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Charles Jefferson, Managing Owner of Montage Mountain, Pennsylvania
February 23, 2021
Why I interviewed him
Pennsylvania skiing is an exercise in the technological and improbable. Winters deliver marginal temperatures and frequent rain, making any ski area a capital-intensive affair reliant on sophisticated and aggressive snowmaking. The mountains themselves can be crowded and intense, with what feels like a higher-than-average volume of novice skiers careening downhill in unstoppable freefall. Luckily, many of the ski areas are also quite good, with 1,000-foot-plus vertical drops, interesting terrain, and a broad trail footprint. Among these, Montage is one of the best, a small- to medium-sized ski area that feels and skis big, with twisting downhill routes, terrain perfectly and naturally divided by ability, and some of the steepest runs in the Northeast. It’s an interesting place with a checkered history. Opened in 1984, it’s one of the newest ski areas in a nation that has mostly given up on building them. Operated for its first two decades as a non-profit or government entity, it was nearly run into the abyss by subsequent owners, who renamed it “Snö Mountain” and drove it into bankruptcy. Along came an investment group led by Jefferson, a real estate developer who had never skied. It’s an odd ski story in an odd ski state, but it has a happy ending: under Jefferson and company, the resort seems to be on the upswing, with a rapidly diversifying all-seasons business, a growing season passholder base, and an understated approach to skiing that’s focused on workaday maintenance rather than flashy new projects. To gauge how the mountain was doing and what lies ahead, I wanted to talk to the person overseeing the whole operation.
What we talked about
Jefferson’s background rehabilitating old properties and the transformation of downtown Scranton; how a non-skier comes to own a ski area; when you just have to believe that a waterpark is buried beneath 15 feet of snow; why buying the ski area didn’t intimidate someone who’d never been in the ski industry; believing in your team; how managing a building is similar to running a ski area; becoming a skier in your 50s; the Snö Mountain debacle; cleaning up the mess after buying Montage out of bankruptcy; how to grow your season pass base by 1,000 percent; why a ski resort can’t just be a winter business; big-time hotel plans; Montage’s unique mid-mountain parking lot; what’s next for the Long Haul triple and why it won’t be a replacement; the problem with high-speed lifts; the state of the lift fleet in general; why we’re unlikely to see a carpet in the beginner area; expansion possibilities into the appetizing sea of treed inclines surrounding Montage; why you won’t find named glades, but the policy is border-to-border when the snowpack materializes; when to groom the North Face and when to let it get bumpy; Montage’s amazing natural terrain segregation; snowmaking upgrades; keeping the guns blazing well into March; how much cash it saves when free snow falls from the sky; the logic behind the ultra-affordable early-bird season pass; the potential for an Indy Pass partnership; why Montage offers $40 Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday lift tickets, rentals included; adapting to Covid; and the outdoor Midland dining area and whether that will stick around in future seasons.
What I got wrong
In our discussion of $40 lift tickets, I portrayed that as a Monday through Friday deal, but in fact those tickets are only available Monday through Wednesday (Jefferson did correct this but I wanted to mention it again here). At the beginning of the interview, I also asked about Jefferson’s work in Philadelphia, when in fact his recent career has been dedicated to Scranton.
Why I thought that now was a good time for this interview
Because this podcast focuses on the Northeast and Pennsylvania is a large and important Northeast state that I have, 16 months into the podcast, mostly ignored. This was more circumstantial than intentional, but I’m happy to finally spotlight one of the southernmost Northeast ski hills. Montage, with its steep runs and expansion potential and ample vertical, seemed like a strong starting point. And it was. What I didn’t realize when I booked the interview was Jefferson’s novel backstory, the working-class-kid-turned-real-estate-developer-turned-ski-area-owner-who-had-never-skied. I was expecting some jet-setter who skied Montage when he couldn’t make it out to his slopeside mansion in Aspen. This is something very different, more down-to-earth and practical, a narrative of determined make-it-work-ism in a tough and unforgiving industry that often savages its most seasoned operators. It’s hard not to love the story and to love this mountain as a result.
Why you should go there
Because if you live in New York City or Philadelphia or anywhere near either of them, it’s close. And it’s good. Real skiing, with a real thousand-foot vertical drop, moguls sometimes, trees when the snow flies. The lifts are fixed-grip and a bit poky, but the place is open 12 hours most days and you will get your vertical in. If you’ve never skied Pennsylvania, this is a good starting point, a place that at once showcases the ski state’s at-its-best potential and its frenetic downhill energy. It’s also an affordable place, with a $399 season pass ($349 for 2020-21 passholders) that’s good for the rest of this season, and $40 all-day lift tickets Monday through Wednesday (it rockets to $89 the other days, as it probably has to just to manage crowds). Plus, Midland is one of the great outdoor spaces in Northeast skiing:
Lift Blog’s Montage chairlift inventory
An America’s Best Friend podcast interview with Jefferson
A local news article from when Jefferson was buying the mountain in 2013
A Discover NEPA video profiling Montage from a couple years back:
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