Snow Dreams Come True: Ski Area Operations Program
Colorado Mountain College is playing a key role in the next generation of ski area groomers, snowmakers and mechanics thanks to its Ski Area Operations program.
This article was published in the January 2015 issue of Snow Grooming magazine By Jim Timlick.
For a select group of students at a Colorado college, it’s more than just a dream; it’s a reality. About two dozen students enroll each year in the Ski Area Operations program offered at Colorado Mountain College’s Timberline Campus in Leadville, Colorado.
The two-year degree program is designed to prepare students for a career in the mountain resort industry and combines technical and academic instruction with on-the-job training at some of Colorado’s finest world-class resorts.
“There are other colleges that are using the word ski as a hook but it’s more of a business degree (they’re offering) with a couple of resort management classes thrown in,” says Jason Gusaas, a ski area operations instructor at CMC’s campus in Leadville.
First offered as a one-year certificate program beginning in 1973, the program was originally designed to support local ski areas. It has since morphed into two-year program that provides grads with an Associate of Applied Sciences degree in Ski Area Operations. Colorado is one of only two U.S. colleges – Gogebic Community College in Ironwood, Michigan is the other – to offer a full-time ski area operations program.
Gusaas notes the program attracts students from across the country, although the majority of them are from Colorado, the Midwest, the East Coast and even a few from the West Coast. It also receives a small number of international students each year.
“Generally we get traditional freshmen who are aged 18 to 21 with very little industry experience, but they know they want to work in the outdoors and they know they love to ski and snowboard but don’t necessarily have a specific (career) path in mind yet,” Gusaas says.
All students are required to earn a minimum of 60 credits in order to earn their associate degree. A total of 12 of those 60 credits must come from a list of electives that include slopes and trails, patrolling, ropeway operations and maintenance, and ski resort management.
Gusaas says the program is designed specifically to give students both flexibility and options. Unlike some courses that assign internships, CMC’s Ski Area Operations program has a co-operative work experience section in which students can choose the job of their choice at whatever mountain they like. They earn seven credits towards their degree during the internship while collecting a pay check.
“Some (students) will come to us and say yes, I want to be a groomer or yes, I want to be a snowmaker or patrol right off the bat, but for many of them (it’s not until) they’ve gone through two years of the program that they decide that they really liked that events management course and want to do that.” Gusaas says.
In addition to required classes such as math, English and Introduction to Business, CMC’s program covers a long list of ski-specific subjects including heavy equipment operations, first response and emergency care, trail grooming operations, snowmaking, ski patrols and avalanche awareness.
Part of what makes the course unique is that all classes offer both classroom instruction as well as hands-on experience as part of a lab.
“We’re very hands-on and try to have a lab with pretty much every lecture that we offer,” says Gusaas. “In the fall we run a heavy equipment lab and we’re running a bulldozer and a backhoe. We’re out there doing projects, digging trenches, contouring slopes, building water bars and things of that nature.”
CMC students don’t usually have to travel very far to get that hands-on experience. The college has a total of nearly 300 acres of land including its own terrain park, located behind CMC’s residence hall, which is used mostly by the school’s student population. Students also help with grooming and snowmaking at a local ski hill and provide their services to the operators of a tubing lane park located in the local county.
Students also get to take part in field trips to some of the top ski facilities in the U.S. including Vail Ski Resort and Ski Cooper, both of which are located just a short distance from the CMC campus.
Gusaas notes the program has developed strong ties with industry partners like Vail and Cooper and that’s been a big factor in its ability to attract students year after year.
“There is great value (in having) our industry partners,” he says.
Enrollment in the program typically fluctuates between 20 and 30 students each year. Gusaas says the number of new students often depends on the previous snow year. A good snow year can result in a rise in enrollments while a poor winter can result in a drop, he says.
Gusaas joined the Colorado teaching staff in 2008 after working at a number of different jobs in the ski industry during the previous two and a half decades, including digging roads, grooming snow and a stint as the foreman of a crew that built freestyle terrain. He got his start at the Huff Hills Ski Area in North Dakota in the early 1990s. A short time later, the former biology major was convinced by a friend to study ski area management at Gogebic Community College. He was quickly smitten and never looked back. Gusass hopes it’s a similar story for his students.
Most graduates of the program go on to careers in snowmaking, grooming and ski patrol while others pursue careers in ski lift and snowcat mechanics. There is no lack of demand for their services. Gusaas estimates that 95 per cent of the program’s graduates find work shortly after graduation.
“(The program) takes that learning curve away (from terrain parks) and it’s that much less training they have to do. The resorts know that they’re getting a quality employee that’s vested and has a strong interest (in the industry) and is probably going to stick around for a while,” he says.