"I Only Ski Stowe When I Can’t Make It Down to Seven Springs," Said No One Ever

The Moneyball Era comes to skiing

This is why robots will rule us one day. After taking some time off from straight resort rankings, Ski dropped a 2019 best-in-the-east list last week. You can click through to see the full list with little blurbs, but here it is:

1)      Tremblant

2)      Smuggs

3)      Mt. Snow

4)      Killington

5)      Whiteface

6)      Sugarbush

7)      Sugarloaf

8)      MRG

9)      Bretton Woods

10)  Holiday Valley

11)  Sunday River

12)  Jay Peak

13)  Stratton

14)  Loon

15)  Okemo

16)  Seven Springs

17)  Magic

18)  Stowe

19)  Wachusett

20)  Wildcat

I like magazine resort rankings lists. I still actually subscribe to actual magazines and I look forward to the various resort rankings issues every year. And while it’s nice of Ski to think of us here in the East since the ski media may be the one part of the media that has a clear western bias, it would have been nicer if they’d looked at it before publishing it, because this is one of the worst ski rankings lists I’ve ever seen.

I realize we are living in an ever more data-driven world, but there are hazards to stripping data from any sort of larger context and using that as the sole driver of your decision making. This list feels like one of those machine-written stories that the financial press pumps out after a stock downgrade or earnings report, which just plugs data into a template. In this case, the data is reader responses to Ski’s annual survey of which ski resorts they like best, and the template is this list. The fact that no human with even a passing knowledge of eastern skiing reviewed it before publication is obvious in the fact that the list ranks Seven Springs Pennsylvania ahead of Stowe, and no human with even a passing knowledge of Eastern skiing could have looked at this list and not said, “Um, we might have a problem here.”

There is no world in which Seven Springs ranks higher than Stowe on any list that is not called, “Ski Resorts That Exist In Pennsylvania.” It would be like making a list of best rappers that put Vanilla Ice ahead of Jay-Z. Or if you don’t know about rappers it would be like making a list of best G.I. Joe characters that put Crystal Ball ahead of Snake Eyes. Or if you don’t know about 1980s G.I. Joe characters, it would be like making a list of best trees that puts a cactus ahead of an oak tree. And you’re like, “Is a cactus even a tree?” And they’re like, “Exactly.”

This list makes about that much sense. And I can’t decide if it’s proof that machines will never become our overlords because this is what happens when you strip any subjective analysis from your decision-making processes and turn everything into a math problem, or if it is assurance that the Robot Senate will release us from all consequential decision making at the earliest opportunity because any race that puts a 750-foot vertical-foot bump for Pittsburgh weekenders above Stowe on a hierarchy of which ski areas are “best” obviously has no idea what the fuck it’s doing and cannot be trusted to handle war machinery or medical research or space travel or the growing and distribution of food.

Look, I realize it is a reader poll. I also realize that prosaic Ski is the snowsports media for the masses, and its readership likely skews toward the suburban office parkers who get out on the hill five to 10 days per year and don’t understand the context of the full ski universe inside of which Seven Springs is basically irrelevant to anyone who does not live within a two-hour drive of it. It is what they know and so they like it.

But there are other problems with this list: Holiday Valley is on it. Wachusett is on it. Bretton Woods in the top 10? Jay Peak at freaking 12? And I will forever be at war with any overly positive rankings for Mt. Snow as long as their mountain ops team continues to murder every square inch of their mountain with groomers every single night.

Look, I’m no elitist. I will ski anywhere. I have a season pass at freaking Mountain Creek. And I use it. A lot. I also understand the importance of ski areas like Seven Springs and Wachusett and Holiday Valley as incubators for the sport and local economic drivers. I have no doubt that they run great operations. I would even listen to arguments that places like this are more important than Stowe because Stowe is remote and hard and cold and expensive, and no one’s going there unless they learn how to ski at the Holiday Valleys of the world first. But don’t try to tell me that Holiday Valley is better than Stowe, because it objectively is not.

The editors at Ski know better. On page 42 of the print issue in which this resort guide appears, they call Stowe, in an unrelated article, “the blue chip of Eastern skiing.” Given this contradiction, I’m not sure why they didn’t build some failsafe into the voting process to keep the readers from embarrassing themselves. Like maybe a weighted score where reader votes count for half the final points and the editorial team has equal weight due to their outsized knowledge of ski resorts (they appeared to do something like this for last year’s resort issue, which did not contain straight rankings). This is necessary because people who only ski Seven Springs and think Seven Springs is rad af and vote it tippy top in the East are like your 3-year-old who sees a pond and says, “Daddy, look at all the ducks in the ocean!” and you’re like, “No Buddy, that’s not the ocean. That’s a pond. A pond is small and only local ducks know about it. The ocean is so big you can’t even see across it and it can hold all the ducks in the world. And it’s owned by Vail and has its very own gondola.”

While I’m grateful that such a thing as the mainstream ski media still exists, this is one of those occasional and grating reminders that Ski dances on the ashes of its far superior sister magazine Skiing. If you don’t know what the difference between Ski and Skiing was and don’t think that Skiing was awesome, read this excellent essay written by former editor Marc Peruzzi on the magazine’s otherwise unremarked upon execution. The palpable void left by its demise can be felt in the WTF social media reactions to all of the stuff I said above – Skiing published its own annual list that far more closely reflected the reality that all of us exist in, and would have provided a nice counterweight here.

