CLEAR CREEK COUNTY • In the summer of 2016, Fred Klaas remembers a call "out of nowhere" from a college buddy, Peter Burwell.
The two had graduated from Denver University's business school in 2011. At the time of the call, Klaas was working for a start-up in Boulder. Following his father's death, Burwell had ascended to the top of the far-reaching family business, Minnesota-based Burwell Enterprises.
"Have you heard of Echo Mountain?" Burwell asked Klaas.
"I said yeah," Klaas recalls. "And he was like, 'What if we bought it?'"
They laid out a vision for the ski area considered the closest to Denver, 36 miles from downtown along Mount Evans Highway. They considered the long history of starts and stops dating to the 1970s. They considered lessons to learn and opportunities to seize.
A deal was made for the modest, 226 acres with a sole chairlift: $3.78 million. Burwell would watch from afar, while Klaas would be general manager, the boots on the ground.
Five winters later, Echo Mountain's revival continues. The vision of young and eager friends is coming into view.
Now, if only a storm would.
On this morning in early December, alongside canine companion Bernard, 33-year-old Klaas is making his usual rounds: business calls, checking on progress at the base's two under-construction buildings, checking on mountain crews struggling to make snow, and checking on the sky. The rest of ski country is buzzing with forecasts calling for the season's first big powder.
"It's definitely coming to Colorado," Klaas says. "But will it come here?"
It's the question all of this ski area's bosses asked before him. But it wasn't Mother Nature as much as man that altered the fate of this hill.
Interstate 70 expanded through Eisenhower Tunnel in the 1970s, delivering Front Range masses to much bigger, ever-growing resorts on the other side of the Continental Divide. Echo Mountain, previously Squaw Pass Ski Area, was abandoned.
It wasn't until 2005 that someone came around with the idea of a terrain park, a playground of ramps and rails to meet a big-air appetite. The appetite proved too particular and better satiated elsewhere.
Hands were changed again in 2012. A mother of ski racing kids bought Echo Mountain Park at auction, turning it into a private training ground. Toward the end of her run, she tried to make it public. Money was tight, Nora Pykkonen explained in an interview with Powder Magazine, in which she expressed "regret" for "what it's done to my family."
"We've had to sell everything we own, and I've taken too many financial risks," she said. "But every time I drove up there and saw that view, I would think, 'This is heaven.'"
Dan Moss feels a similar attachment.
"You feel emotionally invested in making it work," says the man who advised under Pykkonen and returned at Klaas's behest.
Moss had planned to retire after nearly 20 years in the industry. He stuck around to lend expertise the new management and ownership lacked. Burwell Enterprises brought the rest, Moss says.
"Not only resources and staff, but development," he says. "Under Fred's leadership, it's been able to come to fruition."
After the 2016 purchase, Klaas says early headlines were "motivators." Read one, closely matching others: "27-year-old dude to buy Colorado ski resort." The dude, Burwell, wanted people to know he was serious. (He declined an interview for this story through Klaas, who said Burwell preferred "to stay in the background.")
"From Peter's perspective and from Fred's perspective, it was kind of like, Let's make this happen, because people don't think we can," says Stephen Zanoni, chief operating officer of Burwell Enterprise's hospitality division.
Echo Mountain suits the company's reputation for restoring distraught businesses. An example is a John Deere dealer, C&B Operations, that started with one store and now lists 37. A water park at the Mall of America is another, along with a satellite television venture that is now DirecTV. The former Silvertree Hotel of Aspen Snowmass, now the Westin, was among a line of resort-style investments.
"The term 'serial entrepreneur' was probably invented to describe Rodney Palmer Burwell," wrote the Minneapolis Star Tribune upon the patriarch's death in 2015.
His eldest son "had a lot of pressure on him," says Zanoni, who's been with the company over three decades. "He had big shoes to fill."
Echo Mountain represented Peter Burwell's first big bet as CEO — and, by extension, his choice to lead the ski area, Klaas.
Since opening five years ago, the mustachioed, 6-foot-3 general manager has been seen selling tickets, renting gear and flipping burgers. "Everyone's like, 'What do you do at Echo?'" he says. "The first thing I say is scrub toilets."
Another one of his early duties was overseeing what he marked as the ski area's first major development since the early 2000s: A hillside was excavated to create a tubing hill. Nearby, a small building was added to host weddings, birthdays and corporate getaways — other revenue generators.
Klaas got busy with lodge and kitchen renovations and upgrades to other infrastructure, such as snowmaking and lights for night skiing. All the while, he answered other common questions.
"Early on, people were like, 'I didn't even know you existed,'" Klaas says. "'Are you a terrain park? Private race training?' There was a lot of confusion with what Echo Mountain was."
It is marketed not only as Denver's closest ski area, but also the most affordable ($57 lift tickets this season). It's marketed toward beginners, out-of-staters looking for an Instagram moment in the mountains. For seasoned skiers around the metro, the hope is that they don't scoff at the small, green and blue trail map and instead consider quick laps after work and beers on the scenic deck.
The hope is the view and restaurant appeal to drivers and cyclists along Mount Evans Highway in the summer. Concerts could bring more paying customers, the thinking goes. Leadership sees Echo Mountain as needing to capitalize year-round to keep lift ticket prices down and expenses manageable.
Klaas is finding what past proprietors found: high, never-ending costs of insurance and maintenance. At the beginning, he and higher-ups saw the proximity to Denver as a plus for staffing — access to a big workforce that wasn't quite pinched for housing as in small resort towns.
"What we've found is, yes, that's true, however our competition for those employees is much greater," Klaas says.
Another benefit was seen in the ski area's place on private property; most others in Colorado are bound to U.S. Forest Service leases. But the small property is surrounded by national forest, limiting expansion possibilities.
Last winter, Echo Mountain enjoyed increased visitation that was reported across small ski areas nationwide during the pandemic. The parking lot, said to fit about 200 cars, often filled.
"The minute that happens, you're both excited and frustrated at the same time," Moss says. "We literally cannot move more cars in."
In the five years of Echo Mountain's new life, "growth has been very consistent," Moss says. "But is growth ever fast enough?"
On this December morning, the snow can't come fast enough. Climate change is another challenge, Klaas says. "We're sitting here today and we're not able to operate skiing and snowboarding, because, frankly, we don't have the temperatures to make snow."
And so it's a quiet morning, just a few tubers on the hill. It's quiet, until a loud jam band takes over the speakers.
There may be no party yet, but the music is right.