Sep. 16—ASHLAND — Mt. Ashland Ski Area manager Hiram Towle had a standard answer every time someone asked him how he was doing.
"Better than my mom ever thought," Towle would deadpan.
Mama's about to get a lot more impressed with her ski-bum son who is headed to one of the best nonprofit ski areas in the West, leaving behind a lovely little nonprofit in far better condition than when he arrived.
Towle will become general manager at Bridger Bowl Ski Area, a 2,000-acre area with eight chairlifts and four lodges outside Bozeman, Montana.
Towle, 53, has been something of a rock star in the ski industry after turning Mt. Ashland's money and snow woes into success while still keeping that hometown hill feeling front and center.
Others have come calling, but Towle's heart has always been with nonprofits fostering a family atmosphere among their constituents. And his heart grew three sizes that day he said yes to the new address.
"Bridger's a nonprofit with the same vibe and the same rabid community," Towle says. "It fit, and it's a much bigger, better opportunity. I had to go for it, but I was not looking for a job."
Ski area board President Curt Burrill says the board will start a nationwide search for a new general manager who might not be in place for this upcoming ski season. An interim manager would take that slot, Burrill says.
Burrill echoes a local ski community's views on social media, emails to the Mail Tribune and elsewhere, saying he hates to see Towle leave.
"But if he were to leave, that's where I'd want him to go," Burrill says.
Towle said he hopes he leaves the mountain in good hands.
"The timing is a bummer," says Towle, who will leave Oregon early next month. "But I hope Mt. Ashland gets someone in place who will be able to carry on the great stuff we've been doing."
That's in stark contrast to Towle's arrival at Mt. Ashland eight years ago.
The ski area was coming off a year when it was completely closed due to lack of snow. The board had taken out a $750,000 loan to stay alive.
Many saw it as a sinking ship with few deck chairs for the next captain to rearrange.
At that time, Towle was working in mountain operations at a Maine ski area.
"I got a call from a friend here who said, 'You need to check this place out,'" Towle says. "I always wanted to be a GM at a small ski area, and the fact that it's a nonprofit was great because I had nonprofit experience.
"It didn't open on it's 50th anniversary," Towle says. "It had taken on a $750,000 emergency loan to stay afloat. I said, 'When can I start?'"
In the ensuing years, Towle helped overcome the financial deficit despite a few lean snow years. They upgraded millions of dollars of equipment and renovated the aging lodge, including reclaiming the lodge bar from the 1970s to something worthy of a ski joint in a craft beer world.
The ski area set records for annual passes and attendance and even socked money away under Towle, who didn't run operations like a hedge fund bean counter.
He counted beans, for sure, but he put more stock in his staff and their customers.
Towle worked not in loafers, but in ski boots. He made a daily routine to ride each ski lift, talk up the skiers and his staff.
One day while filming an Oregon Outdoors show, he skied away with the wireless microphone. Occasionally, Towle would ski close enough to where the Mail Tribune camera would pick up Towle singing Beatles songs, chatting up guests and saying "love you" to his faithful employees.
"I guess I kinda got busted on that one" Towle laughs.
When staff was short for selling tickets, he'd sell tickets. When a lift needed shoveling, he's shovel. When the parking lot crew got overwhelmed, he's help park cars.
"There isn't a job he wouldn't do," Burrill says. "I would bet he helped clean toilets, though I never saw a toilet brush in his hands."
Actually, Towle has done worse.
"I've even been inside the tanks of the sewage treatment plant, cleaning the inside," he says.
"I try to practice servant leadership," where my people come before I do," he says. "There isn't a job I'd ask them to do that I wouldn't do."
Small ski areas, Towle says, are the lifeblood of the sport. It's where people learn to fall in love with Towle's own passion, and he always thought the role he occupied on this mountain was his nirvana.
"I always thought I was going to retire here," Towle says.
But now he's not, and no one with the Mt. Ashland vibe is dissing Towle for it.
So perhaps his line about his mom being surprised about her ski-bum son will gain even more traction in Montana than it did in Southern Oregon.
"That was always a joke to make people smile," Towle says. "My mom's a sweetheart."
Mark Freeman covers the outdoors for the Mail Tribune. Reach him at 541-776-4470 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.