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Shaun Sutner, snowsports columnist for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette and Telegram.com
November 20, 2023
About Shaun Sutner
Shaun is a skier, a writer, and a journalist based in Worcester, Massachusetts. For the past 19 years, he’s written a snowsports column from Thanksgiving to April. For the past three years, he’s joined me on The Storm Skiing Podcast to discuss that column, but also to talk all things New England skiing (and beyond). You should follow Shaun on social media to stay locked into his work:
Why I interviewed him
Last month, I clicked open a SNOWBOARDER email newsletter and found this headline slotted under “trending news”:
Yikes, I thought. Not again. I clicked through to the story. In full:
Tensions simmered as disgruntled Stevens Pass skiers, clutching their "Epic Passes," rallied against Vail Resorts' alleged mismanagement. The discontent echoed through an impassioned petition, articulating a litany of grievances: excessive lift lines, scant open terrain, inadequate staffing, and woeful parking, painting a dismal portrait of a beloved winter haven.
Fueled by a sense of betrayal, the signatories lamented a dearth of ski-ready slopes despite ample snowfall, bemoaning Vail Resorts' purported disregard for both patrons and employees. Their frustration soared at the stark contrast to neighboring ski areas, thriving under similar conditions.
The petition's fervor escalated, challenging the ethics of selling passes without delivering promised services, highlighting derisory wages juxtaposed against corporate profiteering. The collective call-to-action demanded reparation, invoking consumer protection laws and even prodding the involvement of the Attorney General and the U.S. Forest Service.
Yet, amidst their resolve, a poignant melancholy pervaded—the desire to relish the slopes overshadowed by a battle for justice. The signatories yearned for equitable winter joys, dreaming of swift resolutions and an end to the clash with corporate giants, vowing to safeguard the legacy of snow sports for generations to come.
As the petition gathered momentum, a snowstorm of change loomed on the horizon, promising either reconciliation or a paradigm shift in the realm of winter recreation.
The “impassioned petition” in question is dated Dec. 28, 2021. In the nearly two intervening years, Vail Resorts has fired Stevens Pass’ GM, brought in a highly respected local (Tom Fortune) who had spent decades at the ski area to stabilize things (Fortune and I discussed this at length on the podcast), and installed a new, young GM (Ellen Galbraith), with deep roots in the area (I also hosted Galbraith on the podcast). Last ski season (2022-23), was a smooth one at Stevens Pass. And while Skier Mob is never truly happy with anything, the petition in question flared, faded, and went into hibernation approximately 18 months before Snowboarder got around to this story. Yes, there were issues at Stevens Pass. Vail fixed them. The end.
The above-cited story is also overwritten, under-contextualized, and borderline slanderous. “Derisory wages?” Vail has since raised its minimum wage to $20 an hour. To stand there and aim a scanny-beepy thing at skiers as they approach the lift queue. Sounds like hell on earth.
Perhaps I missed the joke here, and this is some sort of snowy Onion. I do hate to call out other writers. But this is a particularly lazy exhibit of the core problem with modern snowsports writing: most of it is not very good. The non-ski media will humor us with the occasional piece, but these tend to be dumbed down for a general audience. The legacy ski media as a functioning editorial entity no longer exists. There are just a few holdouts, at newspapers across the country, telling the local story of skiing as best they can.
And in New England, one of the best doing his best to produce respectable snowsports writing is Shaun Sutner.
What we talked about
New England resort-hopping; how to set and meet a season ski-days goal; Brobots hate safety bars; the demise and resurgence of Black Mountain, New Hampshire; why Magic Mountain works; what it means that Ski Ward was the first ski area in America to open for the 2023-24 ski season; the Uphill New England pass; why Vail and Alterra still offer free uphill access at all their New England ski areas; how to not be an uphill A-hole; the No Boundaries Pass; which passes New England’s remaining big independent ski areas could join; the proposed Stowe-Smuggs gondola connection; when development benefits the environment; could Vail buy Smuggs?; the Little Cottonwood Canyon gondola; finally replacing the Attitash triple; Vail’s New England lift-building surge; Boyne goes bonkers in New England; the new Barker lift at Sunday River; the West Mountain expansion at Sugarloaf; the South Peak expansion at Loon; New England’s chairlift renaissance; Black Quad at Magic; a Cannon tram upgrade; Berkshire East’s first high-speed lift; Wachusett lift upgrades; and Quebec’s secret snow pocket.
Why I thought that now was a good time for this interview
Sutner and I have this conversation every Thanksgiving week, which is when his column launches. I think I need to start scheduling it earlier, because I haven’t been able to turn this around so fast the past two seasons. Here are excerpts and links to his first few columns of the 2023-24 ski season:
Snow sports: Ski resort lift upgrades should boost industry in New England
The most despised lift in New England ski country is no more.
