Podcast #34: Gunstock President and General Manager Tom Day
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Tom Day, President and General Manager of Gunstock, New Hampshire
January 11, 2021
Why I interviewed him
Because Gunstock is everything you could want from a New England ski area: scrappy and stubborn, anchored by history but decked out with a high-speed summit lift and modern snowmaking, a trail network that’s equal parts twisty gnar and ski-them-asleep greens, easy to get to but far enough from horn-honking life to feel apart from it. In a consolidating industry, the place remains unique: county-owned and independent, Gunstock remains proudly outside of any multipass coalition and likely will for the foreseeable future. It was one of the last ski areas in the country to turn off the lifts in the March Covid shutdown and did not follow the industry trend of guaranteeing season passes in the event of another closure. Yet Gunstock remains future-oriented, with ambitious expansion proposals and infrastructure upgrades conceived on all sides of the mountain. I wanted to talk to the person who was maintaining that legacy and identity while guiding the mountain through the challenges of our Covid winter.
What we talked about
The evolution of New Hampshire skiing from the slow-lift days of the late 1970s; when skiers used to be outsmarted by triple chairs and detachable lifts; working his way up from liftie to general manager of Waterville Valley; the challenge and exhilaration of dusting out of the ski industry for a decade on a series of rambling life adventures; what drew Day back to New Hampshire after years of skiing Wasatch powder 80 days a year; the heroic legend of the New England skier archetype; the differences and similarities between running Waterville Valley and Gunstock; Gunstock’s Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps legacy and history; the story behind the first chairlift in the East and what’s left of that chair today; what’s left of the original Gunstock ski area on Mount Rowe; whether Gunstock could ever expand onto the abandoned Alpine Ridge ski area and what that expansion could look like; what distinguishes Gunstock’s cross-country operation and how the ops crew got creative when the snowmaking system malfunctioned; the remnants of the downhill operation on Cobble Mountain; the status of the proposed Southwest Pistol expansion; the bygone days of hiking the mountain, topo map in hand, and marking trails for cutting; the advantages and pitfalls of county ownership of a ski area; why Gunstock pushed its March Covid closure past most of the rest of the industry and what that final week was like; how the ski area saved its season passholder base after the early shutdown and accompanying economic apocalypse; how Covid protocols are changing consumer habits and expectations for the better; everybody loves skiing now; why Gunstock declined to offer a Covid-related season pass refund or deferral program (and what they offer instead); why the mountain joined the New Hampshire College Pass; whether we could ever see Gunstock on the White Mountain Super Pass or the Indy Pass; thoughts on operating in the heart of what is now Vail country; Day’s long-term vision for Gunstock’s lift fleet; the state of the mountain’s snowmaking system; the night-skiing boom; mask adherence; possible glade expansion; how Covid ops are working out; the party in the parking lot.
Why I thought that now was a good time for this interview
Because as New Hampshire skiing rapidly corporatizes and reorients toward megapasses, Gunstock has, with the exception of its New Hampshire College Pass partnership, remained independent. And successful. The mountain fought through Hurricane Covid, forgoing most of its summer business and focusing on saving and then growing its ski season passholder base. How it was able to do that, and how the complete undoing of Ye Old Ways of running a ski area would inform future operations, was a story I wanted to hear.
Why you should go there
From points south (most of us), it’s closer than most other sizeable ski areas in New Hampshire. And it’s bigger than you think. With a vertical drop close to 1,400 feet and 227 skiable acres, Gunstock stacks up favorably to Mount Sunapee and is in the same class area-wise as Wildcat and Waterville Valley, or Magic in Vermont. The mountain has a good trail mix served by nicely spread-out lifts, a feature that Day is less fond of but that I like for crowd-busting on busy days. If you don’t care about multi-resort or Western access and you’re just looking for an understated home mountain that will keep you interested and your family busy, this is it.
Day mentions a book called The History of Gunstock, by Carol Lee Anderson. Buy it here
New England Ski History has a tremendous rundown of Gunstock (and every other ski area in the region)
Gunstock trailmaps dating to 1964
Lift Blog’s inventory of Gunstock’s lift system.
More on the proposed Alpine Ridge expansion
I asked Day about the vertical drop on Mount Rowe – it looks as though the old Alpine Ridge ski area on that peak advertised 400 feet
More on the proposed Southwest Pistol expansion
Gunstock’s Covid ops videos, which is one of the better ones out there from a watchability point of view:
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