The Storm Skiing Journal and Podcast
The Storm Skiing Journal and Podcast
Podcast #157: Berkshire East & Catamount Owner & GM Jon Schaefer
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Podcast #157: Berkshire East & Catamount Owner & GM Jon Schaefer

"There's a segment of the skiing population that, when they get to Berkshire East, they say, 'Wow, this is what I miss.'"
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Who

Jon Schaefer, Owner and General Manager of Berkshire East, Massachusetts and Catamount, straddling the border of Massachusetts and New York

Schaefer, right, prepares to ride the new T-Bar Express high-speed quad at Berkshire East. Photo courtesy of Berkshire East.

Recorded on

December 6, 2023

About the mountains

Berkshire East

Click here for a mountain stats overview

Owned by: The Schaefer family

Located in: Charlemont, Massachusetts

Year founded: 1960

Pass affiliations:

  • Berkshire Summit Pass: Unlimited Access

  • Indy Base Pass: 2 days with blackouts (reservations required)

  • Indy+ Pass: 2 days, no blackouts (reservations required)

Closest neighboring ski areas: Eaglebrook School (:36), Brattleboro (:48), Hermitage Club (:48), Mt. Greylock Ski Club (:52), Mount Snow (:55), Jiminy Peak (:56), Bousquet (:56); Catamount is approximately 90 minutes south of Berkshire East

Base elevation: 660 feet

Summit elevation: 1,840 feet

Vertical drop: 1,180 feet

Skiable Acres: 180

Average annual snowfall: 110 inches

Trail count: 45

Lift count: 7 (1 high-speed quad, 2 fixed-grip quads, 1 triple, 1 double, 2 carpets – view Lift Blog’s inventory of Berkshire East’s lift fleet)

View historic Berkshire East trailmaps on skimap.org.

Catamount

Click here for a mountain stats overview

Owned by: The Schaefer family

Located in: Hillsdale, New York and South Egremont, Massachusetts (the resort straddles the state line, and generally seems to use the New York address as its location of record)

Year founded: 1939

Pass affiliations:

  • Berkshire Summit Pass: Unlimited Access

  • Indy Base Pass and Indy+ Pass: 2 days, no blackouts (reservations required)

Closest neighboring ski areas: Butternut (:19), Otis Ridge (:35), Bousquet (:40), Mohawk Mountain (:46), Jiminy Peak (:50), Mount Lakeridge (:55), Mt. Greylock Ski Club (1:02); Berkshire East sits approximately 90 minutes north of Catamount

Base elevation: 1,000 feet

Summit elevation: 2,000 feet

Vertical drop: 1,000 feet

Skiable Acres: 133 acres

Average annual snowfall: 108 inches

Trail count: 44 (35% green, 42% blue, 23% black/double-black)

Lift count: 8 (2 fixed-grip quads, 3 triples, 3 carpets – view Lift Blog’s inventory of Catamount’s lift fleet)

View historic Catamount trailmaps on skimap.org.

Why I interviewed him

Might I nominate Massachusetts as America’s most underappreciated ski state? It’s easy to understand the oversight. Bordered by three major ski states that are home to a combined 107 ski areas (50 in New York, 27 in Vermont, and 30 in New Hampshire), Massachusetts contains just 13 active lift-served mountains. Two (Easton School and Mount Greylock Ski Club) are private. Five of the remainder deliver vertical drops of 400 feet or fewer. The state’s entire lift-served skiable area clocks in at around 1,300 acres, which is smaller than Killington and just a touch larger than Solitude.

But the code and character of those 11 public ski areas is what I’m interested in here. Winnowed from some 200 bumps that once ran ropetows up the incline, these survivors are super-adapters, the Darwinian capstones to a century-long puzzle: how to consistently offer skiing in a hostile world that hates you.

