Podcast #61: Shawnee Mountain, Pennsylvania CEO Nick Fredericks

"We are open to new ideas constantly."

  
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Who

Nick Fredericks, President, CEO, and part-owner of Shawnee Mountain, Pennsylvania

Fredericks while the initial pond walkway was under construction in the 1970s, flipping Shawnee from an upside-down ski area to one with the parking lots at the bottom. Photo courtesy of Shawnee Mountain.

Recorded on

November 9, 2021

Why I interviewed him

Because little Shawnee, hanging off the edge of the temperamental Poconos, is feisty enough to stand among its larger neighbors and welcoming enough that beginners swarm the place. Fifty-five percent of Shawnee’s skiers rented gear last season. That’s an enormous stat, and an incredible testament to what Shawnee is: one of the best top-to-bottom learning centers in the region, if not the entire country. The greens here are not the zigzagging catwalks cutting across double-blacks or 50-vertical-foot meadows tucked behind the baselodge (thought they have those too). They’re real trails, running from the summit back to the base, a nice 700 feet of vertical that feels like forever.

From a ski-history point of view, Shawnee is a compelling story. Pennsylvania kept building ski areas long after the rest of the Northeast abandoned the exercise, and Shawnee is relatively new, coming online in 1975. It takes a certain swashbuckling energy and attitude to cut a ski area out of the raw earth, and most of the folks who founded our great ski areas are long gone. While Fredericks did not found Shawnee from an ownership point of view, he was there from day one, cutting trees to clear the trails and pounding nails to raise the summit lodge. That means he’s a treasure chest of institutional knowledge, a one-man encyclopedia devoted to all things Shawnee. He was there when the first skiers puttered their way to the top of the hill in their rear-wheel drive 1970s gashogs, and he was there when the resort pulled one of the great switcheroos in Pennsylvania skiing history, dropping the parking lots from the top of the hill to the bottom and reorienting the whole resort experience. He was there through the bankruptcies and the larger economic busts, the acquisition of Shawnee Peak in Maine and the dissolution of that ownership group, bank takeovers and uncertainty, until he finally got the keys to the place. It’s an awesome story, and I wanted to hear it from the man who’d lived it.

What we talked about

Why Shawnee was designed as an upside-down ski area; the rustic Poconos of the 1970s; the resort’s early Wild West days; reminiscing on New York’s now-defunct Dutchess Ski Area; the longevity of Shawnee employees; why the ski area flipped from an upside-down layout to a lodge-at-the-bottom arrangement and how much time and effort it took to do that; what the ski area did with the facilities at the top of the mountain; Shawnee’s wild access road; the mountain’s year-by-year evolution into a larger ski area; the real-estate crash that drove the ski area into bank ownership; how Nick and his partners finally purchased the ski area in the mid-90s and who they had to outbid to buy it; the wild beavers who ruled Shawnee’s bottom; what happened to the old stone farm walls threaded throughout the base of Shawnee; the history of the ski area’s entry bridge; why the ski area’s setup works so well to foil would-be ski thieves; why Shawnee bought Pleasant Mountain, Maine, and changed the name to Shawnee Peak; how Nick helped drive the Maine ski area from 25,000 skier visits to 90,000 in one season; what eventually separated the mountains; thoughts on Boyne Resorts buying Shawnee; trail expansion opportunities; Shawnee’s master plan and how it will transform the resort, especially its bedbase; why the ski area eschews expert terrain; the mountain’s sophisticated snowmaking system and modern grooming fleet; how the ski area rethought its food service options; rethinking employee housing; possible new summer operations; the massive percentage of Shawnee skiers that rent gear; whether the mountain would ever bring back a lift along Country Club to allow park skiers to lap that section; Shawnee’s terrific natural glades; why the ski area doesn’t groom or open select chunks of the mountain after large snowfalls; Shawnee’s incredible beginner terrain; potential future lift improvements, including the possible fate of the double-double and F lift; how staffing shortages affected Shawnee last season; the logic of the affordable season pass; the positive impact of Covid on business; why the ski area joined the Indy Pass and why Shawnee will have blackouts on the pass for the first time this season; and why Shawnee started forging reciprocal pass partnerships with ski areas across the country.

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

Because Shawnee is an increasingly interesting player in the evolving pass wars that have displaced skiing’s tired business model of expensive single-mountain season passes. It was an early member of the Indy Pass. This season, Shawnee, for the first time, struck reciprocal pass partnerships with Seven Springs/Laurel/Hidden Valley, on the west side of the state; Mont du Lac, Wisconsin; and the king of the reciprocal lift ticket, Ski Cooper, Colorado. With Vail now in control of Jack Frost and Big Boulder, just down the road, and Shawnee’s two biggest competitors, Blue Mountain and Camelback, now under common ownership and likely to join their passes (and eventually join the Ikon Pass), Shawnee will need to keep getting creative. Turns out they have big plans – Fredericks’ commitment to constant improvement is reflected in Shawnee’s steady evolution over the decades, and he makes it clear in this interview that the mountain is nowhere near a finished product.

Questions I wish I’d asked

When Fredericks said Shawnee would consider turning Lift C – the high-speed quad – so that it could access Bushkill, I was a little confused as to where that lift would land. I followed up with Shawnee, and here’s what they said:

“The one thought would be to remove F lift completely and move it so that when you got off the high-speed quad you could then take that lift across the summit (horizontally if you would) over to Bushkill, where F lift used to unload. We would be able to basically cut that lift in half.”

So I’m reading that as saying that the quad would still terminate where it does now. Again, all this is just talk at the moment, but keep an eye out for the ski area’s master plan.

Why you should ski Shawnee

Have kids? Go there. Have an Indy Pass? Go. Want a low-key park to sharpen up your game? Go. Live in NYC? Go – it’s only 90 minutes away. Check your expectations: this is Pennsylvania skiing – there will be crowds, there will be a 50:1 beginner-to-expert ratio, there will be lift-loading shenanigans. It’s all part of the experience. Like most Pennsylvania ski areas, the snowmaking is good and consistent, the lifts are plentiful, and the trail network is cut in such a way as to make the mountain ski much larger than it is. Shawnee is easy to get to and easy to like. Plus, walking across the pond on the wooden footbridge is one of the great resort entrances in Northeast skiing. If you talk the game about supporting family-owned ski areas, this is a great place to turn your words into something tangible.

Shawnee marked this trail as closed after nearly three feet of snow fell on the mountain last season. This is more a reflection of the mountain’s focus on beginners than anything else. I had fun skiing it.

Additional resources

  • Lift Blog’s inventory of Shawnee chairlifts

  • Historic Shawnee trailmaps – sadly, I can’t find one with the parking lots on top. If anyone has one, please email me a picture.

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