Is the Executioner Coming for Yet Another Classic Ski Area?

Did Song and Labrador Just Buy Toggenburg? If so, will the Central New York duo add Toggenburg to its superpass, or shut it down?

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I’m not ready to write another ski area obit so please don’t make me

When the owners of New York’s Greek Peak ski area bought Toggenburg six years ago, they pitched it as a play for the Syracuse market, a two-mountain, one-pass combo that would funnel skiers south, from the smaller resort (Togg) to the larger (Greek Peak).

The timing seemed great. Greek Peak and Toggenburg’s main competitors, Song and Labrador, had merged passes and operations the previous year. Greek Peak was mid-renaissance, glimmering with millions in snowmaking, grooming, and chairlift upgrades. Toggenburg, former owner Jim Hickey told Syracuse.com, was profitable, clocking 100,000 skier visits annually while selling 3,500 season passes. Combined with Greek Peak’s 210,000 skiers visits and 4,700 passes, the two ski areas had a strong story to pitch to Central New York skiers.

But John Meier, who took full ownership of both mountains after buying out partner Marc Stemerman in 2019, declined to aggressively transform Toggenburg in the manner he had revitalized Greek Peak, and the mountains followed starkly different trajectories. Greek Peak joined the Indy Pass. Toggenburg did not. Almost every year, new glades appeared on Greek Peak’s trailmap. Toggenburg’s trailmap has not changed substantially since the 1980s. Greek Peak got a brand-new quad in 2013, the crown jewel of an investment spree that now tops $10 million. Toggenburg’s newest lift is a 1986 Borvig triple (the Hall double they installed in 2011 had been in use at Holiday Valley since 1984), and, while Meier invested in snowmaking and grooming at the ski area, transformative investment was absent. And they never introduced a true, seamless joint pass, as Song and Labrador had done – each mountain retained its individual pass, with a buy-up option for the joint pass.

Then, a few months back, Toggenburg unceremoniously dropped off the 2021-22 Freedom Pass reciprocal coalition, while Greek Peak remained. I asked Greek Peak PR why and did not receive an answer. When the Greekenburg Pass, good at both mountains, went on sale in the spring, I figured the Freedom Pass exit was just a business decision.

But earlier this week, rumors started dribbling onto New York Ski Blog’s message boards and elsewhere that Labrador and Song owner, president and general manager Peter Harris was purchasing Toggenburg. Which – whatever. A person who loves ski areas (Harris also formerly owned Indy Pass partner Snow Ridge, situated upstate on the snow-bombed Tug Plateau) buying another ski area is typically a good thing. You get stability, expertise, and a sturdy constitution forged in the vagaries of Eastern winters. And a three-mountain pass lining up a triangle of options just south of Syracuse and right off Interstate 81 is a compelling option in the Epic and Ikon dessert of Central New York.

But embedded within the rumors was a sinister twist, which in its various versions added up to this: Harris was buying Toggenburg to shut it down and possibly transform it into a housing development, driving its skier traffic to his existing mountains. Labrador is just 14 minutes away. Song is only 20 minutes.

Rumors are meaningless, of course, especially in this country, where a not immaterial percentage of adults believe that Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton are Satan-worshipping supervillains hustling an international child trafficking ring and the only thing that can stop them is the Batman/Jesus cyborg known as Donald Trump.

Still, the pitchforks are already out. A petition of unclear origin (it is signed by “The Central New York Skiing Public”) materialized online, “to inform of your position that you do not believe it is in his best interest or the interest of the CNY skiing community to close Toggenburg Mountain for many reasons.” I assume they meant, “to inform you of our position…” Nonetheless, its intent is clear.

I reached out to representatives from Greek Peak, Toggenburg, Song, and Labrador over several channels, asking if anyone could confirm the sale or Harris’ intention with the new property. No one has responded. Which could mean anything or nothing.

