Podcast #63: Smugglers’ Notch Owner Bill Stritzler

Why New England's largest remaining independent ski area is one of its best

  
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Who

Bill Stritzler, Owner of Smugglers’ Notch, Vermont

Recorded on

November 16, 2021

Why I interviewed him

No matter who owned it, Smugglers’ Notch would be a notable ski area. It’s big, snowy, tough, and storied. As New England as Plymouth Rock. The terrain is varied, balanced, and interesting. It’s one of the best things the Eastern ski scene has going.

But ownership does matter, because Smuggs has some things that almost no other large Vermont ski area has: stable management reaching back decades, a legitimate on-mountain base village, independence. That makes it one of the most self-assured ski areas in a state with no shortage of them, including the chest-thumping Beast and to-Hell-with-everything Mad River Glen. Smuggs doesn’t give a damn what you think about its 1960s lift system, or that it’s halfway past the ass-end of nowhere, or that it’s not part of the 500-mountain Riptacular Pass. Smuggs is just gonna sit there and kick ass, no matter how you feel about the set of circumstances surrounding that. And you know what? That’s pretty goddamn awesome.

What we talked about

How Smuggs has and hasn’t changed since Stritzler showed up to run the place in 1987; leaving the corporate world after a successful multi-decade career to run a ski resort in northern Vermont; why and how Smuggs became one of the best family ski resorts in the country; why Bill bought the resort in the mid-90s after running it for nearly a decade; the handshake, lawyers-stand-down way that Stritzler ended up with the mountain; whether the era of large independent ski areas is drawing to an end; Stowe-Smuggs combination talks over the years; whether Vail has ever tried to buy Smuggs; thoughts on Stowe under Vail ownership; the history of the Smuggs-Stowe interconnect and why maintenance of it ended; whether you can still ski between the two ski areas; the importance (or not), of large independent ski areas; the upside of the Epic and Ikon passes; why Smuggs season pass prices have stayed low and what that means in an era of bargain-basement Epic Passes; whether Smuggs would ever join the Ikon or Indy passes; the Bash Badge program that allows skiers to ride for $30 per day; the calculator in the ski market’s head; thoughts on the skyrocketing prices of walk-up day tickets and why Smuggs hasn’t followed that model; Smuggs’ amazing antique lift system and why the mountain won’t upgrade it any time soon; the importance of on-trail skier density; what would make Smuggs consider replacing a lift; how you maintain lifts manufactured by a company that no longer exits; thoughts on the atmospheric importance of slow, old lifts; why Madonna won’t get a high-speed quad; prioritizing the ride down the mountain versus the ride up; detachable doubles?; the immense pride in running the longest remaining Hall chairlifts in the world; the advantage of staying debt-free; how Smuggs supercharged its snowmaking system and why that system is likely at its limit terrain-wise; the perfect green-blue-black terrain division between Smuggs’ three mountains; endless glades; whether we could see additions to Smuggs’ trail network; the Birthday Bowls; the Black Hole, the Northeast’s only triple-black diamond trail; the 2020-21 ski season at Smuggs; Covid innovations that are going to stay; and the village FUN ZONE!

Why I thought now was a good time for this interview

Six years ago, there were nearly as many Vermont ski-area owners as there were Vermont ski areas. AIG owned Stowe. Win Smith owned Sugarbush. Triple Peaks owned Okemo. Peak Resorts owned Mount Snow. Intrawest owned Stratton. Ariel Quiros owned Jay Peak and Burke. Vail was a company out West. Alterra didn’t exist. “I’ll take ‘Owners of Vermont ski areas’ for $1,000, Alex.”

It’s a different game today. Vail, in a series of mammoth acquisitions, swept up Stowe, Okemo, and Mount Snow. Alterra absorbed Intrawest, and with it, Stratton, and a year later bought Sugarbush. The federal government helped itself to Jay and Burke after Quiros turned out to be a buffoonish cartoon villain.

And yet, there’s Bill Stritzler, kicking it around his giant trio of mountains beside Stowe, same as he’s been doing since the Berlin Wall was still a thing. Smugglers’ Notch is the largest remaining independent U.S. ski area east of Loveland. It’s part of no pass coalition, no reciprocal ticket partnerships. That matters. It matters because what used to be the only model – one person owns one ski area – is now a novelty, and, perhaps, an anachronism.

But maybe not: Smuggs, despite its antique lift fleet, its impossible location, its fierce climate, is beloved. It earned the East’s top slot in Ski’s most recent reader rankings and third place on Z Rankings’ more data-driven Eastern list. Why? Yes, it gets a lot of snow, but so does every ski area along Vermont’s spine from Jay down to Sugarbush. Yes, its Madonna pod is striped with some of the nastiest terrain in New England, but so is Stowe’s FourRunner Quad, right next door. Yes, it’s affordable and quaintly throwback, but so is Mad River Glen. So there’s something else that makes the place special. But what? That’s why me and Bill had to talk.

Why you should ski Smugglers’ Notch

There’s a magic to Northern Vermont. It’s not like anything else in the Northeast. Three-hundred-plus inches of snow? Those are Western numbers, but they happen all the time along the Spine. The rest of New England is lucky to get half what Jay, Smuggs, Stowe, Bolton Valley, Mad River Glen, and Sugarbush rack up year after year. It’s cold enough that the snow keeps, too. Sure, they get freeze-thaws and rain, like anywhere else in the low-elevation East, but not nearly as much as, say, Mount Snow or Magic.

Even among this ripsaw lineup, Smuggs is special. Its three peaks are nearly perfectly divided by ability. It has a real on-mountain base village. It has an almost maniacal focus on families. The fact that it has no high-speed lifts means you have the place practically to yourself on the way down. It’s a beautiful ski area, a true destination tucked away from the world. And after listening to Stritzler talk about the resort, you’re gonna have a hard time not going, not wanting to support the idea that something like Smugglers’ Notch could still exist in the conglomerating ski world of 2021. How long it will persist is impossible to say. Go while it does.

More on Smugglers’ Notch

  • Lift Blog’s inventory of Smuggs’ lift fleet

  • Historic Smugglers’ Notch trailmaps on skimap.org

  • This (very good) Ski article from a few years back turbocharged a Vail-to-buy-Smuggs rumor that just won’t quit.

  • Yes, you can ski between Smuggs and Stowe. It used to be an official thing.

  • Thoughts on the difference between the two resorts

  • More from Ski on what makes Smuggs so good

  • The Fun Zone!

  • Madonna is the longest Hall double chair in the world (as confirmed by Lift Blog). How long? See for yourself:

Some cool aerial shots, though I wish this didn’t jump around so much:

Previous Vermont-focused Storm Skiing Podcast episodes:

Killington/Pico | Magic | Burke | Sugarbush (Win Smith) | Mad River Glen | Jay Peak | Sugarbush (John Hammond) | Mount Snow | Hermitage Club | Bolton Valley | Ski Vermont | Vail Resorts Eastern Region | Vermont Ski + Ride

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