The Teton Pass Ski Resort west of Choteau has had it rough the past 10 years. The most recent owners—a group of four local investors—poured thousands into renovations and new equipment for the 407-acre spread on Mount Lockhart in that time, but they faced longstanding debt and failed to execute a master development plan approved by the U.S. Forest Service in 2003. They put the area up for sale in 2008 and, when no interested buyers stepped forward, the owners closed Teton Pass completely just prior to the 2009-10 ski season.
It was purely by accident that New Zealand native and global hotelier Nick Wood discovered Teton Pass this March. Wood—on the hunt for his latest investment—was scoping out for-sale U.S. ski areas that would complement his portfolio of vacation properties in Fiji, Tuscany, Colorado and France (to name a few). His list included resorts in Oregon and California, but Teton Pass, one of Montana's best-kept secrets for decades, was a virtual unknown. Even the industry professionals he brought in to inspect chairlifts and assess the area's potential were "gobsmacked."
"Their jaws hit the floor when they saw the full scope of the mountain and what we can do," Wood says. "They're professionals who do this for a living, and they're going, 'Gosh, golly gosh, gosh,' constant expletives coming out of their mouths about the diamond in the rough that we'd found."
Now Teton Pass is international news. Wood, CEO of the exclusive vacation club Distinctive Holiday Homes, purchased Teton Pass for nearly $300,000 on July 29 and has already begun an extensive improvement project estimated at more than $3 million. With updated facilities and the addition of new lifts over the next two years, Wood plans to market the resort to both local residents and tourists from around the world.
"Funny enough, we made the New Zealand Herald," Wood says. "So four million New Zealanders now know about the ski hill."
Wood's fortune stems largely from his role as co-creator of New Zealand's third largest Internet service provider back in 1994. Wood and his partner sold the business in 2003 for about $100 million, and Wood used his share to purchase the Octopus Resort in Fiji. Since then he's acquired luxury yachts and nearly a dozen vacation homes worldwide—a network pivotal to the 2007 launch of Distinctive Holiday Homes—and is set to open his third hotel in Fiji within the next year.
While Wood's global marketing strategy may increase competition for the front of the lift line at Teton Pass, his desire to pick up where the previous owners left off means access to an additional 330 acres of skiable terrain in the Lewis and Clark National Forest. Wood is making good on the approved expansion plan by installing two new poma lifts before the coming season. Work on a third new lift—which will bring the area's longest continuous fall line to 1,700 vertical feet—is scheduled to begin next spring.
"The original plan the original investors had was a good one, they just didn't have the capital to deliver it," Wood says. "We're just going to follow through on the plan—with a few extra bells and whistles."
The ski industry has had little time to digest the news, but Doug Wales, a board member with the Montana Ski Areas Association and director of marketing for Bridger Bowl, says he expects the improvements will help increase the state's clout as a "viable competitor in the national ski market," and at the very least promote Teton Pass as a destination for more in-state skiers.
"This is obviously a vote of confidence that even in a pretty remote area such as the Front Range around Choteau and Augusta, he feels people will come for that kind of experience," Wales says. "It certainly bodes well for the state overall."
The improvements will certainly make Teton Pass an attractive alternative for Missoula skiers when snow conditions here are less than stellar. The area is only about three hours away, roughly the same distance as Big Mountain in Whitefish. Todd Frank, owner of The Trail Head, can't see locals buying season passes to Teton Pass, but he understands the draw for the odd weekend trip when conditions are "ripe."
"Missoula skiers are probably still going to ski locally when the conditions are good," Frank says. "What [Teton Pass] offers us is another exposure, another environment where the east side of the mountains will get pounded with snow and on the west side we don't get any."
Teton Pass also fits with a rising skier trend Frank has noted: the "Montana circuit." Folks have taken to using Missoula as a base for day trips to nearby areas like Lost Trail, Snowbowl and Discovery. Unlike "Ski Resort U.S.A.," Frank says, these areas don't struggle with identity.
"You've got all these areas that are just cool," Frank says. "They're unique, they've got character, they've got soul. They're what skiing used to be 50 years ago."
Until the snow falls, Wood is doing what he can to keep work at Teton Pass local. Contractors from Choteau have busied themselves tearing down the old lodge and will start construction on a replacement next week. He may look into building a new hotel in town if need arises, but for now he's working with existing businesses and talking to a nearby dude ranch about using weatherized cabins for high-end accommodations. It's a style of business Wood says he's perfected in Fiji, where he's opened hotels at the request of small villages looking for a steady economic base.
And if the expansion falls through or the tourists don't come, Wood says he won't be bothered. He's never actually skied Teton Pass before, and the purchase was as much about keeping himself busy as making a buck.
"It's filling my days so I don't get bored," Wood says. "I'm not the kind of person that would sit on a beach somewhere and read a book and rottiserate in the sun. Getting a suntan's not my thing."