The young creators of a ‘TED meets Burning Man’ conference bought a $40-million mountain in Utah to build a Davos for hipsters. What could go wrong?

The Summit Series conferences are wildly popular extravaganzas. But building an eco-friendly ski resort for the rich and famous is quite a different undertaking.
Summit Series founders, from left, Elliott Bisnow, Brett Leve, Jeff Rosenthal, and Jeremy Schwartz, photographed in 2017 at the Skylodge on Powder Mountain.
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The theme was Narnia meets Walden meets 1920s speakeasy at the 2012 Summit Series Basecamp conference. The rapper Q-Tip and DJ Jazzy Jeff played a set; the president of Georgia made a speech; rescued mountain lions surprised guests at a nature talk; and the illusionist David Blaine roamed the halls of the Lake Tahoe resort, randomly delighting attendees with his tricks. 

Just four years after a group of idealistic entrepreneurs in their early twenties started Summit Series, it had grown into a phenomenon: an invite-only multiday conference with an eye-popping guest list of CEOs, founders, wellness gurus, philanthropists, and celebrities who came for the intense workshops, heady talks, and legendary parties at stunning vacation destinations. At an annual Summit Series conference or a “Summit at Sea” cruise, one might find oneself in a meditation session with Jeff Bezos, learning about indigenous peoples’ rights from Harrison Ford, or petting puppies with A$AP Rocky.

The four young men who created Summit Series—Elliott Bisnow, Brett Leve, Jeff Rosenthal, and Jeremy Schwartz—would usually be in the mix, hobnobbing with guests in the craft cocktail bar hidden behind a broom closet or practicing lucid dreaming in the geodesic dome. But at Lake Tahoe in 2012 they had to sit out the fun, they recall in Make No Small Plans, a book about the conference series that they published last year. Instead they were holed up in a windowless room at the resort, working behind the scenes to charter a 737 jet to Utah. 

The actor Harrison Ford gives a talk on the rights of indigenous people at Summit LA19; the rapper A$AP Rocky indulges in some puppy love at LA19; Amazon founder Jeff Bezos on stage at Summit LA17
Courtesy of Summit Series

The morning after the conference ended, they ushered 60 of the 800 Basecamp attendees onto the plane for a last-minute all-expenses-paid mystery trip. A fleet of 30 rental cars was waiting in Salt Lake City to deliver the still-baffled guests to a hastily constructed yurt at the top of a mountain in the town of Eden, Utah—Powder Mountain. 

The group arrived just in time to watch a spectacular sunset streaked over the Wasatch mountain range. Only then, around a barrel fire, did the Summit team explain what was going on. 

“You might be wondering what you’re doing here,” Rosenthal began, according to the book. “We’re going to build a place where people from around the world can form friendship, where their families can spend time together, and where their kids can grow up and start families of their own. And we want you to be part of that story with us.” 

The founders had always seen the Summit Series mission as bigger than a string of epic gatherings, they explained. They were building a community of people who wanted to fix the world’s ills by creating businesses that gave back. They were collecting people who accepted the Summit mantra “Make no small plans” as a personal creed. They needed a year-round home, and this literal summit could be it. 

They just needed $40 million to buy the mountain.

“Make no small plans”

The group’s plans for Summit Powder Mountain—already the largest ski resort in the United States by skiable acreage—were anything but small. The young men, in partnership with two venture capitalists, laid out a utopian vision of a “new urbanist” community, peopled with tech-industry wunderkinds, showbiz and sports stars, and “the billionaire set.” It was to be a place where big, world-changing, philanthropic ideas would be hatched.

Powder Mountain—with its funky 1970s-era ski lodge, Powder Keg dive bar, and smattering of older homes and condos—was to be transformed into a hub for innovation and socially conscious entrepreneurship, and to bring much-needed economic development to Eden, an off-the-beaten-path town in a tucked-away valley. 

The $40 million real estate deal would give the Summit group nearly 10,000 acres, land equal to roughly two-thirds of Manhattan, but they pledged to keep development eco-friendly: a four-acre village and 500 elegant but restrained single-family homes built into the mountainside, as well as modernist condos, workforce housing, co-working spaces, coffee shops, farm-to-table restaurants, and upscale hotels. 

