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Ski Lines: Talent & timing take Shenendehowa's Sonntag to top

Ski Lines: Talent & timing take Shenendehowa's Sonntag to top

Shenendehowa graduate is chief executive at Whistler Blackcomb
Ski Lines: Talent & timing take Shenendehowa's Sonntag to top
Pete Sonntag, a Shenendehowa graduate, is a chief executive at Whistler-Blackcomb in Vancouver.
Photographer: Photo provided

Happy New Year, all. 

If you are a skier and inclined to make resolutions, one for certain is to enjoy an epic ski trip before the months of bad sliding come around this spring.

But where would you go? For many out there, the answer is Whistler Blackcomb, the giant resort north of Vancouver in British Columbia that year after year tops the charts as the favorite ski place to be in North America. 

Pete Sonntag agrees. 

You would expect nothing less from the 1983 Shenendehowa High School graduate who, for the past two years, has been the chief executive of this vast ski layout that can boast of the most ski acreage in North America, exceptional natural beauty and a vibrant base area operation that each year hosts well more than two million skier visits.  

Now, admit it, you don't think of someone who grows up skiing at Willard Mountain and West Mountain as the head of the largest ski area in North America — and that wasn't what Sonntag imagined at the time, either, despite growing up in a skiing family.

“I wasn't a particularly avid skier as a child,” said Sonntag, whose father Wally was a ski patroller. "I didn't compete in high school." 

What launched the change was a less-than-successful freshman year in college in Buffalo. 

"My older brother Bob had moved to Colorado in the mid-70s, so I decided, why not spend time there,” Sonntag said.

Sonntag sent the next three years working summers on the grounds crew at a golf course in Beaver Creek and winters staffing a ski rental shop in Vail. 

"What I learned,” Sonntag said, “was how to live in poverty." 

With the appeal of higher education now back on the table, Sonntag came back home, enrolled at Hudson Valley Community College, then transferred to the University at Albany, where he earned a degree in economics in 1990. 

While in school, he used his skills acquired in Colorado and taught skiing at West Mountain.

It was a formative experience. 

“I loved the feeling of helping people accomplish something,” Sonntag said. “I will always grateful to ski school director Kerry Metivier, who gave me that chance.”

Sonntag went back to Vail after graduation and was hired as a full-time instructor in the ski school there with work in the summer again at the local golf course. Soon, he was married and while he reports that he loved the area and the work, “I had this nagging idea that I could do more.”

So he decided to go all in. With wife Carol, he moved to Burlington, Vt., where he enrolled in the business school at the university. Two years later,  he went back to Colorado “with a fresh MBA, but no guarantee that anything would work out.”

It did.

With his ski teaching and business backgrounds, he was hired as the ski school supervisor at the Beaver Creek ski area that, by the second year, was being expanded by newly former Vail Associates, which became a public company in 1996 and added nearby Colorado resorts Keystone and Breckenridge to the mix. 

Sonntag clearly had talent. And timing.

From Beaver Creek, his ski school management experience took him to Copper Mountain, then to Keystone, then back to Beaver Creek and then, in 2009, to Vail again, this time as head of the Ski and Snowboard School, the largest in the United States. In 2010, his horizons with Vail Associates expanded when he was named the chief operating officer at the Heavenly Mountain Resort which included oversight of nearby areas Northstar and Kirkwood in California. By 2015, he was Vail Resorts senior vice president in charge of all Lake Tahoe area operations. 

With Whistler-Blackcomb moving under the Vail umbrella, Sonntag moved north when he was named the chief operating officer of the British Columbia mega-resort in June 2017.

While skiing was what brought Sonntag back to the mountains after school, the industry these days is much broader than just winter sliding. It is a 12-month full resort operation attracting guests from around the world. Whistler-Blackcomb, which hosted the Alpine events in the 2010 Winter Olympics, has all of the structure and infrastructure that winter sports require. It also has a beautiful setting and a lively base area resort that attracts visitors all year. 

Sonntag, now 53, lives with wife Carol in Whistler. His three children ski, but their first love these days is hockey. The oldest is Katie, now a freshman at Union, where she plays on the women's hockey team. Brother Wallace plays for a team in Whistler, while youngest Charlotte is in a prep program in Minnesota. 

Pete's brother Bob still lives in Vail, while sister Susan lives in Maine. Other family members still live in Saratoga County, including dad Wally, who is now 97. 

Being the senior manager of an operation as large as Whistler Blackcomb comes with plenty of challenges.

Vail Associates is, by far, the largest operator of ski resorts in the world, expanding from its Colorado base less than a quarter-century ago to now include 18 properties, many of those areas like Whistler Blackcomb among the largest in the world. In the past three seasons, the group has expanded east to include Stowe and Okemo in Vermont. The Vail-initiated “Epic Pass,” now 10 years old, has revolutionized the ski world by providing cost incentives to buy one pass good at multiple areas across the country. 

While not always conforming to practices held at previously independent areas, there is a "Vail Way" of management. Sonntag has spent his entire professional career in that universe, and knows the system very well.

“I believe in what we are doing,” he said. “We have grown not just to be big, but to add value.”

KIDS FREE AT GORE

Monday starts the annual Kids Ski Free at Gore week. Kids under 19 get a free ticket through next Sunday when accompanied by a ticket-purchasing or pass-holding parent.

CHILDREN'S GAMES

The International Children's Winter Games start Monday in Lake Placid. Children, ages 12 to 15 from 33 cities in 14 countries will compete through Thursday in five ski disciplines and three in ice skating.

SKI COUNCIL RACE SCHEDULE

The New York Capital District Ski Council has three races scheduled for this winter, starting Jan. 13 at Oak Mountain in Speculator. Other giant slalom races will be Jan. 20 at West Mountain and Feb. 9 at Pico. 

Phil Johnson can be reached at [email protected].

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