Podcast #48: Whaleback Executive Director Jon Hunt

Evolving toward long-term sustainability at this non-profit New Hampshire ski area

  
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Who

Jon Hunt, Executive Director of Whaleback Mountain, New Hampshire

Recorded on

June 16, 2021

Why I interviewed him

Because when Talks-Loudly-About-His-Personal-Life-In-The-Elevator-at-Work Guy brags about his upcoming ski trip, he is never going to Whaleback. He is going to Killington or Sugarbush or Stowe. Which is fine. All of those places are incredible. But they owe more to places like Whaleback than places like Whaleback owe to them. Skiing needs small ski areas. It needs places that care about beginners and families and almost nothing else. And it needs creative models to help make such ski areas sustainable. Whaleback is all of those things, an approachable sapling in a forest of redwoods. It wasn’t always so. For decades the ski area flailed along, one round of debt and foreclosure bleeding into the next, a tale nearly as tragic as Moby Dick. In 2013, a local named John Schiffman purchased the ski area under the Upper Valley Snow Sports Foundation, stopped trying to be Cannon Junior, and turned the whole operation into a nonprofit. It’s a story I wanted to hear.

What we talked about

How someone who has never worked in the ski industry ends up running a ski area; why Whaleback created an executive director position instead of hiring a general manager; how Whaleback has retained its character even through decades of apocalyptic closures; Whaleback’s new strategic plan and how it will improve the ski area; aiming for an earlier opening and 100-day season; how much life the 50-year-old summit double has left in it; why the chairlift broke in early March 2020, ending the season prematurely; upgrades to the chair this summer; where the mountain may put in a new surface lift and what it would be; coming snowmaking improvements; potential night-skiing expansion; whether the mountain could add more trails or glades; why expansion outside the current borders is likely impossible; “the coolest first day ever on any job I’ve ever had”; recent mountain improvements; how much the ski area relies on donations to stay afloat; whether ski area-owning New Hampshire and its ski area-owning governor contribute to the ski area’s operations; a professional fundraising primer from a professional fundraiser; whether fundraising has rescued a perennially indebted ski area from chronic debt; how much Whaleback relies on volunteers versus paid labor; learning from other nonprofit ski areas; the ski area’s long and brutal history of bankruptcy, bank seizure, and closing; finding an identity as a small ski area in a state stuffed with huge, developed ski resorts; how the Upper Valley Snow Sports Foundation finally put Whaleback on a path to sustainability; the active role of the ski area’s board of directors; why Whaleback’s season pass only runs $180; how much season pass sales increased last season after the ski area dropped prices for Covid; the Freedom Pass; and Covid-era ops that may hang around for future seasons.

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

Because while the nonprofit approach seems to have brought some stability and purpose to the ski area, problems lingered – Whaleback’s 2019-20 ski season ended early not because of the Covid cataclysm, but because its summit lift simply stopped working in early March. Like a car without its engine, a ski area without its alpha lift is more decorative than useful. To forestall such issues, Whaleback’s board of directors created a new executive director position, an individual who could supercharge the ski area’s fundraising and heave its physical plant into the modern winter world. Jon Hunt is that person, and I wanted to talk to him about the huge challenge ahead.

Why you should ski Whaleback

Let’s start here:

While small by New Hampshire standards at 700 vertical feet, the mountain has legitimate pitch and terrain, with a bundle of glades raking down midmountain.

Then there’s this:

If you want to spend $1,000 on a weekend teaching your family to ski, you can punch down U.S. 4 to Killington. Or you can set up shop at Whaleback until they figure it out.

A lot of Northeast skiing is barely managed chaos, something between a stampede and a four-alarm housefire. Whaleback is not that. It’s skiing without a lot of the things that make modern skiing appealing – high-speed lifts, megapasses, snowmaking firepower that could recreate Glacier National Park in under half a day – but also a lot of the things that make it frustrating, like lift lines containing enough people to feasibly colonize the moon. When the midwinter hoards descend on New England after a snowstorm, Whaleback may be the best place you can be.

Additional reading/videos

  • New England Ski History documents Whaleback’s harsh past

  • Lift Blog’s inventory of Whaleback lifts

L.L. Bean created this incredible Whaleback mini-doc last year:

Some Whaleback night-skiing stoke: