Apr 3 • 1HR 33M

Podcast #80: Snow Ridge, New York Co-Owner & GM Nick Mir

“We could get two feet of snow here, and literally 15 minutes down the road they could have gotten a dusting"

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

Nick Mir, co-owner and general manager of Snow Ridge, New York

Mir getting after it on a Snow Ridge pow day. Photo by Nicola Rinaldo (@nicolavisuals on Instagram), courtesy of Snow Ridge.

Recorded on

March 29, 2022

About Snow Ridge

Click here for a mountain stats overview

Money quote:

If you want western powder, the best place to find it in the east is the Tug Hill Plateau in New York, and upland region east of Lake Ontario. They should coin the phrase “Greatest Snow in the East.” They get tons of lake effect and most of this snow is high quality. Unfortunately, they lack an essential ingredient for powder skiing: mountains! There is, however, one ski area on the Tug Hill Plateau’s steeper eastern face, Snow Ridge, which offers up about [500] vertical feet of skiing. As a kid growing up in upstate NY, my first true deep-powder experiences were at Snow Ridge.

- From a 2015 Washington Post interview with Jim Steenburgh, “professor of atmospheric science at the University of Utah, an expert on mountain weather and climate, and a die-hard skier,” and author of Secrets of the Greatest Snow on Earth: Weather, Climate Change, and Finding Deep Powder in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains and around the World.

Owned by: The mother-son team of Cyndy Sisto and Nick Mir

Base elevation: 1,350 feet

Summit elevation: 1,850 feet

Vertical drop: 500 feet

Average annual snowfall: 230 inches

Trail count: 31 (14% expert, 48% advanced, 27% intermediate, 11% beginner)

Lift count: 5 (3 doubles, 1 T-bar, 1 carpet) - view Lift Blog’s inventory of Snow Ridge’s lift fleet

Historic Snow Ridge trailmaps on skimap.org

Why I interviewed him

The perception is hard-wired and widespread, intractable and exasperating: the East is ice. Inclines paved like a boat launch. Volcanic. Like skiing on the surface of the moon. It is meant as a jab from the high-altitude West, but the East believes it too. The Born from Ice crowds tut-tuts about the internet, “if you can ski the East, you can ski anywhere,” casting the whole of it as a kind of marine-camp proving ground, the bent-rimmed backyard hoop to the glorious Rockies, skiing’s NBA.

This whole story is sort of true and it’s sort of not. Lacking the West’s high alpine, New England and New York are vulnerable to season-long freeze-thaw cycles, to bands of rain and ice storms and sleet and hail. Mix in high skier density, narrow trails, and the impossible predominance of windshield-wiper turns, and you get trails skied off by 11 on weekends, hardboiled moguls, concrete layers set like booby traps at the well of spring slush turns. It can be an amazing mess.

But some regions are tidier than others. The Northeast is like Manhattan, a city of neighborhoods, each one distinct. As with the West, altitude matters, as does aspect and shape of the mountain. And water, or proximity to it. There are two places in the Northeast where some combination of these elements combines to produce outsized snowfall: the Green Mountain Spine in Northern Vermont (especially Sugarbush north to Jay Peak), and the Tug Hill Plateau, seated just east of Lake Ontario in Upstate New York. Snow Ridge hangs off the eastern edge of this geologic feature, in the bullseye of the lake effect snowtrain. Observe:

Location is approximate. Base image courtesy of National Weather Service Buffalo.

The result is something special, a microclimate more typical of the world’s high-mountain redoubts. “We could get two feet of snow here, and literally 15 minutes down the road they could have gotten a dusting,” Mir told me in the interview.

Snow Ridge is not the only New York ski area floating in this nirvana zone. McCauley – 633 vertical feet of snow-choked boulder fields and glades parked 32 miles to the east – and 300-foot Dry Hill are also hooked up to nature’s firehose. Woods Valley catches a lot of it as well. It’s a fun little foursome, undersized and overserved, and, for the wily and adventurous among us, fortunately overlooked.

What we talked about

Thoughts on pushing Snow Ridge’s closing date into April if conditions ever allow; I admit I don’t really understand what a rail jam is - sue me; the complexity and expense of building a good terrain park; growing up at Toggenburg; ski racing and its frustrations; fleeing West to ski-bum Colorado and Oregon and the eventual pull of home; how a long-time ski family came to own their own ski area; “we actually did this” – what it felt like to get the keys to the kingdom; the condition of Snow Ridge when Mir arrived in 2015; the intense commitment and effort necessary to run a family ski area; resilience in the maw of a break-even business; how long it took to turn a profit; how much a guy who owns a ski area actually get to ski; why Snow Ridge removed and did not replace the Snowy Meadows double; how much it costs to run a chairlift; possible future consolidation of Ridge Runner and North Chair; the natural-snow, mostly ungroomed hideaway of the Snow Pocket terrain and T-bar; the anomaly of fresh-powder laps at a modern lift-served U.S. ski resort and how Snow Ridge delivers; whether Snow Pocket could ever get a chairlift; whether we could ever see a lift return to South Slope; the eventual fate of the retired top T-bar terminal; where and why Snow Ridge expanded its trail network for the 2021-22 ski season; why Snow Ridge moved the progression park from the carpet area to the top of the mountain; where we can expect to see additional new trails next season; potential future expansion skier’s right off the top of the Pocket T-bar and skier’s left off the top of North; the gnarly existing terrain cut through North; Snow Ridge’s powder bullseye on the edge of the Tug Hill Plateau; the quality of Lake Ontario lake effect snow; plans to amp up the snowmaking system; grooming and the art of crafting an interesting mountain; why Snow Ridge joined the Indy Pass; the mountain’s budget season pass; new reciprocal partners for 2022-23; reaction to Toggenburg closing; whether Mir would have bought the ski area had he had the chance; competing against enormous state-owned ski areas as a family-owned small business; and New York’s rebate program for high-efficiency snowguns.