New England is a rumbler, and always has been. Outside of northern Vermont’s Green Mountain Spine (Sugarbush, MRG, Bolton, Stowe, Smuggs, Jay), which snags 200-plus inches of almost automatic annual snowfall, the region’s six states can, on any given day from November to April, stage double as Santa’s Village or serve as props for sad brown Christmas pining. Immersive reading of the New England Ski History website suggests this contemporary reality reflects historical norms: prior to the widespread introduction of snowmaking, ski areas could sometimes offer just a single-digit number of ski days in particularly difficult winters. Even now, even in good winters, the freeze-thaw cycle is relentless. The rain-snow line is a thing during big storms. Several times in recent years, including this one, furious December rainstorms have washed out weeks of early-season snow and snowmaking.

And yet, like sharks, hanging on for hundreds of millions of years as mass extinctions rolled most of the rest of life into the fossil record, the surviving Massachusetts ski area operators found a way to keep moving forward. But these are not sharks – the Colorado- and Utah-based operators haven’t plundered the hills rolling west of Boston just yet. Every one of these ski areas (with the exception of investment fund-owned Bousquet), is still family-owned and operated. And these families are among the smartest ski area operators in America.

In October, tiny Ski Ward, owned for decades by the LaCroix family, was the first North American ski area to spin lifts for the 2023-24 ski season. Wachusett, a thousand-footer run by the Crowley family since 1968, is a model home for volume urban skiing efficiency. The Fairbank family transformed Jiminy Peak from tadpole (in the 1960s) to alligator before expanding their small empire into New England (the family now runs Bromley, Vermont and owns Cranmore, New Hampshire). The Murdock family has run Butternut since its 1963 founding, and likely saved nearby Otis Ridge from extinction by purchasing the ski area in 2016 (the Murdocks also purchased, but later closed, another nearby ski area, Ski Blandford).

The Schaefers, of Charlemont by way of Michigan, are as wiley and wired as any of them. Patriarch Roy Schaefer drove in from the Midwest with a station wagon full of kids in 1978. He stapled then-bankrupt Berkshire East together with the refuse of dead and dying ski areas from all over America. Some time in the mid- to late-aughts, Roy’s son Jon took over daily operations and rapidly modernized the lifts, snowmaking, and trail network. Roy’s other son Jim, a Wall-Streeter, helped the family take full ownership of the ski area. In 2018, they bought Catamount, a left-behind bump with fantastic fall lines but dated lifts and snowmaking.

None of this is new or news to anyone who pays attention to Massachusetts skiing. In fact, Jon Schaefer has appeared on my podcasts twice before (and I’ve been on his). But in the four years since he joined me for episode nine, a lot has changed at Berkshire, at Catamount, in New England, and across skiing. Daily, the narrative grows that consolidation and megapasses are squeezing family operators out of skiing. My daily work suggests that the opposite may be happening, that independent operators, who have outlasted skiing’s extinction event of the low-snow decades and perfected their mad alchemy through decades of swinging the pickaxe into the same mountain, have never had a better story to tell. And Jon Schaefer has one of the better ways of telling it.

What we talked about

Early openings for both ski areas; what it means that Catamount opened before Berkshire East this season; snowmaking metaphors that I can guarantee you haven’t heard before; letting go of things you love as you take on more responsibility; the power of ropetows; Berkshire East’s new T-Bar Express, the ski area’s first high-speed quad; why Schaefer finally came around on detachable lift technology; the unique dynamics of a multi-generational, family-owned mountain; the long-term plan for the three current top-to-bottom chairlifts; the potential Berkshire East expansion; yes Berkshire is getting busier; the strange math of high-speed versus fixed-grip quads; that balance between modernizing and retaining atmosphere; the Indy Pass’ impact on Berkshire and the industry as a whole; whether more mountains could join the Berkshire Summit Pass; whether the Schaefers could buy another ski area; whether they considered buying Jay Peak or are considering buying Burke; assessing the overhaul of Catamount’s lift fleet; talking through the clear-cutting of Catamount’s frontside trails; parking at Catamount; expansion potential for Catamount; and Catamount being “one of the best small ski areas in the country.”