Providing that counterweight fell to Freeskier, which dropped, without comment (and in print, so no link), its own, exactly appropriate list of the top five mountain in the East:

1)      Jay Peak

2)      Killington

3)      Sugarbush

4)      Stowe

5)      Tremblant

Personally, I would swap Temblant for Sugarloaf (Brackett Basin!), and bump Sugarbush and Stowe above Killington on account of they just get a hell of a lot more snow. I am ambivalent about whether you would rank Sugarbush or Stowe higher. They are both equally outstanding. It’s hard to argue against Jay at number one just given the pure snowfall numbers and endless glades. You can grouse about this list a little but come up with an eastern top five that does not include most of these. There are no existential issues here because this list was built by actual skiers who know about all things skiing and don’t leave resort rankings lists to people who rank skiing behind couple’s game night and shopping for lawnmowers as their favorite activities.

Maybe the worst part of all this is that extensive Googling of a mountain I’d barely heard of to research this post has assured that my various internet feeds will now be plastered with ads for the next six weeks reminding me to book my vacation to Seven Springs post-haste. Well, as it happens, Seven Springs and Stowe are exactly equidistant from me. And now that I know that Seven Springs is better than Stowe, I will hurry up and do that.

Speaking of Western bias. I was mostly kidding about the western ski media bias because even though it is 100 percent real it is also 100 percent justifiable. While The Storm Skiing Journal and Podcast will focus roughly 90 percent of its attention on skiing in the Northeast because that is where I live and ski, it will never be a safe space for people looking to quarantine themselves from acknowledgements that a vast area of easily accessible and far superior ski terrain exists and that most of us would like to ski there at least annually.  

All of this is a long way of getting to my props to Powder for writing up Jiminy Peak’s Brian Fairbank. Brian, if you’re reading this and you’d like to expand on these topics in say I don’t know a one-hour podcast format, I can make that happen.

As far as what’s left of the ski media goes, Powder is the best of it and has been for quite some time. The photography is astonishing and the best argument that a publication that will never exist outside of nebulous cyberspace could make for subscribing to a physical magazine in this day of endless encyclopedias stored in a machine in your pocket. The writing is pretty good in general and some of it is outstanding. And Powder would never publish a list of best ski areas that ranked Seven Springs above Stowe.

Well here we go. Killington opened for the season yesterday at 11 a.m. While that’s quite a bit later than last year’s Oct. 19 open, it’s nearly a week ahead of when they got the lifts spinning for the 2017-18 season, and there isn’t much they could have done to get things running earlier short of planting a dome over the place.

Killington really has no incentive to do this other than to remind people that they’re awesome. GM Mike Solimano was pretty clear to me in our podcast interview that early opening wasn’t any kind of big moneymaker. They do it because they can. Because they have the technology, infrastructure, knowhow and willingness to do it. And because that big bold brashness is part of their identity in a way that it could be but isn’t at fellow Vermont radsters Sugarbush or Stowe or Smuggs. It’s that attitude that makes Killington about as prototypical an East Coast mountain as you’re going to get, and the region’s best physical manifestation of the people who live and ski here.

Expect Sunday River to follow soon. More too if we’re lucky. It’s November now, and by the end of the month, all the big boys in the region should be open. This site is where you want to go to track openings and storms. May have a storm coming in Friday too, which hopefully portends a Snovember encore.

And who knew they did the snowskiing thing there. There was some social media excitement over North Carolina’s Cataloochee Ski Area jumping to an 8:30 a.m. opening on Sunday, cutting the Beast in line to become first to open in the East. Comparisons to A-Basin’s rug-pulling of Keystone’s (read: Vail’s) first-in-the-nation claims by opening the very afternoon that their neighbor announced a next-day start abounded. Good for Cataloochee for getting after it, but this is not really the same thing. A-Basin and Keystone are eight minutes apart on U.S. 6 in Colorado’s Summit County and direct competitors with a long and tangled history of partnership and on-and-off mutual ownership. Cataloochee is a 15-hour drive from Killington and the mountains have no shared history or direct competition. It’s not like Okemo shocked the region by opening a few hours earlier around the corner.

But a word on this southern snowsportsskiing thing. North Carolina has some high-altitude (for the East) ranges and a strong ski scene, with a half dozen areas, including 1,200-vertical-foot Sugar Mountain. Don’t be surprised to see Vail scoop one of these up at some point in the next few years. With its rapidly growing, educated population, North Carolina should be a prime hunting ground for future Epic Pass customers who would ski locally and take a trip or two west or north each winter. Alterra is so far kind-of sort-of eschewing Vail’s feeder strategy of buying up small hills to sell passes within large metro areas, but they should not be above scanning the Southeast for bargains if something comes up for sale.

There are more southern ski areas than you may think (the Ski Southeast site appears to be their spiritual home), including one in (no kidding) Alabama. Sadly, the one ski area left in Georgia closed in 2005. But this is the one region where none of the big boys – not Vail, not Alterra, not Boyne or Powdr – has a presence, and with just about everything of any size in the Northeast and West already sitting in one or the other’s garage, the Southeast could be the next logical stopping point on the shopping spree.


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Check out previous podcasts: Killington GM Mike Solimano | Plattekill owners Danielle and Laszlo Vajtay| New England Lost Ski Areas Project Founder Jeremy Davis