On March 24, 2021

Base Camp Outfitters is sold 

Courtesy of Daniel Buzan Photography
Base Camp Outfitters at the intersection of Route 4 and Killington Road in the town of Killington will become a ski and mountain bike hub under new ownership.

Mike and Diane Miller reflect on 32 years in business

By Polly Mikula

Despite spending 32 years specializing in Telemark, Nordic and Alpine touring (AT), Mike Miller, said the sale of Base Camp Outfitters last week all came down to mountain biking.

“It was kind of funny and ironic, the way it all worked out,” Miller said.

The shop at the corner of Route 4 and Killington Road closed Tuesday, March 16 and reopened on Thursday, March 18 under new ownership. Previous owners Mike and Diane Miller (Feel Heel LLC) turned the shop over to local bike enthusiasts Phil Black and Ben Colona (Free Hub LLC).

“But we couldn’t be more thrilled,” Mike Miller said Thursday morning, watching Colona greet patrons at the door. “I mean we’ve been massaging our 50 acres for 20 years, getting it ready for development or the next plan,” he added. “All the Nordic trails that we put in are really like carriage roads, so they could be always developed. The snowshoe trails can easily be flipped to bike trails. So we’ve always been kind of doing it, but we never really knew what would come of it all.”

Two summers ago, Miller decided to build a new mountain bike trail network behind the shop.

“He was really out there, you know, helping the excavator all day every day,” Diane Miller said. “And I’m, like, ‘what is he doing?’ But to my credit, I didn’t say anything, but internally I was rolling my eyes.”

Miller, with help from Mosher Excavating, built 7 miles of trails in seven days, which “made the whole bike community turn on its head, ‘cause they were spending $60,000 per mile and we built them for $1,000 per mile,” Miller said, adding, “I mean, I was trying to prove a point.”

“When Diane was getting upset and rolling her eyes, I mentioned to her that this is going to be the future,” Miller said. “Killington is exploding, we have over 100 miles of amazing mountain bike trails — the community is going to buy into this, it’s going to be driven by mountain biking. And ultimately that’s what happened.”

But trails at Base Camp weren’t built on spec for sale only.

“Selfishly, this is our playground,” Mike said of the trail network, which has also welcomed Nordic skiers, snowshoers and fatbikers before expanding to mountain biking. “Everything we do is right here. Our friends come to see us! So, in one sense, we also didn’t really look that far ahead, we were just building our own little playground with fun trails.”

The scene after a Tuesday ride

Why sell now?

“It began when we witnessed what happened to Bill’s Country store,” Miller said. “The Radakers were great neighbors, they had an offer for a million dollars and they were like ‘no, no, no, we don’t want to go yet’ and then once they decided to, it became a fire sale.”

Bill’s Country Store sold at auction for $355,000 in September of 2012.

“After that, we said, you know what, we should really think about our exit strategy. We’re not a rush, but let’s start thinking about it, … and a lot of financial people were saying the same thing: if you wait ‘til the end when you have to sell it’s going to be bad.”

The decision was also personal. “Diane really bought into more than she signed up for,” Miller said. “She became a really good person on the sales floor, so now her day was office work, coming down to the sales floor to say hi to people plus running Cabin Fever, so she had a lot on her plate.”

Courtesy of Daniel Buzan Photography

The sale

In the beginning it was kind of a “soft sale,” he continued. “And there wasn’t much interest.”

But in the past six months the Millers entertained three other strong offers from prospective buyers. Ultimately, Phil Black (owner of The Lookout Tavern in Killington) and Ben Colona (president of the Killington Mountain Bike Club and manager of Killington Sports and Bike shop) proposed the winning offer.

“What was great about working with Phil and Ben was that we got creative,” Miller said. “We didn’t know how to sell it either. At first we were like, it’s $1.3 million, have fun,” he added. “But then we got to thinking… it was really Diane who deserves credit. We went home one day after work and she said, ‘what do they really need?’ … That’s when we understood: they only needed a building and a little bit of land. That’s when the deal really started happening,” he said.

