly this lady had the “right stuff!”

 

My Deer Valley – Brian Kahn, Mountain Host

Six. That is the most layers my friend Brian Kahn has worn to work in his role as Mountain Host at Deer Valley. But, he says, it’s worth the extra effort to share his love for the resort with  guests. “I don’t take for granted living in wonderful Park City,” he told me. “Helping a guest to have a great ski and vacation experience is fulfilling;  I am proud to live here and love to show off Park City’s wonderful attributes.”

Mountain Host fits Brian in another way—it’s a job title that comes with many hats: tour guide, concierge, first-chair aficionado. Off the hill he wears even more hats: Husband to Jessica, father to Shane, age three. Portfolio Manager for Responsible Asset Management; principal at Jupiter Peak Financial, his business consulting firm. But whether he’s standing by a trail map offering advice, or leading a First Tracks tour, Brian says the three and a half days per week that he spends on the hill are something he “craves.”

What drew you to the mountain host position?
Deer Valley Resort. I have degrees in Tourism Management and Marketing from the University of Colorado, Boulder and studied resorts and hotels that were/are at the top of their game. Working for Deer Valley—which has always been at the top of the game—isn’t a dream anymore, it is a reality!

What is your secret to staying warm as you stand in the cold for hours at a time?
Paying attention to temperature and wind speeds, mentally preparing and wearing a lot of layers.

Morning view during First Tracks-Dec 31, 2012

What is First Tracks?
First Tracks is a small part of our overall role, but it is very, very enjoyable. Guests pay for a private tour experience just before the lifts open to the public. Riding the lift with a small group of guests as the sun is rising over the Uintas is magical. We are ‘pace setters’ and also on the lookout for our guests’ safety as First Tracks takes place while we are still prepping the mountain.

What other tours are available to guests?
We lead four complimentary mountain tours per day, meeting at Snow Park and Silver Lake Lodges. In the morning and afternoon, we have one expert tour and one intermediate tour leaving from both locations. We quickly assess the guests ability and take them to terrain they are going to enjoy and act as concierges on skis – answering questions, telling the history of the mountain, the mining history of Park City. And once our guests take tours, they get hooked. (For more information about Deer Valley’s complimentary Mountain Host tours, including times, please visit our website.)

Some guests want to ski with others that are at their same ability. Some are looking for dates that they can ski with! Some are out alone on business or their spouse is in a lesson, and they feel more comfortable skiing with a host and others of their same ability than skiing alone. They end up coming back to skiing again with us because we know their ability, the terrain, where to avoid lines (if any) and we keep them moving. We can cater to their questions, too – where to go for a family meal, where to go for upscale dining and what other activities are in town such as the Utah Olympic Park, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, cross country skiing, and more.

What makes Deer Valley family-friendly for your family?
The fact that there are so many choices for ski school is a big deal. Because Shane is so little—he’s three—we set him up for success with lessons on Friday afternoons—because it’s generally warmer on the hill in the afternoon. We are looking forward to sharing quality time together in a sport his mother and father love—and to teaching him to be a safe and responsible skier.

Describe your perfect DV ski day:
This year, I’m having a lot of fun skiing with my wife, Jessica. Now that Shane, is starting ski school, she’s getting back into skiing more frequently—I just bought her some great powder skis and she’s rocking them!

Honestly, my perfect ski day starts the night before— I start to get antsy, especially before a powder day. It annoys my wife, because I make sure her clothes are out and there’s no wasted time so we’re out the door with plenty of time to make first chair. I like to head out to Lady Morgan because it’s the most bang for your buck—you take 6 runs, and you are thrashed. Then, I move over to Empire, I always go high up in elevation where the snow is lightest. I’m not eating until I’m pretty much exhausted, and then I take a break in the restaurant and relax and get a bowl of chili wherever we are on the mountain.

