Massive Expansion Would Transform Gunstock into One of New Hampshire’s Top Ski Areas

Gunstock becomes the fourth New Hampshire ski area with active expansion plans

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Gunstock looks to expand in three directions, transforming the resort

They’re littered across the Northeast: the lost ski area in the shadow of the survivor. Highmount, overgrown beside thriving Belleayre. Timber Ridge, intact and skiable but liftless off the back side of Magic. Small parts of Whiteface and Killington are abandoned, as is the top of Ascutney (a skin track accesses the upper trails). Once in a while, the intact ski area resuscitates its dead neighbor, as Cannon did when it expanded onto the old Mittersill ski area more than a decade ago (Belleayre has long planned an expansion onto Highmount).

Gunstock, the county-owned ski area rising over New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee, could pull a similar trick with a massive, multi-sided expansion that would include the footprint of the overgrown and mostly forgotten Alpine Ridge. Per the Laconia Daily Sun:

Gunstock Resort could be one of the largest ski areas in the state under an expansion and development plan which the county-owned facility is getting ready to unveil in full later this year.

The plan includes the adding of 194 acres of skiable terrain, a slopeside hotel, a mountaintop restaurant, as well as new lifts and expanded snowmaking. …

The plan includes expanding ski terrain in three adjacent areas. Two of the areas — the former Mount Rowe/Alpine Ridge Ski Area, and the East Drainage on the eastern slope of Gunstock Mountain — are already owned by the county. The so-called Weeks area on the north slope is not on Gunstock property and would need to go through a comprehensive approval process …

If the full master plan is developed, Gunstock would have 73 trails [the ski area currently has 48], giving it the highest number of any ski area in the state. … The additional terrain would give skiers three ways to get to the 2,267 foot summit of Gunstock Mountain which is now accessible by one lift, the Panorama detachable quad chair which was installed as part of a $4 million expansion in 2009.

Set aside, for a moment, that trail count is a terrible way to measure a ski resort’s size (Bretton Woods and Snowmass both advertise 98 trails – which mountain do you suppose is larger?) – this expansion would transform Gunstock. While it is a good mountain in a good location, Gunstock has long been constrained by its single summit lift. A trio of support lifts rise to mid-mountain, but, as general manager Tom Day pointed out to me on The Storm Skiing Podcast earlier this year, people want to ski top to bottom. Installing two additional summit lifts and expanding terrain in multiple directions would catapult Gunstock into the same league as the other large New Hampshire ski areas – Bretton Woods, Loon, Attitash, Cannon, Waterville Valley – and continue its long turnaround from a debt-ridden ward of the state to what Day now calls a “self-sustaining business.”

While the mountain will not reveal full details of the expansion until Dec. 4, some elements of it have been broiling for years. The “East Drainage” portion of the podcast is what Gunstock has formerly called “Southwest Pistol,” going skier’s right off the Pistol triple. While Day told me on the podcast that the ski area had at one time envisioned three trails terminating at the top of Pistol, the new plan suggests a summit lift could rise out of this terrain.

Alpine Ridge rises 400 vertical feet on Mount Rowe, skier’s left of Gunstock. Day told me on the podcast that he’s hiked most of the old trail network and imagines some of that could be mirrored in any expansion and served by a quad (most likely a fixed-grip).

He also told me that the base of this area would likely be the site of the hotel. The trail network, abandoned sometime in the 1980s, is no longer visible on Google Maps. The line of the original Gunstock single-chair, which ran from near the bottom of the current Penny Pitou lift to the top of Mount Rowe, remains intact, however. It’s unclear if the ski area would revitalize this liftline or connect with Mount Rowe from the current summit.

Listen to the Gunstock podcast

The third section of the proposed expansion is, as far as I know, new. It sits north-northwest of the current terrain, and the land “is not owned by Gunstock,” according to New England Ski Industry News. While the mountain has yet to provide details about what kind of terrain sits in that section, the third summit lift could rise out of what appears to be uncut forest.

