On what had seemed like a nice spring day in April, 1999, Jim Schaefer and his wife, Elissa Anne Henderson, were climbing to the summit at Berkshire East Ski Resort in Charlemont—Jim with skis, Elissa on snowshoes—when Elissa had an asthma attack.
Shocked to see the woman he only known as fit and robust suddenly in the grip of respiratory failure, Jim carried Elissa down the mountain, skiing to the base where his father and mother, Roy and Becky Schaefer, had arrived to take a hike with their dogs.
The Shaefers had just closed the resort for the season. Roy began CPR as Jim rushed to the nearest phone to call 911. By the time Jim returned, Roy knew there was nothing more they could do.
Elissa died in Jim's arms at the base of the mountain.
"She died right there," Jim Schaefer said flatly, pointing out the huge glass window of Berkshire East's main lodge to a spot he's passed thousands of times since that day.
"I knew she had a problem as a child. She'd had a bad attack when she was 18, but it was something in the past," Schaefer continued. Elissa had had some mild respiratory trouble when they lived in smoggy London, but otherwise she seemed to have no trouble keeping up with, and often ahead of, Jim and his adventurous, athletic family and friends.
The coroner's report cited poor air quality—air pollution—as a primary contributing factor in Elissa Henderson's death, Schaefer said. The air quality was very bad that April, the result of a high pollen count and pollution from big coal-fired electric plants blowing in from the west and getting trapped in the river valleys of New England—a common occurrence to this day.
Elissa's death affected Schaefer and the rest of his immediate and extended family deeply. At the time, Schaefer was a hot shot on Wall Street, an investment banker who, though he remained close to his family and returned to Charlemont and the mountain regularly, "was enjoying a Manhattan lifestyle" and doing deals without giving much thought to the kinds of projects he was financing.
After Elissa died, Schaefer said, he walked around in a state of shock for years. He began to return to Charlemont every weekend, to reconnect with friends and build even deeper bonds with family.
It was a slow but certain turning, leading Schaefer also to change his focus on Wall Street, developing an expertise in the alternative energy market, financing projects that he thought could make a difference.
"In a really harsh, direct way, air pollution took someone I love," Schaefer said. "I couldn't just keep doing what I was doing. I needed to try to make a difference."
Now remarried, Schaefer is fervent and explicit about the importance of the people in his life. His wife Joni and their three children divide their time between New York City and Charlemont, where Jim built a home five years ago to be closer and more involved with his family, their business and the community with which he says he most identifies.
"I grew up here in Charlemont," Schaefer said. "It's who I am."
A decade since Elissa died, the impact of the tragedy is still part of the present—for Jim and his family; for the many people in the Berkshire East skiing community who've known Jim Schaefer and his brothers, all champion ski racers, since they were kids; for the many employees of the resort who are today part of an aggressive push to make Berkshire East a more environmentally friendly and sustainable place.
Late last year, the Schaefer family won local approval for a $2.9 million wind project that will produce more energy than the resort uses to make snow, run lifts and keep the lights on. The Class II turbine, slated to begin producing clean power sometime next summer, will largely resolve for Berkshire East a troubling dichotomy that ski resorts face in the age of environmentalism: catering to outdoorsy, often environmentally aware people while using a ton of nonrenewable, dirty energy to do it.
If the windmill that will soon rise over the mountain is, in effect, a memorial to Elissa, that is only one important part of its significance. The project will also allow the resort to cut its single biggest cost—energy—approximately in half. Schaefer, who has invested millions in Berkshire East in recent years, joining his father as co-owner of the resort, describes it as "a 30-year hedge" against the vagaries of the ski business, "the single most important thing we've done."
The wind project is also symbolic of the transition going on at Berkshire East as Roy Schaefer, a self-made man and legend in the ski industry who bought Berkshire East in 1977, gradually begins to let the next generation take the lead.
His four sons—Jim, Billy, Tom and Jon—didn't grow up just skiing at Berkshire East; they all worked hard on the mountain as boys and as young men, putting time into what was, particularly in the early years, a precarious family business. From their father, a tough-minded bear of a man known to be kind and gentle unless you riled him, they learned how to survive in the ski business by being practical, frugal and resourceful, by being able to fix every piece of equipment and do every job on the mountain themselves, from running the lifts and making snow to scrubbing toilets.
"I believe it's very important in any family business that the children learn as much as they can about the nuances and every aspect of the business," Roy Schaefer said.
