Discover more from The Storm Skiing Journal and Podcast
Gunstock Proposes Doubling Size, Adding Four New Lifts and 31 Trails
Monster Expansion would cost up to $54.5 million
Gunstock could become New Hampshire’s second-largest ski area with new master plan
Gunstock yesterday unveiled a massive expansion plan that would make it the second-largest ski area in New Hampshire, adding 31 trails to its existing 48 and nearly doubling the mountain’s skiable acreage from 227 to 425. Three new lifts, including two detachable quads, would serve the added terrain, which would mostly sit in three distinct pods – two off the summit of Gunstock Mountain, where most of the current terrain lies, and one on Mount Rowe, atop the long-defunct Alpine Ridge ski area and adjacent to the current Penny Pitou beginner area. A third detachable quad would replace the aging Rambo and Tiger lifts. Gunstock would also add a summit lodge and trio of hotels. The full build-out would look something like this:
Should the mountain realize this full expansion, it would scramble New Hampshire’s ski-area landscape, transforming Gunstock into a true resort in line with its northern neighbors Loon, Waterville Valley, and Bretton Woods. Resort officials estimate it could push skier visits from their current five-year average of 172,100 to 240,100. Here’s a look at the plan’s major components, and how they would transform the ski area:
Modernizing the current lift fleet: While unveiling the plan, Gunstock General Manager Tom Day pointed to the difficulty of navigating to the aging Pistol and Tiger lifts from the base area. Both lifts sit roughly parallel to but slightly uphill from the Panorama detachable quad, the ski area’s only current summit lift. Gunstock would remove these fixed-grip lifts – a 1988 quad and a 1986 triple – and replace them with a detachable quad that would run from the current base of Ramrod to the current summit of Tiger. A new trail would cut from the top of Tiger Steeps to Upper Smith.
Alpine Ridge expansion: For 20 years, the 400-vertical-foot Alpine Ridge ski area operated alongside Gunstock. It shut down in the mid-1980s, and little trace remains of its trail network or infrastructure. Gunstock would reinvigorate skiing on this face with 11 new trails on 37 acres served by a fixed-grip triple. Gunstock would also slightly re-align the Penny Pitou lift – a 2009 Doppelmayr CTE quad – so that it terminated higher up the mountain, connecting skiers to the new terrain. The proposed trail network has little resemblance to Alpine Ridge’s historic footprint, and will hold “lots of advanced terrain,” that “holds snow really well,” according to Day. The ski area will not expand back to Mount Rowe’s summit off its eastern flank, where Gunstock’s original single-chair ran.
Eastside Expansion: Gunstock would add 11 new trails of varying difficulty on 70 acres off the backside of the current Pistol lift. A new detachable quad would start at mid-mountain and terminate on the summit, near the Panorama lift.
Backside/Weeks expansion: Eight trails on 87 acres would spill west off the summit and funnel down to a high-speed quad spinning in the wilderness. There would be no drive access to this terrain, which, unlike the Alpine Ridge and Eastside expansions, sits outside of Gunstock’s current permit area.
The total cost of the expansions could reach as high as $54.5 million when including the price of the new summit lodge. It is unclear where the money would come from. Gunstock has no timeline for the project, though Day emphasized during the meeting that, “we’ve got to get moving.”
While county-owned Gunstock has continually upgraded its lift fleet and occasionally cut new trails, it has sat on substantively the same trail footprint since at least the 1970s, even as the state’s ski areas expand and modernize all around it. Loon’s Kanc 8 chairlift is going live next week. Waterville Valley just finished one expansion, is working on another, and will get a new six-pack next winter. Mount Sunapee’s master plan calls for a substantial expansion. New Hampshire skiing is on the move. Gunstock needs to go with them.
Ropetows to the rescue
Resuscitating a lost ski area can be a monster chore. Saddleback took millions to reboot after just a five-year closure. It needed new lifts, new everything. But not every ski area is Saddleback, and sometimes a little imagination can kick something back to life with minimal capital. Eighty miles across the state, New England Ski Industry News reports that the long-dormant Quarry Road ski area at Colby College is set to come back online this winter with a Towpro portable ropetow and snowmaking equipment moved over from the Nordic facility.
The lift, with installation, will cost around $48,000 and rise 75 vertical feet to a trail and a terrain park. Day tickets will cost $10. A season pass, $50. If all goes well, a T-bar could someday rise 235 feet to the former top of the ski area.
