Alterra Parent KSL Capital Takes Ownership of Blue Mountain, Pennsylvania

Now drop this and Camelback onto the Ikon Pass and walk away before you hurt yourself

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Alterra, not KSL Resorts, should be running these mountains

Until recently, the Poconos remained a fractured ski kingdom, crowded and cranky, a mostly locals-and-novices scene that made an active volcanic eruption look orderly by comparison.

In the last two years, that isolation began to fade as the national ski players locked onto Northeast Pennsylvania as the broiling ski incubator that it is. First Jack Frost and Big Boulder, long united under regional conglomerate Peak Resorts, exploded into relevance as city-day-trip Epic Pass options after Vail bought out Peak. Shawnee joined the Indy Pass in 2019, and Montage followed earlier this year. And KSL Capital – one of two owners of Alterra Mountain Company – acquired Camelback two years ago.

That consolidation continued last month, as KSL Capital officially acquired Blue Mountain, Pennsylvania, after their KSL Resorts arm took over the resort’s operations in May. The closing price was close to $32 million. This puts two sizeable, popular, and highly visible Poconos mountains Alterra-adjacent and Ikon-ready. The additions would instantly make the Ikon Pass competitive in an important region that Vail currently dominates. As I wrote in May:

Vail’s Peak Resorts acquisition … came with five Pennsylvania ski areas, all of which Vail dropped into the unlimited tier on its $479 Northeast Value Pass. Buy up to the $583 Epic Local and you suddenly have access to all of Vail’s Western mountains. Some combination of at least two of these five mountains – Jack Frost, Big Boulder, Roundtop, Whitetail, and Liberty – are within day-trip distance for anyone along the New York-to-Baltimore corridor. This Ikon Pass desert houses an enormous population of skiers, many of whom want to ski every week. For them, Epic is the clear choice.

Dropping Blue Mountain and Camelback onto the Ikon Pass would instantly scramble this dynamic. Both mountains are considerably larger and more interesting (for the non-park crowd), than Vail’s Jack Frost and Big Boulder combo just down the interstate. Camelback’s slopeside water park razmataz is particularly appealing to families. And both tend to stretch the season a bit longer than Vail’s southern Pennsylvania trio. Even a five- or seven-day partnership would likely drive material numbers of Philadelphia skiers toward Ikon.

Alterra CEO Rusty Gregory confirmed to me on The Storm Skiing Podcast in March that the company had discussed an Ikon Pass partnership with Camelback, and that “if there was an opportunity for Alterra to somehow be more involved, that would certainly be something that we would entertain and talk about.” Blue, now under the same ownership group, would presumably be included in any future conversations.

But no such partnership seems imminent. Even a Blue-Camelback combination seems remote. The two will remain “totally separate resorts,” long-time owner Barb Green told Times News Online. (Green “remains an owner” of the resort, according to The Morning Call.)

That is a huge mistake. Pass reciprocity between commonly owned mountains is such a proven concept that not doing it is bizarre. Vail may have pioneered the concept, but everyone else, large and small, has copied it, from Alterra to Mountain Capital Partners to the Massachusetts duo of Berkshire East and Catamount. When Mountain High purchased Dodge Ridge last week, they immediately introduced unlimited reciprocal pass access (more on this below). Multiple mountains is better than one, always. Especially when those mountains serve the same markets and sit just 30 minutes apart.

But this deal is strange on multiple levels: KSL Capital – again, one of two parent companies of Alterra Mountain Company, which owns Blue Mountain, Ontario - recently closed on the acquisition of Blue Mountain, Pennsylvania – which will be managed not by its center-of-the-ski universe holding Alterra but its real-estate management arm, KSL Resorts.

Sit with that for a second. This could be a parody skit on the modern business world. Why wouldn’t KSL Capital slide Camelback and Blue into the Alterra portfolio? A source at KSL said the Pennsylvania resorts were “too small” to include on Alterra’s roster. No they aren’t. Has anyone at KSL ever skied Mt. Brighton? It makes Camelback look like Whistler, and yet it’s been tucked into Vail’s portfolio as a reliable feeder hill for nearly a decade.