Below: first chair on the new T-Bar Express at Berkshire East:

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Why I thought that now was a good time for this interview

If I could somehow itemize and sort the thousands of Storm-related emails and Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook messages that I’ve read over the past four years, a top-10 request would be some form of this: get Schaefer back on the podcast.

There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that Jon is, in my opinion, one of the more unfiltered and original thinkers in skiing. His dad moved the family to Berkshire in 1978. Jon was born in 1980. That means he grew up on the mountain and he lives at the mountain and he holds its past, present, and future in his vision like some shaman of the Berkshires, orchestrating its machinations in a hallucinogenic flow state, crafting, from the ether, a ski area like no other in America.

Which leads to the second reason. Because Schaefer is so willful and effective, it can often be difficult for outsiders to see into the eye of the hurricane. You kind of have to let the storm pass. And the past four years have been a bit of a storm, particularly at Catamount, where Covid and supply-chain issues collided with an ambitious but protracted lift-fleet upgrade.

But that’s all done. Catamount has five functioning chairlifts (all of which, remarkably, were relocated from somewhere else). Berkshire just opened its first high-speed quad, the T-Bar Express. Both mountains are busier than ever, and Berkshire is a perennial Indy Pass top 10 by number of redemptions. And while expansion and a lift shuffle likely loom at Berkshire, both ski areas are, essentially, what the Schaefers want them to be.

Which doesn’t mean they are ever finished. Schaefer and I touch on this existential reality in the podcast, but we also discuss the other obvious question: now that Catamount’s gut-renovation is wrapping up, what’s next? Could this ski family, with their popular Berkshire Summit Pass (which is also good at Bousquet), expand with more owned or partner mountains? There are, after all, only so many people in America who know how to capably operate a ski area. You can learn, sure, but most people suck at it, which is (one reason) why there are more lost ski areas than active ones. While I don’t root for consolidation necessarily, if ski areas are going to transfer ownership, I’d rather someone proven sign the deed than an unknown. And when it comes to proven, the Schaefers have proven as much as anyone in the country.

Questions I wish I’d asked

At some point over the past few years, the Schaefers purchased a Rossland, B.C.-based Cat skiing operation called Big Red Cats. Their terrain covers 20,000 acres on eight peaks. I’m not sure why we didn’t get into it.

What I got wrong

I said that Indy Pass had 130 alpine partners. That was correct on Dec. 6, when we conducted the interview, but the pass has since added Moose Mountain, Alaska and Hudson Bay Mountain, B.C., bringing the total up to 132.

Why you should ski Berkshire East and Catamount

While age, injuries, perspective, volume, skiing with children, and this newsletter have all changed my approach to where and what I ski on any given day, the thing I still love most is the fight. Riding the snowy mountain, in its bruising earthly form, through its trees and drops and undulations, feeling part of something raw and wild. I don’t like speed. I like technical and varied terrain that requires deliberate, thoughtful turns. This I find profoundly interesting, like a book that offers, with each page, a captivating new thing.

Massachusetts is a great ski state, but it doesn’t have a lot of what I just described, that sort of ever-rolling wickedness you’ll find clinging to certain mountains in Vermont and New Hampshire. But the state does have one such ski area: Berkshire East. She’s ready to fight. Glades and bumps and little cliffs in the woods. Jiminy and Wachusett give you high-speed lifts and operational excellence, but they don’t give you (more than nominal) trees. For a skier looking to summon a little Mad River Glen but save themselves a three-hour drive, Berkshire East goes on the storm-chase list.

But unlike MRG, Berkshire is a top-to-bottom snowmaking house, and it has to be. While the glades are amazing when you can get them, the operating assumption here is that, more often than not, you can’t. And that means the vast majority of skiers – those who prefer groomers to whatever frolics you find in the trees – can head to Berkshire knowing a good day awaits.