And presto: a ski area. In California, SAM reports that park veteran Day Franzen will re-open Kingvale Terrain Project, an all-park ski area that operated on the former Pla Vada ski area from 2005 to 2011. Two ropetows, including another Towpro portable ropetow, will power the ski area – one rising 150 feet and another rising 350.
New England and New York once had ropetow bumps in nearly any town with enough snow to support one. There are still plenty left, but there could be many more. Portable ropetows could change that. Towpro’s most basic system is around $7,500. Find a little bump in a snowbelt anywhere in the country and you’ve got yourself a ski area.
Well Junior I was going to let the wolves eat you but I really want to ski Gore this weekend
From The Troy Record:
Gov. Kathy Hochul recently announced the new ‘Ski for Free’ Covid-19 vaccine incentive sweepstakes for children ages five to 11 and booster shot recipients.
The six-week sweepstakes – the beginning of which will be announced in the coming days – is intended to bolster vaccination rates among children ages 5-11 as well as individuals eligible to receive a COVID-19 booster dose. Eligible New Yorkers will be able to enter a random drawing for free lift tickets to participating mountains, thanks to Ski Areas of New York and the Olympic Regional Development Authority.
“Our new ‘Ski for Free’ incentive for children and booster recipients allows New Yorkers to take full advantage of our state’s incredible mountains while protecting themselves and their loved ones from this pandemic,” Hochul said.
Participating ski areas are Holiday Valley, Bristol, Woods Valley, Greek Peak, Whiteface, Gore, Belleayre, Windham, and West.
Which, fine. Incentives work. But have we really entered the yeah-I-was-gonna-let-the-kid-die-of-an-airborne-virus-but-if-it’s-free-it’s-me-you-know-what-I’m-sayin’ phase of civilizational breakdown? This just keeps getting better.
We’ll just be knocking out a few walls here
When Catamount owner and General Manager Jon Schaefer joined me on The Storm Skiing Podcast in 2019, he told me his goal was to make it “one of the best small ski areas in the country.” Three and a half years after buying this mountain that straddles the New York-Massachusetts border, Schaefer – whose family has owned and operated Berkshire East ski area for decades – is well on his way to achieving this. The recently updated trailmap underscores how dramatically Catamount has evolved in just three seasons. Here’s what Catamount looked like for the 2017-18 ski season, just before the Schaefers bought it:
Compare that to the 2021-22 trailmap. I circled the eight new trails in red, and infrastructure – a new lodge, three new (used) lifts, and massive mid-mountain snowmaking ponds – in blue:
Catamount opened in 1939. Eighty-two years later it is still evolving. Such an exercise involves imagination and capital, both of which Schaefer has in abundance (the previous owners sold because they lacked the latter even as they possessed plenty of the former). Like Bousquet to its north, Catamount felt rusty just a few years ago. Now it’s a vehicle in motion, hard to keep up with, an Indy Pass partner that’s part of the three-mountain Berkshires Summit Pass. And the wild part about Schaefer and Berkshire East and Catamount – not to mention his consulting deals with Bosquet and Hermitage Club – is that I think he’s just getting started. If you want to know how independent ski areas are going to fight back in the Epkon era, start in the Berkshires.
The best communicator in skiing
To the Epkon cynic spinning circles on Stratton six-packs, Magic can be an object of curiosity or scorn. Its alpha lift is a 50-year-old Hall double. The mountain has been trying to install a second summit lift – Stratton’s old Snow Bowl Quad – for more than three years. Only half the ski area’s trails have snowmaking. It sat abandoned for half the ‘90s, and teetered on the brink of insolvency even after its comeback.
And yet, now, Magic is thriving. It has quadrupled its number of season passholders since 2016. The mountain is a cult favorite, the beloved local diner squished between Applebee’s and Chile’s. The Friends of Magic Mountain Facebook group captures a lot of the ecstatic sentiment toward the place.
Why? The ski area is 60 years old. Why now?
The answer, as I’ve explained before, is pretty simple: Geoff Hatheway, the mountain’s president and part-owner. He is the mountain’s head of state and ambassador, rallying Magic’s irrepressible fans through overcommunication and transparency, with an honesty that is at once disarming and highly effective.
Hatheway is active on social media, but his most important communications vehicle is an email newsletter dubbed Alpine Update. It is the best ski-area newsletter that I know of, an unflinching glimpse into Magic’s backroom. The latest issue, for example, starts with a detailed overview of snowmaking setbacks, with granular looks at recent temperature patterns and the ski area’s underground labyrinth of patched-together pipe. Hatheway goes on to detail the current state of the Red Chair’s haul-rope replacement and a surprise gear-box issue, admitting that the only current summit lift may not be ready for the mountain’s Dec. 18 opening. He then touches on the endless Black Chair installation, assuring readers that the “team is here to stay until the Quad is completed.”
