Podcast #88: Snow Trails, Ohio General Manager Scott Crislip
“Whenever the opportunity comes to make snow, come November, we’re going to do it”
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Scott Crislip, General Manager of Snow Trails, Ohio
May 31, 2022
About Snow Trails
Click here for a mountain stats overview
Owned by: The Carto family
Located in: Mansfield, Ohio
Closest neighboring ski areas: Mad River Mountain (1.5 hours), Boston Mills-Brandywine (1 hour)
Base elevation: 1,174 feet
Summit elevation: 1,475 feet
Vertical drop: 301 feet
Skiable Acres: 200
Night skiing: Yes, 100% of terrain
Average annual snowfall: 30 to 50 inches
Trail count: 17 (20% black, 60% intermediate, 20% beginner)
Lift count: 7 (4 triples, 2 doubles, 1 carpet - view Lift Blog’s inventory of Snow Trail’s lift fleet)
Why I interviewed him
Stare at it for a while, and the American ski map teases some captivating storylines. How is it that there are so many ski areas in Southern California? Or New Mexico? Or how about that map dot above Tucson, or, for God’s sake, Ala-freaking-bama? Are those real? Why are there so many ski areas in practically snowless eastern Pennsylvania, and so few (relatively speaking) in snow-choked and mountainous Washington and Oregon?
But one of the most curious sectors of U.S. skiing is the lower Midwest. Ohio hosts five public ski areas; Indiana has two; Illinois, four; Iowa, three; Missouri, two. That’s just 16 ski areas across five states. The upper Midwest, by contrast, hosts 90 ski areas across three states: 40 in Michigan, 31 in Wisconsin, 19 in Minnesota.
So that 16 may seem low, but the lower Midwest’s ski area count is actually quite impressive if we look at the macro conditions. Take Ohio: why – how – does this windblown flatland host five public ski areas (a sixth, Big Creek, operates as a private club near Cleveland). Eastern Ohio – the western borderlands of Appalachia – is actually quite hilly. But there aren’t any ski areas there. Instead, Ohio ski life is clustered around or between the state’s many large cities – Dayton, Columbus, Cleveland.
Most of America’s ski areas, if you pick them apart, exist because of a favorable combination of at least a couple of the following factors: elevation, population, aspect, accessibility, snowfall – often lake effect. North-facing Snow Trails, seated high (for Ohio) in the Possum Run Valley, right off Interstate 71 between Columbus (population 889,000) and Cleveland (population 383,000), combines four of the five. The ski area only averages 30 to 50 inches of snowfall per year, depending upon the source, but there’s plenty of juice (snowmaking) to keep the lifts spinning.
The place, in fact, has more skiers than it knows what to do with. Last year, Snow Trails began limiting season pass sales for the first time in its 60 seasons. The outdoor boom hit Ohio as much as it hit New England or Colorado. People wanted to ski. If they live in the north-central part of the state, they’ve got a fine little hill to do it on.
What we talked about
Summertime at Snow Trails; the passing of Snow Trails long-time founder and operator David Carto; the ski area’s founding in the ‘60s; the unique climate of Ohio’s Possum Run Valley; Snow Trails’ novel water source; introducing a “Western” feel to an Ohio ski area; how climate, technology, commitment, and culture work together to make a ski area succeed; the incredible longevity of Snow Trail’s management team; 60 years working at one ski area; Snow Trails’ future as a family-run ski area; don’t let your significant other teach you how to ski; learning to ski on ropetows; the insane grind of a lower Midwest ski season; the Cal Ripken of skiing: 22 years as GM and he’s never missed a day; reflecting on last ski season; “whenever the opportunity comes to make snow, come November, we’re going to do it”; managing volume at a small, insanely busy ski area during the Covid boom; limiting season pass sales; when Snow Trails’ season passes may go on sale; whether Snow Trails has considered joining the Indy Pass; watching Ohio’s collection of independent ski areas slowly consolidate under a single owner throughout the early 2000s; the moment Vail bought four of the five public ski areas in Ohio; Vail’s abysmal performance in Ohio this past season and how Snow Trails rose above skiing’s larger labor and weather struggles to offer 79 hours of operations per week; how Snow Trails will respond to Vail’s $20-an-hour minimum wage; the “gut punch” of Vail’s decision to slash operating hours and days of operation after Epic Pass sales ended; whether the ski area will bring back midnight Fridays; oh man you do NOT take night skiing away from Midwesterners; thoughts on how Vail can turn around the disappointing state of their operations in Ohio; how the installation of carpet lifts transformed the beginner experience at Snow Trails; which chairlift the ski area would like to upgrade next; where the resort is thinking about installing a ropetow; the best location on the mountain to potentially add an additional chairlift; where Snow Trails could potentially expand; the story behind Snow Trails’ glades, an anomaly in the lower Midwest; advancing snowmaking technology and how it increases resilience to climate change; what’s new at Snow Trails for the 2022-23 ski season; and RFID.
