“Hey Brother, Can You Spare a Snowgun?”
Maybe instead of throwing these things away, we can give them to a family in need
On Friday I skied Bolton Valley and afterwards I’d planned to drive over to teeny-tiny Cochran’s for a $5 Friday Night Lights session. It’s only about 15 minutes away. But my car was buried in the eight inches of snow that had fallen during the ski day and it took me half an hour to brush the snow free and dig my way out, and the access road was a mess and US 2 was a mess and I-89 was a mess and I still had to drive all the way back to Brooklyn, so I’ll save it for the next time I go to Stowe or something.
But I was planning on checking Cochran’s out just to sense the vibe and to do something a little different and yeah to support it, because this is a family-run non-profit that dedicates itself to teaching thousands of kids to learn to ski annually, whether they can pay for it or not.
This place and places like it are necessary. I would argue that the best-in-the-Northeast lineup of monster ski areas that dot the Spine looming over Cochran’s probably need the tiny ski area more than it needs them. That traffic only flows one way, and it’s up to Stowe and Sugarbush and Mad River Glen and Smugglers’ Notch as the kids experience the glory of an arced turn and a bit of air and a snowy afternoon and go in search of someplace more all of that.
And that is why it matters that tiny all-natural-snow Mt. Jefferson, Maine, became the second ski area in the state, after Eaton Mountain, to cancel its season a couple weeks ago.
Never heard of Mt. Jefferson? From skibum.net:
You want the real deal? Here it is. Old, narrow, gnarly trails. Questionable cover, T-bars to the top. Low ticket prices, great views. In other words, your average small Maine throwback ski area, which is to say, it’s awesome.
I’ve argued that the great ski-area weed-out is almost over because most surviving mountains are the ones that have invested in snowmaking infrastructure, but I guess there are still a few out there hanging on without it. They won’t last long. Mt. Jefferson only sees 75 inches of annual snowfall. It likely keeps what it gets because Maine, but even powder kegs Alta and Wolf Creek have some snowmaking near their base areas.
I argued last week that Saddleback should not have been allowed to shut down, that some minimal intervention could have saved it or at least kept it open on an interim basis, a la Burke and Jay Peak. I’ll make the same argument here. In this case, it may be less a case of a direct loan than a donation of older snowmaking equipment as larger resorts upgrade to newer models.
The general manager of a major Northeastern mountain told me recently that the state gives them incentives to recycle (read: destroy) older, less energy-efficient guns as they install new ones. Fine. But what if they donated a portion of them down the food chain instead, as Killington did in donating its used rental equipment fleet to Cochran’s recently?
While I am in favor of gradually phasing out obsolete energy-hogging technology for more efficient machines, there must surely be a compromise trade-off that would extend the life of these older guns in favor of the economic and social upsides of keeping microslopes like Mt. Jefferson in business.
States (and larger ski areas) have an interest in supporting smaller ski areas for many reasons: as generators of new skiers who will one day support the much larger mountains that are pillars of seasonal tourism, as recreational outposts that give kids an alternative to raiding the 96-pack of Ho-Hos that mom picked up at Costco, and, yes, of course as a source of jobs and taxes and just general social and economic vitality. A dead ski area is arguably more harmful to a state than several dozen powerhog snowguns running on 1980s technology. Better yet, more states could introduce programs like New York’s now-closed subsidy that covered up to 80 percent of the cost of new, energy-efficient guns.
New England Ski Journal recently profiled Ski Bradford in Massachusetts, showcasing the importance of these starter areas:
“Ski close to home. That’s what we are. We get you ready to go skiing and prepared to go north, or west, or wherever else you want to go,” [Ski Bradford owner Neil Sawyer] said.
That recognition can be increasingly difficult to do in an age of multi-mountain passes and some general overlooking of feeder areas. That contrast is glaring considering the 68 listed [operating ski areas in Massachusetts] when Bradford began in 1949.
“There’s not many of us left,” Sawyer said. “Our little feeder areas are disappearing, which is going to hurt the industry. We have to figure out how to keep the skiers coming.”
It’s something that Bradford has managed for 70 years now. Sawyer figures that some of the bigger heads in the ski industry are about a decade behind recognizing the importance of feeder areas and what they mean to developing the skiers and riders that the sports need to sustain themselves.
I mean yes. Full read recommended.