It would be unusual for Harris to buy Toggenburg with the sole intention of closing it. Still, small-time expansions don’t always work out. When Jiminy Peak bought nearby Brodie in 1999, they upgraded the snowmaking system and drew up plans to install a high-speed quad. After three dismal seasons, however, they shut it down and sold it, inserting a clause in the sales contract that the mountain could not be re-opened as a ski area. Butternut similarly bought nearby Ski Blandford in 2017 with the intent to save it from insolvency. Three years later, with the ski area continuing to lose money, they closed it, probably forever.

There’s little point in predicting what may happen to Toggenburg before the sale has even been confirmed. If Harris buys it, I hope he keeps it open. New York has enough lost ski areas (estimates run as high as 300). Some, like Tuxedo Ridge and Hickory, were still operating in the last decade. New York still has the most active areas of any U.S. state, but that doesn’t mean losing another – especially a homegrown operation like Toggenburg, which had been run by the same family for 62 years before Greek Peak bought it – wouldn’t be traumatic to the state’s ski swagger and confidence. Ninety percent of the state’s ski areas are still family-owned outfits, tap-dancing from year to year along the knife edge between lifts spinning and swinging in the wind.  

It would also be interesting to hear why, just a year after promising that, “We are committed to the future of Toggenburg” Meier abandoned the project – if he does indeed abandon it. But that statement, datelined Feb. 19, 2020, emerged at the height of optimistic evergrowth steamrolling directly toward Hurricane Covid. And raise your hand if your plans and your life look the same as they did 17 months ago.

I hit Toggenburg last winter. The skiing, frankly, is not amazing. There are nice fall lines skier’s right, a fun basher along an old liftline, a pod of twisty and interesting runs far skier’s left. You can ski the whole mountain from one lift. But the place is cut up with ravines that choke off good glade skiing, and most of the runs have an overgroomed sameness to them. It’s probably a great place for families who don’t want to get run over. Still, it has enough inherent qualities to be worth saving:

If anyone has any info on any of this, please respond to this email. I’m happy to use anonymous sources.

Pennsylvania shuts the borders on its passport program

While my quest to uncover the fate of Toggenburg was about as fruitful as a mid-February apple harvest, I had more luck confirming another internet rumor: the demise of Ski PA’s fourth- and fifth-grade Snow Pass program.

The program, like many of its kind in other states, granted children a set number of lift tickets at each participating ski resort – which, as far as I can tell, was just about all of them, including Vail’s five Pennsylvania mountains: Jack Frost, Big Boulder, Roundtop, Liberty, and Whitetail. Each ticket required an adult lift ticket purchase, and the program itself carried a nominal fee.

Pennsylvania suspended their program for the 2020-21 ski season, citing Covid complications. Unfortunately, the program will not return for next season either.

“The PA fourth- and fifth-grade Snow Pass program has been eliminated and will no longer be available,” Pennsylvania Ski Areas Association Executive Director Linda Irvin wrote in an email to The Storm Skiing Journal. “The Snow Pass program was no longer working for all of our member ski areas and consumers in a way that it could be managed in a post-pandemic operations environment. Many ski areas have capacity limitations requiring advance sales and advance reservations that could not accommodate the fourth- and fifth-grade program as it was.”

It’s possible that some version of the program could emerge, but not anytime soon. “they hope to come up with another program that all of our members can participate in, but it will not be available for this upcoming winter,” Irvin said.

If you’re reading this newsletter, you’ve probably already got skiing for kids figured out. Season rentals, advanced-sale passes, maybe a season-long learning program if you can swing it. For the 2019-20 season, I got my then 11-year-old daughter a $169 Ikon Pass and a $149 season rental, and so we were able to ski Killington, Loon, Sunday River, Copper Mountain, and Steamboat for a $318. We minimized travel costs with credit card miles. It was world-class adventure on a hobo’s budget.

But not everyone has solved this puzzle. A cabin fever-crazed family looking dreamily out their wintertime windows will gasp at the walk-up rates for a single day of weekend lift tickets and rentals, which could run between $500 and $1,000 for a family of four once you add in food and other expenses. One day like that is enough to drive someone out of skiing for good.

