Mar 11 • 1HR 58M

Podcast #77: Mount Pleasant of Edinboro, Pennsylvania General Manager Andrew Halmi

“This was as close as you could get to starting a ski area from scratch.”

Stuart Winchester
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Everyone’s searching for skiing’s soul. I’m trying to find its brains.
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Who

Andrew Halmi, General Manager of Mount Pleasant of Edinboro, Pennsylvania

Halmi stops to reset a yardsale on a snowy January day. This was one of about 10 such stops he made in our half-dozen runs together.

Recorded on

March 1, 2022

Why I interviewed him

Cold and hilly, with the Appalachian spine slashing southwest-to-northeast across the map, Pennsylvania is a monster ski state, with 28 lift-served mountains. Most of these are bunched across the southern tier, in Vailville from Seven Springs to Roundtop, or along the eastern border with New Jersey, from Spring Mountain up to Elk.

And then there’s Mount Pleasant, drifting alone in the state’s far northwest corner, hundreds of miles and hours of driving from the next-closest in-state ski areas. It’s like one of those nature documentaries with a drone floating over the lone baby buffalo standing apart from the herd, bunched and snorting about the quality of this year’s grass crop. You look for the circling wolves or lions and wait for the poor thing to be transformed into lunch. It’s isn’t entirely clear how any other outcome is possible.

But Mount Pleasant is the Spud Webb of Pennsylvania skiing, the unassuming 5’6” kid who wins the NBA Slam Dunk Contest (that actually happened). The ski area is, first of all, well-positioned, seated less than 17 miles off the shores of the Lake Eerie snow factory. The ski area often leads the state in snowfall, with up to 200 inches in a bomber year. Again, this is in Pennsylvania. Every ski area in the Poconos combined doesn’t get 200 inches some years.

Second, while it’s separated from its in-state ski-area homeboys by at least three hours of highway, Mount Pleasant is quite well-positioned from a business point of view. Eerie, population 97,000-ish, is just 20 miles away. The county has around 270,000 residents altogether. Other than Peek’n Peak, stationed 32 miles away across the New York state line, Mount Pleasant has those skiers all to itself.

This 1976 Tucker Sno-Cat is still operational. The ski area also has modern groomers, but they often use this machine to buff out the non-snowmaking trails. Photo courtesy of Mount Pleasant of Edinboro.

But neither of those things is the essential ingredient to Mount Pleasant’s improbable survival amid the graveyard of lost ski areas haunting Pennsylvania’s mountains. Cliché alert: the secret is the people. Launched as a notion in the 70s and crushed by the snow droughts and changing economy of the 80s, Mount Pleasant hung on through the 90s, barely solvent as a ski club running on the clunky machinery of faded decades. When the current owners bought the joint in the mid-2000s, it was a time machine at best and a hospice patient at worst, waiting to be guided toward the light.

Since then, the place has punched its way out of the grave, and it’s now a thriving little ski area, with a modern triple chair and improving snowmaking. The owners, Doug and Laura Sinsabaugh, are local school teachers who have poured every dollar of profit back into the ski area. They have invested millions and, according to Halmi, never put a cent in their own pockets. They’ve shown remarkable resilience and ingenuity, installing the chairlift – which came used from Granite Peak, Wisconsin – themselves and slowly, methodically upgrading the snowmaking plant.

The place still has a long way to go. Only half the trails have snowmaking. The lodge – a repurposed dairy barn – is perhaps the most remarkable building in Northeast skiing, but it’s roughly the size of an F-350 truckbed. The beginner area is still served by a J-bar that makes the VCR look like a miracle of modern machinery.

Improvements for all of these elements are underway, as we discuss in the podcast. Last year’s Covid-driven outdoor boom accelerated Mount Pleasant’s renaissance, re-introducing the little ski area to a jaded local population who had, not unfairly, dismissed it as a relic. When they showed up in 2021 for their first visit in seven or 10 or 15 years, they found the formerly problematic T-bar sitting in a pile in the parking lot and a glimmering chairlift staggering up the incline and a place with a spark and a future. It’s really an incredible story, and I’m as excited to share this one as any I’ve ever recorded.

Geoff McCrary, whose family owned the farm where Mount Pleasant now sits.

What we talked about

Mount Pleasant’s strong Instagram account; I told Halmi to get Mount Pleasant onto Twitter and then he got it onto Twitter so give the joint a follow; how hard it is for someone who works at a ski area to ski sometimes; Mount Pleasant in its member-owned, ragtag days under the Mountain View name; how close the ski area came to not opening for the 2020-21 ski season and how that season re-ignited Mount Pleasant’s business; when and why the ski area failed and what resurrected it; puttering through 28-day operating seasons; the couple who saved the ski area and hauled it into modernity; “this was as close as you could get to starting a ski area from scratch”; why the owners have returned 100 percent of the ski area’s profit back into rebuilding it; Pennsylvania as a ski state; why Mount Pleasant survived as so many small ski areas across the state went extinct; the Lone Ranger of Pennsylvania skiing; the enormous challenge of moving a used triple chair from Granite Peak, Wisconsin, to Mount Pleasant; how a team of people from a ski area that had never had a chairlift demolished their old T-bar and installed a new lift over the course of one offseason; getting the lift towers installed with a crew of “three or four,” and without a helicopter; oops the chairs arrived with no safety bars; the vagaries of safety-bar cultures across the United States; how the chairlift changed the character and energy of the ski area; pouring one out for the T-bar; how many people you can get on a single T-bar; where the old T-bar is today and the inventive way Mount Pleasant may repurpose it; what kind of chairlift Mount Pleasant would like next and where that would go; the other upgrades that have to happen before a new chair is a possibility; how much it costs to install snowmaking on a single trail; how the ski area’s beginner area could evolve; why Mount Pleasant has a carpet lift sitting in its parking lot; yes there is such a thing as 200 inches of snow in a single Pennsylvania ski season; the mountain’s long-term snowmaking plans; Mount Pleasant’s threaded-through-the-forest trail network and border-to-border ski philosophy; why the ski area has minimal terrain park features and whether that could change; what happened to the old Minute Man trail and whether it could ever come back into the trail network; how Mount Pleasant managed to stay open seven nights per week in a challenging labor market; what would happen to the ski area were it to change its operating schedule after its season-pass sale; what happened when Vail moved into nearby Ohio; Mount Pleasant’s unique baselodge; whether we could see Mount Pleasant on the Indy Pass or any other pass coalitions; and season passes.

