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Mother Nature Saves Christmas with Monster Storms and Cold Temps
But what happens when She doesn’t?
The Friday Night Lights writers script skiing’s 2021 holidays with a Hail Mary
The snow emerged last week like an apparition, an unstoppable swarm marching across the continent. Brown worlds turned white as blizzards raked the high country from California to Colorado. The Dec. 12 to 16 snow totals were amazing. According to Open Snow: 78 inches at Kirkwood, 74 at Mt. Rose, 32 at Grand Targhee. Alta, smashed with 45 inches since Wednesday.
Meanwhile, 3,000 miles away in New England, 60-degree temps gave way to a storm that dropped 11 inches on Killington, 10 inches on Sunday River, and at least six inches on nearly everything from Stratton north on Saturday. Temperatures in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine are forecast to stay below freezing through Christmas and beyond, giving cover to some of the world’s most-powerful snowmaking systems to bury their hills.
Mother Nature just saved Christmas.
This year. We got lucky. We were 10 days away from record Epic Pass sales colliding head-on with limited terrain and widespread worker shortages. And while lifties won’t be falling from the sky, most ski areas will now be able to open substantial swaths of terrain for the holiday week.
Unfortunately, hope is not a sustainable business strategy. As The New York Times reported earlier this week under the headline Fires, Landslides, Lack of Snow: The Ski Industry Girds for Battle:
Exactly what’s in store for the ski industry has been studied at least 120 times in 27 countries so far, but the results largely paint the same picture, said Daniel Scott, a professor who researches climate and society at the University of Waterloo in Ontario. The average length of a ski season in the United States shrank for the first time in four decades during the 2010s, he said, and by 2050, New England can expect a season that’s 13 percent to 22 percent shorter than average. In Europe, the Chamonix-based Research Center for Alpine Ecosystems found spring is coming two to five days earlier each decade on Mont Blanc. In the American West, it’s dire. The amount of snow still covering the Rockies and Cascades in April — a major summertime water source for many — has shrunk on average 19 percent between 1955 and 2020, according to data compiled by the Environmental Protection Agency.
The full article is worth a read, not the least because it reiterates the point, which I made in September, that climate change is not simply a wintertime threat to the ski industry: damage from last summer’s monster Caldor Fire will keep Sierra-at-Tahoe closed at least into January.
“I always thought climate was going to take the industry out, for sure, but due to warming, shorter seasons and spring meltdown,” Auden Schendler, Aspen Skiing Company’s senior vice president for sustainability, told The Times. “I now believe the way we’re going down is through fire.”
This report came the same week The Times released a huge climate investigation called The Planet Is Failing. What Does That Look Like in Every Single Country? Scroll through the interactive article for a sobering look at a crumbling planet.
I don’t know what else to say. I don’t write about climate change much. Mostly because I don’t feel equal to it. The subject is too sprawling, too nuanced, too complicated. The issue could swallow The Storm whole if I tried to bullseye it: “skiing and climate change” could be its own weekly newsletter. Someone should start that. It won’t be me. One of the reasons I started The Storm was to escape the nonstop doomsday headlines crawling across our screens. If you want to torture yourself, Porter Fox’s 2013 book, Deep, is the best skiing-specific analysis of the likely long-term impacts on the sport, and that focuses mostly on wintertime.
In the very-first Storm Skiing Podcast, back in October 2019, Killington General Manager Mike Solimano told me that the resort made more money on one day of the Christmas holiday week than in the entire month of November (a month during which the mountain is typically open nearly every day). Skiing needs a Merry Christmas to survive. At least for one more year, we’ll get it.
How long will we keep being angry about the problems we refuse to fix?
One of the greatest spectator sports in U.S. America is watching furious locals denounce growth-related problems while simultaneously rejecting all possible solutions. This happens in New York all the time. Before the pandemic shattered the city’s frenetic public sphere, our chronically overloaded transit system was teetering on the brink of collapse. Meanwhile, no one seemed to be doing anything other than yelling about what a bad idea every possible fix was. A desperately needed streetcar that would have connected Brooklyn and Queens along the East River was widely denounced as nothing more than an engine for gentrification. A Manhattan-Queens gondola, which would make an enormous amount of sense for a thousand reasons, was dismissed out of hand. Even when the transit officials do manage to build something, like the 2017 extension of the Q subway train – which cost $4.5 billion and took 10 years – its pricetag is so prohibitive that it’s impossible to imagine future projects.
