Mike Kaplan, photographed at Lift 1A, October 2022

 How did you get started in the ski industry? Did you envision heading up a ski company from the beginning? 

I started in Taos as a ski instructor in December 1986. [Resort founder] Ernie Blake would come out to lineup every day, and at the end of the first winter he looked at me and said, ‘Kaplan, are you coming back next year?’ One of the long-timers said, ‘Kaplan’s coming back. He’s a lifer.’ It hit me like a bolt of lightning—I can’t imagine myself not doing this. After six years, I got married and went back to school to get an MBA at the University of Denver. That’s around when I had the aspiration to run a ski company.

And when did you come to Aspen?

In November 1993. I was hired to be a ski school supervisor at Aspen Mountain. That year was a time of turbulence. There was a unionizing attempt at The Little Nell, which was unsuccessful, but the same organizing group moved to the ski school. There was a fair amount of tension in the locker room. It was an interesting time to be fresh out of business school. In November 2006, I became CEO.

What are some of the most important qualities needed to run a ski resort company? 

A real passion for engaging with the mountains. It’s much more than recreating. I knew I always loved skiing, but as I started to get to know more about the business, I also liked the people that were drawn to the sport and the lifestyle. 

It must be hard to be out and about in a small community like Aspen, where everybody wants to give you their input on how to run things.

That goes back to that passion. If people want to talk skiing, I want to talk skiing. It’s tiring, for sure, to go into the grocery store, and all of a sudden you’re getting some deep question, and you’re like, ‘can I just get my milk?’ But you get used to it. 

What were some of the biggest successes you had during your years at the helm?

I did nothing. The teams are the ones who get this stuff done and overcome the everyday obstacles that exist in the mountains. I’m very appreciative of the opportunity to work for Jim Crown and the family overall. They gave me their trust and support and never wavered. 

How about the biggest challenges?

COVID was a big one, having to reinvent the entire playbook without clear rules. To try to do it in a way that ensured the safety of the community and allowed us to operate was challenging. Overall, it’s always about communication, so that employees understand their mission and role.

Can you share some memorable moments from over the years?

I will always remember standing at the bottom of the Deep Temerity lift in 2005 with [mountain manager] Ron Chauner. It was a multiyear dream to have Deep Temerity open. Sure enough, the first skiers came and it was a bit of a jailbreak. It was a beautiful sight to see the culmination of all that work and to hear the hoots and hollers. 

Also, the first year of the X Games. Walking into that venue and seeing people airborne on snowmobiles or skis or snowboards—it was magical to see Buttermilk transformed like that. 

The 2007 grand opening of the Treehouse at Buttermilk was the culmination of 10-plus years of work. The family mountain finally got the kids center it long deserved. And, of course, the World Cup Finals in 2017 were a big deal. 

During the holidays and other busy periods, SkiCo top brass can be seen driving shuttles, loading lifts, and working in on-mountain restaurants. How did that come about and what do you enjoy about the experience?

I think the idea came out during tough economic times around 2008. We were doing what businesses do, thinking about expense management. It’s evolved over the years, but it’s always been really important. And the management team gets to see the ramifications of their decisions. I couldn’t think of a better way to spend Christmas Day than working the Alpine Springs lift at Snowmass last winter. 

Do you have favorite runs or ski areas on any of the four mountains? 

I always say, four mountains, four children. I do not have favorites. I go where the conditions are best. 

The expansion into Pandora’s wasn’t supported by all in the community. Why is it important to have this additional terrain?

Expanding into Pandora’s is critical to the future of Aspen Mountain, our standing as a ski town, and our ability to operate in a changing climate. This terrain has been in our permit area for decades, and the majority of the people against these improvements just wanted to keep it for themselves. That’s not what skiing is about, and I felt strongly that this was the right thing for the community, or I wouldn’t have advocated for it.

What are the three or four biggest challenges the ski industry faces? 

1. Climate change times four. But, if you insist: No. 2, employees and No 3, inflation.

What are your plans after retiring in the spring?

I haven’t had that much time to think about it, believe it or not. We’re hoping to hit the road and disappear overseas. Maybe get off the grid for a couple of months in Asia. 

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