Mission Ridge, Washington Buys Blacktail Mountain, Montana

Mission says purchase will not interfere with Washington expansion plans

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Indie ski-area consolidation continues with a Washington-Montana combo

It opened, improbably, in 1998, two peaks in the wilderness an hour and a half south of Whitefish. It was the first new ski area permit issued on federal land since Beaver Creek in the 1970s, and it’s the only one since. It’s small, obscure, remote, gorgeous. And humble: three used fixed-grip lifts climb its modest inclines. The closest town is Lakeside, population 2,669. The trailmap is understated and beautiful:

That’s Blacktail. A 1,440-foot vertical drop, 250 inches of annual snowfall, top elevation 6,780 feet, north-facing slopes. There is no snowmaking. No onsite lodging. It’s one of the few fully upside-down ski areas in the West.

Last week, longtime Mission Ridge, Washington owner Larry Scrivanich purchased Blacktail, becoming the latest in a long line of independent ski area operators to build a regional mountain portfolio.

“We are really excited to get to know the Montana ski community and feel that Blacktail Mountain is a great fit for our culture,” said Larry Scrivanich, owner and president of Mission Ridge since 2003. “Blacktail Mountain is a treasure of the Flathead Valley and loved by local skiers and snowboarders as well as folks from outside of the area.”

Expansion opportunities are abundant on the northeast and west sides of the ski area, said Steve Spencer, president and co-founder of Blacktail. The ski area could also move down, though the rain-snow line tends to hit right around 5,000 feet, just below the current base of 5,250 feet.

Scrivanich is hesitant to commit to specific capital projects at the moment, but concedes that he intends to upgrade the chairlifts eventually. “Right now, it’s not on the short list,” he said, saying the mountain would be more likely to invest in snowmaking first.

Expansion plans could nonetheless develop quickly, said Scrivanich, though actual development could take some time. “The approval process picks along, and we want to get into that line, so we’re ready to act on that.” The new owners will also explore the potential for an onsite hotel and summer operations.

Whether Blacktail lands on the Indy Pass or Powder Alliance – both of which Mission Ridge belongs to – remains to be seen. While Powder Alliance membership would be a “group decision,” according to Mission Ridge Marketing Director Tony Hickok, negotiations for Indy Pass membership could be somewhat simpler.

“Blacktail and the idyllic Flathead Valley would be a welcome addition to the Indy coalition,” said Indy Pass founder Doug Fish.

The focus for the first year, says Mission Ridge General Manger Josh Jorgensen, will be focused on acquainting themselves with Blacktail’s operations and culture. “The time we've had here in the last 36 hours has been mind-blowing and incredible,” Jorgensen said. “I think Larry would agree too – we're super impressed with the place and the team.” The new owners intend to retain all Blacktail staff.

Scrivanich insists that the Blacktail purchase will not interfere with Mission Ridge’s long-simmering expansion plans, which would add several new chairlifts, replace the mountain’s three Riblet doubles, and add hundreds of acres of new terrain, a base village, extensive onsite lodging, and more parking and lodge space.

“We’re not going to quit until it’s done,” Scrivanich said of the expansion.

He said Mission Ridge and Blacktail will likely share a season pass. While the ski areas are more than seven hours apart by car, an overnight train runs from Wenatchee – 22 minutes from Mission Ridge – to the town of Whitefish, just an hour north of Blacktail.

The original owners – Spencer, Tom Sands, Dennis Carver, and Jeff Sorg – spent 13 months between November 1997 and December 1998 cutting trees, shaping the runs, installing chairlifts, and laying the sewer, water, and electrical infrastructure. Now in their 70s and 80s, they decided it was time to sell. They seem ready.

“I'm thrilled with it, as are my partners,” said Spencer. “There could not be a better match than Larry and his team. We've had a lot of people look at Blacktail over the years, and if I look back and put them all in a row, these guys are the ones that I would pick out of it.”