“Two of the other entities couldn’t get over the price tag and wouldn’t sit down at the table to talk, and the third one was a company out of Germany — they were probably going to pay us our asking price, which would have actually been the worst deal for us as we would have had to be out of here completely and it would not have been so good for the community,” Miller said, adding that the German company wasn’t planning anything bike-related.

In contrast, the Killington Mountain Bike Club (KMBC) Bike Bum Race Series was held on the Base Camp trails last summer, so Miller and Colona got to talk extensively.

“I was sitting out there every Wednesday just having beers with Ben, ‘cause he had to do the timing shack and you could see the wheels turning,” Miller said.

“This is where the partnership really worked out because we all agreed [the trails] are all to be protected,” Miller said. That’s what the community wants, too, he added. In fact, “When we were out skiing yesterday a guy came up to me and said, ‘congratulations, what’s happening with the bike trails?’ When I told him the bike trails were all going to be protected, he was so relieved. So at the end of the day, it all comes back down to bike trails. And that’s what’s best for the whole community,” he said.

In the end, the Millers agreed to sell the Base Camp Outfitters business, the building, the parking lot and 4.17 acres to the PJ Black Company (Phil and Joy Black) for $975,000 and kept the balance of their 50 acres to develop.

The three story building has 11,000 square feet of space, according to Marni Rieger of Peak Property Group at KW Vermont, who listed the property for the Millers.

Ben Colona and Phil Black are listed as the legal members of Free Hub, LLC, with an assumed business name of “Base Camp Bike & Ski,” according to Secretary of State filings.

“I think it’s a really good deal for them, it’s a really good deal for us,” Diane Miller said of Colona and Black taking the reigns. “I am so happy for them. I see two young guys with all this energy, like where we were — I mean it’s not like we’re out of energy it’s just hard to put new ideas in place when you’re thinking of an exit strategy.”

How it all began, 32 years ago

Mike and Diane Miller

The Millers got married and started a business in the same year: 1988.

“I was running Aspen East for Lee [Quaglia],” Miller said. “I started the Telemark side of Aspen East, which I always give Lee credit for allowing me to do ‘cause it was my little baby, but it was his money. It was that year I was selling just as much tele gear as we were Alpine gear… I was also builder and I had just sold one of my spec houses, so I had all this money burning a hole in my pocket. So I looked at Lee and said, I’m going to try it on my own,” Mike remembered.

The next year, Mike Miller started The Telemark Shop at Mountain Meadows.

“I wasn’t involved in the business at all, except for the kids’ programs,” said Diane Miller, who had been a physical therapist for 20 years, prior to having kids. “I felt adamant about that. I did not want to have to have the kids stay there all day. You know, if they wanted to go home, I’m out of here.”

The Telemark Shop then gave life to a number of other projects, trail systems, patents, and a new race category.

In 1990, Mike put in the first Nordic trail system at Killington on the golf course with lights. “There’s a lot of firsts that we’ve done… we were the first to do guided tours up Killington, too,” he said.

“And we had the Telemark ski school at Northeast Passage,” Diane Miller added.

Mike Miller also patented a Telemark bindings “that revolutionized the whole sport of Nordic and Telemark,” he said.

In an April 7, 1994, story in the Mountain Times, Marcia Stoller wrote: “In early October, 1993, Miller began experimenting with existing binding designs… He had found a way to modify the existing binding designs, in a manner that he is convinced will revolutionize Telemark skiing. His new system of binding replaces the 75mm or 3 pin bindings,” she wrote.

“What I’ve done is to change the flexor piece of  the binding,” Miller said in that article. He changed the soft rubber flexor to a solid urethane one and also added a cable to the backcountry binding system that allowed for “downward pressure” in addition to the existing forward pressure for more power and control, Stoller explained.

“I designed the Telemark binding back when I was racing,” Miller said last week, recalling the details of his design. “What we did was patent the forces — we changed the forces of how our bindings were working. Then we met with Rottefella, who now actually owns the patent, they purchased it, and they changed all their lines. It’s called ‘Active,’ 100% of the bindings on the market right now are Active,” he said, confirming his hunch from 1993 that the technology would revolutionize the sport.