The ponderously slow, sometimes treacherous summit triple chair at Attitash that has long been a staple of hardcore Massachusetts skiers and snowboarders, is gone.
"No one ever thought this was ever going to really happen," Brandon Swartz, general manager of the Mount Washington Valley classic ski area in Bartlett, New Hampshire, told me. "I just couldn’t be more excited to help build the lift that no one ever thought was going to get built."
Whether the old summit lift's swift new replacement, the high-speed detachable Mountaineer quad, will be ready for Christmas week as Colorado-based owner Vail Resorts expects, is yet to be seen as Attitash is still furiously working on it in the eighth month of the project. But it's the most welcome ski-lift replacement in our region in decades, I think, finally providing convenient access to the passel of glorious snaking steep and challenging intermediate runs from the top in half the 16-18-minute ride time of the old 1986 triple. Read more…
'It was shocking and beautiful': Trip to Argentina, Antarctica memorable for Lunenburg's Riddle
This wasn't Riddle's first time tackling demanding backcountry terrain in forbidding terrain, nor is this the first time I've written about him, having chronicled his previous trips to Chamonix in the French Alps and Norway. Riddle is the guy who got me into alpine touring – the Alpine-Nordic hybrid that involves hiking up mountains on skis with climbing skins affixed to the bases and then removing the skins and locking down the boot heels for the descent – seven or eight years ago. He's also won the Wachusett Mountain pond skim contest three times, leading to word on the street that he's been banned from taking that coveted title ever again.
But this adventure was of a bigger order of magnitude than his previous ventures into big mountains. Read more…
New BOA ski boot hopes its unique fit will provide a leg up on competition
No, it's not named after a boa constrictor, though it does wrap around your foot kind of like a snake.
BOA stands for "boot opening adjustment" and it’s the trademarked brand name of the company that has made the lace and wire and dial adjust-based closure systems since 2001 and adapted them to snowboard and race bike boots, Nordic gear, ice and in-line skates and other applications,
Now BOA has brought the system to Alpine ski boots. Oversized protruding knobs and an intricate wire system go over the forefoot instead of buckles and wrap the instep and can make micro-adjustments in either direction – tighter or looser. Proponents say they just fit better, while skeptics point out they're a bit heavier and their durability still hasn’t been proven on a wide scale yet for the Alpine version. Read more…
His column lands every Wednesday through spring.
What I got wrong
About Magic Mountain, Vermont
I said that Magic was out of business for “five years.” The best info I can find (on New England Ski History), suggests that the ski area closed following the 1990-91 season, and didn’t re-open until December 1997, which would put the closure at closer to six-and-a-half years.
About the Indy Pass
I referred to Erik Mogensen as the “Indy Pass founder.” He is the pass’ current owner, but Doug Fish, who has joined me on the podcast many times, founded the product.
I didn’t hear Sutner correctly when he asked if Saddleback was “a B corporation,” which is a business that “is meeting high standards of verified performance, accountability, and transparency on factors from employee benefits and charitable giving to supply chain practices and input materials.” I thought he’d asked if they were owned by a larger corporation, and my answer reflects that understanding (but does not answer his question), as I go into the history of Arctaris Impact Fund’s purchase of Saddleback. The only ski area that has achieved B Corporation certification, as far as I know, is Taos.
About words being hard
I described Vail and Alterra as “big, corporate conglomerations.” Which, I’m sorry.
About there being too many things in this world to keep track of
I forgot the name of Spruce Peak at Stowe when describing the ski area’s connection point with Smugglers’ Notch. Which is funny because I’ve written about it extensively over the past several months, skied there many times, and in general try to remember the important components of prominent ski areas.
About my personal calendar
I said that I skied at Big Sky “last year.” I meant “last season,” as I actually was there in April 2023.
On time being fungible
I said that Magic’s Black Quad has been sitting in the ski area’s parking lot for “about four years.” This is inaccurate for a couple different reasons. First, the lift – Stratton’s old Snow Bowl lift – came out in 2018 (so more than five years ago). I don’t know when Magic took delivery of the lift. At any rate, installation began several years ago, so it’s not accurate to say that the lift has been “sitting in the parking lot.” What I meant was that it’s taken Magic a hell of a long time to get this machine live, which no one can dispute.
On motorcycle helmet laws
We briefly discuss the almost universal shift to wearing helmets while skiing in the context of motorcycle helmet laws, which are not as ubiquitous as you’d suppose. Only 18 states require all riders to wear helmets at all times. The remainder set an age limit – typically 18 or 21. Three states – Iowa, Illinois, and New Hampshire – have no helmet law at all.