The closest ski area to Manhattan is Campgaw, 23 miles over the George Washington Bridge. It has a 270 foot vertical drop and the trailmap looks like this - James Niehues isn’t in their budget, I’m guessing:
Most skiers who live in New York City have never heard of it, but it is vital to populating the funnel of future skiers who play a very important role in supporting everything Upstate and in New England.
If you have little kids or five bucks to spare, there are worse things you can do than support these little places. And there are worse things the ski industry as a whole could focus on than figuring out how to keep them viable.
Does this gondola make me look fat?
Just after neighbor Loon unveiled their sprawling 2030 plan, Waterville Valley, one of the largest independent mountains in New England and onetime member of the American Skiing Company and Booth Creek empires, reached an agreement with the U.S. Forest Service for its own 10-year plan.
The mountain would go from this:
Lift Blog breaks down what this means terrain- and lift-wise:
Waterville is seeking a 140-acre boundary expansion and 15 new trails on Green Peak, which saw its first lift installed in 2016. The resort now features two summits accessed from one base area. A proposed new portal would separate different user groups and improve the guest experience. A two-stage gondola or chondola is planned to link the Waterville Town Square to the new base area and on to Green Peak. Two sections would be capable of operating independently with an angled mid-terminal. The exact alignment of the first stage, which would be located on private land, has not yet been determined.
New Hampshire needs this added ski real estate. Their mountains – especially those easily accessible from Boston, can get very crowded. With Epik and Ikon now providing access to five mountains across the state – and bringing the attendant crowds with them – the appeal of unaffiliated indies will only grow, and Waterville Valley’s substantial planned increase in size will make it more attractive.
My hope is that part of this terrain expansion includes an effort to better diversify the mountain with more glades. In other words, make it less boring. Waterville Valley has maybe the fewest marked tree runs of any major New England mountain on their trailmap. That was cool in 1982. It isn’t anymore. Any New England mountain that wants to be taken seriously as a complete ski resort needs to have a substantial and growing glade system.
Even over-groomed snoozers like Stratton have thinned enough trees to eat up a powder day, and, frankly, that is the only reason I ski there. It’s not exactly Sugarloaf, but it is far better than Mount Snow or Okemo, both of which have few glades and are stingy about opening the ones they do have. I get that these mountains’ core clientele is cityfolk with kids who are not necessarily in the market for technical terrain, but as someone with little kids who does not want to be bored stupid while they’re in lessons, I’m picking the mountain that has made an effort to be interesting when deciding where to book winter vacation.
Sunday River, of course, also unveiled a 10-year plan last week. While that mountain already has plenty of glades, every mountain could use some updating, and one that big that has was so far ahead of everyone else in the high-speed lift game is due for updating eventually. I should have a lot more to say about Sunday River a bit later this week (wink-wink :).
Shiffrin, Mammoth suffer losses:
The New York Times with a moving piece on the death of Mikaela Shiffrin’s father:
There was also this: When Mikaela was a junior competitor and clearly one of the best skiers in her age group, Jeff and Eileen decided to have her race as seldom as possible. It was nothing more than a math problem, Jeff explained.
Why spend all those hours in a car on a weekend driving to a mountain for a competition so Mikaela could take a few runs and walk away with a blue ribbon when she could spend so much more time practicing or skiing with her family near her home? Getting really good was about maximizing the number of hours she could have her skis on the snow. It’s hard enough because a skier has to spend so much time riding up the mountain in a chair lift. Why make it worse by adding all that car time, just for another ribbon and the chance for the parents to pat themselves on the back and show off their wunderkind?
It was so simple and obvious — race less, ski more, give up the quick hit of glory for something lasting and meaningful and full of quality time. In raising Mikaela, the Shiffrins offered a welcome respite from so many other parents, of great athletes and not so great ones, for whom child-rearing becomes an endless series of trips to games and tournaments and competitions.
Mammoth Mountain founder and industry legend Dave McCoy dies at 104. Powder profiled him for his 100th birthday a few years back:
It was 1937 when McCoy started the project that would become the largest ski resort in Central California. He was 22 years old, classically handsome with a square jawline—always clean shaven—and rippling dark blond hair pushed back from his forehead. His skin was tanned from days spent on the mountain. Tall with broad shoulders, McCoy had been offered a number of scholarships to play college football, but he turned them down. He wanted to ski.
Dudes both did it right.
Powder visits the New Jersey SnowDome. New York Ski Blog at Bristol. This New England Ski Journal write-up of Loon is an inadvertent but very nice complement to my Storm Skiing Podcast interview last week with the mountain’s general manager, Jay Scambio. The New Hampshire Union Leader profiles the guy that keeps the Cannon Mountain tram running.