This doesn’t sound revolutionary, and it isn’t. But with these emails, Hatheway consistently does what skiers want and what so few ski-area operators do: tells us what’s going on. This is why I started the podcast – to get some transparency. Ski areas provide plenty of updates, many of them useful, on deals and deadlines and protocols and events. But these missives typically scrub out the uncomfortable or the inconvenient. They are anonymous, as though sent from the mountain itself, polished and spare, graphics- and stoke-laden. Commercials, not communications.
I’m not sure why Hatheway’s brand of forthrightness is so rare. Win Smith, former owner of Sugarbush, for years published the excellent Win’s Word, a similarly straightforward email series. I get it – running a mountain is hard and relentless, and few people possess the skillset to articulate the workings of the machine in a way that’s useful to their constituents. But I’m sure there are others besides these two. Please let me know what they are.
For more on Geoff, check out his recent conversation with the Ski Rex Media podcast.
All the millionaires who would like to become thousandaires please stand up
Birdseye Mountain ski area been gone for more than 50 years, victim of overseers who refused to install snowmaking. The dramatic peak, stationed just 16 miles from Killington as the crow flies, gets a fraction of The Beast’s 250 average annual inches of snowfall – 60 to 70 in an average year. At full build-out, it would have risen 1,300 vertical feet and had four or five chairlifts and a spiderweb of trails draping the mountain:
But the ski area only operated for five or six seasons in the 1960s. Only the lower two rings of trails and their associated lifts were ever built, maxing out around 500 vertical feet, according to the New England Lost Ski Areas Project (NELSAP).
I’d never heard of this place, until Ski Rex Media posted a story last week that more than 600 acres surrounding the former resort is for sale. Here’s the full listing from lakehouse.com, with a sale price of $1,900,057:
This is YOUR chance to own over 600+ Acres of Vermont Paradise, Former Birdseye Mountain Ski Resort (1324' Vertical Drop). This property is perfect for back-country enthusiast such as skiers, hikers and mountain bikers, hunters and more. Castleton River access, great location. Huge Development Potential Private or Public Ski/ MTB Resort Potential Minutes to Rutland Regional Airport (RUT) AMTRAK Station (CNV) a mile away 1 Mile to Charming Castleton VT Village/ University and Major HWY VT RT 4 Let your imagination run WILD!
Trust me my imagination is way ahead of you. Nothing makes me happier than a damned ski area clawing through the earth and upending its tombstone. But it would be a hell of a lot of work.
“In order for Birdseye to become a ski area, it would need all new infrastructure,” said NELSAP founder Jeremy Davis, who found several lift towers still standing at the ski area as recently as 2008. “It's in a beautiful section of west central Vermont and does have easy access off Route 4. It also has nice slopes for somebody to develop it as a tubing area or snowboard park. The location would also make for a nice retreat.”
Unfortunately, Birdseye’s comeback is about as likely as Vail Resorts buying Mad River Glen. Startup costs would likely run well into eight figures. Environmental challenges would be immediate and relentless. And even if some moneybucks benefactor could navigate those obstacles, the immovable object called Killington sits 18 miles down U.S. 4. It’s the largest ski area in the east, a monster with 21 lifts serving 155 trails across 1,509 acres and a season that stretches from early fall until almost-summer. Think there’s room for a scrappy little nearby hill that caters to the low-key set? It’s called Pico, right next door, with 2,000 vertical feet, two express quads, empty slopes, and the same 250 inches of snow that Killington gets (they also share an owner, Powdr Corp).
Still, it could happen. Suicide Six, with 24 trails on a 650-foot vertical drop, is the same distance, drivewise, from Killington as Birdseye. It seems to be doing fine. But it’s been there for 84 years. That’s not the same thing as starting from raw hillside. And if anyone holds the financial deathwish of competing against Powdr Corp’s twin musclemen so dearly, they could simply purchase the former Plymouth Notch ski area – active just four years ago and intact with a double chair and cut trails – for $6.5 million. It rises 1,300 vertical feet and comes with a second, 300-acre peak ripe for expansion, and it’s just 30 miles from Birdseye. Someone who knew what they were doing could re-open it with an offseason of prep. Birdseye would take years.