Catamount, less-snowy and closer to New York City, gives you a more traditional Massachusetts ski experience. More people (it seems), less exploring in the trees (though you can do this a bit). What it has in common with Berkshire is that Catamount is an excellent natural ski mountain. Fall lines, headwalls, winders through the trees. A thousand vert gives you a good run. Head there on a weekday in March, when the whole joint is open, and let them run.

Podcast Notes

On Schaefer’s previous podcast appearances

Schaefer was the first person to ever agree to join me on The Storm Skiing Podcast, answering my cold email in about four seconds. “Let’s do it,” he wrote. It took us a few months to make it happen, but he joined me for episode nine. While he showed up huge, the episode also doubles as a showcase for how much better my own production quality has gotten over the past four years. The intro is sorta… flat:

Listen to Storm Skiing Podcast #9

A few months later, Schaefer became the first operator in America to shutter his mountains to help stop the spread of Covid-19. He almost immediately launched an organization called Goggles for Docs, and he joined me on my “Covid-19 & Skiing” miniseries to discuss the initiative:

Listen to Jon on the Covid pod

The next year, I joined Jon on his Berkshire Sessions podcast, where we discussed his mountains and Northeast skiing in general:

On historic opening and closing dates at Berkshire East and Catamount

We discussed Berkshire and Catamount’s historical opening and closing dates. Here’s what the past 10 years looked like (the Schaefers took over Catamount starting with the 2018-19 ski season):

On Berkshire Snowbasin

Schaefer discussed the now-defunct Berkshire Basin ski area in nearby Cummington. The ski area operated from 1949 to 1989, according to New England Ski History, and counted a 550-foot vertical drop (though the map below says 500). Here’s a circa 1984 trailmap:

Schaefer references efforts to re-open this ski area as a backcountry center, though I couldn’t find any reporting on the topic.

Stan Brown, whom Schaefer cites for his insight that skiers “are more interested in how they get up the mountain than how they get down” founded Berkshire Snow Basin with his wife, Ruth.

On high-speed ropetows

I’ll never stop yelling about these things until everyone installs one – these high-speed ropetows can move 4,000 skiers per hour and cost all of $50,000. A more perfect terrain park lift does not exist. This one is at Spirit Mountain, Minnesota (video by me):

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On when the T-bar came out of Berkshire East

Schaefer refers to the old T-bar that occupied the line where the new high-speed quad now sits. The lift did not extend to the summit, but ran 1,800 feet up from the base, along the run that is still known as Competition (lift F below):

Berkshire East circa 1981. Vintage maps sourced from skimap.org.

On Schaefer’s past resistance to high-speed lifts

Shaun Sutner, a longtime snowsports reporter who has appeared on this podcast three times – most recently in November – summarized Schaefer’s onetime resistance to detachable lifts in a 2015 Worcester Telegram & Gazette article:

The start of the 2014-15 ski season came with the B-East's first-ever summit quad, a $2 million fixed-grip "medium-speed" lift from Skytrac, a new U.S.-owned lift company. The low-maintenance, elegantly simple conveyance will save millions of dollars over the years. Not only was it less than half the cost of a high-speed detachable quad, but it also eliminates the need for $300,000-$500,000 grip replacements that high-speed lifts need every three or four years.

So what changed Schaefer’s mind? We discussed in the podcast.

On the potential Berkshire East expansion

While Berkshire East has teased an expansion for several years, details remain scarce (rumors, unfortunately, do not). Schaefer tells us what he’s willing to on the podcast, and this image, which the resort presented to a local planning board last year, shows the approximate location of the new terrain pod (around the red dotted line labeled “4”):

While this plan suggests the Mountain Top Triple would move to serve the expansion, that may not necessarily be the final plan, Schaefer confirms.