I may have a different opinion had KSL proven itself to be a deft manager of Camelback. Instead, it has instituted an unpopular parking charge and developed an unnerving habit of letting guests fall off of moving conveyances (a chairlift in March and a zipline in May). Importing this brand of ineptitude to Blue, rather than just shuffling the whole thing over to Alterra, which has proven capable of managing ski resorts large enough to qualify for statehood, is difficult to justify.

KSL does, at least, seem committed to investing in the resort. “They’re going to infuse it with a lot of cash,” Green told The Morning Call in May. There is plenty to do, including a long-stalled summit hotel, a long-rumored terrain expansion, and an upgrade of the abysmal double-double lifts.

I do think we’ll see Camelback and Blue on Ikon eventually – either as their replacement season pass or as limited partners. But until that happens, Alterra is more or less ceding large slices of the Mid-Atlantic to Vail, for no good reason.

Elsewhere in the Poconos, Shawnee looks West

Elsewhere in the Poconos, Shawnee sculpted a reciprocal partnership with the Western Pennsylvania trio of Seven Springs, Laurel, and Hidden Valley. Passholders get one lift ticket to their choice of the three ski areas, and half off additional tickets to any of them. Passholders at any of the three mountains will also get one comp ticket to Shawnee (as well as Wisp, Maryland and Wintergreen, Virginia). Saturdays and standard winter holidays are blacked out.

“Seven Springs is such a beautiful area and it's a different part of the state that we thought our customers could both appreciate,” said Shawnee’s head of marketing, Rachel Wyckoff, who reached out to Seven Springs after a Colorado ski area had tendered a reciprocity offer. Wyckoff was Intrigued by the idea of a mutual passholder benefit but leary of starting with a far-flung partner. “We’re just trying to get our feet wet locally first.”

Shawnee sells one of the cheaper all-access passes in the Northeast, with a $400 starting price. Because of its low price, diverse terrain, blanket night-skiing, and Indy Pass partnership, I dropped the mountain’s pass onto my list of 11 great Northeast passes earlier this year.

That a longtime Indy Pass partner would proactively seek out reciprocal partners demonstrates the durability of such arrangements, even as Indy’s pay-per-visit model has wrangled 75 partners into a loose international coalition. Wyckoff said Shawnee was open to additional partnerships, depending upon how the first year went.

Plenty of Indy Pass partners maintain reciprocal arrangements with other independent ski areas: three are members of the Freedom Pass, for example, and seven are on the Powder Alliance. The business models are proving to be compatible, at least over the short term.

Even as Shawnee moves to widen its skier base with perks and comp visits, the mountain exited the no-blackout Indy Pass tier this year, with the base pass unavailable on holidays.

“Our goal is never to be packed beyond where it's just too busy,” said Wyckoff. “We want it to stay at a comfortable number. Not only so our guests enjoy it, but where it's not chaos for our staff. And for us, those certain weekends and those certain holidays, we know they're going to be sold out and we're just doing our best to keep them at a comfortable number.” Ongoing uncertainty with the trajectory of Covid also contributed to their decision, she said.

The mountain that refuses to die

You can see it looming in the distance as you drive back to the Northway from Gore: Hickory Hill. It is steep and wonderful, an 1,100-foot time capsule serviced by a constellation of antique Pomas that make the Betamax look like cutting-edge technology. “Poma 1 is still driven by a carbureted Ford in-line six cylinder engine pulled from a car in the early 1970s,” New York Ski Blog wrote in 2014. Hickory is “a one-stop antidote for McSkiing,” another post read. It’s an anomaly and an anachronism, a weekends-only outfit with no snowmaking but a barely used Bombardier BR350 Sherpa Winch Cat. It hasn’t opened in six winters.