Skiers ride one of Mount Pleasant’s now-defunct T-bars in an undated photo. Photo courtesy of Mount Pleasant of Edinboro.

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

Small ski areas, I think, are having a moment. I don’t have any data to prove that, but everywhere I look, megapass burnout it palpable. I love the rambling adventure of big ski areas. The sport could not be mainstream without them. But that doesn’t mean that a big ski area is the best ski area for every ski day. Sometimes a slowpoke day through the slowpoke woods is all you need. You don’t have to fight for your life to find a parking spot or line up for the chairlift or buy a Rice Krispy Treat. You just ski. It’s a different enough kind of skiing that it feels like a different sport altogether.

There’s a bit of a positive feedback loop going on here. Skiers – especially skiers with kids – seek out an experience that isn’t defined by Times-Square-on-New-Year’s-Eve crowds. They find little back-of-the-woods bumps like Mount Pleasant or Maple Ski Ridge, New York or Whaleback, New Hampshire. They like it. They tell their friends. The incremental revenue generated from this word-of-mouth uptick in visits goes straight back into the mountain. A place like Mount Pleasant trades a Roman-era T-bar for a modern chairlift. That baseline experience in place, its future becomes more certain, and all of skiing benefits from a healthier beginner mountain.

Mount Pleasant is pretty much exactly all of this. It’s just big enough to not bore a seasoned skier while remaining approachable enough for someone who’s never clicked in. It’s not an easy balance to achieve. Halmi, the owners, everyone involved with this place have accomplished something pretty cool: saved a dying ski area without a huge airdrop of cash. It’s a story that others who want to do the same could surely benefit from hearing.

For all its historic features, Mount Pleasant has upgraded to modern grooming and snowmaking, along with a used Riblet triple from Granite Peak, Wisconsin. Photo courtesy of Mount Pleasant of Edinboro.

Why you should ski Mount Pleasant of Edinboro

I said this to Halmi on the podcast, and I’ll repeat it here: I liked Mount Pleasant a lot more than I was expecting to. Not that I thought I would dislike it. I am a huge fan of small ski areas. But many of them, admirable as their mission is, are not super compelling from a terrain point of view, with a clear-cut hillside stripped of the deadly obstacles (read: trees), that their first-timer clientele may have a habit of smashing into.

Mount Pleasant from the sky. You can faintly make out the abandoned Minute Man run in the trees looker’s right off the main slope. Photo courtesy of Mount Pleasant of Edinboro.

What I found was a neat little trail system woven through the woods. It’s a layout that encourages exploration and find-your-own lines inventiveness. I’ll admit I hit it after a storm cycle, when the snow stood deep in the trees and the old T-bar line was skiable. That did favorably color my impression of the place – snow makes everything better. But the overall trail-management approach resonated with me in a way that’s rare for sub-400-vertical-foot ski areas. It felt like a ski area run by skiers, which is not as universal as you may suppose.

It also just feels cool to be there. The dairy barn/lodge alone would be an attraction even if you had no interest in anything above it. The fact that the ski area not only still has, but still uses a 1976 Tucker Sno-Cat is one of the raddest things in America (the mountain also has modern groomers). The place bristles with life and energy, a real kids-and-families joint materializing out of the Pennsylvania backroads.

Mount Pleasant’s lodge is in its second life - it was built in the 1950s as a dairy barn. Photo courtesy of Mount Pleasant of Edinboro.
The lodge today, with outdoor hangout spots added post-Covid. Photo courtesy of Mount Pleasant of Edinboro.

The place has some quirks. The steepest part of the main slope is near the bottom – a nightmare for a beginner’s-oriented hill. If you follow the abandoned T-bar all the way down, you find yourself on the far side of the tubing hill, and it’s an adventure in poling, a ride up the J-bar, and a duck-walk back up to the chairlift to find your way home. But it’s all part of the adventure, and all part of the character of this fabulous little ski area. It feels well-loved and well-cared-for, and that is clear the minute you arrive.

More Mount Pleasant of Edinboro

  • Lift Blog’s inventory of Mount Pleasant’s lift fleet

  • Historic Mount Pleasant trailmaps on skimap.org

  • Mount Pleasant season passes

  • A trailmap and brochure from Mount Pleasant’s inaugural season, 1970-71:

  • Here’s a photo of the lodge prior to its conversion from a dairy barn:

Photo courtesy of Mount Pleasant of Edinboro.

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