Regional ski-area combinations – 49 Degrees North-Silver, Berkshire East-Catamount, Labrador-Song – have proven successful in recent years, as operators typically drop both mountains on a shared pass, providing skiers with the variety of an Epic or Ikon Pass in a less frenetic atmosphere. Such acquisitions don’t always work out – Massachusetts’ Ski Blandford and Brodie, and, more recently, New York’s Toggenburg – were shuttered after being purchased by the owners of nearby ski areas.

A better analogy here may be Perfect North, Indiana, and Timberline, West Virginia, which sit nearly the same distance apart – six and a half hours – as Mission Ridge and Blacktail. The Perfect family, who founded the Midwest ski area in 1980, bought the abandoned Timberline in 2019, stuck a pair of brand-new lifts on the hill, and re-opened it for last ski season. The ski areas don’t share a pass or, really, a common market, but the consolidation of mountains under seasoned and capable owners is a positive development.

A Connecticut ski area rises from the dead

If you’re not familiar with Connecticut’s Woodbury ski area, here’s a synopsis from skibum.net:

We saved the best for last. Not necessarily the best skiing in CT, but certainly the best ski area, if only for having the audacity to scoop Killington and Sunday River by being the first area open for a couple of seasons! Like David against Goliath, this is a small ski area with spunk. Wrings absolutely everything out of this hill, but we’re not sure about the 100 acres claim. Rod Taylor blows snow chaotically, opens when he wants to, lifts are creaky…the whole operation ignores convention. Draws squiggly lines on a map of a wide-open slope and claims each is a different “trail.”

Sadly, Taylor, a former Olympian who told Ski that he never took a salary from Woodbury, died unexpectedly in 2014. The New Haven Register documented at the time how closely tied the ski area’s image was to its eclectic owner:

Taylor, who shaped the ski area into his dream over the past 40 years, was born in Hartford on July 7, 1943. A former U.S. Olympic Ski Team member from 1967 to 1971, he was still actively involved with both skiing, racing and playing tennis, [Woodbury General Manager Scott] Damato said. In 1970, he was named national downhill champion after winning the Roch Cup in Aspen, according to his obituary.

“He created this place out of nothing – the trails, the lifts,” said Damato, who considered Taylor a mentor, friend and father figure. “He was always out there, always on the hill, always grooming… You couldn’t get him away from here.”

Woodbury puttered on for a season after Taylor’s death, but languished in the drought-stricken winter of 2015-16 and never re-opened. New England Ski History noted that the ski area was listed for sale for $890,000 in the spring of last year.

Then, last month, Eric Anderson, a lifelong skier and owner of Middlebury’s Quassy Amusement Park, bought the ski area (the Republican American first reported the news late last week). While his first objective will be to re-open the tubing operation for 2022, he hopes to re-open Woodbury’s ski runs for the 2023-24 season.

While the ski area is small – a dozen or so runs on 300 vertical feet – substantial work is required to make it functional. The snowcats, snowmaking guns, and beginner carpets are long sold. The area lacks electricity and its snowmaking permits are expired. Vandals have damaged the ropetow, which Anderson says he will likely replace with a carpet, and night-skiing lights. The trails are overgrown. “Tons and tons” of antique snowguns, grooming machines, and other debris needs to be removed. Anderson says he may be able to salvage the 1976 Hall double chair – pending inspection – and the two base-area buildings, but otherwise the place is a total rebuild.

Anderson, who normally skis “a couple months” around Lake Tahoe after working every day from April to October running Quassy, has never worked in the ski industry. He admits he has a lot to learn, particularly grooming and snowmaking. He’s met with the operators of nearby Mohawk Mountain for advice and direction.

“The local ski industry has been very helpful,” he said. “The biggest challenge so far is finding the right people that can help out in the right areas.”

In Woodbury, he sees opportunities to create year-round employment for his seasonal amusement park staff and resurrect a community hub and learning center.

“It's been an eyesore,” he said. “The people that live around it will be happier to have something going on as opposed to just empty buildings and dilapidated ski equipment laying all over the place. This will be a teaching mountain, where kids locally can learn how to ski and then graduate up to the bigger areas. If they have to pack up and go to Vermont, it's a huge expense to go out of state to try to learn how to ski. Having that local capability will really be a positive situation for the town of Woodbury.”