That’s why passport programs are so important. They’re a nudge. Stumbling upon them, a family begins to dream of a winter invigorated by the outdoors. A family who takes advantage of the discounted experience one year is liable to repeat it the next and, the habit formed, begin to become the person buying the $169 Ikon Pass in April and seeking out season rentals.

“The NSAA supports these and so many other projects across the country that help get kids on snow,” NSAA President and CEO Kelly Pawlak wrote in an email to The Storm Skiing Journal. “This is super important because our data shows that the earlier we can get kids on snow the more apt they are to become lifelong skiers and riders. The passport programs are nice because it allows us to measure how states are doing, but as long as ski areas are encouraging skiing and riding to youth and have programs that make it accessible, we can build the next generation of snowsports enthusiasts.” 

The state association is not the only entity that can promote skiing among youth, of course. Vail recently expanded its youth access programs – which provide free lift tickets, ski school, and equipment rentals – to all 34 of its North American resorts. I reached out to Vail to get a better understanding of the scale of these programs and how they determine eligibility, and will include that information in a future newsletter once I receive it.

Fortunately, the passport programs will endure in other states, including those that suspended them for the 2020-21 ski season.

“Vermont will be offering our Fifth Grade Passport program again for winter 2021-22,” said Ski Vermont President Molly Mahar. “We anticipate offering the program as in past years, with all members [including Vail’s three Vermont mountains and Alterra’s two] participating. There will be holiday blackout dates that ski areas can customize and we anticipate these should be similar to what they have been in the past. This year the program will be fulfilled electronically/digitally, so we will no longer be mailing coupon booklets as we did before.”

When my daughter was in fourth grade and too green to justify travel to mega-mountains, I acquired a New York State passport for her. I think it was $30. We skied Windham, Belleayre several times, Catamount, and Whiteface. It was her first real, immersive winter, and it made her a skier, capable of managing a couple thousand contiguous feet of vertical. By the time we got to Steamboat in 2020, she was skiing black diamonds. She didn’t just land there – she grew into it, and the passport program acted as a crucial launchpad.

Here’s an opportunity to bitch about trams

The potential tram upgrade that I discussed with Cannon GM John DeVivo on The Storm Skiing Podcast last fall may be closer to reality. Per the Union Leader:

Given the availability of federal funds for capital projects, officials at Franconia Notch State Park are wondering whether the time is right to seek money for the rehabilitation or replacement of the Cannon Mountain Aerial Tramway.

Rehabilitation could cost an estimated $10 million to $15 million, while replacement is in the $20 million to $30 million ballpark, according to John DeVivo, the general manager of Franconia Notch State Park, during presentations by him last week to the governor, executive council and the Cannon Mountain Advisory Commission.

... In terms of priorities, the tramway needs to replace what he called “the current primary systems.” These include the tram cars — which would increase capacity from 80 to 100 passengers — the hanger arms, carriage trolleys, electromechanical components and the motor and braking systems, he said.

That cumulative upgrade would give the tramway an extra 20 years of operation, while a new tramway would last between 40 and 50 years, he said.

New, larger tram boxes would be a welcome upgrade for the iconic, 41-year-old lift, which, according to DeVivo, generates around $2 million in year-round revenue.

Still, I hate trams. Sorry. They look awesome. Climbing 3,000 vertical feet to the top of Snowbird in 10 minutes is an incredible sensation. But the last thing I want to do after skiing down 3,000 feet of Snowbird elevator shafts is stand in ski boots crammed between 124 other knuckleheads. I want to sit in a goddamn chair with my skis on like the lazy American that I am.

Which is why I would welcome one possible option laid out at the meeting with the governor: replacing the tram with a gondola.

That’s unlikely. We’ve reached peak inertia in America, where building or tearing down anything ignites such a ballistic response from partisans on either side that compromise is impossible. So get ready for new tram cars. And if you don’t like it, do what I do: ride the Cannonball Quad to Cannon’s summit.