Such myopia is, unfortunately, not strictly a New York problem. It’s an American problem, in which everyone wants to keep everything exactly as it is indefinitely, even as outside forces reorganize the world in unchangeable ways.
Example number one: Little Cottonwood Canyon, where the Ikon Pass has collided with enormous growth in metropolitan Salt Lake City, causing hours-long traffic jams up the canyon any time it snows (which is, like, all the time). Partial solutions abound: remove most cars from the canyon with a high-speed gondola up to the resorts? Opposed. Introduce paid parking at Alta to manage volume? Opposed. Toll drivers up the canyon? Opposed.
Example number two: Developers want to build 1,440 housing units in a 14-building, 535-acre project off U.S. 64 in Big Sky. The project would include a public trails network and 900 “workforce housing beds.” In October, the Big Sky Zoning Advisory Committee unanimously recommended that the Gallatin County Planning and Zoning Commission deny the application due to concerns on the project’s “impacts on traffic, community water supply, neighboring developments, and the surrounding environment,” according to Explore Big Sky.
As the same paper wrote just a couple weeks ago:
The root cause of Montana’s increasingly stifling housing market? Too few homes to go around, a researcher told a legislative committee studying the state’s economic condition Monday.
“There is by any metric an enormous housing shortage in this state,” Alex Horowitz of Pew Charitable Trusts said in a presentation to the Legislature’s Financial Modernization & Risk Analysis Study committee. “There has been an increase in population that has outstripped the increase in homes.”
Meanwhile, the median home price in Big Sky is $1.7 million, according to realtor.com. In nearby Bozeman, it’s $750,000. As with Alta, outside forces are shaping these markets, including pandemic-era relocations to the mountains, the advent of short-term rentals, airport improvements that put a middle-of-nowhere resort within the easy reach of millions, and the Ikon Pass combined with steady improvements at Big Sky ski resort (which has invested significantly in employee housing). If the communities can’t figure out how to build more housing, these prices will continue to climb skyward (to its credit, the Gallatin County commission is allowing the developer’s application to proceed).
There are two possible futures for the mountain towns where many of U.S. America’s ski resorts sit: freeze everything in amber, guaranteeing that these places evolve into ever-more-exclusive oases for the few people who can afford them, or embrace smart development – dense, sustainable, walkable, mass transit-based growth that accommodates the reality that more people want to live in and visit the mountains. Neither of the aforementioned proposals are perfect – the Big Sky development looks like the kind of sprawling, curlicued garbage that has been spreading like a virus across America’s suburbs for decades; the Little Cottonwood gondola should run year-round and include stops along the canyon, and be paired with a stiff non-resident vehicle toll at the entrance. Alta’s parking plan is a hurried and ever-changing mess. That doesn’t mean the towns don’t need to evolve and start solving their problems with something other than a constant “no.”
Would you pay $300 to preserve a ski area?
I’ve written plenty about Hickory, the sometime-shuttered New York throwback that looks determined to re-open this winter, pending enough natural snowfall to crank the lifts on. Thanks to New York Ski Blog, we finally have some visibility into the ski area’s operating model.
Before I get to that, a primer for the new kids: Hickory has no snowmaking. It gets maybe 80 inches of snow in a good year. It has four surface lifts: a T-bar and a pony lift serving the lower mountain, and a pair of antique Pomas, installed sometime around Lincoln’s second inauguration, serving the upper mountain. Here’s a map:
OK, with that as background, here’s how the access tiers would work:
Lower Mountain Access: Buy a season pass (from free to $100) or day tickets (free to $30).
Upper Mountain Access:
Step 1: Purchase an Upper Mountain License ($300 for an individual, $450 for a family) – includes a year-round Mountain Access Pass (see below), and two complimentary guest day tickets.
Step 2: Purchase lift tickets; upper mountain license holders are the only skiers who can purchase lift tickets for the Pomas. They are $35 for kids 7 to 18 and $50 for adults. Guests of license holders can purchase a ticket for $80. License holders get priority to purchase tickets.