Connecticut is littered with lost ski areas – the New England Lost Ski Areas Project has documented at least 59. Today, only five remain: Mohawk, Ski Sundown, Mount Southington, Powder Ridge, and a private community area called Lakeridge. Powder Ridge was closed between 2006 and 2013.

Anderson says he has sufficient capital to bridge the next two years, when the ski area may come online again. When it does, he envisions night-skiing, and he says the trail footprint will largely mirror the ski area’s historical map. Asked if he would resurrect Taylor’s legacy of throwing down with Killington and Sunday River in the race to open each October, he was pragmatic.

“Our approach is going to be just to do it properly and in a way that makes sense.”

But let’s talk about Woodbury’s trailmap

Because oh my:

Is this the most amazing or the most atrocious trailmap in the history of American skiing? A work of madness or a work of genius? A treasure map, perhaps? A puzzle? A diagram of the circulatory system of an alien being or a creature evolved five miles down on the seabed? Drawn by a 3-year-old with a box of crayons or a 900-year-old wizard chanting runes in a mountaintop lightning storm?

I do not know if it is all of these things or none of them, but I am certain of what it is not: a guide that is in any way useful for anything. Trail 5 appears and reappears, morphs into trail 3 at times and trail 4 at others, only to transform back like some kind of black-diamond superhero before jumping into the woods in one track and ending abruptly in what is perhaps a crevasse in others. Trail 7 at times appears to branch uphill into the forest. The run between trails 5 and 7 bears no designation at all. There is the strange V at slope’s bottom where apparently skiing is forbidden, the unexplained square-encased 2 hovering mysteriously over trail 1, the unlabeled liftline far skier’s left, the squiggles and the abrupt mixing of letters and numbers.

I don’t know if Anderson should retain this trailmap, create a new one, or have none at all. There is, in reality, a maximum of four or five runs at Woodbury – the wide-open slope and a few routes through the trees. As a trailmap fan I would like something coherent. Something like…

Bousquet’s new trailmap:

This is, by far, the greatest trailmap Bousquet has ever had, a flourish accenting the ski area’s gut renovation, which I wrote about last week. The new map resurrects East Slope, which was left off last year’s re-imagined trailmap, but splits West Grand into upper and lower portions to accommodate the two entrances. Parker now connects directly to East Slope, allowing skiers to avoid the terrain park. The beginner area is more clearly marked. Gone, still, are Sasha’s Chute and Tom’s Glade, both of which appeared on Bousquet’s map as recently as 2019-20.

But let’s enjoy trailmaps while we still have them

When I am 90 and reminiscing on the world before the resurrection of dinosaurs and someone asks me what I miss the most about life before the takeover by the Reptilian Senate, I will maybe say the physical artifacts that marked our travels.

Historically, each ski day could reliably produce two artifacts: a wicket ticket and a trailmap. Wicket tickets have been fading for years, replaced first by those absurd plastic tie-tickets and then by RFID, which another dozen-ish ski areas converted to this offseason, including Boyne Mountain, Boyne Highlands, Red River, Tamarack, Greek Peak, Camelback, Sundance, Mohawk, Snowy Range, Montage, Monarch, and Butternut. Still, I like wicket tickets. If you don’t, that’s cool, though I cannot relate to your soulless existence. No offence.

Trailmaps are another thing. They are a memento, sure, but they have a practical purpose. Who hasn’t been stuck at a junction on a 5,000-acre Western monster, wondering which trail leads back to the baselodge and which one leads to a five-mile hike along a Cat track back to the condo? Phones die. Paper doesn’t. They’re useful. Resorts should offer them.

Many suspended them last year, ostensibly as a Covid precaution, including Vail Resorts and Jackson Hole. While I was certain this portended the end of paper maps, they are back this year.