But Hickory is the ski area that just won’t die. It closed in 2005, re-opened in 2009, shut again sometime around 2015. On Aug. 3, the ski area’s long-silent Facebook page reanimated with a promotion for a mid-month barbeque. While the initial post did not acknowledge skiing in any way, the mountain’s Facebook persona promised that “real exciting news” was coming in the comments below.

Could Hickory re-open? Unlike Big Tupper, which closed from neglect, or Toggenburg, which was shut down with everything in perfect working order, Hickory shuttered because it cost more to keep the place open than to close it. The Post Star reported in 2018 that maintenance costs for its three “big lifts” ran $30,000 per year – a significant sum for an operation that made a dozen open days in a good year.

“The increasing costs of insurance, government regulation, and maintenance have made it impossible to operate Hickory as it has in prior years,” the center’s Facebook page read in a 2017 post announcing the mountain would not open for that winter. “It is an unfortunate truth that Hickory simply cannot sell enough lift tickets (even in the best of winters) to cover the rising costs of overhead.”

What Hickory needs – clearly – is snowmaking, which would drive more skier visits and operating days. The ski area claims 80 inches of snow in a good year, and New York doesn’t have a lot of good years. This is not a new idea. New York Ski Blog reported in 2014 that, “Hickory has gone through the permitting process to draw water directly from the Hudson River,” and the ski area hoped to have minimal snowmaking online a decade ago. It would change the character of the ski area, but there is no ski area without snowmaking.

Harvey Road at New York Ski Blog is locked into this one. A Hickory veteran with a direct line to owner Bill Van Pelt, he traveled up to the barbeque and hiked the mountain. “I have to say now that I didn’t learn anything about operations that I can share,” he wrote. “The best I can do is to say that there will be some news in the upcoming weeks, and you might see it here first.”

I hope Hickory re-opens. It would be a welcome salvation after losing Toggenburg. You can sign up for New York Ski Blog’s email list here, and browse their full Hickory archives here.

Another pair of indies unite in California

When Mountain High owners Invision Capital added Dodge Ridge to their portfolio last week, the duo became the latest in a growing roster of independents joining forces: 49 Degrees North, Washington and Silver Mountain, Idaho; Blackjack and Indianhead, Michigan; Labrador and Song, New York; Butternut and Otis Ridge, Massachusetts, etc.

Such combos can make a lot of sense. As Chris Diamond writes in his book Ski Inc. 2020:

For ski areas struggling for market share in a highly competitive market, a sale or combination with a competitor is often the best way forward. Overhead costs can be shared, and the new entity gets the benefits of scale. These smaller combos actually mimic the ownership model of some of the larger resorts, where nearby competitors joined forces: Killington/Pico; Keystone/Breckenridge; Vail/Beaver Creek; Park City/Canyons; Bear Mountain/Snow Summit; Squaw/Alpine and so on.

Mountain High and Dodge Ridge are slightly different from most of the examples outlined above in that the ski areas are nowhere near each other – more than six hours by car. Still, there’s a logic to it, in the same way there’s a logic to a pass that features both Hunter Mountain and faraway Stowe: one mountain is for quick hits from the city; the other for longer weekends or weeks away. Dodge Ridge, lodged just north of Yosemite, is the pastoral mountain getaway for frenzied Angelinos that may frequent close-by Mountain High.

There’s some work to do. As Lift Blog writes:

The new ownership group may be better equipped to upgrade aging lifts, some of which date back to the 1960s and ’70s. Dodge Ridge remains among the 15 largest US resorts without a detachable.