Human-powered access: A “Mountain Access Pass” allows individuals to skin, hike, mountain bike, etc. on Hickory and the surrounding mountains, known as the Three Sisters Range. Annual memberships are $175 and do not entitle the passholders to any lift access. A day pass is $10.
Formerly a weekends-only operation, the new Hickory plans to open from 2 to 8 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Saturdays, and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sundays. It is unclear if the upper-mountain lifts would be open on weekdays.
So – will this model finally make Hickory sustainable? The Upper Mountain Licenses may be a big step toward subsidizing an operation that, as Hickory said on its Facebook page four years ago “…simply cannot sell enough lift tickets (even in the best of winters) to cover the rising costs of overhead.”
It might work. Think of the licenses as a bargain version of the Mad River Glen co-op, where a single share costs $2,000 (of course, the general public can buy a lift ticket to MRG), crossed with a personal seat license for sports season tickets (I have to donate a set amount per seat each year to buy my Michigan football tickets). It’s a group of people united in the notion of preserving a certain experience – a throwback ski area in an unlikely location. Their individual $300 contributions could guarantee enough to cover operating expenses – the ancient lifts alone cost $30,000 per year to inspect and maintain – in the event of another drought winter like 2015-16, the last that Hickory intended to open, but couldn’t due to lack of snow.
I love the notion, even as I remain skeptical. I don’t think any Northeast ski area can survive long-term without snowmaking. If Hickory at least installed it on the lower mountain, it could guarantee those after-school programs that it is making so affordable. I hope it works, and I’ll be hosting the president of the ski area’s shareholders corporation on the podcast next month to talk through the whole thing.
An iconic Northeast lift gets close to an upgrade
If you’re a Northeast skier and you haven’t ridden this thing, you’re doing it wrong:
The tram is a spectacular machine, one of the few Northeast lifts that generates a non-skiing income as a scenic attraction alone, drawing in $2 million per year. But it dates to 1979, a replacement for the original tram, which was installed in 1938. It’s time for an upgrade.
At the Ski New Hampshire virtual media day last week, Cannon General Manager John DeVivo and Director of Sales and Marketing Greg Keeler told me that they were “pretty confident” that the resort would secure American Rescue Plan funds for “a major overhaul or complete replacement” of the lift.
While the current terminal buildings would stand, nearly everything else – towers, machinery, and of course the tram boxes themselves – could be replaced. Capacity would likely increase, from the current 70 passengers to 100 – the largest the current terminals could accommodate. That, said DeVivo, would help the tram bump its annual income up by $1 million. Doppelmayr would likely manufacture an overhaul, while the resort would put a rebuild out for open bidding. The earliest we would see a replacement would be for the 2023-24 ski season.
The Skimobile Express goes express-er
Meanwhile, rising over North Conway, Cranmore’s Skimobile Express is due for an overhaul of its own. Rather than replacing the 1995 Doppelmayr high-speed quad, resort owner Fairbank Group will do a complete rehab of the lift prior to the 2022-23 ski season.
Cranmore Director of Marketing Becca Deschenes broke the project down for me at Ski New Hampshire’s media day. The resort will replace all the machine’s controls and moving parts in the top and bottom terminals. These upgrades should increase the lift’s hourly capacity by 20 percent, Deschenes said. Cranmore will also add “state-of-the-art safety features,” including speed control during windy conditions and a tower-side speaker system to communicate with guests in the event of a lift failure.
While Skimobile – named after the resort’s iconic and long-removed Skimobile lift – is only 26 years old, it was used as a night-skiing hauler for many years, meaning it has significantly more hours than lifts of a similar vintage. Cranmore’s sister resort, Bromley, which is operated but not owned by Fairbank Group, completed a similar overhaul over this past offseason. The Fairbanks are smart operators, and the estimated $1 million overhaul is likely at least $4 million less than the cost of a replacement lift.
I’m going to go ahead and read future expansion into Caberfae’s new trailmap
There’s a lot to pick apart in Caberfae’s new trailmap, a beauty that displays a dotted line where the ski area’s new triple chair will rise for the 2022-23 ski season, replacing a Hall double that literally predates the first moon landing:
This alone will substantially improve the out-of-base experience, taming the long lines and tight loading area that define Shelter on busy days.