In presentations to county officials in Utah, the group promised more: a science center, convention space, an outpost for the U.S. Institute of Peace, a satellite campus for an online university, a Montessori school, and an alternative medicine center they called “a brain lab.” High-tech greenhouses would allow the community to produce its own food, and there was talk of water treatment facilities that would recycle the residents’ sewage into potable water while extracting rich nutrients. 

The pitches landed. In short order, the Summit Series founders raised more than the $40 million they needed to buy the mountain in 2013. They have never shared the complete list of original investors, but they have named, among others, Virgin Group founder Richard Branson; Martin Sorrell, founder of WPP, the world’s largest marketing company; self-help author and entrepreneur Tim Ferriss; Beth Comstock, former vice chair and chief marketing officer at GE; and Blake Mycoskie, founder of Toms shoes. Making investments of between $500,000 and $2 million each, these founding members’ leap of faith earned them credit to one day build a home on Powder Mountain. Other property owners include Ken Howery, a cofounder of PayPal; Miguel McKelvey, cofounder of WeWork; and Netflix cofounder Reed Hastings, who bought a plot eight years ago. Utah county officials also threw in their lot with the first-time developers from California, backing them for an $18 million bond to build infrastructure.

But a decade later, the investors and the county are still waiting for the promised utopia to materialize. 

Today the sparsely populated resort consists of a few dozen new homes and the Skylodge, a luxe yurtlike clubhouse. Some 90% of the promised 500 houses have yet to be built. Many lots remain empty or are in a state of unfinished construction. Water and sewer lines have been laid down, but the plans for next-generation wastewater recycling and greenhouses have been shelved. There are no hotels, full-service restaurants, or shops, let alone a brain lab. The new urbanist village high street still exists only in architects’ renderings

The plans for a bustling, beautifully designed playground for the creative and socially conscious have simply not come to pass. How did things go so very wrong?

Photos of Chris Blackwell, Sir Martin Sorrell, Reed Hastings, Tim Ferriss, Beth Comstock, Blake Mycoskie, and Richard Branson in a red frame.
Among the investors and homeowners who bought into Summit Powder Mountain are, from left: Chris Blackwell, founder of Island Records; Martin Sorrell, founder of WPP; Reed Hastings, cofounder of Netflix; Tim Ferriss, the entrepreneur of 4-Hour Workweek fame; Beth Comstock, former vice chair of General Electric; Blake Mycoskie, founder of Toms Shoes; and Richard Branson, Virgin Group founder.

A moonshot that fell flat

The project that once generated so much excitement is now a sore subject for many. Some of the Summit Series attendees who initially invested or bought plots on the mountain grumble about the slow pace of development. The resort has ruffled feathers in Eden, where locals worry that teens working on the mountain have been exposed to a flashy, corrupt lifestyle, rife with sex, drugs, and booze. And the promised economic boost has not materialized.

Meanwhile, the developers are mired in a tangle of lawsuits and countersuits with investors, including a group of individuals from China seeking green cards in exchange for investment. 

And on top of everything else, the logistics of holding full Summit Series conferences at almost 9,000 feet have turned out to be prohibitive. In recent years, the original Summit founders have been less and less involved with the mountain and have reduced their ownership stake. Changes in the structure of the group developing the resort leave its future in question. Everyone has started to refer to it simply as Powder Mountain again—removing “Summit” from the name. 

When I asked Bisnow to compare the resort today with the plans his team presented at the project’s inception, he brushed away the suggestion that things didn’t go as planned on Powder Mountain. “It reminds me of ‘Shoot for the stars, land on the moon,’ ” he told me.

And indeed, Powder Mountain remains a beautiful place to ski. But despite the founders’ resolution to make “no small plans,” it’s hard to deny that what exists on Powder Mountain is a much smaller plan. As Netflix’s Hastings told me on a Zoom call from his cabin on the mountain, the project has shed its “we’re going to change the world with our interactions” ethos, and has become just “a normal real estate development thing.” 

Read what happened after Fortune published this story: After stepping down from Netflix, Reed Hastings is spending some of his $3.1 billion net worth to take over a ski mountain in Utah


It’s easy to see the appeal of the original plan for Summit Powder Mountain: a place that married altruism with hedonism, drawing some of the most creative entrepreneurial minds of our era. But did it ever make any sense? Can a group of founders and celebrities really change the world from an elegant ski resort? As Silicon Valley’s era of seeming omnipotence comes to a close—with bank failures, cryptocurrency meltdowns, and wave after wave of layoffs—this city upon a hill is starting to look like just another Silicon Valley moonshot that fell flat. 