Mir and Sisto, pictured around the time they acquired the ski area. Photo by Nicola Rinaldo (@nicolavisuals on Instagram), courtesy of Snow Ridge.

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

It’s too early to say which forces will capsize the next wave of yet-to-be lost ski areas. After nominal or nonexistent snowmaking drove hundreds of mountains to failure in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, the number of lift-served bumps has stayed relatively stable since around 2005, hovering between a high of 485 for the 2006-07 season to a pandemic-induced low of 462 last year (a handful of ski areas voluntarily suspended operations to pass on the complications of socially distant skiing).

With the exception of a few dozen snow-choked Western mountains and some ropetow bumps that survive by the sky, pretty much all of today’s survivors built their way into resilience one mile of pipe and snowgun at a time. That, more than anything, stabilized the ski landscape, giving us the rough U.S. ski area footprint we know today.

But it won’t be enough forever. As well-capitalized standouts such as Holiday Valley, Windham, and state-owned Gore have modernized their lift fleets and snowmaking systems, many of New York’s family-owned ski areas have languished. Dozens of chairlifts that predate the moon landing still spin across the state*. Antique snowguns - electricity hogs that blow marginal snow and under very specific conditions - are still in widespread use. No one’s, like, pulling a snowcat with oxen or anything, but they are really rubberbanding this thing together in many cases.

Fortunately, there is a hack. All you need is an individual with the energy of a nuclear reactor and the patience of tectonic plates. The person has to love owning a ski area more than they love skiing – because they’ll hardly ever get to ski – and be willing to compete against ski areas 10 times their size that their own tax dollars subsidize. And they have to believe in their own vision more than the slaughterhouse of weather gutting their life’s work outside all winter long.

I kind of want to see how this ends. Mir pond “skimming.” Photo by Nicola Rinaldo (@nicolavisuals on Instagram), courtesy of Snow Ridge.

This is the reality at Snow Ridge. The lift fleet was installed before the breakup of Pangea. When Mir and his mother arrived in 2015, pretty much everything was gassed out: those lifts, the snowmaking, the buildings, the groomer. The place was a museum. And not in the way that Mad River Glen is a museum, intentionally funky and camouflaging newness beneath a vintage sheen. Snow Ridge was falling apart.

Seven years later, those lifts are still there, but they’ve been overhauled and fixed up. Much of the snowmaking plant is new. Two modern groomers buff the slopes. The bar is beautiful, and Mir and Sisto and the rest of their family are rehabbing the rest of the buildings room by room – when I stopped by in January, the ski area had re-opened a remodeled bathroom that day.

Mir is young, outspoken, determined, smart. And he saved Snow Ridge. Not every back-of-the-woods bump is going to survive the great modernization, with its rush to ecommerce and D-line detachables and snowguns activated from an app. But many will, and those that do are going to have leaders like him to guide them through it.

*Don’t do it, Identifies-Solutions-In-Need-Of-A-Problem-Bro. New York is one of the most highly regulated states in the country, and these lifts are inspected by a state agency annually. Ski Areas of New York also runs one of the most well-regarded lift-safety programs in the country, and serious chairlift accidents are remarkably rare here, in spite of more than 4 million annual skier visits.

Why you should ski Snow Ridge

New York has a lot of ski areas. It does not have a lot of wild ski areas, with the sort of yeah-maybe-this-was-a-terrible-idea runs that slug you like a car crash. Snow Ridge is an exception, with a little slice of madness christened North Ridge that will smash your face in without asking permission. Think Paradise at Mad River Glen, but without the vert or the waterfall, a half-dozen tangled lines spiraling in and around a matrix of drainages. Amazing Grace is the truly feral one, a Pinocchio-down-the-whale’s-throat plunge into the bristling abyss.

Snow Ridge only gives you 500 vertical feet, but it’s a big 500. It’s all fall-line, for starters, like skiing the edge of a pyramid. The terrain tames out in the evacuation from North Ridge, but it’s still straight down, expansive, and empty. On MLK Day last year I lapped the Snow Pocket T-bar nine times as foot-deep powder stood in untouched fields visible from the lift line. I feasted. In and out of the glades, along the tree-lined plunge of Kuersteiner off the top of South, down the narrow swordfight of the unmarked abandoned South T-bar line. All day long like this, 34 runs and no liftlines, lapping that New York natural to exhaustion.

Snow Ridge is one of six Indy Pass partners scattered across New York. It floats in a Bermuda Triangle between Greek Peak to the south, Titus to the north, and Catamount to the east. While, as Mir told me in our conversation, it’s getting busier, Snow Ridge is still a hideaway, the back-pocket secret you can save for a holiday powder day, when the masses throttle the Northeast giants with the kind of meme-spawning liftlines their big-time marketing and megapass affiliations bring. Or watch the weather and sneak up when everyone else gets skunked and that little circle of pink hovers near the top of America.

More Snow Ridge

Mir and Sisto hanging out in the summer. Photo by Nicola Rinaldo (@nicolavisuals on Instagram), courtesy of Snow Ridge.

The Storm publishes year-round, and guarantees 100 articles per year. This is article 35/100 in 2022. Want to send feedback? Reply to this email and I will answer. You can also email skiing@substack.com.

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