The Schaefer brothers know the statistics, numbers that would make even the most daring banker question the investment potential of a ski resort, particularly one in Massachusetts. When Roy Schaefer bought Berkshire East, there were about 800 ski resorts in the United States. Today, fewer than 200 remain in operation.
As Jim Schaefer spoke to a reporter about the tragedy that profoundly altered the course of his life, he was standing amid the chaos of a ski resort in the final stages of preparation for the upcoming winter season.
In less than 24 hours, the lodge would fill with skiers and snowboarders. The long polished wood tables and benches and nearly all the floor space beneath them would be piled with clothing. People of every age, from still-wobbly toddlers to still-surefooted octogenarians, would come together for opening day. But at that moment, the lodge was filled with workers getting ready for the next day's onslaught.
Carpenters hung massive wooden doors to a new addition that houses the resort's ski shop while a team of workers vacuumed floors, polished windows and scrubbed bathrooms. Outside, the crews had been at it for months, installing a new chairlift—new to the resort but purchased used, as has much of the infrastructure on the mountain since 1977 (in this case from a closed ski area in New Mexico)—clearing trails of fallen limbs and, once it got cold enough, making and grooming snow.
The atmosphere took on the festive cheer of a reunion, which is what opening days at ski areas are. This one was special. This opening day would be the unveiling of some big changes since last season.
The addition of a new chair lift affects the way a ski mountain works; it changes—hopefully in a good way—the flow. And that affects the way people feel about your mountain. The opening day crowd would comprise a big chunk of the resort's loyal core—the thousands of hardcore skiers who view Berkshire East as their home mountain. The regulars were sure to take the measure of the new triple lift as well as the wooden infrastructure for the resort's zip-line canopy tour business opened over the summer.
There were other changes that a regular might notice, some old faces in new positions. Among them were Jon Schaefer, 29, the youngest of the brothers, and Christopher Loftus, 43, the former athletic director at Eaglebrook School, Jim Schaefer's college roommate and a close family friend. Both Jon Schaefer and Loftus came to work full-time last summer, opening and managing the zip-line operation. Loftus, a familiar face in the New England ski community and at Berkshire East, will head up marketing while Jon Schaefer becomes general manager of the resort.
On the night before the big opening, Jon Schaefer's new upper management role would not be performed behind a desk. He would work long hours with his crew on a cold, dark mountain making snow.
Heading off to an early evening get-together at Jim's place before returning to the snow guns, Jon hitched his thumbs under the suspenders of his coveralls and shook his head. He had a lot of work to do, with high expectations for getting the season off to a good start. But with a gentle smile that heightened his resemblance to his father, he said, "There's nothing I'd rather be doing right now."
Billy Schaefer, 39, and Tom Schaefer, 37, were all-American skiers at UMass, a status that arguably elevates them above Jim and Jon, who were star racers at the University of Vermont and Middlebury College respectively but didn't make all-American. Then again, all four skied in the Junior Olympics, were standouts in high school at Eaglebrook, raced at the top collegiate level.
The Schaefer boys were sitting in Jim's living room, discussing the question of which brother was the most accomplished skier. Each seemed to know his siblings' resumes as well as his own.
"Jon was on the U.S Development Team," Tom noted before also pointing out that he himself had won an NCAA championship in the slalom.
It might have seemed like nothing other than jock talk, and to a degree, that's what it was. Athletics, skiing in particular, has been a guiding force in the Schaefer boys' lives from the start.
Paul Putnam, the race director at Berkshire East since Roy bought the mountain, coached and mentored all four boys. "They were ski rats. Many were the nights I had to go chase them off the mountain. Their love for skiing revealed itself early and it's never gone away," Putnam said in a later interview.
Looking out from Jim Schaefer's big but cozy alpine home to a spectacular view of Berkshire East, listening to the brothers swap stories, it's easy to imagine the boys had an idyllic childhood, living a life largely uninterrupted by hardship. The truth is a bit more complicated.
"The conversation around the table our whole lives has always been about risk," Billy said. "In the ski business, the cards are just stacked against you."
As the brothers expounded on the many forces that can conspire to stymie ski resorts, the discussion kept leading back to the man missing from the gathering. The family had a party planned later in the evening. The house was filling up. Billy's and Tom's families had arrived. Becky Schaefer was there, doting on her grandchildren. Roy, who'd spent the afternoon at a ski industry meeting, had yet to return.
