Podcast #30: Saddleback GM and CEO Andy Shepard
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Who: Andy Shepard, General Manager and CEO of Saddleback, Maine
Recorded on: Nov. 9, 2020
Why I interviewed him: Because this is one of the best pure skier’s mountains in the Northeast. Classic New England steep and twisty shots run between broad gladelands of the sort that inject lift-served skiing with a patina of rambling adventure. It is probably the best mid-sized ski area in New England (even if it’s at the upper end of “mid-sized” and probably falls somewhere more on the “medium-to-large” end of the spectrum), and it may be on its way to becoming one of the best large ski areas in the region if everything falls right. A study of the ski area’s steadily morphing trailmaps over the past two decades demonstrates that Saddleback is a place where imagination translates seamlessly into the possible – when outer forces can be kept from foiling the mountain’s boundless expansion ambitions. As this monster prepares to drop back online, I wanted to see how much of the ski area’s oft-stalled momentum had been re-ignited behind the energy and vision of new owners and management.
What we talked about: The enormous challenge of bringing a mothballed ski area back online and how Covid compounded that effort; the Oompa Loompas kept the machinery from decaying while Willy Wonka was away; the incredible liability of relying on an antique double as your alpha chairlift; details on the enormous base lodge renovations; persistence through the springtime Covid ambush; the collective desperate energy to be outside right now; how pandemic-era changes to travel patterns may make this the ideal time for Saddleback to pop back online; rewiring skiers to spend more time outside; Saddleback’s legendary mountain ops team reforming like the scattered Justice League when Arctaris blew the conch shell; how Arctaris came to own Saddleback after a multi-year saga marred by scammers, false starts, and mistrust; optimism that this time, under this owner, is different and Saddleback can finally reach its ultimate form; the potential to convert the resort to solar power and what that would mean; how the proposed mid-mountain lodge would vary from traditional construction to blend into the environment; how Shepard is tapping his decades in the outdoor industry to smooth formerly tarnished relationships between Saddleback and environmental and government groups; how long Arctaris may own the mountain before finding a long-term owner; why Saddleback had to be saved; Shepard’s long-term vision for the mountain; how Saddleback compares to Sunday River and Sugarloaf and why Maine needs all three; the condition and future development plans for the snowmaking plant, the trail and glade network, and the lift system; Saddleback’s potential footprint; there will be a terrain park; when we may see a trailmap and whether the old Niehues design and trail names will remain intact; which legacy lifts were demolished and when they may be replaced; how the remains of the Rangeley Double will live on at Saddleback; why we’ll probably see more T-bars in the ski area’s future; an update on the construction of the Rangeley high-speed Quad; the engineering achievement of demolishing the old Rangeley double with one tug of a Snowcat; hints that terrain expansion may be happening very soon; the mountain’s lift ticket and season pass pricing philosophy; there will be RFID gates; whether we could see additional reciprocal ticket deals like Saddleback’s partnership with Jay Peak; whether the mountain would ever consider joining the Indy Pass.
Questions I wish I’d asked: This was a conversation that was unfortunately bedeviled by several dropped phone lines, which altogether probably cost us about 15 minutes of potentially dense and productive conversation. Among the questions I had queued up but could not get to: could the shutdown under the Berry family have been prevented? Why did the attempt to form a cooperative à la Mad River Glen fail? How do we know Arctaris won’t walk away if we have a couple crummy winters? How was the mountain able to fast-track the permitting process to get the new Rangeley Quad up on such short notice? Will Kennebago Station operate this season? Any plans for employee housing? Will there be shuttle service from Rangeley to the mountain? What is the Covid-era operations plan as far as lodge capacity, lifts, lessons, race programs, rentals, etc.? What will summer operations look like? What kind of support have you gotten from the State of Maine, Ski Maine, and the Rangeley Community? I also wanted to ask about the anonymous donor who stepped in with a large gift to help local kids access Saddleback over the next five years.
Why I thought that now was a good time for this interview: Because the return of Saddleback is the biggest non-Covid story in North American skiing as we enter the 2020-21 ski season. Among the sport’s existential issues – climate change, growing its appeal within a diversifying nation, adapting to plague-era operations – the continued existence of its lift-served plant ranks highly, if less urgently. Over the past several decades, Americans – especially in the Northeast – have more or less locked off their public lands and wilderness areas to any sort of permanent, material development. Ski areas, with their visible-from-space trail networks, bottomless appetite for power and water, and traffic-generating weekender appeal are pinatas for NIMBYs, conservationists, and all manner of bureaucrats and government officials who just want a mountain to be a mountain and nothing more. This despite the fact that America is jammed from coast-to-coast with the most garish collection of trashy buildings ever assembled by mankind, a garbage barge of tacky commerce, a Dollar General on every corner and a McDonald’s hanging off every interstate exit ramp. The construction from scratch of a large ski area is a non-starter anywhere in New York or New England. So we better save the ones we have. In Saddleback, you have one of the good ones. It could be one of the great ones. Successive generations of managers, armed with grand development plans and hazy visions of a mega-oasis of Maine skiing, have buckled under the forces described above, which make expanding a ski area only slightly less painful than starting one. But here, in this horrible year of 2020, we have the improbable story of capital, iron willpower, and a long-term vision forged into something palpable. If Magic and Tenney and Crotched can go dark for multiple winters and re-emerge with momentum and followings and a sense of permanence and stability, then so can Saddleback, which is bigger and brasher and snowier than any of them. It’s going to be amazing to witness.
Why you should go there: Because it’s back, and you knocking on the door with your crew in tow is the best way to make sure it doesn’t ever have to be back again. Yes, it’s far. But look what you find when you get there:
It’s big and bruising and angry, like a mountain in the wilds of Western Maine ought to be. It has broad dominions of wild glades and elevator shafts dropping all around them. Despite its five-year hibernation, Saddleback has already seen more trail development this century than any other mountain in New England, as the previous owners began an aggressive transformation of the mountain from under-developed backwater to fully developed resort. Just compare the trailmap above to this 2003 trailmap:
The Berry family, who’d bought the mountain in 2003 and invested tens of millions into development before shuttering the place in 2015, had far more planned as well (the trails in blue represent the current footprint):
The 2008 trailmap shows where some of these lifts would rise in relation to the current terrain footprint:
Shepard says in the podcast that a new master plan is in the works. Whether that resembles this old document or not is irrelevant: Saddleback is a big, bold mountain that is only set to grow.
And if big and bold isn’t your thing, the little green zone off the South Branch Quad is completely isolated from the ripping sprawl of expert lanes above. It’s a complete ski area in the way that so many in New England are not, even if it isn’t a complete resort just yet.
This history of the ski area on New England Ski History details the various sinkholes previous owners have stepped into as they’ve failed to develop Saddleback to its full potential. Also, this is pretty awesome:
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