From Ireland to Snowbasin
By Brian E. Clark
When Davy Ratchford was a boy in Ireland, the idea of running a major ski resort in the United States was absolutely nowhere on his radar.
“For starters, there’s no snow skiing in Ireland. And besides, we grew up incredibly poor in a neighborhood called Glasnevin on the northside of Dublin,” recalled Ratchford, who has been the general manager of Utah’s Snowbasin since 2019.
The massive ski and snowboard resort is about 50 minutes northeast of Salt Lake City in the Wasatch Mountain Range and 25 minutes east of Ogden. It has 12 lifts, 111 runs, a vertical descent of 2,900 feet and 3,000 acres of skiable terrain. In the 2002 Olympics, it hosted the downhill, combined (downhill and slalom) and super-G alpine skiing events.
Snowbasin is also known for the impressive lodges built for the Winter Games that are made from huge, old-growth logs. The resort is owned by the Holding family, which also operates Sun Valley in Idaho.
Ratchford, 45, is the youngest of six children. He said his father was one of 13 children and left school at age 11, “a fairly typical story for Ireland at that time,” he mused.
“We had little. But when one of my older sister’s married a Yank, that allowed us to get a green card and gave us a place to go in America,” said Ratchford, who emigrated with his parents, a sister and two older brothers more than three decades ago.
He said the family sold all they owned for around $2,000 and emigrated to the United States.
After a short stay in Virginia, the family relocated to Utah when Ratchford’s father got a job as a carpenter in Logan (about 80 miles north of Salt Lake City).
Leaving Ireland was “bittersweet,” Ratchford said. “And I go back often. But I’m very lucky because America offered me a lot of opportunities. I owe a lot to my parents, who sacrificed a great deal, including their pride.
“It wasn’t easy for them without an education. Dad took on every little job he could to make ends meet, and we were required to work starting at age 14.”
In Logan, they first rented a two-bedroom apartment. Ratchford’s mother and father had one room, and his sister had the other.
“Another brother from Ireland came over not long after,” he said. “He slept on the couch, and my brother and I slept on a mattress in the corner. We were just trying to make our way in the beginning.”
Ratchford soon made friends who took him skiing at a resort called Beaver Mountain. Located in the Cache Valley near Bear Lake in northern Utah, it has a respectable 1,600-foot vertical drop and covers 880 acres.
“That first time, back in 1994, I wore cotton jeans and what can best be described as a ’Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat’ for a ski jacket,” he said. (The coat was a key feature in the family-friendly 2005 musical based on the character Joseph from the Book of Genesis in the Bible.)
“Of course, I fell down the mountain a lot,” he said. “And no, I did not wear a helmet back then. So you could say I stumbled my way through learning how to ski. All my friends had grown up skiing and were good. Fortunately, they were all very patient with me.”
Over the next few years, he went as he could.
“As an Irish kid, who’d never skied before, I was trying to get the hang of things,” he said. “But what I loved most was getting up into the mountains. That’s what really attracted me. The Wasatch Range is big, beautiful, and wild. It was magic to me.”
He skied some while he attended the University of Utah, but work and family responsibilities soon limited his time on the slopes until he began working for Vail Resorts, which owns numerous areas in North America and other around the globe.
He first toiled for several marketing companies building brands, but his big break came when he was hired by Real Salt Lake, a Major League Soccer team. He worked there from 2007 to 2011 as marketing director for the team and its Rio Tinto Stadium.
“I got to spend time with my football heroes like David Beckham and Thierry Henri and some of the best soccer players in the world,” he said.
After leaving Real Salt Lake, he spent the next eight years leading marketing teams at Northstar Resort in California, Vail in Colorado, and Park City in Utah. His skiing improved markedly, too.
Ratchford said it’s a special treat when he meets a fellow Irishman on the slopes at Snowbasin.
“There are indeed some of us who ski,” he quipped. “It’s fun to see Irish folks out doing something they might not be used to.”
During his time at Snowbasin, Ratchford said the resort has experienced significant growth, beating out areas such as Vail and Park City in reader satisfaction surveys conducted by “Ski Magazine.”
“We’ve won other rewards from the National Ski Areas Association, including the Conversion Cup for introducing novices to skiing and snowboarding,” he said. “So this has been a heck of a move. This is what I’m supposed to do.
“I love building high-performing teams of people who share a vision and common goal because the team is the star for running a ski resort,” he said. “At this resort, you can’t tell who’s the boss because we all pitch in.”
Snowbasin has also earned praise for its food. When my 32-year-old son, Matthew, visited Snowbasin for several days last spring, we skied and snowboarded on challenging runs all over the resort. Then we took lunch breaks and dined at Earl’s Lodge on tasty chicken caprese with sriracha aioli on ciabatta bread, blackened cedar plank salmon, and other offerings. After the lifts closed, we retired to the Cinnabar for drinks and listened to a band.
And with Salt Lake City in the running to host the 2030 winter Olympics, Ratchford said he’d love to see the downhill, combined, and Super-G alpine skiing events return to Snowbasin.
“We’re excited about the possibilities,” he said.
Ratchford has skied the Grizzly and Wildflower downhill runs that are open to the public, though he acknowledges he doesn’t do them like the Olympic speedsters.”
“It takes me about five minutes to ski the downhill courses,” he said. “But for the top athletes, it’s around two minutes because they are the best of the best. We get people from all over the world who come here because they want to ski those runs.
“I ride the chair lifts with people from Germany, France, Mexico, Brazil, and beyond. We also sell season passes to people from 32 states because our mountain is so good.”
Because Snowbasin has no lodging, he said many guests stay in Ogden, Huntsville, the Ogden Valley, Salt Lake City, or Park City. The resort had plans to open a Club Med resort this year, but that effort was put on hold until next season because of supply chain problems.
“But we hope to break ground this coming summer,” he said. “And we’re also looking at other development opportunities because people want to stay on the mountain.”
And as much as the Olympic downhill pistes are a thrill, Ratchford said he likes getting out on the intermediate Main Street run off the Strawberry lift all by himself.
“It’s a wide, groomed slope, and with the sun coming up early in the day, it’s beautiful. It reminds me of when I was just a young kid new here from Ireland and falling in love with the mountains.
“It’s still magical and very centering. It makes me feel small and grateful to be where I’ve landed. Snowbasin does that because it’s so very big.”
For more information on Snowbasin, see snowbasin.com.