In 1995, after a change in ownership at Mountain Meadows, and a generous offer to buy 33 acres of land for $1,000 per acre, the Millers decided to build their own shop on Thundering Brook Road. It would soon become the base lodge for their expanding cross country ski resort.

“We turned that into a worldclass Nordic center,” Miller said. “We had the U.S. ski team, Middlebury, Dartmouth all train there, and we started the sprint tour series,” he said (see story on page 7).

Miller’s focus on snowmaking along the trails made Mountain Meadows Cross Country Nordic center particularly unique and allowed him to host events other resorts couldn’t.

“The first iteration was a big pile of snow with one gun, then Mike moving it with a manure spreader,” Diane Miller remembered. “He was a force to be reckoned with,” she said. “We even put in lights, so there was night skiing for a year, but really no interest in that,” she added.

While the Telemark Shop was successful, the Miller’s knew it was limited by its  location.

“We were like, I mean not even McDonald’s is gonna be able to do business if it’s on a back road! We’re not going to get anywhere if we don’t get up front,” Mike Miller said.

When the current property on Route 4 came up for sale, the Millers decided to buy. It adjoined the land they already owned. “We actually already had an agreement with Bernie Rome to buy the land before he went bankrupt,” said Mike Miller. “Then it went to auction and we actually saved money.”

“At that time, only Bill’s Country Store was around,” Miller recounted. “Killington Sports hadn’t been built yet… We were told we could never build on the land, but I’m not really good at being told never to do something,” he said.

The Millers hired a company that drilled bores to determine the stability of the land and they said “this is more stable than natural earth,” Miller remembered. “The way they actually laid this stuff in, Bernie was preparing for something to be put here.”

Once finished, in 2005, the current Base Camp Outfitters building became the Millers’ third business location.

First picture in the new Chop. Courtesy Mike and Diane Miller

What’s in a name?

Reflecting on some of the harder moments over the years, the Millers said coming up with a new name for the shop  on Route 4 tops their list.

“We barely survived that,” Mike Miller said, admitting he was stubborn and largely uncooperative through the process (“I was like no, no, no!”). Miller had built his entire business up to that point on Telemark skiing and wanted it to remain the Telemark Shop.

However, in the end, it was Mike that came up with the new name, Base Camp.

“I think I had just read a book or saw a show on Everest and everyone was coming back to base camp to get more supplies,” he said. “I thought, that’s what this is going to be. We’re not going to be able to do all the programs that we want to do ourselves but we can offer them. We can have subcontractors come in …  everyone loved it! And that’s what we became. That’s why Kayak King Mark Bragg is out of here, we did the bike bums out of here, we did fat bikes, and yoga and other programs,” he said.

Cabin Fever also began when the new building opened on Route 4. “We just felt like we needed something more than Base Camp to get a draw,” said Diane Miller.

In fact, Cabin Fever was more profitable than Base Camp at first, the Millers said.

The Orvis fly-fishing flagship store in Manchester served as inspiration.

“When Orvis first started in Manchester it was a man’s fly-fishing shop only,” said Mike Miller, but over the years, “it morphed… to get into fly-fishing, you now  have to go through miles of gimmicky blankets and all this other stuff. It really became, ‘Let’s make the wife or the non-fishermen happy first,’ because the fishermen are going to get to the back and get what they want,” he explained.  “And it really worked. We almost called it the ‘guilt shop’ because people would come to buy skis and then buy their wife or boyfriend or whoever something at the store,” he added.

Mountain Meadows,  downsizing

Mountain Meadows

After building the new Base Camp Outfitters shop on Route 4, the Millers also built a smaller touring center.

“Then we started downsizing big time, we sold the big groomer and decided to open only if it snowed,” Diane said.
“We went from being worldclass, on par with Mountain Top, Woodstock, Trapp’s —we were in that caliber of Nordic center at that time — then we just went right down to being a mom-and-pop operation,” Mike said. “Ironically, when we got rid of all the big machines, that’s when we started making more money. It was really crazy how it became more profitable.”

The Nordic center remained open until this past winter season, 2020-21.

“We were going to close even without Covid,” Mike said. “The store has been doing really, really well. The Nordic Center started to become like a little bit of a drag for me. I had to wake up at 5 a.m. to groom the trails and then come here and even though it was a good little chunk of change, it was just time to close it,” he said.