On “the gondola side of Stowe”

When Schaefer says that the Berkshire expansion will ski like “the gondola side of Stowe,” he’s referring to the terrain pod indicated below:

Stowe has two gondolas, one of which connects Stowe proper to Spruce Peak, but that’s not the terrain he’s referring to. The double chair side of Plattekill also skis in the way Schaefer describes, as a series of figure-eights that delightfully frazzles the senses, making the ski area feel far larger than it actually is:

On Indy Pass rankings

Berkshire East has finished as a top-10 mountain in number of Indy Pass redemptions every season:

On Liftopia

Schaefer references Liftopia, a former online lift ticket broker whose legacy is fading. At one time, I was a huge fan of this Expedia-of-skiing site, where you could score substantial discounts to most major non-Vail ski areas. I hosted founder and CEO Evan Reece way back on podcast number 8:

Listen to Storm Skiing Podcast #8

Sadly, the company collapsed with the onset of Covid, as I documented back in 2020:

…the industry’s most-prominent pure tech entity – Liftopia – has been teetering on existential collapse since failing to pay significant numbers of its partners following the March shutdown. A group of ski area operators tried forcing Liftopia into bankruptcy to recoup their funds. They failed, then appealed, then withdrew that appeal. Outside of the public record, bitter and betrayed ski area operators fumed about the loss of revenues that, as Aspen Snowmass CFO Matt Jones wrote in emails filed in federal court, “were never yours to begin with.” In August, Liftopia CEO Evan Reece announced that he had signed a letter of intent to sell the company.

That new owner, Liftopia announced Friday, would be Skitude, a European tech outfit specializing in mobile apps. “The proceeds from the sale will be used to pay creditors,” SAM reported. In an email to an independent ski area operator that was shared with The Storm Skiing Journal Reece wrote that “…all claims will be treated equally,” without specifying whether partners could expect a full or partial repayment. The message also indicated that the new owner may “prioritize ongoing partners,” though it was unclear whether that indicated preference in future business terms or payback of owed funds, or something else altogether.

Whatever the outcome, this unsatisfying story is a tale of enormous missed opportunity. No company was better positioned to help lift-served skiing adapt to the social-distancing age than Liftopia. It could have easily expanded and adapted its highly regarded technology to accommodate the almost universal shift to online-only sales for lift tickets, rental reservations, ski lessons, and even appointment times in the lodge. It had 15 years of brand recognition with customers and deep relationships within the ski industry.

But ski areas, uncertain about Liftopia’s future, have spent an offseason when they could have been building out their presence on a familiar platform scrambling for replacement tech solutions. In addition to the Liftopia-branded site, many ski areas used Liftopia’s Cloud Store platform to sell day tickets, season passes, rentals, and more. While it is unclear how many former partners shifted to another point-of-sale system this offseason, several have confirmed to The Storm Skiing Journal that they have done so.

I’m not sure how Liftopia would have faired against the modern version of the Indy Pass, but more choice is almost always better for consumers, and I’m still bitter about how this one collapsed.

On Caddyshack

Movie quotes are generally lost on me, but Schaefer references this one from Caddyshack, so I looked it up and this is what the robots fed me:

On the majority of skier visits now being on a season pass

According to the National Ski Areas Association, season pass holders have surpassed day-ticket buyers for total number of skier visits for four consecutive seasons. Without question, this is simply because the industry has gotten very good at incentivizing season pass sales by rolling the most well-known ski areas onto the Epic and Ikon passes. It is unclear whether the NSAA counts the Indy or Mountain Collective passes as season passes, but the number of each of those sold is small in comparison to Epic and Ikon.

On the Berkshire Summit Pass

The Schaefers have been leaders in establishing compelling regional multimountain ski passes. The Berkshire Summit Pass has, since 2020, delivered access to three solid western Massachusetts ski areas: Berkshire East, Catamount, and partner mountain Bousquet (on the unlimited version only). It is available in unlimited, Sunday through Friday, midweek, and nights-only versions. An Indy Pass add-on makes this a badass cross-New England ski product.

View Berkshire Summit Pass Options

On Burke being great and accessible even though it looks as though it’s parked at the ass-end of nowhere

The first piece of ski writing I ever published was a New York Ski Blog recap of a Burke ski day in 2019:

Last week, winter seemed to be winding down, with above-freezing temps forecast clear up to Canada before St. Patrick’s Day. Desperate to extend winter, I had my sights on a storm forecast to dump nearly a foot of new snow across northern Vermont. After considering my options, I locked onto a hill I’d overlooked in 20 years of skiing Vermont: Burke.