“We are reducing the number of printed trail maps we produce, however, limited quantities will be made available to guests at the ticket windows, upon request,” said Vail Resorts Director of Communications and Resort Marketing Quinn Kelsey. She noted that digital maps have the advantage of potentially including trail, lift, and grooming status; GPS and webcam integration; and liftline wait times. Users can also download them in advance in the event of poor service on the mountain, she said.

This is, I think, the right way to go. Keep maps available, but stop stacking them up like Scientology pamphlets in the Grand Central subway station. Other large resort groups are following.

“Our resorts are continuing to scale back on quantity quite a bit, but making them available for guests who want them,” said Boyne Resorts Chief Marketing Officer Nick Lambert.

Alterra confirmed that Crystal, Deer Valley, Steamboat, Sugarbush, Stratton, Solitude, and Palisades Tahoe will continue to offer paper trailmaps. The latter two will print their maps on stone paper, which is, according to Alterra, “waterproof, tear-resistant, and made from 85 percent recycled content.” The leftovers “are not discarded and are used as long as nothing major changes.” The company’s Tremblant resort will offer a simplified paper map, while Blue Mountain will not offer one at all.

Powdr Corp HQ for some mysterious reason stopped answering my emails, so I’m not certain whether they will print paper maps this year.

Most companies seeking to cut the number of maps point to their efforts to reduce their carbon footprints, an admirable goal. But I’ve spent 19 years in New York City, living in spaces smaller than most American’s mudrooms, taking mass transit to work. I’ve done my part for the planet. Now give me my freaking trailmap. Please.

The tech company that runs skiing

Vail Resorts changed skiing over the past 15 years by stitching together an unprecedented number of high-quality mountains on a single, affordable pass. They will likely change skiing over the next 15 by funneling the vast amounts of data these passes surface into a transformation of the on-mountain experience.

The company nodded toward this future last week, announcing a series of changes to help manage crowds at its 34 North American resorts this coming season. Each of them, in some way, is an exercise in predictive analytics – tapping the company’s vast existing data to make future ski days better. These first steps include:

Limiting holiday lift-ticket sales: Notably, Vail is defining “holidays” differently than it does its lesser-pass blackout dates. Christmas-week limits extend from Dec. 25 to Jan. 2 (pass blackouts run from Dec. 26 to 31); MLK weekend limits will run from Jan. 15 to 17 (only Saturday is blacked out for select passholders); and February limits will run a full 10 days, from the 18th to the 27th (rather than just the first three days).

This is a great start. I imagine (and hope), lift-ticket limits evolve in a dynamic way, limiting busy days wherever and whenever they fall. Mid-winter Saturdays, for example, can be a mess. And there is no reason the dates need to be the same at all of Vail’s ski areas, just as lift-ticket prices are not the same everywhere. Eventually, the system could incorporate weather as well. Three-foot storm on the way? Let’s not sell that last 1,000 lift tickets.

Better liftline management and loading: Vail will tap its “Epic Mix” data – sourced via the app that tracks skiers as they move around the mountain – to “load lifts more efficiently and reduce lift line wait times!” Steps will include “updating lift maze layouts, optimizing lift load and unload approaches to safely reduce lift slows and stops, and … adding dedicated lift maze coordinators at [its] busiest lifts.”

Details on how this will actually work are sparse at the moment, but frankly you don’t need data to load lifts more efficiently. Alta figured this out decades ago. Their main lifts do not have those alternating queues, which I despise. Skiers line up in parallel lanes and a liftie calls the front row forward, then fills in gaps from the singles lane as those skiers proceeds toward the lift. If Vail (or anyone) wants to solve its lift-maze management problems, just send a team up Little Cottonwood Canyon, replicate that system across your empire, and you’re done. Your team will appreciate the “research.”

Liftline forecast times: This may be the best pure example of data extrapolation evolving into a material change to the immediate on-mountain experience. The Epic Mix app “will include a full-day forecast of lift line wait times at 12 of our most popular resorts.” Those resorts: Whistler, Vail, Beaver Creek, Breck, Keystone, Crested Butte, Park City, Heavenly, Northstar, Kirkwood, Stowe, and Okemo.