On non-profit ski areas
Erik Mogensen, owner of Entabeni Systems and Indy Pass, is leading the coalition to find a new owner for Black Mountain, New Hampshire. He’s said many times that around a quarter of America’s ski areas need “another ownership solution.” He expanded on this in SAM a few weeks back:
I think about 25 percent of the non-corporate ski areas in North America need another ownership solution. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it needs to be nonprofit. There are a lot of liabilities in having a group of volunteers or board of directors try to run a ski area from a nonprofit status. I’m definitely a capitalist, and there can be issues with nonprofits that I don’t think we’ve solved yet in skiing.
If we look at the nonprofits that have run very well, Bridger Bowl and Bogus Basin particularly, they focused around running the ski area as a for-profit business with a nonprofit backend, if you will.
I’ve also seen a lot of ski areas struggle with trying to run the nonprofit model. So I don’t necessarily believe that a nonprofit model is something that we should copy and paste. But I do believe it’s a front runner that needs to be adjusted and adopted. And we do need a solution for the 25 percent. It’s very hard to make some of areas commercially viable on their own.
On the “unfriendly” lift attendants at Ski Ward
I recently gave Ski Ward some positive run, highlighting the fact that they were the first ski area to open in America in 2023. It was a cool story and they deserved the attention.
However, I have a conflicted history with this place, as Sutner and I joked on the podcast. I had one of my worst ski experiences ever there, mostly because the lift attendants – at least on the day of my visit – were complete assholes. As I wrote after a visit on Feb. 1, 2022:
Ski Ward, 25 miles southwest, makes Nashoba Valley look like Aspen. A single triple-chair rising 220 vertical feet. A T-bar beside that. Some beginner surface lifts lower down. Off the top three narrow trails that are steep for approximately six feet before leveling off for the run-out back to the base. It was no mystery why I was the only person over the age of 14 skiing that evening.
Normally my posture at such community- and kid-oriented bumps is to trip all over myself to say every possible nice thing about its atmosphere and mission and miraculous existence in the maw of the EpKonasonics. But this place was awful. Like truly unpleasant. My first indication that I had entered a place of ingrained dysfunction was when I lifted the safety bar on the triple chair somewhere between the final tower and the exit ramp and the liftie came bursting out of his shack like he’d just caught me trying to steal his chickens. “The sign is there,” he screamed, pointing frantically at the “raise bar here” sign jutting up below the top station just shy of unload. At first I didn’t realize he was talking to me and so I ignored him and this offended him to the point where he – and this actually happened – stopped the chairlift and told me to come back up the ramp so he could show me the sign. I declined the opportunity and skied off and away and for the rest of the evening I waited until I was exactly above his precious sign before raising the safety bar.
All night, though, I saw this bullshit. Large, aggressive, angry men screaming – screaming – at children for this or that safety-bar violation. The top liftie laid off me once he realized I was a grown man, but it was too late. Ski Ward has a profoundly broken customer-service culture, built on bullying little kids on the pretext of lift safety. Someone needs to fix this. Now.
Look, I am not anti-lift bar. I put it down every time, unless I am out West and riding with some version of Studly Bro who is simply too fucking cool for such nonsense. But that was literally my 403rd chairlift ride of the season and my 2,418th since I began tracking ski stats on my Slopes app in 2018. Never have I been lectured over the timing of my safety-bar raise. So I was surprised. But if Ski Ward really wants to run their chairlifts with the rulebook specificity of a Major League Baseball game, all they have to do is say, “Excuse me, Sir, can you please wait to get to the sign before raising your bar next time?” That would have worked just as well, and would have saved them this flame job. For a place that caters to children, they need to do much, much better.
On Uphill New England
We go pretty deep on the purpose and utility of the Uphill New England pass, which allows you to skin up and ski down these 13 ski areas:
On the Granite Backcountry Alliance
Sutner also mentions the Granite Backcountry Alliance, which is a group that promotes backcountry skiing in New Hampshire and Western Maine. Here’s the group’s self-described mission:
New Hampshire and Western Maine are blessed with a rich ski history that includes a deep heritage of backcountry skiing from Mt. Washington’s Tuckerman Ravine to the many ski trails developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) of the 1930’s (some of which still remain today). The celebration of the sport of skiing is embedded in the culture of the area.
While backcountry skiing’s resurgence has captivated a new user base, it is also now a measurable, undeniable force in the industry and is the fastest growing segment of the sport. The demand is strong but the terrain in New Hampshire and Western Maine is limited by the tree density, glade supply, and legal access to the forests and mountains.
GBA resolves to improve the playing field for backcountry skiers. Creating and developing ski glades, however, is not the only objective of the group. Improving the foundation of the sport is critical to future success, such as creating partnerships and collaboration with public and private landowners, education regarding safety and ecological awareness, and creating a unified culture – one that respects the land and its owners and does not permit unauthorized cutting.