New Hampshire has no shortage of ski areas: 27 operated in the state last year, according to the National Ski Areas Association. It does, however, have a shortage of destination-size ski areas: Bretton Woods, the biggest in the state, is just the 12th largest mountain in New England by skiable acreage (eight of the top 11 are in Vermont, the other three sit in Maine). The four largest ski areas in the state – Bretton Woods, Loon, Attitash, and Cannon – combined claim less skiable acreage than Killington.

This landscape is evolving. Large expansions are in various states of permitting and clearing at Ragged*, Waterville Valley, and Mount Sunapee. Les Otten wants to build the largest ski area in the Northeast at the abandoned Balsams ski area in the state’s far north. I hope they all happen. The state’s current ski footprint is too constrained to manage the hordes trampling north out of Boston on weekends and holidays. Add any measurable amount of natural snow, and it’s gridlock at the lifts. It’s time to go big.

*I haven’t seen an update on Ragged’s expansion in a while, though you can see on Google Maps that the resort has cut a bunch of the trails:

The mountain that shouldn’t exist

It was beautiful, stretching from before MLK to after President’s Day, the skier’s dream that we never seem to get in the temperamental Northeast: pure, unbroken winter. Snow every day. Thermometer jammed below freezing for weeks. Glades open everywhere. Everything open everywhere.

And every time I drove north on Interstate 87, on my way to Gore or Titus, I’d pass the sign for Hickory and say god damn it why is that place not open?

Steep and raw, served by antique lifts, Hickory is that impossible anachronism: a New York ski area with no snowmaking. Maybe it would work if it sat within one of the state’s two snowbelts, off Lakes Eerie and Ontario, but it does not. Many recent winters, it may not have been able to open at all, had they even tried, but last winter, Hickory could have spun those old pomas for at least six weeks.

Maybe they will spin again. Per suncommunitynews.com:

Closed for six seasons, the legendary Hickory Ski Center in Warrensburg may reopen to the public this winter, according to people who have been rehabilitating the once-popular venue.

Hickory is known among experienced skiers for its challenging terrain, all-natural snow, breathtaking views and vintage ski experience. Also, Hickory’s European-style Poma lifts offer a unique and entertaining experience skiing uphill before skiers glide downhill, according to reviews. …

When Hickory is on, it’s one of the top ski areas in New York. If this thing opens, go. Please shut up Shooshing Emoji Bro, half the population of New Jersey will be at Hunter no matter what I say. Anyway I don’t think there’s a sustainable future for any Northeast ski area without substantial and consistent investments in snowmaking. Whether Hickory will ever undertake such an effort is unclear. But right now, they seem to have momentum to open if the snow falls. Get it while you can.

New York Ski Blog has an amazing archive of Hickory trip stories. Subscribe to their newsletter when you click over.

So when they ask you for $180 at the Stratton ticket window, do you just leave and go to Magic or check your calendar to make sure it’s not the year 2065?

So the catalyst behind my rabble-rousing effort to execute the big-mountain lift ticket last week was New England Ski History’s annual tables tracking top lift ticket prices across the East. When I checked the Vermont prices again this week, I noticed a few interesting things. First, here’s the list:

  1. The site added the top day ticket for Stratton, and it is… $180.83. For Stratton. I apologize to whoever is cleaning the skull fragments off this computer screen but I think I made my reader’s head explode.

  2. The top seven prices are at ski areas owned by Alterra, Vail, and Powdr Corp.

  3. While Vail catches 95 percent of the flak over high lift ticket prices, their Vermont mountains (Stowe, Okemo, Mount Snow), are more affordable than Alterra’s (Sugarbush, Stratton) or Powdr’s Killington.