“Let’s buy it”

The Summit founders and their partners are the latest in a string of entrepreneurs who have tried to make a ski resort on Powder Mountain work. The first was in 1972, when the Utah physician Alvin Cobabe opened a ski park on the land his father had used as a winter range for his sheep. With its large flat top, Powder Mountain became one of the country’s few “upside-down” ski mountains: You drive up and ski down. 

For decades the mountain mostly attracted local skiers, who affectionately called it “Pow Mow.” Only an hour from Salt Lake City, Powder Mountain boasts a reliable yearly abundance of fresh powder (the resort has never needed snowmaking machines). Still, while other ski hills slightly closer to Salt Lake City developed a higher profile—nearby Snowbasin, for example, hosted the 2002 Olympics—Powder Mountain remained a relatively untouched jewel.

By 2012, the resort was floundering, having changed hands multiple times. Powder Mountain was then owned by a private equity company that had intended to build a monster development, one that would have milked every inch of the mountain’s developable space, adding golf courses and thousands of homes. Those owners—who had paid a rumored $150 million for the mountain before the 2008 housing crisis—wanted to incorporate their own town on Powder, a plan that didn’t fly with Eden’s residents or local government.  

“72 hours later we were standing at the top of Powder Mountain, the largest ski resort in the United States… and said, ‘Let’s buy it.’” 

Greg Mauro, Summit Mountain Holding Group

That’s when a venture capital investor named Greg Mauro, who lived in Austin but spent his winters skiing in Eden, stepped in. Mauro had nervously watched the battle play out, he said in a TEDX talk about the resort in 2017, titled “A Town as a Startup.” He felt protective of the land he considered a personal refuge. And as the cofounder and managing partner of an early-stage VC firm focused on education technology, he saw an opportunity for a low-density but high-value real estate development, as well as a social impact incubator of sorts. 

Mauro was a Summit Series enthusiast and was fresh from a transcendent conference in 2011 when he decided to ask the four young founders to partner with him to purchase Powder Mountain. He flew to Malibu, where they shared a house, and a half-hour coffee turned into an eight-hour planning session, Mauro recalled. 

Then things moved fast: “Seventy-two hours later we were standing at the top of Powder Mountain, the largest ski resort in the United States—my secret spot—and said, ‘Let’s buy it.’” 

A tempting vision

After the previous battle with developers, the $40 million deal with the Summit group looked like a win for county officials. Weber County had already approved the previous owners’ rezoning application. SMHG pledged that it would limit its footprint “while delivering thought leaders from around the world to their doorstep,” one commissioner told a news outlet at the time. 

Mauro and the Summit founders purchased the land at a steep discount, and they promised to preserve the uncrowded, affordable Powder Mountain skiing experience as a public resort for locals. The group hired an urban planner and expert in “sacred geometry” who identified a “saddle” on the mountain with “an incredible feminine energy” as the site for the village, Mauro said in his TEDX talk. 

Aesthetic and environmental guidelines to prevent “McMansionification” were laid out: There would be no faux châteaus or enormous concrete manses on this mountain. The initial rules for homeowners capped single-family homes at 4,500 square feet (or 5,500 square feet including garages or below-ground living space). And buyers had to work with one of a few preselected architects dedicated to a sleek, wood-centric style they call “heritage modernism.” Residents were prohibited from putting in lawns or backyards, to reduce water use and so that the terrain would remain as untouched as possible. 

The Skylodge, on Powder Mountain, was often used for weekend gatherings prior to COVID.
Courtesy of Summit Series

Mauro held a 50% stake in the project, and the Summit founders owned the other half. The joint entity became Summit Mountain Holding Group (SMHG). To introduce the project to the network of Summit-goers, the group began holding weekend events on the mountain and marketing homesite lots at Summit conferences. The actor and tech investor Ashton Kutcher invited several founders, as described in Make No Small Plans, including Instagram cofounder Kevin Systrom; Google cofounder Sergey Brin visited too. (None of these three purchased homes.) 

