A ski industry visionary, John Kircher dies at 64
This story was updated on 1/31 to include comments from John’s son Andrew.
By Jack Reaney STAFF WRITER
John Kircher, a longtime member of the Big Sky community and former Big Sky Resort general manager, died on the afternoon of Jan. 28. He was 64.
Kircher’s death came less than a year after he was diagnosed with colon cancer. By early December 2022, he was also diagnosed with peritoneal carcinomatosis, a rare form of abdominal cancer. According to a post on CaringBridge written by John’s wife Kim, “he was surrounded by family and friends [on Saturday]… I gathered a list of loved ones and we held a vigil for him.” A celebration of life will be held on Feb. 11 in Big Sky, which John helped plan during his final days.
The oldest son of late Boyne Resorts co-founder Everett Kircher, John will be remembered for his impact in the modern ski industry. After stepping into Big Sky Resort’s GM role in 1980, he became widely known for spearheading the Lone Peak Tram project in the early 1990s. He then spent roughly two decades of his career as president, CEO and, briefly, owner of Crystal Mountain Resort in Washington. He was a passionate skier, surfer, hiker, mountain biker, angler and hunter. He continued to partake in outdoor sports for months after his surprising diagnosis in April 2022, Kim wrote. He even had the strength to ski on this past Christmas.
Kircher lived his final days in hospice in Big Sky, as snow piled up outside. He leaves behind a son and daughter.
In a phone call with Explore Big Sky, Andrew Kircher remembered his father as his greatest mentor in life.
“He has basically taught me everything I know up to this point,” Andrew said. “He was just such a kind person. He really took the time to have very meaningful interactions with everyone he met. His number-one value was family and friendship above all else.”
Andrew described the final weeks spent with his father as tragic, but with a silver lining. Not only did his father confront physical decline with bravery and peace, but he made a concerted effort to spend time with close friends and family members.
“We were able to come closer as a family than ever before. He was open to having deep conversations as a family, mending ties and [resolving] any issues that were outstanding,” Andrew said.
“He confronted [the Illness] head on, just like he did anything else in his life,” he added. “He had the same mindset. He took it day by day, and at every stage he made a plan. He was so brave and so determined to fight. He promised the whole family he would fight as long as he could.”
Andrew said that of all things in his life, John was most proud of his children.
“He was so proud of me. He always told me that. He was proud of my sister Evelyn and the people we’ve become. I’m not trying to boast about it, but he certainly always told us how proud of us he was.”
Taylor Middleton, chief operations officer and president of Big Sky Resort, spoke on the phone with EBS about his years working with Kircher.
“It’s endless, the stories you could tell when you spend so many years with John,” said Middleton, who began working for the resort just months after a young Kircher arrived and became general manager in 1980. Back then, Middleton recalled, Big Sky Resort was like a big chunk of marble which hadn’t been carved into a statue yet.
“I worked with him and traveled with him, and brainstormed with him, and had a great opportunity to share [much of] my career with him,” Middleton said.
“John was a big personality. He was a great storyteller. He could mesmerize people with stories, not just about skiing, but about things he was reading. He kept up with news around the world. He was a smart guy and a joy to interact with. He just loved talking to people.
“He made people feel welcome, like they were important,” Middleton said.
Kircher was a passionate resort operator, according to Middleton. He did “the little things” well and loved the details of running a ski area. He would break lift operators and run chairlifts or get to work behind the omelet bar.
“He loved interacting with staff and guests alike,” Middleton said. “He would roll his sleeves up and get into running a resort on a firsthand basis. It helped him understand what the work was like so he could manage around it.”
Middleton said Kircher taught him about improving processes.
“[John] would say, ‘Taylor, take that puzzle and put it on your desk. Completely dismantle it, and reassemble it. And make it better,’” Middleton recalled. “That was one of his operating theories… it’s a metaphor for how he would think. He was never satisfied. He was willing to think different and experiment.”
Since age 16, Kircher was a licensed small-craft airplane pilot, holding various certifications including water-pontoon planes. Middleton said that Kircher’s love for domestic and international travel gave him ideas which he brought to Big Sky, including the Lone Peak Tram—despite widespread doubts, he persisted to execute that vision.
PLUS: In Explore Big Sky’s partner podcast, Hoary Marmot, hosts Joe & Michelle revisit one of John Kircher’s final recorded interviews—from November 2022—displaying his one-of-a-kind storytelling and bold yet casual approach to life.
“John was not afraid of risk,” Middleton said. “He was not afraid to try something new or do something big. The combination of those two things created one of the pieces of magic that John Kircher had.”
Andrew said John’s accomplishments didn’t just come from his visionary thinking, but also his position to design ski mountains in a way he thought would best be skied.
“His passion and motivation always stemmed from the hope that skiers around him would enjoy the mountains as much as he did. That was his bottom line,” Andrew said.
In 1997, Kircher moved on to manage Boyne Resorts’ Western region, while also serving as general operations manager at Crystal Mountain in Washington, Middleton said. He led acquisitions of ski areas in Utah, Washington and British Columbia before selling his stake in Boyne and purchasing Crystal Mountain in 2017, where he’d been based for two decades.
In Kim Kircher’s Jan. 29 post announcing John’s passing, she wrote that John told her to “send his soul in the right direction and he would see us on the mountain.”