Why the latest Covid resort shutdowns in Australia don’t predict anything for America’s coming ski season

For the second consecutive Southern Hemisphere winter, ski resorts in Australia involuntarily shut down to help prevent the spread of Covid-19. These included Vail-owned Falls Creek and Hotham (along with several other ski areas), in the midst of a bomber snow cycle. The mountains re-opened earlier this week after extended shutdowns:

While this may ignite fears of future disruptions to North American skiing, I’d say there’s a better chance we’ll see Jane Goodall live-stream a trophy hunt for silverback gorillas than another virus-related U.S. ski-area shutdown. Shutdowns, novel last March in the maw of an ill-understood virus, have since become political kryptonite. Australia shut down entire states with less than 1,000 confirmed cases. That’s Saturday afternoon at an Alabama barbeque. Even the most liberal U.S. states – California, New York, Vermont – kept the lifts spinning during the peak winter surge, when the nation was reporting a quarter million new cases per day.

If a U.S. state ever forces another ski area shutdown, skiing is probably the least of our concerns. Load up your shotgun and secure your stockpile of canned goods, because that rattling you hear outside is zombies breaking down the chicken coop doors for a midnight snack.

Elsewhere

New Hampshire skier visits finished just short of 2.3 million, consistent with the 10-year-average. Lift projects at Okemo, Loon, and Seven Springs are on schedule. Upgrades at Mount Southington. Bousquet’s new lodge is coming up fast, while lift projects at Catamount and Butternut are on schedule and Berkshire East’s lift project appears to be stalled. Colorado mountain towns push back against short-term rentals as tourist-to-locals ratios become unsustainable. Ski Bums Podcast at Big Snow. New York Ski Blog documents a tragedy at the now-lost Ski Wing resort in Western New York:

The now defunct ski area in Allegany, N.Y. began as the Grosstal Ski Area. Grosstal is German for “big valley” —  an 813-foot vertical drop with a challenging headwall, an enticing trail map, one chairlift, two T-bars, a rope tow, night skiing and snowmaking. The complete package in Western NY.

… One cold night in February of that year, two young men were working overnight, grooming. Sometime after midnight, the groomer broke down and they came off the hill to look for a part to repair it. Unfortunately when they went back into the lodge, they interrupted a burglary in progress.

Full read recommended.

This week in not skiing – stop pretending like being stupid can fix this faster than science

I don’t often watch Saw movies because I’m generally too squeamish and they haunt me forever after, and if you’re like this too then maybe stop reading now. But there’s a scene in Saw 74 or whatever that I for some reason watched one time and a dude wakes up chained to a pipe and the Sawmaster or whatever he’s called leaves some kind of clue that the tool to unlock freedom was in the adjacent bathtub. So the captive splashes around and comes up with a bag containing a hacksaw, and after fruitlessly trying to sever the chain he realizes that he instead has to cut off his foot. Which he does. He then finds a message that says something like “oh yeah the key to your chain is in the bathtub hahaha.” And the horrified now-footless person then either dies or crawls away - not that the resolution really matters.

Meanwhile back in the real world we all spent a year indoors wearing masks and doing nothing until the accumulated miracles of centuries of science produced in record time a vaccine that could largely prevent this virus that rearranged our world. What was a year ago menacing and mysterious had suddenly been demoted to preventable disease. So those of us with more than five brain cells said, “wow that sounds preferable to dying on a ventilator” and signed up for the shot.

And yet in U.S. America despite the widespread, immediate, free, and universal access to these miraculous vaccines, we are dealing with another Covid surge and the re-ramping up of mask mandates and other restrictions because a material number of individuals think they are smarter than science and get their news from online shysters peddling microchip conspiracies that would not meet the editorial standards of a 1940s sci-fi comic book. Let me just say this: you are not Will Smith and this is not I Am Legend. You will not be the last person alive because you alone resisted the Grand Conspiracy and you will not realize the American fantasy of the lone hero at the wheel of a fabulous muscle car battling zombies with your amazing arsenal of machine guns with your kick-ass and everloyal attack hound at your side. You are an idiot who is endangering yourself and everyone around you, including children too young to be vaccinated. Right now we all feel chained to the wall, and we are desperately searching for a way out of this constrained existence. But please put down the saw. You don’t have to die from amputation to fix this. The key is in the bathtub.