SMHG then turned to Weber County, where Eden is located, for more capital. In a series of presentations for county commissioners, the group laid out what the county could expect if it agreed to back the developers for an $18 million bond to build a public road, water and sewer lines, a 400,000-gallon water tank, and other infrastructure. The resort would bring half a billion in spending on construction, they said, and it would create some 1,000 jobs. In all, they foresaw a $2 billion buildout over two decades (though that number was later amended to $1 billion). And, they told the county, the resort would draw tourist dollars to the town of Eden, as well as creators and celebrities who would likely set up their own businesses, galleries, restaurants, and theaters nearby. Weber County agreed to cosign the bond, lending SMHG its impeccable credit and access to cheap money. 

“Davos for dudes”

When news broke in 2013 that the twentysomething founders of a super-exclusive ideas and wellness conference had bought a fading Utah ski resort, there was a flurry of breathless national media coverage. There was also some derision: “4 Young Founders Just Bought a $40 Million Mountain to Party On,” Business Insider reported. The Financial Times called it “Davos for Dudes.” Gawker’s ValleyWag blog went with “Pricks on a Slope.” 

The Summit founders leaned into the hype. “What Tesla did to cars,” Bisnow told a visiting reporter from the New York Times in 2015, “we’re going to do with towns!” 

Elliott Bisnow in his house on Powder Mountain in 2019.
Lindsay Salazar

Hyperbolic, perhaps, but it didn’t seem all that far-fetched at the time, given what Bisnow and his co-founders had already achieved with Summit Series. Started as a ski trip for 19 young entrepreneurs in 2008, the event has established its reputation in Silicon Valley as a kind of “TED meets Burning Man” confab. Speakers have included billionaires such as Elon Musk and hedge fund investor Ray Dalio; startup guys like the late Zappos founder Tony Hsieh; lifestyle gurus Marie Kondo, Brené Brown, and Eckhart Tolle; activists including Erin Brockovich, Tarana Burke, and Al Gore; prominent thinkers from author Malcolm Gladwell to psychotherapist Esther Perel; and Hollywood legends such as Shonda Rhimes, Quentin Tarantino, and Jane Fonda. There are founders and CEOs galore, and scores of deejays. Bill Clinton has stopped by, and Questlove often performs, as a solo act or with his band The Roots.

But building a town is very different from creating even the most ambitious conference series, and executing on that vision was always a tall order. From the beginning, the Summit Series founders recall in their book, there had been plenty of red flags. The group had learned that 20 other entities had toured the mountain and decided to pass. Ryan Begelman, a less-public Summit Series founder who had worked in real estate acquisitions, told them that buying and developing a resort would be “very, very, very risky.” Another VC friend ran through a litany of reasons they’d end up in over their heads, drowning in line items and change orders. “The ordinances are going to destroy you!” he told them.

Sure enough, the eager but inexperienced young developers soon found themselves slamming against the same kinds of obstacles that had scared other investors and developers away from Powder Mountain. 

Adding to the normal challenges of complex real estate development: It’s terribly difficult to build a town at nearly 9,000 feet. Most ski villages sit at an elevation of about 5,000 or 6,000 feet. At Powder Mountain, winds and weather make construction pretty much impossible throughout the winter. 

Just traveling up and down the mountain with heavy loads takes planning. The county road leading up the mountain is said to be the steepest paved road in Utah, and one of the steepest in the country. Since Summit took control of the resort, three people have been killed in crashes after losing control of their vehicles on the 12-mile stretch. (News reports didn’t connect these accidents to SMHG or the resort.) In recent years, the company has also had to deal with COVID-related delays and soaring costs for construction materials. 

To make matters worse, using Powder Mountain as a base for large Summit Series conferences hasn’t worked, Bisnow told me. The resort did host one conference in 2013, “Summit Outside,” for more than 800 people. The Summit team set up glamping tents and temporary venues for talks and yoga, and in a beautifully photographed stunt, they laid a single communal dinner table that stretched for a quarter of a mile. But that weekend was a lesson in the challenges of running large gatherings on a mountain, said Bisnow: It left a large impact on the land, and was a “logistical nightmare.” 

A quarter-mile-long dinner table at Summit Outside was a striking image—but the event was “a logistical nightmare.”
Courtesy of Summit Series

“You need a place for everybody to stay,” he told me. “You also need bathrooms, you need kitchen facilities, you need eating facilities, you need shower facilities. And to try to build all that is just too expensive, which means that tickets have to be too expensive.” 