To his sons, Roy Schaefer is an old-school hero whose stubborn, do-it-yourself practicality and pure passion for skiing kept Berkshire East alive and growing as other resorts went belly-up or got gobbled up by big resort companies.
"Dad grew up about as poor as you can in this country," Billy said. "He was raised on a farm in central Michigan, in a place so rural it didn't have electricity."
As a boy, Roy Schaefer was taken under the wing of a farmer who'd begun to serve a growing market for skiing, fashioning a rope tow from a diesel engine and using it to haul skiers up a hill. Roy was hooked, diving headlong into the sport and the nascent industry growing around it. He became one of the first certified professional ski instructors in the United States and skied with most of the greats of the day, traveling to Europe and South America, teaching at some of the greatest ski mountains in the world. Schaefer also built his own hill, the Lansing Ski Club in East Lansing, Mich. He literally built it himself—with earth-moving equipment.
Roy Schaefer moved his family to Charlemont in September, 1976 to run Berkshire East, effectively working for the bank that held the beleaguered resort's debt. In 1977, Schaefer worked out a deal to purchase the ski area and assume its debt.
In the late '70s, high interest rates and a tough economy hit Berkshire East hard. Then came the big snow droughts of the '80s, which made the mountain dependent on expensive snowmaking and gave the advantage to Berkshire East's bigger, plusher, better-capitalized competitors.
"We couldn't afford to compete ," said Jim Schaefer.
Roy Schaefer survived, his sons said, by being conservative and paying attention to what became the backbone of his business, the core market that sustained the resort through lean years and allowed it to get back in the game.
"Schools, families—season ticket holders who come back year after year—and the racing programs," Tom Schaefer said. "That was the foundation."
His brother the banker leaned forward to emphasize the point: "That foundation was, and still is, the key to any success we have. It allowed us to stay in business into the 1990s, when we were able to start investing, upgrading the lodge and improving our snow making."
In the '90s and throughout the last decade, the family steadily invested in the mountain in a way that reflects Roy Schaefer's unique approach to the business. Rather than borrowing big and buying new, Schaefer, with an intimate knowledge of an industry he played a significant role in building, saw value in the resorts that were going bankrupt across the country. Over the years, for pennies on the dollar, he bought equipment from more than 20 resorts around the country, from local hills like Berkshire Snow Basin and Mt. Tom and from as far away as Berthoud Pass in Colorado and Sierra Ski Ranch in Truckee, Calif.
On a trip he and Roy took across the country last year, Jon said, his father demonstrated an uncanny ability to locate closed and largely forgotten ski areas, from many of which he'd purchased equipment: "It was amazing. We'd be driving along a highway and he'd point to an exit and say, 'That's where you pick up a road that takes you to such-and-such resort where I bought a chairlift back in the '60s.' Fifty miles down the road he'd spot another sign and tell me about another resort that went of business."
"You really can't overstate the importance of my father's conservative investment strategy," said Jim Schaefer. "We could have invested millions in upgrades in the 1970s, only to lose the mountain in the '80s." Instead, his father was patient, steady. As a result, Jim said, "Berkshire East has an over-equitized balance sheet—somewhere in the 50 to 60 percent equity range." Translation: if sold for market value, the resort is worth considerably more than it owes the bank.
Jim's brothers emphatically confirmed that watching his dad struggle against and gradually overcome crushing debt had inspired him to become a banker.
Jim put it a slightly different way: "I saw how kind and impacting the people at Greenfield Savings Bank were to my father. They held the debt and could have put us out of business at any point, but instead they worked with my father."
In his own career, Schaefer said, "I have delivered to companies in trouble in ways that some bankers have never and would never."
With several million dollars of his own money, Jim Schaefer has provided the kind of investment that allows him and his family to "put the hammer down. We want to be the best small ski resort in New England. We're all in. Double down," Jim Schaefer said.
Schaefer's investment allowed the family to buy out their longtime partners, who had owned a significant chunk of Berkshire East for years. (The partners, the Browns, a wealthy and influential Michigan family, are family friends with whom the Schaefers remain close personally.) That allowed the resort to get into the canopy tour business—"Jon's idea," Jim noted proudly—a move that gave the mountain year-round cash flow. The resort opened a tubing park two years ago, catering to folks who want to enjoy the mountain vibe but don't ski or ride. The tube rides gave the resort a reason to open its formerly disused West Lodge.