That the new owners’ first move was to combine pass access for existing passholders indicates that they have the sort of vision to yank Dodge Ridge into the 21st Century. And while the infrastructure may be dated, the ski area has plenty of built-in attributes: 862 acres of skiable terrain across 68 trails on a 1,600-foot vertical drop. The bones are good:

Led by 30-year industry vet Karl Kupuscinski, the pair would make a strong addition to the Indy Pass. Mountain High would, alongside recently added Snow Valley, be a second L.A.-adjacent resort, giving Indy a wedge into a market no doubt dominated by Ikon’s Big Bear-to-Mammoth-and-Squaw funnel. Dodge Ridge is, well, far from everything. But a sizeable escape in the California wilderness that skirts the parade scenes squeezing skiers at the state’s larger resorts could be a welcome alternative.

So far there’s no indication the owners – who are committed members of the Powder Alliance – are interested, but things are changing fast around this here ski world, so don’t get too comfortable.

“It snowed so high, I tell ya, I couldn’t see over it when I was standin’ on Grandad’s shoulders!”

I hadn’t known it could snow like that. It was December 1995 and the Mid-Michigan weathercasters read the numbers like dispatches from another world: 24 inches of snow in 24 hours; 57 inches over three days; 120 inches already for the season – by Dec. 11. This wonderland was not Alta or Mount Baker or some other distant and impossible place: it was Sault Saint Marie, perched under four hours away along the Michigan-Ontario border. And just over that border was Searchmont.

I was 18 and coming off my first season as a skier. That second year, you get wily. Restless. I had my first-ever trip to Colorado drifting on the horizon, but I was already bored with Michigan. In those pre-Bohemia days, it was a different place. Skiers were banned from terrain parks. Almost every run was almost always groomed. There wasn’t a single marked glade in the state, despite ample snow.

Searchmont was something else. Its 700 vertical feet towered over everything in my Lower Peninsula. It sprawled. Felt big. Western almost. It’s one of those places that way outperforms its trailmap. They didn’t block off the little cliffs and tree lines that so worried other Midwestern operators of that era. The whole shoulder of the mountain far skier’s right was a Frogger-style jumble of jumps, drops, and obstacles. And the snow so deep that December, everything skiable, falls consequence-free, adrenaline on mainline. It stayed cold and I went back again and again.

The unfortunate truth, however, is that Searchmont, like so many great independent ski areas, suffered over the years. It was remote and antiquated, standing still as Michigan’s resorts modernized and grew.

So I was relieved when, in 2018, Michigan-based Wisconsin Resorts – which at the time owned four resorts, three in Michigan and one, stay with me here, in Wisconsin – bought the mountain from the non-profit entity that had been formed to keep it afloat.

“We just think this is a great ski hill and can be one of the best in the Midwest. You’re not going to find anything nicer or bigger once we get done,” Wisconsin Resorts President Joseph Kosik told The Sault Star at the time. Last year, the resort announced that it would add two new Skytrac triples.

The triples went in, but the mountain never opened last season. In a cost-cutting move, the ski area decided not to make snow. Waves of Ontario shutdowns strafed whatever chance of opening remained.

But it’s on for 2021-22. Searchmont confirmed last week that it would be open, with (hopefully) two new trails, for this coming season.

Under Wisconsin Resorts, Searchmont could have a big future, the crown jewel of a Michigan empire that includes three downstate bumps – Mount Holly, Pine Knob, and Bittersweet. This arrangement could drive suburban skiers on weekends north in the same way Vail shuffles Epic Pass skiers from suburban Mount Brighton to its towering Western slopes. A bargain version of that could play well in Michigan, where a six-hour drive is viewed as barely long enough for a bathroom break. Season pass information is not yet available, but my hope is that the owners build a regional power.

Hey Bro how about if you cover the biggest story in skiing?

Reader: Dude, have you ever heard of a fellow named Rob Katz, perhaps the most transformational figure in the history of lift-served skiing?

Me: Yeah, yeah I’m working on it. I was on vacation last week and I’m putting something together but you’re just going to have to wait for it. Hopefully for your sake it doesn’t suck.