This is terrific in theory (I’m sure the system will need some tweaking), and likely just the first step toward a fully integrated digital app/trailmap/mountain report experience that includes all the things described in the trailmap section above. I am always amazed, driving toward the George Washington Bridge on Interstate 80, how accurate the wait times posted on the approach are. This sort of technology is proven, ever-evolving, and immensely helpful.

Additional enhancements: Vail will move to online equipment rentals at 18 ski areas, implement more efficient parking-lot management, optimize mealtime seating arrangements, and expedite ski school check-ins. The company is also investing hundreds of millions of dollars to turbocharge its lift fleet. These are some big changes, and, like the five-mountain Epic Pass in 2008, they are likely just the very beginning.

The Northeast’s mountain-rental pool grows

Last week, Black Mountain of Maine, which is typically open Friday through Sunday, joined the growing list of Northeast ski areas offering private mountain rentals midweek. Pricing details are not available, but the rentals will typically be offered Monday through Thursday of non-holiday weeks.

Plattekill, another Friday-through-Sunday operation, in New York’s Catskills, has run a similar program since 2008. Mountain rentals have exploded since a 2019 New York Times profile, and the mountain’s owner, Laszlo Vajtay, confirmed to me that private mountain rentals are sold out for all of this season and next (2022-23), with a “long waiting list” to jump on cancellations.

Magic Mountain, Vermont, which typically offers one private mountain rental per week (it’s open to the public Thursday through Sunday), is already sold out “during peak season, from January to mid-March,” said mountain President Geoff Hatheway. He said Covid accelerated the program’s popularity, “even among individual families.”

Titus, a ski area that sprawls over three peaks in the far-northern Adirondacks, offers its upper-most peak for rental midweek, when only the lower peaks are open to the public. While owner Bruce Monette Jr. told me on the podcast earlier this year that the mountain didn’t have any takers during its inaugural season, he confirmed via email that “we are absolutely going to push this offering with more meaningful effort this season.”

The private rental is not the exclusive domain of the region’s indies, however – Powdr-owned Pico offers Tuesday and Wednesday mountain rentals starting at $8,000.

Correction: Saddleback is Maine’s third-largest mountain

In my write-up a few weeks ago on Boyne Resorts’ purchase of Shawnee Peak, I incorrectly listed the size-order of Maine’s largest ski areas. The correct order is: 1) Sugarloaf (1,240 acres); 2) Sunday River (870); 3) Saddleback (600-plus); 4) Black Mountain of Maine (600); 5) Mount Abram (450); 6) Shawnee Peak (249 acres).

Frankly, I still suspect this is not correct. These statistics come from the mountains’ websites (Saddleback’s stats page previously listed an incorrect and outdated total, which they updated after I wrote that article). Since there is no common standard by which ski areas measure acreage (some count only cut trails, some tally trails plus glades, some simply count all acreage within their borders, whether it’s technically skiable or not), it’s difficult to quantify these things exactly. Is Black Mountain more than twice the size of Shawnee Peak? Not likely. Is Mount Abram nearly the size of Stowe, which lists its skiable terrain at 485 skiable acres on its website? No way in hell. This is a marketing fight, and, like vertical drop or total snowfall, it’s vulnerable to exaggerations, inaccuracies, and errors both intentional and unintentional. That’s always been a part of lift-served skiing, and it probably always will be.

Elsewhere

I joined Adam Jaber on the excellent Out of Bounds podcast to talk shop and skiing. Justin Sibley named Powdr Corp CEO. Aspen Mountain’s Pandora’s expansion approved. Brighton, Utah, expands night skiing. An update on Waterville Valley’s various construction projects with some awesome pics. New England Ski History with an update on whether nine endangered ski areas have any hope of re-opening. A Q&A with Vail East CEO Tim Baker. Vail’s final round of Epic Pass prices put the full Epic Pass at the same rate ($879) as an Ikon Base Pass. Ikon Pass sales are still lit.

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