Jim Aronstein’s business plan is moored in protecting powder.
So he took a pass when the brokers suggested he increase the number of homesites he was selling at his private Cimarron Mountain Club ski area near Montrose from just 13. When advisors recommended adding a chairlift, instead of using a snowcat, to access 60-plus runs at his nearly 2,000-acre mountain, he said no.
“When you put more skiers on the mountain, you are detracting from what you are trying to achieve,” Aronstein said. “Imagine your version of mountain heaven. That’s what we are trying to create.”
Aronstein, a retired land resources attorney and passionate skier, bought the mountainous spread above the Cimarron River from a logging company in 2004 and never wavered from his core principles as he created a ski-focused retreat where members and their families could ski powder all the time. It’s a private ski area model unlike any other in the country, and the appeal took time to reach the right buyers. In the first three years of sales, Aronstein sold six homesites.
Then came COVID and a worldwide reassessment of priorities. As buyers from afar sought refuge in communities like Aspen, Telluride and Vail, the search for even more exclusivity led a select few to Aronstein’s door.
He’s sold the final seven parcels in the last three weeks.
For the last several years, possible members, with the means to put down $2.85 million to $3.2 million to secure their pick of a 35-acre homesite, have toured the one-of-a-kind resort club. Aronstein heard from a lot of those would-be buyers that exploring the private ski area the size of Telluride was extraordinary, but they wanted to ski everywhere instead of settling into one place.
“They had that bucket-list type approach to life,” Aronstein said. “And I think COVID changed that. I think more people are looking for more control over their own safety and a place where they could hunker down and still ski as much as they want. People aren’t saying it explicitly, but I think COVID has changed a lot of attitudes for what people were looking for in a lot of different ways.”
Few in the resort real estate world were more prepared for that attitude shift than Aronstein. He calls Cimarron Mountain Club an “unresort.”
“It’s a very unique experience up here. Really rich and soulful, where you can really feel far away and in touch with nature and able to do the best mountain recreation you can do anywhere in a wilderness setting,” he said last winter as he rumbled up a snowy roads in a plush PistenBully snowcat loaded with his resort-chieftain advisers.
Before Aronstein started pitching his plan, he consulted with his friend John Norton, a marketing boss with years of experience captaining resorts in Aspen and Crested Butte. Norton, who helped Aronstein recruit Colorado resort pioneers Bill Kane, Johnny Stevens and Andy Daly to an advisory board, told his friend to develop “a few essential constitutional principles” to guide the project.
“It makes decision-making easier when you have a touchstone that you are not going to violate come hell or high water,” said Norton, who admits some skepticism about his college buddy’s plan — until he went and skied the steep-and-deep terrain. “Six years later, and even though the plan has changed a bit, the core fundamentals are the same.”
Those guiding principles involve a limited number of members skiing in a place where powder is a treasured resource and development that revolves around the preservation of wilderness character.
Preserving the wilderness feel means there is no drive-up access in the winter. The roads are not plowed and the only way to reach homes and the slopes is on a snow machine. All members must adhere to the club’s principles and sign a contract that requires unanimity among members before there are changes like adding a chairlift or opening the club to more members.
“Which is never going to happen,” said Aronstein, who, with his wife, Patsy, brought in equity partner Kim Koehn in 2012.
Potential members are vetted by existing owners, whose homesites come with 120 days of skiing every season for their family. Memberships cannot be separated from the land. That means some “high profile” possible buyers didn’t make the cut in the early years, Aronstein said.
“We have had to not provide an invitation to people who wanted to join because we felt there wasn’t a good fit,” he said. “But we are in for the long haul, so getting the right people and keeping it the way we want is essential.”
It helps that beyond partner Koehn, Aronstein didn’t have to involve lenders or shareholders in the development of his powder-protecting plan.
The backstory of how a land attorney came into many millions to buy 1,750 acres of largely roadless wilderness surrounded by Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management land is really interesting.
In the 1990s, Aronstein and a partner started assembling mining claims adjacent to where Vail ski area would later open Blue Sky Basin. They reached a deal with the ski resort operator that gave the company a 50% development option for acreage on Battle Mountain Pass above and below the abandoned town of Gilman.
After a bruising process to open Blue Sky Basin — which drew vehement opposition from environmentalists and saw ecoterrorists torch the ski area’s Two Elk Lodge in 1998 — Vail Resorts balked at the plan with Aronstein, suggesting that conservation of the parcels would be the best option. When the company canceled its development deal with Aronstein, he sued for breach of contract. A judge ruled in his favor in 2003 and ordered Vail Resorts to forfeit its investment in the project. Two years later Aronstein sold the roughly 5,400-acre tract to Florida developer Bobby Ginn for $32.75 million, who planned a massive golf and ski resort community on the land.
Developer Ginn’s Battle Mountain plan collapsed in the Great Recession, along with his entire golf empire in the Southeast.
But Aronstein’s idea, seeded with Ginn’s money, has reached fruition.
A new twist on the private ski area model
While the original mission of creating a place that protects untrammeled snow for a select few has not swayed, the plan has been adjusted over the years. At first, Aronstein hoped buyers would build mansions. But potential members, he found, typically already had vacation homes and were not keen to add another. So he planned more of a club, with a 6,000 square-foot lodge with six suites and guest yurts for visiting members. With the lodge, members don’t have to build on the property, which includes hiking and biking trails, trout-stocked lakes and streams and rock climbing routes on basalt-fluted cliffs that ring the property.
But as Aronstein filled the final membership slots in the last month, he found buyers actually warming to the idea of their own homes, which, per club rules, can be no larger than 6,000 square feet. Aronstein expected that as memberships filled and the lodge suites and yurts were booked.
Construction of the lodge is scheduled to begin in the spring. The ski area also is planning to offer guided skiing on nearby public lands, possibly this winter, following approval by federal land managers.
Cimarron Mountain Club is a new twist on the private ski area model first created by Montana’s Yellowstone Club, where 800 high-profile members and their families ski a 2,200-acre private ski hill adjacent to Big Sky. Aronstein bet powder preservation would lure a different type of wealthy buyer. (There’s also a robust collection of groomed beginner and intermediate ski runs at Cimarron Mountain Club as well as cross-country tracks for families with skiers of all abilities.)
“I think Cimarron Mountain Club hits a very small niche, but they have done it in a first-class way,” said Andy Daly, the former captain of Vail ski area who now co-owns the Powderhorn ski area on the Grand Mesa. “They have done it with great sensitivity to the environment and creating a feeling here that gets people excited about skiing the way that it used to be.”