This week in skiing
Bolton Valley – Friday, Feb. 7
All week I watched the storm morph out of the hinterlands and crawl splotched and striated across the continent into a huge and deformed thing, part rain and part ice and part snow and fading at times to sleet, the lines demarcating all those things ever-shifting and inexact and indeterminate. By Thursday it became obvious that the only safe space for a triggered-by-midwinter-rainstorms powder-sick snowchaser was the far far north of Vermont, a distance too far for a Brooklyn-based over-employed skibum possessing even a shred of common sense.
I went anyway.
I left for Bolton Valley at 3:30 a.m., the location locked in because it appeared to hover just over the rain line and because I had a pass there and because it was interstate almost the entire way and because they had night skiing so if I got hemmed up to my muffler by snow and didn’t arrive until 1 p.m. I could still get a full ski day in.
Google guessed an 8:52 a.m. arrival and I pulled up to the end of the asshaul of a vertical access road at 8:55, my drive up the east side of the state uninterrupted by the storm trending northeast across the region, only the last 30 miles slowed by slush on I-89. I met my buddy Matt from Northeast Skiology and his buddy Eric and we lapped the main quad in the morning sleet and then lapped Timberline as it turned to snow and covered the icy underlayer and patrol started dropping ropes and by lunchtime the snow piled so fast and thick that on the 10- or whatever-minute haul to the top it would pile up on us and we looked like snowmen and we grinned and dropped into the glades.
Halfway up the Vista Quad and the snow was piled deep on our jackets.
The mountain was wide open and fast and the snow just kept coming and at one point I lost my friends in the trees and I waited for a while at the bottom of the lift, but I never found them and I just bombed the whole mountain finding interesting and ever-changing lines through the woods as the wind picked up and the storm intensified and the whole thing was so wild and raw out there in the midst of the February blizzard that I couldn’t think of anything better in the world.
Going deep into the woods at Bolton Valley after the ropes dropped.
And yeah the drive home kinda sucked because it was 45 miles of unplowed deeply trenched snow like they’d never heard of a snowplow, and I was all “Come on man this is Vermont and why do I feel like I just hit a snowstorm in Georgia and they’re like, ‘Now what’s all this now?’” But on the whole shitty drive home I didn’t see a single car in the ditch, so at least people up there know how to drive in the snow, even if the authorities were having trouble clearing it. But even though I’d woken up at three and didn’t get home until 12:30 which added up to like 13 hours of driving, if you asked me if it was worth it I would just kinda look at you and be like, “Man if you have to ask me that then why are you even reading this?”
Mountain Creek – Sunday, Feb. 9
Nothing surprises me more than encountering natural snow at Mountain Creek, but when I turned off NJ 23 on Sunday morning flakes materialized out of the dawn and a thin layer of snow coated the shoulder. Rounding the corner on 94 the mountain heaved out of the iron gray morning with orbs of overhead lights lining the slopes and every gun on the mountain seemed to be blowing.
And the skiing was just terrific, the guns blowing and the snow falling and no lift lines for my first nine or 10 runs on South Peak, hammering down lap after lap and leaping off the little features. It was a quick day like my Sunday ski days usually are and I wrapped it by 11 and was home for lunch.
In Jersey, this is a pow day. Don’t try telling me otherwise.
The Storm Skiing Podcast is on iTunes, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, TuneIn, and Pocket Casts. The Storm Skiing Journal publishes podcasts and other editorial content throughout the ski season. To receive new posts as soon as they are published, sign up for The Storm Skiing Journal Newsletter at skiing.substack.com. Follow The Storm Skiing Journal on Facebook and Twitter.
Check out previous podcasts: Killington & Pico GM Mike Solimano | Plattekill owners Danielle and Laszlo Vajtay | New England Lost Ski Areas Project Founder Jeremy Davis | Magic Mountain President Geoff Hatheway | Lift Blog Founder Peter Landsman | Boyne Resorts CEO Stephen Kircher | Burke Mountain GM Kevin Mack | Liftopia CEO Evan Reece | Berkshire East & Catamount Owner & GM Jon Schaefer | Vermont Ski + Ride and Vermont Sports Co-Publisher & Editor Lisa Lynn | Sugarbush President & COO Win Smith | Loon Mountain President and GM Jay Scambio |