I mean seriously why even bother

Someone at Squaw Valley thought it would be a good idea to hold a contest to re-name the Squaw Creek chairlift as part of the resort’s overall rebrand. Here’s the tweet:

Here’s the response:

Not hating everyone in this country is a full-time job these days. If I woke up tomorrow and found out aliens had stolen our social media to distill all its toxic components into a super weapon to annihilate our galaxy, I would be neither surprised nor disappointed.

While I appreciate the notion of getting skiers involved here, the chair-renaming is an activity that should have been handled in a backroom by people with an IQ greater than that of a graham cracker. Just quietly update the trailmap and signage and be done with it. Otherwise we’re just giving the morons a stage that they can’t help but dance on.

Anyway, the submission period is over. The finalist names will supposedly be released today.

If you want my take on the resort’s name change, it’s here, in my Storm Skiing Podcast conversation with former resort President Ron Cohen.

Lifts Lifts Lifts

Loon is just crushing this Kanc 8 install. I mean just look at this base terminal:

Vail continues to crank along on the Peru six-pack out at Keystone:

Meanwhile, Merrill Hill takes shape at Sunday River. Some awesome aerial shots of the new pod here. The resort’s core peaks tower over this new bump, but it’s still invigorating to see new terrain come online after last offseason’s capital freeze.

Elsewhere

Former Jay Peak CEO and President Bill Stenger reaches plea deal with federal prosecutors. Forest Service confirms Aspen can charge uphill skinning fee. Park City considers a gondola network as short-sighted granola brigades fight the gondy option up Little Cottonwood Canyon. Vail Mountain will not be held liable for a 2012 in-bounds avalanche that killed a 13-year-old boy. Aspen continues to drive its long-awaited Pandora expansion forward, while the proposed Grand Targhee expansion struggles to gain traction. Timberline closed Aug. 15, officially ending the 2020-21 North American ski season. New Zealand shutters all ski resorts for three days after a single case of Covid emerged in the island nation – asked if they would consider additional shutdowns if every person at their resort simultaneously dropped dead from Covid, the entire U.S. ski industry laughed hysterically for 15 minutes and said, “No Bro do we look like some kind of socialist wuss factory to you?” Does anyone think there’s a less than 100 percent chance that Mayflower Resort will go direct-to-Ikon when it opens? Alterra appoints its second-consecutive female mountain head as Dee Byrne takes over for Ron Cohen at Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows. This is what hardcore looks like. Thoughts on competition overkill. SAM reports that Solitude, Sugarbush, and Deer Valley have all committed to a $15-an-hour minimum wage – I asked Alterra if this was a companywide initiative and they said no. Slopefillers with an exhaustive survey of ski resorts’ social media usage. More people did indeed move to Vermont last year. Some insane Alta pow courtesy of Lee Cohen.

This week in not skiing

I would like to see what the National Lampoon’s writer’s room could do with this: a family of four landing in the wildfire-smogged Pacific Northwest for a week of sightseeing and mountain touring. The only person capable of operating a vehicle is doing so with one arm, the other still slung tight from a recent rotator cuff surgery. The children are 21st century archetypes forced to unbolt from their digital realms and interact with the planet Earth. Attack bees are involved. A child barely capable of strapping on her backpack somehow tears the sliding door off a minivan. The smallest child develops an obsession with rock-throwing while retaining the accuracy of a tornado rearranging your yard. Sometimes there is no wifi. A heat wave strikes a region that never sees heat waves and air conditioning is as elusive as Big Foot.

That was the real-life version of our family journey to Washington State and back last week. It’s a region I’ve been to often enough to develop a fondness for. With international travel still difficult, we’d settled on this as our first plane trip since The End of Normal last year. We even mixed in some ski-related travels, stopping first at Stevens Pass:

Then at Summit at Snoqualmie:

And, finally, riding the Crystal Mountain gondola in a wildfire haze that blanked out Mt. Rainier:

Despite the punchlines, it was a memorable and welcome family vacation. Now to get back out there when that snow is deep.