“Mountain Meadows was always a burr for us. Like people would just poach all the time. I feel like that’s a big part of it,” Diane added.

One time, in the spring of 2020, she recalled a specific moment that solidified her desire to close. “I was out doing a photoshoot for some advertising and I’m on the lake and two cars drive up, three dogs get out, and two people with nothing on their feet. Mike had just headed up to groom purple and green [trails] and it was a beautiful day and I watched these guys get out of their car and walk up the trail and I was like, Oh my God, I cannot believe it, and I was like you know what? I probably know them, and what’s more, they’re probably friends of mine! And they were… It just felt so thankless and it is so much work.”

Unfortunately, such incidents were too common. The Millers estimated that 90% of the time poachers were local people. “I mean we gave a deal, it was only $60 for locals. Come on, support the program,” Mike said. “So we just closed it this year and didn’t miss it one bit. It was fine.”

“Mike is very good at saying, ‘OK so this direction is dying out, we need to go in a new direction,’ like the disc golf, mountain biking and beer,” Diane added.

The future

“We’re leaving the shop in the best year in our history,” Mike said. “The uphill world is exploding right now… we went up there yesterday and there were just lines of people going up. It’s pretty cool.”

“The next big explosion —and we’ve already ordered the product for next year — is backcountry ski equipment, it’s this category that’ll be for the bike trails,” Mike said. “It’s a new middle category. This year we were sold out. It has heavier leather boots, 75 millimeter, a little bit bigger ski with an edge that you can tour up and then if you’re competent you will Tele down or you can come back down the trail you went up. This year it exploded,” he said.

“It’s almost like going back to the early days of Tele when we used to ski on the little narrow skis and the leather Fabiano boots, like a hiking boot,” Diane added.

“Yes, it’s like going back to old school, but the ski technology is much better. So now you can actually tour quickly and still ski down,” Mike said. “And you can actually put on kicker skins, ones that feed up underneath the ski. Fisher designed it. It’s genius,” he added.

Now that the Millers won’t have the daily responsibilities of running a shop, they plan to “get out and play more,” and are looking forward to “skinning during the day together!” they said.

Diane said she also hopes to travel more, too, but they won’t be moving away. “We love it here. I mean, how much better can it get?” she said.

“We’re definitely going to stay in the area,” Mike agreed. “We love it here. Yes, we like out West, too, but that’s where we vacation. I would never want to live there. Vermont is home.”

Mike and Diane both plan to help the new owners Colona and Black get their bearings at Base Camp, as needed. Diane plans to help with “the books” and Mike with the buying and sales, “if they’ll have me,” he said.

Because buying happens many months in advance, Mike has already begun. “They told me they want to keep Base Camp exactly as it is so ‘do what you’ve always done’ for buying next winter,” he said. “So we’ll get them set up for next year, keep it running … I just did an order yesterday, but you get what they call ‘acknowledgements’ before they ship you stuff — that’ll be around August — so we’ll have a chance to get in and do another quick inventory together of what we have left and what they want, and say, OK we’ll take this,” he explained.

Ben Colona has experience buying inventory for Killington Resort, “but when it’s your own money things have to get tightened up,” Miller said. “And they’re scrambling right now to get bike stuff, which is more urgent for the coming season.”

The Millers, however, are not worried whatsoever about the new owners’ plans or expertise running Base Camp and are excited for them to further develop it with a bike division and expand programs on the community trails.

“They’re both very sharp, we’re just here to help in any way,” Mike said. “We want it to be a success and we have no doubts that it will be.”

“The way they’re going about it is to open their arms to different bike shops, too,” Mike explained. “Last year with the Bike Bum stuff we invited other shops and they came down and did demos. We’re like, guys, come on down, it’s been the community’s bike trails right from the start.”

“Like I said 100 times and I’ll say it again, it’s been an incredible partnership. They’re great guys, it’s been a treat to work with them… I’d love to be able to stay here, if we’re welcome and help these guys,” Mike reiterated.

“They have a home run plan,” Diane said.

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