Any future programming on the mountain will likely be small weekend events of the type held regularly before the pandemic, Bisnow told me. The main Summit Series conferences are still being held in other locations, such as Palm Desert, Calif., or on cruise ships.

Legal entanglements

Another logistical hurdle: the implosion of a loan agreement for up to $120 million with a group of investors who were seeking green cards via what’s known as a “golden visa” program. In the project’s early days, Mauro and Bisnow sought funding for infrastructure building from a group of Chinese nationals looking for permanent residency in the U.S. using the EB-5 immigration program, which fast-tracks green cards for those who invest at least $500,000 in a job-creating U.S. business.  

SMHG reached an agreement with one of China’s largest immigration brokers to borrow the money over five years. The loan was to be pivotal: Mauro says the founding team had lined up a high-end ski resort developer who was ready to build Summit Village, including a Standard Hotel, by 2019. But SMHG only received about $40 million from the lenders before a conflict erupted over the details of the loan arrangement. The Chinese group issued a default notice against SMHG, and the developers sued, complaining in their lawsuit that the default notice was preventing them from finding other investors. 

The court documents include some bizarre tidbits—there’s an anecdote involving the late basketball star Kobe Bryant (a past Summit Series speaker) flying to China for a VIP meet-and-greet to woo investors. And they show the bitter tone of the dispute: In one court appearance, lawyers for SMHG mentioned a tip they got from someone claiming to be a former CIA agent who said that the Chinese lenders were involved with money laundering.

The lawyers for the lenders, meanwhile, denied all claims of fraud in an angry rebuttal. They accused SMHG of elitism, saying the individual investors were simply looking to “leave the People’s Republic of China for a better life in America,” while the Summit holding company was “constructing a luxury ski resort for several hundreds of millions of dollars and seeking to populate it with some of the world’s celebrities, millionaires, and billionaires.” They also counter-sued.

By now, the legal battle has dragged on for two years and the resort developer has moved on. (Representatives for the EB-5 lenders declined to comment on the record for this story.)

Investors were told construction would be started on at least half of Summit Village in 2015. But in 2019, it was hardly a bustling hub for a community of socially conscious movers and shakers.
Courtesy of Powder Mountain

That’s not the only lawsuit the Powder Mountain project is embroiled in. In 2021 a New York–based designer sued SMHG to recoup his founding member investment of $500,000. He claimed the contract he signed—the standard agreement offered to all original members—stipulated that he would be entitled to a refund if by June 2015 at least 50% of the construction of the Main Street of the planned Summit village had not commenced. Needless to say, in the summer of 2015, Main Street was still a concept. The case was settled on undisclosed terms at the end of last year. 

Another suit involving two individuals who tried to buy a plot on the mountain—Nouriel Roubini, the economist known as Dr. Doom for his eternally pessimistic forecasts, and Michael Eisenberg, a New York–based real estate broker—is still active.

Local resentment

There’s also a culture clash with locals in Eden, a mostly Mormon town in a squarely Republican county. Some of those with lifelong memories of Pow Mow have soured on the out-of-towner developers who arrived a decade ago. A three-year-long dispute over water rights (which held up the development and at one point led to a campaign of lawn signs proclaiming “Summit sucks water”) didn’t help, leaving both sides frustrated. 

“If you’re asking me about Summit, I don’t have anything but bad things to say,” one resident told me when I visited Eden in January. 

Locals were eager to tell me anecdotes and rumors about what goes on up on the mountain since “the Summit people” arrived: hallucinogens, wild parties, sex workers visiting. (These accounts could not be confirmed, and few of those telling such stories were willing to go on the record.) 

Before Summit’s arrival, one exasperated local told me, Eden residents didn’t have to worry about Ford GTs careening down the mountain and flipping over, as one did in 2020. (The driver, a New York–based singer and music producer, and his passenger suffered only minor injuries.) 

I met Shanna Francis, editor of the hyperlocal Ogden Valley News site, in a Mexican restaurant in Eden that used to be her grandparents’ general store. Her eyes welled up as she spoke of skiing on Pow Mow as a child. She won’t ski there now, on principle, she told me, because she worries about the mountain’s ecosystem.

Despite the Summit group’s vows to collaborate and engage with the existing community, Francis told me, the two populations—of the resort and the town—live in separate worlds, interacting only when locals get jobs as drivers or house cleaners up on the mountain. 