I’d read the online commentary: steep, funky, heavily gladed, classic New England twisty with high-quality snow well-preserved by cold temps and a lack of crowds. But to get there you have to drive past some big-name ski areas, most with equal or greater vertical drop, skiable acreage and average annual snowfall.

Further research uncovered a secret Burke advantage over its better-known neighbors: unlike other mountains that require a post-expressway slog of 30-plus miles on local roads, Burke sits just seven miles off Interstate 91, meaning it was actually the closest northern Vermont option by drive time.

As 10 inches of snow piled up Sunday and Monday and areas to the south teeter-tottered along a freeze-thaw cycle that would turn ungroomed trails to granite, Burke looked like my last best shot at mid-winter conditions.

Two days after the storm, on the last day of below-freezing temps, I left Brooklyn at 4 am and arrived at 9:15. Read the rest…

On Burke’s (mostly) hapless ownership history

We talk quite a bit about Burke Mountain, one of those good New England ski areas with a really terrible business record. Schaefer refers to the unusually huge number of former owners, which, according to New England Ski History, include:

  • 1964: Burke Mountain Recreation (Doug Kitchel) buys area; eventually went bankrupt

  • 1987: Paul D. Quinn buys, eventually sells to bank after his bank goes bankrupt

  • 1990: Hilco, Inc., a bank, takes ownership, then sells to…

  • 1991: Bernd Schaefers (no relation to Jon), under whom the ski area eventually went bankrupt (for the second time)

  • 1995: Northern Star Ski Corporation (five owners) buys the ski area, but it eventually goes bankrupt for a third time

  • 2000: Unidentified auction winner buys Burke and sells it to…

  • 2000: Burke Mountain Academy, who never wanted to be long-term owner, and sold to…

  • 2005: Laubert-Adler and the Ginn Corporation, who sold to…

  • 2012: Aerial Quiros, who engaged in all kinds of shadiness

  • 2016: Burke becomes the property of U.S. America, as court-appointed receiver takes control of this and Jay Peak. While Jay sold last year, Burke remains for sale

On media reports indicating that there is a bid on Burke

I got excited earlier this year, when the excellent Vermont Digger reported that the sales process for Burke appeared to be underway:

Michael Goldberg, the court-appointed receiver in charge of overseeing Burke Mountain ski resort for more than seven years, has an offer to buy the scandal-plagued ski resort in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom.

News of the bid came from a recent court filing submitted by Goldberg, predicting that a sale of the property would take place “later this year.”

The filing does not name the bidder or the amount of the bid, but the document stated that Goldberg wants to continue to seek qualified buyers, and if a matching or higher price is offered, an auction would be held to sell the resort. …

“The Receiver has received an initial offer, and expects to file a motion with the Court in the next month recommending an identical sales process to the Jay Peak sale – a ‘stalking horse’ bid, followed by an auction and a subsequent motion asking the Court to approve a final sale,” Goldberg stated in his recent court filing regarding Burke.

Well, nothing happened, though the bid remains active, as far as I know. So who knows. I hope whoever buys Burke next, this place can finally stabilize and build.

On the West Mountain expansion at Catamount

Schaefer discusses a potential expansion at Catamount. New England Ski History hosts a summary page for this one as well:

A lift and a variety of trails are proposed for the west side of the ski area, crossing over the Lower Sidewinder trail. The lift would climb 650 vertical feet from a new parking lot to the junction of Upper and Lower Sidewinder. 6 trail segments would be cut above and below the lower switchback of the Lower Sidewinder Trail. All of the terrain would be located in New York state.

Here's a circa 2014 map, showing the proposed expansion looker’s right:

Catamount’s expansion lift would land approximately where the current tubing operation sits. Sourced from New England Ski History.

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