There was a joke I heard a lot when I used to work at the NBA: “what’s the fastest way to become a millionaire?” Answer: “be a billionaire who buys an NBA team.” There are lots of ways to waste money. Buying an undeveloped ski area and trying to build it in modern U.S. America seems like one of the better ones. Have fun.
Business and passes: New York State topped 4 million skier visits last year. Prospective buyer has purchase and sales agreement in place and hopes to buy Big Squaw, Maine “in the coming months.” Will change name, but not necessarily to “Big Moose,” which is the mountain it sits on. Another plan to rescue Cuchara.
Infrastructure: Club Med will open an all-inclusive resort at Snowbasin in 2024. Cranmore will invest $1 million to upgrade the Skimobile Express Quad next year. Berkshire East began blowing snow after a $1 million offseason snowmaking upgrade, including 75 new snowguns.
Housing and labor: Jackson Hole raises entry-level pay to $18 per hour, while Aspen, 500 housing units short, offers locals the equivalent of $1,200 to house an employee for the season. Big Sky opens 36 new employee housing beds in its base village, taking its total up to 690, which is “six times the industry average.”
Covid: The NSAA is advising ski areas to proceed with vaccinate-or-test standards even as President Biden’s vaccine mandate works its way through the courts. A nice roundup on Covid protocols around New England.
Kids: Ski New Hampshire’s fourth- and fifth-grade passport is now on sale - $59 for one lift ticket at each of 18 ski areas. In conjunction with Every Kid Sports, Mont Ripley will offer free six-week programs for kids age 5 to 13.
Stoke: New York Ski Blog hits Gore for opening weekend. I don’t actually think this guy is real but whatever:
This week in skiing
Friday, Nov. 26 – Mount Snow and Okemo
Nineteen years after landing in New York City from the Midwest, it still amazes me: big-time Vermont skiing less than four hours from home. On this day I landed at 8:15, 45 minutes before the lifts cranked on for the season. Opening day energy crackled through the base village. Despite the rain, the brown streaks of dead earth between ribbons of blown snow. Cheers as the first skiers boarded Bluebird. At the summit, snowing lightly. It snowed all day, reached the base, thickened. Legions of skiers on the main face, fewer on North Face, bumps formed fast. Eleven runs and I felt like a Martian suddenly transported to the oppressive gravity of Earth, the very act of walking an excruciating chore.
At midday I drove to Okemo and when I arrived it looked like this:
I had not been to Okemo in 14 years and I had spent all of them slamming the sprawling complex for doing its best to imitate a bowling alley. Nice groomers, Bro. Nine hundred of them lined up along successive peaks. But of course on this day it was nothing but powderbumps from top to bottom, impossible on my trashed legs. Ten turns and stop, over and over down the mountain. I managed two runs and quit. Nice job, Tough Guy.
Sunday, Nov. 28 – Belleayre and Windham
Belleayre’s gondola may be the fastest lift in New York State. It runs top-to-bottom and parallel, on its upper portion, to the Tomahawk quad, which may be the slowest lift on planet Earth. Originally installed in the 16th Century to transport butter churns from mid-mountain to the summit, the lift persists, and for much of Sunday, it was the only option for skiing. For my daughter, out for her first day of the season, it was fine. We lapped the upper part of gently winding Deer Run – one of only two runs open – for half a day. Around 1:00 patrol unceremoniously dropped the ropes on the lower portion of the run and we skied back to the base and left.
It snowed all day but Windham was empty. We parked at the upper lot. No line at the six. Windham has the same shortcoming as Belleayre and that’s a steep upper mountain tapering to gentler terrain. This is less pronounced midseason when Windham offers long circuitous summit-to-base greens and blues but on this day only blacks fell off the top. Icy in spite of the snow. Off the top, the next mountain over, Hunter sat white-laced and alive. Ski season back, and the people of New York had not yet gotten the memo. Fine with me. More for us. We skied.
Oh, and last Saturday the Michigan football team beat Ohio State. This made me unreasonably happy. I actually started The Storm in the wake of the Buckeye’s humiliating defeat of the Wolverines in 2018. It was clear I needed something more to put my passion into – something I could control.
Support The Storm by shopping at our partners:
Patagonia | Helly Hansen | Rossignol | Salomon | Utah Skis | Berg’s Ski and Snowboard Shop | Peter Glenn | Kemper Snowboards | Gravity Coalition | Darn Tough | Skier's Peak | Hagan Ski Mountaineering | Moosejaw | Skis.com |The House | Telos Snowboards | Christy Sports | Evo | Hotels Combined | Black Diamond | Eastern Mountain Sports