But the map offers plenty for the treasure-seeker. First, the ski area renamed two intermediate trails: the former Cruiser becomes Jenkins, and Montey’s becomes Starkey. I reached out to the ski area to see if I could get the backstory behind the renames, and I’ll update you if they respond.
Second, the Backcountry area, formerly represented by seemingly random trees splotched over the map, has been redrawn more literally, with the former T-bar line and parallel trails clearly distinguished. Even more compelling, the abandoned areas skier’s right of the current Backcountry are drawn with the same detail, perhaps teasing a future lift-served or hike-to expansion onto the terrain. I asked Caberfae co-owner Tim Meyer on the The Storm Skiing Podcast in July whether we could ever see any of the once-vast ski area’s lost trails come back into the footprint, and he said it was possible. Indeed, the trail footprint displayed on the map matches the scarred hillsides still visible in the satellite view of Caberfae on Google Maps.
My best guess for what may happen: the ski area will regrade the bottom of the current Backcountry to give a skiable runout back to the East Peak triple, bringing this hike-out terrain back into the lift-served footprint for the first time in decades. Then they would re-open the abandoned terrain skier’s right as the new Backcountry, setting up an inevitable fourth peak and further expansion. They could repeat this until they wrapped all the way back around to refill the ski area’s historic footprint at the edge of Caberfae Road.
But who knows? Caberfae moves slowly and deliberately, and they’re not in the habit of broadcasting their plans. But this family-owned ski area is a fun one to watch, whatever they do.
Trail inflation and the fate of the Stowe single-chair
I had no idea that Stowe had a single-chair into the mid-80s until I read this fantastic New England Ski Journal article by Brion O’Connor. The original Forerunner high-speed detachable quad apparently replaced a single and a double chair – I went digging on skimap.org and found this 1983 trailmap:
The Lookout Double, of course, is still there, as is the Toll House Double, but the rest of that disconnected Stowe is long gone.
The article is full of cool nuggets on Stowe history, like these:
In an almost comical marketing move, Stowe’s trail count grew from 48 to 116 when the resort abandoned its long-held trail count system and adopted the industry trend of splitting top-to-bottom routes into separate trails.
Note: don’t blame Vail - the trail inflation happened under previous owners. Full read recommended.
Business: Big Squaw will operate this winter, though the ski area’s sale is still not complete and a new summit lift won’t arrive until December 2023 at the earliest. Who knew that Aspen once owned Breckenridge?
Lifts: Magic gets the new haul rope on its Red Chair. Mount Hood Meadows will replace the Mount Hood Express quad with a six-pack. An update on 2021 and 2022 chairlift installations across New England.
Environment: Aspen releases its annual sustainability report and partners with Protect Our Winters.
Covid: A roundup of Covid restrictions around New England.
This week in skiing
I spent Friday wandering through Southern Vermont. Why bounce from ski area to ski area rather than setting up shop and maximizing vert? A few reasons: the skiing isn’t great right now, so there’s no need to force the issue by lapping the same terrain all day long – in general, I rarely repeat runs in a day if I can help it. Second, my legs can’t take a 30,000-vertical-foot day this early in the season, so the 20- to 60-minute drives between resorts gives me time to rest. Finally, the megapasses makes it easy to skip around without having to shell out for a lift ticket at every stop. So…
Okemo: First stop, 45 degrees upon arrival. The Sunburst side skied like a frosted cake; Jackson-Gore skied like hardened magma. I was mostly there to check out the new six-pack and the former Quantum 4 re-purposed as the Evergreen Summit lift. Both look great and should, together, majorly help ease liftline congestion at Sunburst.
Pico: I had originally planned to drive from Okemo straight to Stratton, but after winds shuttered Evergreen, I sought something more sheltered. Pico, with just the lower mountain Golden Express running, was perfect. I had some issue accessing the mountain with my Ikon Pass, but they straightened it out and the mountain was empty and I lapped the soft trails in the sunny afternoon.
Stratton: By the time I pulled into Stratton, the place was an empty, wind-scraped mess. There wasn’t much they could have done about it – it was a miracle the ski area had as much terrain open as it did. I typically wait until the glades fill in to hit Stratton, as their network is extensive and glorious. It’s a powder-day go-to. This was not one of those days.
Bring on winter.
This will be the final Storm Skiing Journal news update of 2021, though I have at least a couple more posts coming before the New Year. This series will return in early January.