Podcast #4: Magic Mountain President Geoff Hatheway
Who: Geoff Hatheway, Founder and President, Ski Magic LLC
Why I interviewed him: Because Magic might be the best story in skiing. Born in the sixties, purchased and expanded by Bromley in the 80s, abandoned for six winters in the 90s, the mountain has improbably risen from the dead to become the go-to glades-and-steeps bomber among the local hardcore. Operate on stats alone, and this one is easy to overlook in a crowded southern Vermont echoing with the twin marketing bullhorns of Alterra (Stratton) and Vail (Okemo and Mt. Snow). It’s a bit shorter and a bit smaller than those neighbors, and it lacks an inauthentic authentic base village. But the mountain is so good, and people who run it are doing so many things right, that it doesn’t matter even a little bit. They offer what may be the best menu of pass options (scroll down after the click) in the country. They limit the number of daily lift tickets sold. They are finally replacing the unreliable Black Chair. They’re amping up snowmaking capacity. While it has been apparent for about 30 years what needed to be done to transform the place, all of these efforts have accelerated since Geoff took over in 2016. I wanted to talk to him about this ongoing renaissance.
What we talked about: How the mountain battles the big boys by evoking the spirit of skiing’s low-speed past; how glade-thinning and other volunteer days contribute to Magic’s sense of community; the logic behind the daily ticket limit and why it will remain in place even after the new Black Chair comes online; the story of how Magic bought the Black Chair from Stratton and how that’s the old Snow Bowl lift because Stratton needed like a 90th high-speed lift or whatever (they actually did); if you like lift lines that’s cool they have them elsewhere but Magic won’t have them here once the new lift opens sorry; but Magic will never – and I mean NEVER – have a high-speed lift and some people won’t like that but hey that’s just not Magic’s demo and we’re cool with that; the Red Chair will continue to run this season; Black Chair is likely to operate mostly on weekends and holidays; why the humble Green Chair was so important in opening the mountain to those who don’t zipper-line bumps; why Magic is more like northern Vermont radsters Mad River Glen or Stowe than its overbuffed neighbors; snowmaking coverage should pass 50 percent this year with the expanded snowmaking pond; the two trails that will receive snowmaking starting this year; long-term the goal is to operate from Thanksgiving to the first week of April; Geoff is tired of hearing you say that you only ski Magic on a powder day; why one of Geoff’s first projects when he took over was repositioning the bar in the Black Line Tavern; how they renovated the upper part of the bar for $90,000 instead of $9 million and why doing things like that is the reason Magic should continue to exist for the foreseeable future; the mountain rental program; Magic loves uphill skiers; why the Green Chair was engineered for downloading; season pass sales and skier visits are both soaring – Geoff gives numbers; how the Vail-Alterra Axis of Skivil is driving Magic’s popularity; why Magic joined the Freedom and Indy Passes; hey did you know that there’s another, abandoned-and-now-privately owned ski area on the backside of Glebe Mountain, which Magic sits on? And that that ski area, Timber Ridge, used to be part of Magic back in the 1980s? And that you can in fact ski from the top of Magic to that ski area and shred those trails and all you have to do is figure out how to get yourself back to Magic’s lifts because it’s not like there’s a shuttle or even a cattrack back? I also asked Geoff what he would do if the current owner put Timber Ridge up for sale. Not that he said this but maybe we’ll see this again some day (yes, this is the real 1987 Magic Mountain trailmap):
Things that may be slightly outdated because we recorded this a while ago: Geoff says that there are 34 mountains on the Indy Pass, which there were when we had this conversation in early September, but they have since increased that to 44. Geoff also mentions some of the challenges he foresaw in engineering the Black Chair, since it climbs an ungodly steep and rocky incline that you don’t exactly back a cement truck up to like you’re pouring the foundation for a Wal-Mart on top of your favorite former cornfield. He has since sent out several dispatches updating the progress of both the lift installation and the snowmaking pond expansion, the latest of which you can read here. Actually, they flew the upper lift towers yesterday:
Question I wish I’d asked: Geoff talks about the Super Mario Brothers-like labyrinthine tangles of antique snowmaking pipes buried in Magic’s declines, and says that the mountain was a leader in blowing snow back in the seventies. I wish I’d asked a bit more about that history and decline before the current boom. I also would have liked to have talked a bit about how the mountain was closed for six freaking winters and most of its lifts and other infrastructure was sold off by then-owner Bromley and how improbable it is that Magic is a functioning mountain today, let alone a thriving one.
Why I thought that now was a good time for this interview: When Ski magazine featured Magic last winter, it signaled a mass acknowledgement of what locals had known for a while: this long beleaguered and overlooked mountain finally had the management team it needed to realize its dormant potential. It’s like those movies about tough and unloved but brimming-with-unrealized-brilliance inner-city kids who just need that one teacher who cares enough to yell back and fix the water leak in the bathroom ceiling and order text books that don’t list the Vietnam War in the current events chapter. Except in this case Magic is the tough but unloved kid and Geoff and his crew are the teacher and the old black chair is that held-together-with-Scotch tape textbook. I think we underappreciate in general how difficult it is to hold something as complex as a ski area together year after year and how vital it is to have the right people in the captain’s chair to keep the whole operation from sinking. As we’ve seen with Saddleback and Jay Peak and the New York Knicks, the wrong people can ruin even the best things, and the right people can make even the most unlikely things take off.
Why you should go there: Because in a southern Vermont of buffed-flat redundancy, Magic is the only place that seems to care even a little bit about offering what Geoff calls a balanced ski experience, with some bumps and some groomers and a lot of glades. Here’s my review of the rest of southern Vermont: Okemo – groomed flat; Mt. Snow – groomed flat with a nice park; Stratton – groomed flat with some underrated glades. I don’t know why they all do this let’s-groom-everything-flatter-than-I-95-every-night thing but I know Magic doesn’t and that is as good of a reason to go there as any. Besides, it’s affordable, it’s closer to most places than most other Vermont mountains, the crowds even when it’s busy are manageable, the vibe is cool, and there’s no reason not so support places like this even if you have IkoniK gigapasses like I do.
Fun facts: Did you know that there is also a Magic Mountain, Idaho (and that it also has magic-themed trail names)? Or that Bromley once owned Magic? Or that, in this, the fourth Storm Skiing Podcast, I have now interviewed the owners or general managers of all three major Northeastern mountains that offer full-area daily rental programs (that was a coincidence that I didn’t realize until I was editing this episode, and I’m afraid I neglected to ask Pico GM Mike Solimano about that mountain’s rental program, as we spent 95 percent of the time talking about Killington)?
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