Why I thought that now was a good time for this interview
Vail stole the show in Ohio this past winter, mostly through a stunning display of callous ineptitude. Their four ski areas, which for decades have spun the lifts seven days per week, 10 or 12 or more hours per day, slashed hours and days of operation. Here’s what you were faced with, this past winter, if you were an Epic Pass holder in Ohio:
Alpine Valley: closed Monday-Thursday, 3:30-9 Friday, 9-4 weekends (19.5 hours per week)
Boston Mills: closed Monday & Tuesday, 10-3 Wednesday and Thursday, 4-10 Friday, 9-5 weekends (32 hours per week)
Brandywine: 4-10 Monday-Friday, 9-5 Saturday and Sunday (46 hours per week)
Mad River: 3-9 Monday-Friday, 10-5 Saturday and Sunday (44 hours per week)
There were several elements of this modified schedule that were stunning in their complete misapprehension of the local market. First: night skiing, in the Midwest, is everything. Everything. Eliminating it – on Saturdays especially – is baffling beyond belief. Second: curtailing hours after season pass sales are complete is an offensive bait-and-switch, particularly for Midwesterners, who already weather the disrespect of the “flyover country” label. “How dumb does this Colorado, big-mountain company think we are?” was, by all accounts, the sort-of meta-narrative defining local sentiment this past season. Yes, the Epic Ohio Pass – good for unlimited access to all four of the state’s Vail-owned ski areas – started at just $279 for the 2021-22 ski season (it’s $305 right now), but it came with an implied promise that the ski areas would function as the ski areas always had. Crowded? Yes. Frantic? Yes. Existing on the margins of where people can hack a ski experience out of nature’s ferocious whims? Always. But it would be skiing, pretty much whenever you wanted it, for 12 weeks from mid-December to mid-March.
Vail did not deliver on that expectation. The company responded to a mild early season and tight labor market not by dumping resources into operations and hiring but by retreating. Not just in Ohio, but in Indiana and Missouri as well. Paoli Peaks operated four days per week. The Missouri ski areas did better, with seven-day schedules and a decent amount of night skiing. But overall, Vail Resorts did not look like Vail Resorts in the lower Midwest during the 2021-22 ski season. The largest ski company in the world – proud, bold, insatiable, domineering Vail – looked bumbling, scared, confused, lost.
And they would have gotten away with it, too, were it not for those meddling independent ski areas that carried on as though it were a completely normal Midwest ski season. Vail owns seven of the nine public ski areas in Ohio, Indiana, and Missouri. The other two – Perfect North, Indiana and Snow Trails – absolutely embarrassed Vail, exposing every flimsy excuse the company made for curtailing operations. Perfect North spun the lifts 89 hours per week. Snow Trails went 79, offering night skiing until 9 p.m. seven days per week. How did they do this? “We did what we always did,” Crislip told me in the interview. But what was that, exactly? And what could Vail learn from a little reflection after the humbling that was this past Ohio ski season?
Why you should ski Snow Trails
Crislip mused, during our conversation, on the long-term advantages of severely discounting lift tickets for school groups. Those discounted tickets, he said, pay big dividends down the line.
No kidding. I only ever tried skiing because 200-vertical-foot Mott Mountain, Michigan offered $6 lift tickets to my high school in the winter of 1992. I think rentals were an extra $5. A bus ride to the hill and back – about half an hour each way – was free.
Mott Mountain is long gone, but I think we can conclude that the ski industry’s return-on-investment was sufficient. The amount of money that I’ve spent on the sport in the decades since that first bus ride is all of it. There were winters during which I did little else but ski and purchased almost nothing that was not directly ski related, other than gasoline and Taco Bell.
Which is great for kids, right? But why would an accomplished skier ever want to ski a bump like Snow Trails, let alone travel there to do it on purpose? It’s a rhetorical question, asked because the world is still filled with studly chest-beaters, who answer questions like this:
With machofest responses like this:
Twenty years ago, we’d say that if you wanted someone to expose their true selves, get them drunk or angry. Now, you can just open their social media accounts. I don’t know where this dude lives, but if it’s anywhere near Snow Trails, I’d give him this bit of unsolicited advice: put your ego down (it may require the assistance of a forklift), store it somewhere safe, buy a season pass, and go enjoy yourself. If you can’t have fun skiing a bump like this, then I’m not sure you understand how to have fun skiing at all. Get to know the hill, get creative, nod to the lifties – treat it like your local bar or gym or coffee shop. Somewhere to be in the wintertime that isn’t your couch.
Or wait until your trip to Whistler and be happy skiing six days per year. I can’t tell you how to live. I’m just here to make suggestions. Here in New York, I know plenty of people like this. They wouldn’t dare ski Mountain Creek, New Jersey’s beehive-busy analogue to Snow Trails. “You probably ski Mountain Creek” they’ll type on social media, as though there’s something wrong with a thousand-footer with high-speed lifts and a happy hour-priced season pass. But once you adopt this mentality, it’s malignant. Soon, you’re also too good for Hunter, then Gore, then Killington, then, like the Twitter turkey above, the venerable Jay Peak, the NEK powder palace that averages more inches of average annual snowfall than Steamboat or Winter Park. Before you know it, your ski-day choices are down to Snowbird, Jackson Hole, Palisades Tahoe, and Revelstoke. Anything else “isn’t real skiing.”
Or something like that. It’s all a little tedious and stupid. We’re fortunate, in this country, to have hundreds of viable ski areas, pretty much anyplace that hills and cold collide. If you live anywhere near one, there are a lot more reasons to frequent it than to snub it. There are plenty of skiers who live in Florida or Texas or Georgia, places where the outdoor lift-served bump is an impossibility. Not to sound like your mom when you were five years old, but there are plenty of kids in the world that don’t have any toys to play with, so try to be happy with the ones you’ve got. Go skiing.
More Snow Trails
A Mansfield News Journal obituary for longtime Snow Trails owner David Carto
Near the end of the interview, Crislip says refers to the work that “you and Matt” are doing to promote Midwest skiing. Matt is Matt Zebransky, founder of midwestskiers.com and all-around good dude. The site is comprehensive and terrific, and Zebransky is a really talented video producer and editor, who puts together some knockout reels laser-focused on Midwest skiing. Zebransky introduced me to Crislip after he hosted me for a podcast interview recently (I’ll let you know whenever that’s live). The Midwest Skiers Instagram account is a terrific follow.
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