 

Oops….Took the Wrong Run

“If you see anything in yourself to make you proud, look a little farther and you will find enough to make you humble” this is a quote by Wellins Calcott, Thought Moral and Divine.  Try skiing if you are looking for some humility. Last week I wrote about opening day and how “hardcore” I thought I was. Well pride cometh  before the fall.  Today I didn’t resemble a hardcore skier in any way shape or form. Thank goodness for the two good Samaritans who helped me out.

Day three of season two and I was enjoying my third beginner run, Ontario, and I noticed the sign for Hidden Treasure so I made a mental note to circle back.  I had skied that run during my Max 4 lessons last year but had completely forgotten how steep the top was.  From the lift, it is deceiving since the steepest part is hidden from view. From my vantage point, the run looked perfect so I decided Hidden Treasure would be my first intermediate run of the year.

The cross country style narrow connector trail should have been the first clue that I was in over my head but I had already committed to the run so I ignored that warning.  When I finally got to the top of the run and looked down, I saw something that spelled double trouble for me – a steep and bumpy run —  not a good combination.

Hidden Treasure is the run to the left that ends under Quincy Express chairlift

I took stock of the situation.  My options were to climb back up the hill and skate ski through the narrow uphill trail back to Ontario or traverse the steep part of this hill and take Hidden Treasure. Not normally one to retreat, I decided to go for it. It didn’t take long for me to get intimidated and lose all my confidence. I fell a couple times and did something unexpected.  I totally forgot everything I had learned. In my lessons last year, I was taught to traverse back and forth across the run slowly or to simply position myself to slide sideways down the hill using my edges to stop me.  Well, in the moment, I forgot all that.

Panic set in.  In my lifeguard days many years ago, I had to memorize the definition of panic so I know it well —  “a sudden unreasonable and overwhelming fear that destroys one’s capacity for self help.”  Since I wasn’t thinking straight, I simply took off my skis, threw them on my shoulder and started hiking down one step at a time through the powder.

I had only seen two people pass me the whole time so there weren’t many people on the run but the ones that did come by, stopped to help.  The two good Samaritans on skis reminded me of much easier ways to get down the steep part of the hill. With one below me and one above, I put my skis back on and then followed one traversing across while the other looked on until I got past the steeper part.

Once I got to the middle of the run, I could see why they called it Hidden Treasure (instead of Nancy’s Nightmare.)   I felt like I was floating on this powdery wonderland.  This my friends is snow. I thought I knew what snow was before but I really didn’t. Thanks to a couple of really nice Deer Valley patrons, I got to enjoy it. My story fortunately has a happy ending and as I shared it many people have laughed and told similar stories. But it didn’t have to be that way –  I could have had the wonderful experience without the panic.  Here is how:

  • Read the map. Deer Valley puts out a daily groomed status trail map so you can determine ahead of time the state of the run. It is also on the website so you can check it from your smart phone. It is possible, I might have been able to do that run earlier in the day.  Since it was on a “first shift groomer schedule,” it was pretty bumpy by the time I got there.
  • Ask a mountain host. These helpful people are everywhere! I could easily have discussed my plans and gotten advice from the mountain host at Flagstaff Mountain (right at the big map).  I am sure, he or she would have sent me down an easier run like Hawkeye instead.
  • Go with a friend.  When you are taking on a new challenge, go with a more experienced skier in case you need some coaching.
  • Take a tour. If you are an intermediate level skier or higher, catch up with the FREE mountain host tour.  The intermediate tour leaves daily from Snow Park Lodge at 10 a.m. and Silver Lake Lodge at 1:30 p.m. (Click here for a full schedule) Then go back and ski your favorite runs by yourself later.
  • Take a private lesson.  I know this sounds simple because having an instructor take you down new and more challenging runs just seems like common sense.  You learn more, are safer, and enjoy the experience much more.

Hey good Samaritans out there, I want to give you a shout out of thanks for stopping to help. Maybe someday when I actually really am a hardcore skier, I will pay it forward.

I ended my ski day on this run!