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Everett Kircher, 85; Pioneer Made Ski Resorts Viable

January 21, 2002|STEVE HYMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Everett Kircher, a ski industry pioneer who figured out how to move more people up a mountain, has died. He was 85.

Kircher died Wednesday in Petoskey in northern Michigan. He had been hospitalized three days earlier because of weakness, but no specific cause of death was disclosed.

The entrepreneur was one of the last of the generation who marched into the mountains in the years after World War II to carve out a career in the nation's burgeoning ski industry. His innovations changed the way people enjoyed the sport and helped make ski resorts a financially viable business.

"Everett was the only other guy besides Dave McCoy, who built Mammoth Mountain, to really think outside the box," said Warren Miller, the maker of popular ski films and a friend of Kircher's.

"These are guys who built ski resorts and still own them today. Everything else in the industry has gone corporate, where the main concern is how much money they can squeeze out of every visitor," Miller added.

In 1947, Kircher owned a Studebaker dealership in Detroit, his hometown, but had an uneasy feeling the brand would soon be in trouble. So, he turned to his first love: skiing.

He then found land he liked in northern Michigan. According to legend, a farmer who owned the land told Kircher it was too steep to grow anything on. Kircher nodded in agreement, then purchased the land for $1.

Boyne Mountain soon became the largest ski resort between New England and the Rockies and was the destination of choice for thousands of skiers from the Midwest.

To promote the sport, Kircher hired Olympic champion skiers Stein Erickson and Othmar Schneider to lead his ski school and schmooze with customers.

The resort also became a sort of laboratory for Kircher.

In 1964, he installed the first three-person chairlift. At the time, most lifts only carried one or two skiers per chair and traveled at a glacial pace. As a consequence, many ski resorts suffered endless lift lines, in which skiers would complain, with justification, they were spending more time standing than schussing.

In 1969, Kircher topped himself and created a four-seat lift, which became the industry standard.

Kircher then set his sights on fixing the weather.

While resorts in the West and New England often received plenty of snow, low-lying Midwest resorts often struggled with long dry spells. To fix this problem, Kircher refined the snow gun, which was capable of carpeting grass with man-made snow. The innovation extended the ski season at resorts that were often at the mercy of the weather.

When business flattened out in Michigan, Kircher began acquiring resorts out west to diversify his holdings. He would purchase Big Sky in Montana; Crystal Mountain in Washington; Cypress Mountain in Vancouver, B.C.; and Brighton in Utah.

To keep business going in summer, he often built golf courses at his resorts, a practice that is now standard in the industry.

At Big Sky, in southern Montana, the Kircher family upgraded the resort by constructing an audaciously steep tram to the top of 11,166-foot Lone Mountain. From the summit, it's a 4,350-foot drop for skiers to the base of the resort, a run that's still considered one of the nation's most difficult.

Although his four children would take prominent roles in his company, Boyne USA Resorts, Kircher never really retired. "When you started [in this business] over 50 years ago, how are you going to tear yourself away from it?" Kircher said in a 1998 interview.

"I'll retire when my heart stops."

Despite suffering kidney problems the last few years, he still managed to go deer hunting in November and bagged an eight-point buck with a bow and arrow--while sitting in his wheelchair in a blind. It was this kind of spirit, said Miller, that epitomized the kind of man Kircher was.

"Guys like Everett are from a generation that thinks differently," Miller said.

"To these guys, skiing was a sport first and a business second. They had the fervent desire to share the freedom skiing has to offer with more people and to find ways to do that. And they did."

Kircher is survived by his wife, Lois; daughters, Amy and Kathryn; and sons, Stephen and John.

A memorial is planned for Tuesday in Boyne Falls, Mich.

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