  4. Three of the state’s top ski areas – Mad River Glen ($97), Jay Peak ($96), and Smugglers’ Notch ($94.34) – have the 8th, 9th, and 10th most-expensive lift tickets. Which means…

  5. Megapass logic is infiltrating the Northeast. That is to say – as season passes get cheaper, day tickets skyrocket, as they have in the West. Here is a list of top day lift-ticket prices at Vermont during the 2016-17 season, the last year before Vail entered the region, and before Alterra or the Ikon Pass existed:

The season pass prices for 2016-17 are, however, insane. You can now ski at Stowe, Okemo, and Mount Snow for $819 on an Epic Pass. If you don’t mind skipping Stowe holidays, the Epic Local will get you through the front door for $619. Five years ago, that access would have run you five grand, and you would have to pay extra for that trip out West.

I made the mistake of dropping last week’s lift ticket post onto the Epic and Ikon Pass Facebook groups. Usually I’ll post podcasts or announcements about new resort partners on these groups, but this was a thought piece. Dear God it was like walking into an oil and gas convention with blueprints for a new wind farm. Responses ranged from “well you just don’t understand Vail’s brilliant strategy” to “I think lift tickets are way too cheap they should be $9,000 a day so I have Breckenridge all to myself.” I did not realize these were groups comprised mostly of self-congratulatory assholes all very proud of themselves for finding out about these super-secret Epic and Ikon Passes. Which I sort of get because I’ve also made fun of people who buy day tickets, likening them to the same bozos who pay $5 for a box of Junior Mints at the movie theater, but none of that changes the fact the ski industry has a huge self-created image problem that is only going to get worse as these ticket prices continue to go up.

Pass news

  • The Vermont 4 Pass goes on sale at noon ET on Nov. 11. This pass gets you one day each at any four of the following mountains: Bolton Valley, Bromley, Burke, Jay Peak, Killington, Mad River Glen, Magic, Middlebury Snow Bowl, Mount Snow, Okemo, Pico, Smuggs, Stowe, Stratton, Sugarbush, Suicide Six. Blackout dates apply. These will sell out instantly.

  • Epic Pass prices will increase Nov. 21. That will likely be the last increase before they go off sale (probably in early December).

  • A lot of readers doubted that I remembered my 2004, $99, 10-day Vail lift ticket correctly in my last post. They were right – it was six days for $99, not 10. Anyway this is what the internet looked like in 2004 and it’s amazing how I don’t remember it sucking that bad at all but I guess it did.

  • Kids ski passports are now on sale in Utah, Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Vermont, Maine, and Washington/Idaho. New Hampshire’s fifth-grade passport should be available later this month. Pennsylvania killed their program last year and is not bringing it back.

  • Big Powderhorn GM Bruce Noren credits the Indy Pass as one factor in increased visitation last year.

  • Epic Pass partner Resorts of the Canadian Rockies (Fernie, Kimberley, Stoneham, Kicking Horse, Nakiska, Mont-Sainte Anne), will require proof of vaccination to access lifts this year. All ski areas in Quebec will also require proof of vaccination.

  • Nearly 120” ski areas offer free season passes to anyone 70 or older. I have no idea which ones they are, but the Pass Tracker 5000 links to every ski area season pass page in the country, so go exploring.

Elsewhere

Somehow Okemo and Loon made this list of best uncrowded ski resorts which is like putting Burger King on a list of best vegan restaurants. Vail Resorts says it is 85 percent of the way to its 2030 goal of zero net operating footprint. Crystal Mountain, Michigan, has a new CEO. U.S. Ski and Snowboard hall-of-famer Harry Kaiser, who published the now-defunct Skiing magazine from 1969 to 1996, died on Oct. 23 at age 91. Remains of skier identified 38 years after he disappeared in Rocky Mountain National Park.

This week in skiing

Last week temps dropped and snowguns turned on all over upper New England and by Wednesday Killington dropped the news that it was back to being the old Killington, opening in the frozen dawn of winter, a system elaborate and amazing in its conception and execution:

I day-tripped it from Brooklyn which is usually how I ski Killington and it was good to get back out. Full write-up to come on New York Ski Blog.

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