We are part of a movement of human-powered activities that is the basis for an emerging outdoor economy. We believe this movement has broad implications on areas like NH's North Country and it can develop with committed folks like yourself . It's the last frontier! So join us by stepping up to support the cause; the ability to organize is a powerful tool to steward our own future.
On the proposed Stowe-Smuggs gondola connection
I wrote a bit about the proposed gondola connection between Stowe and Smugglers’ Notch earlier this year:
Seated just a half mile from the top of Smuggs’ mainly intermediate Sterling Mountain is the top of Stowe’s Spruce Peak. Skiers had been skating between the two resorts for decades. Why not connect the two mountains – both widely considered among the best ski areas in New England – with a fast, modern lift? A sort of Alta-Snowbird – or at least a Solitude-Brighton – of the East? Two owners, one interconnected ski experience.
“We have the possibility of creating what we think will be a very unique ski and riding experience by connecting these two resorts,” said Stritzler. “I don't believe in marketing this way, but all you have to do is do trail counts and acreage and elevations, and pretty soon you get to the conclusion that if you can offer Smugglers’ guests the opportunity to also take advantage of what Stowe has to offer, and you can offer the two in some kind of combination through a connecting lift, well, now suddenly you're not quite so nervous about all the consolidation taking place, because you’ve got something to respond with.”
Here's the proposed line:
Smuggs later withdrew their plans amid a cool reception from state officials. Resort officials are recalibrating their strategy in backrooms, they’ve told me, re-analyzing the project from an economic-impact point of view. More to come on that.
On the Little Cottonwood Canyon gondola
Without question, the most contentious ski-related development in North America right now is the proposed Little Cottonwood Canyon gondola, which would essentially remove most cars from a cluttered, avalanche-prone road and move the resort base area down below the major snowline. Various protest groups, however, are acting as though this is a proposal to bulldoze the mountains and replace them private mud baths for billionaires. Personally, I think the gondola makes a hell of a lot of sense:
But every time I write about it on Twitter, a not-immaterial number of perfectly sane individuals advises me to fuck off and die, so I’d say there’s some emotion invested in this one.
On the Attitash triple replacement
Sutner and I go pretty deep on Attitash swapping out its Summit Triple chair for a brand-new high-speed quad. I also discussed this extensively with Attitash GM Brandon Swartz on a recent podcast episode (starting at 6:12):
On Ski Inc.
We touch briefly on Ski Inc., a fantastic history of the modern ski industry by the late Chris Diamond. If you like this newsletter, Ski Inc. and its sequel, Ski Inc. 2020, are must-reads.
On Wachusett’s lifts
We discuss Wachusett’s proposed upgrade of the Polar Express from a high-speed quad to, perhaps, a six-pack. Here’s the trailmap for context:
On Wachusett’s blocked expansion
Despite its immense popularity, Wachusett is probably stuck in its current footprint indefinitely, as Sutner and I discuss. A bit more context from New England Ski History:
As the 1993-94 season progressed, Wachusett pushed forward with its expansion plans, requesting to cut two new trails, widen Balance Rock, install a second chairlift to the summit, expand the base lodge, and add 375 parking spots. The plans were met with environmental, archaeological, and water quality concerns. …
In August 1995, environmentalists located a stand of 295-year-old oak trees where Wachusett had planned to cut a new expert trail. Though the Crowleys quickly offered to adjust plans to minimize impact, opposition mounted. Plans for the new trail were abandoned a few months later. …
In the spring of 1998, Wachusett proposed a scaled back expansion that avoided the old growth forest and instead called for the construction of a snowboard park consisting of two trails and a lift. Around this time, environmentalists announced the discovery of bootleg ski trails on the mountain. The Sierra Club quickly called for the state to terminate Wachusett Mountain Associates' ski area lease, despite not knowing who did the cutting.
So, yeah, 99 problems, Man.
On two Le Massifs (de Charlevoix and de Sud)
So apparently there are two Le Massifs in Quebec, which would have been handy context to have when I wrote about the larger of the two joining the Mountain Collective last year. That Le Massif – Le Massif de Charlevoix – is quite the banger, with 250 inches of average annual snowfall and a 2,526-foot vertical drop on 406 acres:
Massif de Sud is still a nice little hill, with 236 inches of average annual snowfall and a 1,312-foot vertical drop, but on just 127 skiable acres:
On The Powell Movement
Sutner mentions an upcoming column he’ll write about The Powell Movement podcast. It really is a terrific show, and covers the parts of the ski industry that I ignore (so, like, most of it). Check it out.
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