Most significantly, Jim's financial involvement allowed the resort to cut its huge energy costs and get off carbon-based fuel, taking advantage of direct state and federal subsidies for renewable energy. Those subsidies will cover about 40 percent of the cost of the $2.9 million wind project.
In talking about the recent infusion of money and energy at Berkshire East, the Schaefer boys are unified on some key points.
First, while Jim is providing much of the financing and Jon has come in to help oversee the day-to-day operation, "… it is the family's mountain, 100 percent. We're all involved," Jim said.
Next, the investment goes beyond Berkshire East and extends to a greater community—to Charlemont, Franklin County and the Berkshires and to the local skiing community.
"When you think about the number of people who are touched in some way by this place, it's pretty amazing," said Tom Schaefer, now the assistant head ski coach at Stamford. "Economically, athletically, educationally, socially, now environmentally. There's a lot at stake."
That connection likely informed the strong public support for the windmill project in Charlemont, backed heavily by major business owners. Berkshire East is a significant employer in the region, providing 220 seasonal jobs and 30 year-round. In addition, the Schaefers buy local and hire local contactors, a longtime practice. Berkshire East is Charlemont's biggest taxpayer.
Finally, the brothers took a hard position on the question of motive. The effort is not about making money; it's about preserving one of the last independently owned family resorts, serving thousands of student athletes and thousands of local recreational skiers, being good stewards of land and environment and perpetuating Roy Schaefer's life's work.
Billy Schaefer, a hidden tech entrepreneur who lives in Vermont but skis at Berkshire East, flashed an impish grin, tossing out what he says is an old industry saw: "You want to make a small fortune in the ski business, start with a large one."
Frank Carroll, an executive at Rockport shoe company, is a Berkshire East regular. Carroll, his wife Nancy, and boys Ben and Brett live in Connecticut. They own one of the few condos at the base of Berkshire East. Carroll, an outgoing guy who never forgets a name or a face, is about the best ambassador a ski resort can have.
"Nancy and I found this place when we moved back east after living in California," Carroll said during a lift-ride to the summit. "When I first met Roy, I told him it was the Squaw Valley of New England. We fell in love with the place."
There may be some quibbling, but most regulars would share Carroll's assessment: "For a mountain this size, Berkshire East has the best terrain in New England, great snow, spectacular views—the best I've ever seen, in an interesting, unique place. I'm talking about the mountain itself, Charlemont and Shelburne Falls, this part of Western Mass. Add in the influence of artists and writers—the diversity of the people here—it's no wonder this has become a quiet outdoor mecca. Still relatively undiscovered, but those who discover it love it."
Kathy Kilhart, a high school special education teacher at Mahar Regional School in Orange and one of Berkshire East's veteran ski instructors, has only missed a few weeks at Berkshire East in 25 years, "about five years ago, when I had knee surgery. Other than that, every weekend and school holiday, I've never missed one."
After a week with high school kids, Kilhart works with the youngest skiers on the mountain. A busman's holiday?
"Look at that smile," Kilhart said, referring to the little girl she was teaching "I love seeing that look of excitement and enjoyment, seeing them do something they can do for a lifetime with their families and as part of a community."
Community: the word came up over and over as I talked to people around the mountain for this story.
For a number of years, I've skied at Berkshire East fairly regularly. Until last month, I had chatted with Roy only a few times over the years, had only met Jim and Jon each once on the chairlift. I'd written a few stories about the resort, but from a distance, based on what was easily observed.
In the last month, the Schaefers have given me access to a deeper look into their business, their family and the history of their time in Charlemont. One day last week, I spoke with Christopher Loftus about the Schaefer brothers' repeatedly stated goal to secure the resort financially and improve the experience without ultimately damaging that thing—that magic—that had long attracted its loyal following. Could "The Beast" avoid becoming a victim of its own success?
Loftus mentioned many mountains that have lost their unique local qualities by chasing after what seemed like a new and desirable market—destination skiers with expensive taste and the affluence to gratify it. "They made changes to win a new market, but lost connection to the community and culture that made them special," Loftus said.
The Schaefers haven't and won't lose sight of the core market, he said. "They put their community first. They believe that can improve the experience, keep it affordable, maintain a racing culture and deliver to their regulars," he said. "But they won't forget where they come from."
Despite the youthful energy and bold vision for the future, the four sons are still traveling the same road their father has successfully traveled for many decades, putting people and a passion for skiing first, approaching business with a determination honed as athletes, disregarding exits that have led so many others astray.