When I asked what she’d like to see happen to Summit’s flailing development project, Francis didn’t mince words: “All I’ve ever wanted was for them to go bankrupt, get bought out, and have it turned into a conservation area.”

Organizational dysfunction

Weber County hasn’t actually lost money in the Powder Mountain development—the Summit group’s bond payments have so far been made on time. But there has been no year-round influx of well-heeled visitors, no blossoming of new businesses in Powder Mountain’s aura. That’s the real disappointment, Weber County treasurer John Bond said: “All of that was extremely, I would call it, heavy. It was a big deal.”

The lawsuits, the local friction, and the pandemic were all roadblocks, but several people involved told me that the project’s biggest impediment was internal: constant changes in leadership at the resort and organizational dysfunction, much of it reflecting the team’s inexperience.

When I visited Bond’s office in January, he had covered a large conference table with piles of Summit Powder Mountain paperwork—a vivid illustration of the bureaucratic travails of years of negotiations. For county officials, the chaos was extremely challenging, Bond told me. 

In Bond’s telling of the story, there were no real villains. He called Mauro “one of the smartest guys I’ve ever met”; what he saw in the two founders with big ideas was good intentions, not malice. He said the Skylodge and the houses built so far are “beautiful.”

Still, meetings with Summit and the county’s lawyers sometimes became heated. Mauro and Bisnow were constantly changing plans and revisiting decisions, excited by “volumes of ideas,” said the treasurer. County officials had never developed a mountain either. “We were all in this dance together that we weren’t used to,” Bond told me. “We didn’t recognize the music.”

Map shows the Summit Powder Mountain development
Plans for Summit Village included hotels, co-working spaces, apartment buildings, restaurants, conference space, wellness centers, and an institute. In 2023, it has only a few houses and no businesses.

Other sources alluded to power struggles within the team leading Summit and discord between Bisnow and Mauro. For his part, Bisnow pointed out that working on big infrastructure projects can be stressful, and relationships are going to be tested—but he said he and Mauro are still friends. “I think really highly of Greg,” he said. “He has a lot of great ideas.”

Mauro said he respects and admires Bisnow. “All business relationships have alignments and disagreements of course, and mine did as well,” he told me. “But he and I are both very aligned with the overall aspirations for the mountain as a uniquely special place.”

Public filings required under the terms of the bond agreement with the county show that the Summit team faced a $2.2 million cash-flow shortfall by 2017 and was hemorrhaging money, paying out an estimated $14 million in payroll in 2016 and 2017 combined. The group decided to add a professional board. 

When I asked Bisnow what he would have done differently on Powder Mountain, he admitted: “I wish we’d put a board together even sooner.”

Roni Yehuda, a diamond-industry executive who became Powder Mountain’s board chair a year ago, downplayed the impact of the lawsuits and other problems facing the development, saying none of it is holding up further construction. But he acknowledged to me that in the last few years, the mountain has completely shifted business strategies. Rather than act as a real estate developer itself, SMHG is now selling off parcels of land on Powder Mountain to smaller interests, including two sets of residents who are building neighborhoods on the mountain.  

Powder is also partnering with the developers of a neighboring lodge, Monument Ranch—which will be an exclusive members-only club and a “rugged luxury adventure community” that takes its members cat skiing and heli-skiing, fishing, and hunting—a far cry from the açai bowls, acro-yoga, and philanthropic musings of the average Summit Series event.

Greg Mauro is a co-owner of Monument Ranch and manages what is now his 55% stake the Powder Mountain resort through the same holding company. Though Powder’s board isn’t calling the arrangement a joint venture, the two companies share profits from their partnership.

The view from 9,000 feet

It took a visit to Pow Mow in early February for me to fully understand the enormity of the proposed project—and the wild appeal of the mountain. Particularly striking was the Horizon neighborhood, a small cluster of 2,000-square-foot three-bedroom homes whose form was inspired by the barns of the valley. The jewel box-like houses, linked to each other via a network of elevated steel walkways, sit like scattered Jenga pieces, staggered so that each home has unobstructed views.

Sunrise over the Horizon neighborhood on Powder Mountain.
Paul Bundy—Courtesy of Powder Mountain

The architect Brian MacKay-Lyons, who designed the Horizon neighborhood, praised Mauro and the Summit founders for their gumption in conceiving such an ambitious project. “It took people that were risk-takers to do it,” he told me. “There are a lot of Chicken Littles in the world. The sky is falling! It can’t work! That can’t work! The world doesn’t need more people saying nothing is possible.”

