Sometimes after work, after the chairlifts stop running and the slopes are empty, Nick Cohee and Meagan McNulty affix climbing skins to their alpine touring skis and skin their way up the mountain.
Once China Peak’s 28-year-old director of skiing and his fiancée reach the top, they’ll find a place to post up, pop open the beers they carried with them and take in the view of Huntington Lake and Kaiser Ridge.
Dang. Look at all that snow.
“I was definitely nervous coming here,” Cohee says while telling the story over a pint. “I told (McNulty), ‘If it doesn’t snow, we’re not staying.’ Because I didn’t want to go into a failing business.
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“After watching my dad persevere through the drought, the season we had is just that much more rewarding. Craziest fricking year ever.”
Ski season ended Sunday at China Peak, and certainly not because of a lack of snow. More so, lack of demand. Once temperatures in the Valley reach the 70s, the paying customers put away their skis and boards and break out the golf clubs and watercraft. Plus there’s always soccer practice.
If we had the customers we could stay open until the middle of May, probably.
Nick Cohee, China Peak Director of Skiing
Even while other California resorts remain open, possibly all year, China Peak still enjoyed one of the busiest (140,000 skier visits) and most profitable seasons in its history. Just 65 miles northeast of Fresno, the resort recorded 30 feet of snowfall at its base area and 41 feet on top.
Quite a way for a recently retired ski racer to break into the family business.
“I lived at 7,000 feet all year long and saw it come,” says Cohee, the middle of China Peak CEO Tim Cohee’s five sons. “You’re crossing your fingers Dec. 10 because we didn’t have that much.
“We kind of limped our way through Christmas, but as soon as January came around it was just ‘Boom, boom, boom!’ every fricking week. And it just kept coming.”
Groomed snow runs through Cohee’s veins.
Groomed snow runs through Cohee’s veins. He grew up around Kirkwood, where his dad was a longtime executive before purchasing China Peak in 2010, became a decorated collegiate skier and went on to podium in giant slalom at the 2015 U.S. Alpine Championships and represent the U.S. Ski Team at an FIS World Cup race in Austria.
A March 2016 crash hastened Cohee’s retirement from ski racing and set him up for his first winter as a resort operator. As director of skiing, his duties primarily revolve around marketing, providing social media content and being a visible presence on the slopes. He’s also not afraid to get his hands dirty by plowing snow and helping out in operations.
“He never plays the ‘this is my dad’s ski resort card,’ ” Tim Cohee says. “He’s worked his butt off and earned everyone’s respect.”
He is just an absolute skiing addict. He brings a passion and energy to the resort.
Tim Cohee, China Peak CEO
While Nick Cohee has elevated China Peak’s social media presence by posting eye-catching photos and video (including he and Olympic snowboarder Andy Finch doing backflips off the summit) it hasn’t all been smooth schussing.
The job of any ski area operator is to entice people up the hill. But when the conditions on the ground don’t accurately portray what’s being sold on Facebook because of rapidly changing weather conditions, the feedback isn’t very forgiving.
Cohee found this out firsthand in early January after heavy snowfall was followed by heavy rain and a heavy freeze that did a number on all the chairlifts. Cables and sheave wheels were rimed over with ice, making them inoperable. Adding to the disarray, the resort’s lower parking lots got flooded by nearby Big Creek.
Through all this, China Peak managed to get a couple of lifts running. But when customer experience didn’t match, the “epic,” “firing” conditions touted on social media, some took aim with charges of false advertising. To his credit, Cohee addressed the criticism in a lengthy Facebook post and promised to address everyone’s complaints as long as they were respectful.
“I didn’t intentionally mislead anyone, but there are things that happen at 7,000 feet that you can’t prepare for, ” he says now. “I learned that you have to be careful with what you say. I was definitely trying to sell it. I was trying to get people up there. And they all came and they weren’t happy.”
“It was a good learning experience,” Tim Cohee adds. “He now has thicker skin than he would’ve had otherwise.”
140,000 total skier visits at China Peak in 2016-17, one of the busiest seasons on record
Now that ski season is over, China Peak employees get a chance to decompress and enjoy a much mellower time of year. This summer’s major improvement project involves the installation of a new quad chair that will double the capacity of Chair 2, one of China Peak’s oldest lifts.
“People are going to be stoked,” Cohee says. “It’s a step in the right direction. That chair really needed to come out.”
After living at the base area since June, Nick and Meagan are talking about getting a place down the hill in Fresno or Clovis.
Where there isn’t a snowcat in sight.
“I definitely want to get out of the snow for a little bit,” he says after emptying his glass. “I’m the biggest snow fiend there is, but it’s been too much.”