FAIRFIELD — Diane and Matt McFerran enjoy outdoor adventures — skiing, snowmobiling, hiking, wake surfing, dirt biking.
They look at owning an Idaho ski area as a similar experience.
“We prefer having adventures — and this is like the ultimate adventure,” Diane said. “We could have seen ourselves staying in Bend (Ore.) — we had a great home, great careers. But you only live once and it’s nice to take chances and try your hand at new, exciting things that could be the best thing you’ve ever done. You just don’t know.”
The McFerrans, both 39, reached a deal to purchase historic, remote Soldier Mountain Ski Area in November 2015. He worked in pharmaceutical research in Oregon, but previously was a grooming manager at Mt. Bachelor, and she operated her own pilates studio.
Owning a small ski area was a dream for Matt — one he thought he’d pursue near retirement. But the couple couldn’t resist the Facebook posting that announced the availability of Soldier Mountain, which was listed for $149,000. The ski area that opened in 1947 and once was owned by actor Bruce Willis most recently had been operated by a nonprofit that went into debt to repair a ski lift and sustain operations. The asking price was the value of that debt.
More than 2,000 potential suitors inquired about the property. That was reduced to about 100 who were serious once they knew the parameters of the deal — including a requirement for public access — and eventually to five finalists.
The McFerrans emerged as the board of directors’ favorite because of who they were. For a community ski area with a strong sense of ownership among the customer base, finding people who fit Fairfield was important.
Terry Ruby of Gooding gave the couple an enthusiastic two thumbs up.
“They just want things to work,” said Ruby, who has skied at Soldier Mountain since 1963. “Whatever they’ve got to do to make it work, that’s what they’re going to do.”
School groups return
The McFerrans’ improvements have attracted groups from the rural schools between Fairfield and Twin Falls — an element that had gone missing, customers say.
Jenny Koski taught physical education in Gooding for 32 years and took her school’s fifth-graders twice as far to ski at Pomerelle because she didn’t like the vibe at Soldier Mountain. This year, the Gooding group went to Soldier.
Several times on Thursdays or Fridays this year, more than 100 schoolkids have been on the hill. The number of school groups will triple or quadruple this season compared with last season, Matt said.
“I couldn’t bring fifth-graders up here because the people that owned it before didn’t have that health and wellness attitude,” Koski said. “I couldn’t bring kids up here knowing that the lifty was going to have a cigarette hanging out of his mouth and might have combed his hair last summer. These guys, they just changed everything. It’s family. It’s healthy. You can’t help but smile and have fun.”
Soldier Mountain likely never will be a destination ski resort — and that’s not the McFerrans’ vision for the place. Matt grew up in Bend and remembers camping in the parking lot at Mt. Bachelor with friends so they’d have easy access to the slopes for a weekend of skiing. As Bachelor became a bigger business, he found himself enjoying Thursday-night race training at lesser-known Hoodoo more.
Soldier Mountain, which has two, two-seat chairlifts, averages about 175 skiers on Saturdays. It’s open Thursday-Sunday.
“Our goal is to get people realizing how great it is — there’s no lift lines, everything’s not tracked out, there’s fresh powder skiing through most every weekend,” Matt said. “… Our Thursdays and Fridays, there’s nobody here. It’s unbelievable how quiet it is. There’s room for more people coming but I also like that there’s not too many. There should be a happy balance where the profitability is definitely there but there’s no lift lines. It will be a long time before lift lines are a complaint around here.”
Uprooted in a hurry
The McFerrans’ first flirtation with ski area ownership came in August 2015 when Spout Springs in northeast Oregon went on the market. The price tag was more than $1 million, Diane said.
That got them thinking about their ski dream — and then a friend shared the Soldier Mountain Facebook post that went live Oct. 14, 2015. The post was shared 683 times. Within 24 hours, Matt was in Fairfield to examine the property. Within a month, the McFerrans were in charge. They also bought a hunting cabin walking distance from the lodge as their new home.
The deal happened so fast that the McFerrans spent much of their first year just trying to get the business operating smoothly. The purchase didn’t include the magic carpet for the bunny hill or the necessary snow cats. The sale didn’t actually close until October 2016 — 11 months later. Part of the holdup was a review by Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, who determined that the McFerrans underpaid for the property’s charitable assets by $13,400. They agreed to make up the difference in charitable goods and services over a four-year period. Soldier Mountain already has met that requirement, Diane said.
It also took about a year to get the cat-skiing operation transferred to the McFerrans. The popular backcountry skiing option was limited to seven trips last season but sold out this season (four 12-person trips a week, plus private trips).
Matt spent most of last summer on the road as a consultant for health and nutrition products and has continued to mix in his old job to make sure the couple has a financial cushion. Diane says she has avoided computing their total investment in Soldier Mountain.
“If you’d know that price as opposed to seeing the $149,000, you would have thought a little bit longer,” she said.
Still, neither McFerran has second-guessed the decision.
“The twinge,” Matt said, “would have been if we didn’t, looking back later in life.”
‘Caretakers of the mountain’
The McFerrans split the operational duties with Diane focused on the lodge and marketing and Matt overseeing everything on snow. They have about 45 employees. They try to take one day off a week but are busy on closed days receiving deliveries, preparing for school visits and digging through a backlog of emails and phone calls. They brought Matt’s mom, who has Alzheimer’s, and their Australian shepherd/border collie mix Skeeter along on the adventure.
Diane moved to Fairfield on Dec. 1, 2015. The mountain opened less than two weeks after she arrived.
This season, she says, an offseason of preparation has paid dividends.
“It was clear that we are viewed by a lot of people as the caretakers of the mountain,” Diane said. “And so I wanted to give people as much of an individualized, personal experience as I could.”
That effort has included expanding “side-country” terrain, which is backcountry-type skiing that is in bounds and lift-accessed, emphasizing affordability, creating skier and snowboarder versions of the ski area logo, holding a preseason party for season-pass holders, offering a weekday pass and starting a mug club at the lodge bar that sold out in two weeks.
“It was listening to what people asked for or bringing in things that we’ve really enjoyed in the ski experience and combining both worlds,” Diane said.
Said Doran Cluer, who has skied at Soldier since before the first lift was installed: “These kids are so enthusiastic. I hope they can make it, but this is not an easy business.”
Like many people who turn their recreation into careers, the McFerrans play less in the snow now than they ever have. Still, Diane sets a daily goal of making two runs on the mountain. She hits that about three-quarters of the time, she said.
“It’s a life that two years ago if you said I’d be living, I couldn’t imagine it,” she said. “But I’m glad I am.”
The McFerrans receive calls from other folks interested in buying ski areas, including one party that was in the running for Soldier Mountain. Their advice includes a reality check.
“You and your family need to be up for an adventure that could fail,” Diane said, “and you have to be OK with that. We gave ourselves a time frame. If we’re not happy or it’s not doing well or if it’s nothing like we expected, we’re giving it five years. It’s not a permanent decision if you don’t want it to be. We’re thinking in five years we’ll really know what we’re doing.”