I had expected that looking out from one of these cabins at the top of the world would give a person a sense of dominance—like being a CEO in an urban penthouse. But gazing out of the floor-to-ceiling window of one cedar-clad cabin in the Horizon neighborhood, I felt anything but godlike or omnipotent. The truth is, mountains are humbling from any perspective. I could see why a group of young, idealistic entrepreneurs saw space to start something new and momentous here, on this vast, severe blank slate.

In the epilogue to Make No Small Plans, Bisnow and his coauthors acknowledge that they got in over their heads when they bought the mountain. 

They were too trusting of others, and too inexperienced to know what they didn’t know about being developers. They don’t explain where that leaves owners of houses or home sites on the mountain now. And not surprisingly, the book doesn’t talk about lawsuits, leadership missteps, or “Summit sucks water” lawn signs.

Still, Bisnow and the team are proud of what they have accomplished—laying down infrastructure at cloud levels was a costly, complicated, and unglamorous feat. The resort also still limits the size of houses and the number of day and season passes the mountain sells, honoring the promise to locals not to overdevelop or turn Powder into just another crowded slope. 

In the years since they embarked upon this ambitious project, the founders have started families, moved around, and continued to run the conference business through a global pandemic. Although Bisnow, who owns a home on the slope, is building a ranch house in Eden, rumors swirl about the founders soon selling what remains of their stake in Powder Mountain. Bisnow told me that a sale is not imminent. He pointed out, however, that it’s not unusual for founders to step back from startups after a few years. 

And, he said, it’s now up to the board and homeowners to decide whether to move forward with some version of the vision he and his team laid out a decade ago: “Do they want a big town? Or do they just want a quiet mountain community?”

“The après-ski scene is near zero. We all just do potlucks.”

Reed Hastings, Netflix cofounder and Powder Mountain homeowner

A quiet mountain community is just fine with Netflix’s Hastings, he told me in January, when I reached him by Zoom in the 5,500-square-foot wooden home that he and his wife built on Powder Mountain. It was three days before the streaming giant’s cofounder was to step down from his longtime role helming the company as co-CEO, and he looked blissed out after a particularly good ski run. “You can see I’m red,” the 62-year-old said, grinning and pointing to his cheeks, which were indeed rosy. 

In its current iteration, Summit Powder Mountain is no Aspen-like luxe resort, the multibillionaire was eager to explain to me: “It’s a hostile environment on the top of the mountain,” he said. “The electricity goes out. In a huge storm, you’re locked up here.” High winds, raccoons, and crows (not to mention roaming black bears and mountain lions) mean residents—even billionaires—have to haul their garbage to a dumpster. The vibe is “pioneer,” Hastings says, and “the après-ski scene is near zero. We all just do potlucks.”

“We’re super happy,” Hastings said. “But we signed up for the wilderness.”

The nascent community of wealthy people that’s emerging on Powder Mountain is less utopian, perhaps, than the high-minded vision articulated a decade ago. The project has morphed into something more pragmatic. 

That feels appropriate. The “everything bubble” has popped, and the unbounded ambition of the tech industry seems to be finally hitting a wall. The euphoric era that gave rise to Summit Series and to the original Powder Mountain plan, in which moonshot idealism and good vibes felt more important than a solid business plan, is over—and, honestly, good riddance. 

The pendulum will swing back to overexuberance and magical thinking, as it always does. More dreamlands will be built. (Recently, Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced plans for a “Texas Utopia” near Austin.) In the meantime, this partially built-out, mostly stalled ski resort feels almost too on-the-nose as a metaphor—and as a cautionary tale. It’s a 9,000-foot monument to the hubris of Silicon Valley’s big ideas.   

Additional reporting by Kinsey Crowley

Editor’s Note: Two weeks after this story was published, the Summit Series founders sold a majority of their stake in Powder Mountain to Reed Hastings, cofounder and chair of Netflix, who now sits on the ski hill’s board. In an interview following the sale, Hastings told Fortune that there are “many issues to clean up” but he’s prepared to invest in the mountain to make it successful. Read more here.

This article appears in the April/May 2023 issue of Fortune with the headline “Trouble at the Summit.”