‘Powder’ Fades, for Now, as Ski Media Wipeout Continues
Plus New Hampshire cancels its passport program, and Jay and Magic make big moves
Powder: The Skier’s (who are way cooler than me) Magazine
The first time I saw Powder, I wasn’t sure if I would be allowed to buy it. It sat on a drugstore rack in those days when niche magazines could still be mass market enough to be purchased in the same establishment that sold nebulizers and cough drops and 96-packs of plastic toy soldiers frozen into battle poses. I stood holding it and looking at the cover for a very long time. A skier in a puffy neon onsie erupted in a tuck off a cliff band. In his airborne poise with just a set of skinny skis between him and the unseen earth below and a nebula of snow at once streaking off like a cartoon firetrail and exploding about him in chunks he resembled a comet rattling through space and he looked just as indifferent to the puny life below and just as doomed to eventually burn himself out in the infinity of space.
“THE SKIER’S MAGAZINE” it declared in all caps below the POWDER logo. “COLORADO PASSES – big vertical, easy access, no cost,” had been pasted above the flying skier. “THE BIG TRADEOFF: Goin’ to work or goin’ skiing,” was typed below.
This, I concluded, was a publication for people way cooler than me. I was a new skier but already a media-obsessed one who had been reading Ski and Skiing and Snow Country for months, but Powder seemed different. It did not have the how-to-ski sections that backfilled every issue of those other publications and that had become my Obi Wan. It scarcely mentioned the lift-served resorts that were those magazines’ main operating platform. In the universe of Powder, corduroy did not exist. It was all about remote places, huge air, and bottomless snow. I put the magazine down and left.
I made three or four trips back before I decided to risk having the cashier call me out as a poseur when I tried to buy it. And somehow, doing so really did make me feel like a real skier. As a Midwest kid sequestered to whatever lift-served bumps I could reach in a four-hour daytrip, I initially found it hard to relate to. But the writing was great and so I kept buying it, and as my skiing orientation evolved toward big-mountain skiing and I could experience the exhilaration of powder skiing and big air (we’re speaking in relative terms here) for myself, Powder became a staple in my ski media diet. For the next 25 years I read it, sometimes as a subscriber, sometimes off the rack until I could no longer find it on any racks anywhere. The first issue used to land in August and its arrival turned the ignition on the agonizing pre-season amp-up period seated between summer and the mid-November spinning of the lifts. That starting gun issue drifted over the years into September and now the magazine is drifting somewhere else altogether.
Last week, Powder parent A360 Media notified the magazine’s editorial staff that they would go on indefinite furlough as of Nov. 20. The season’s first issue is already out, and a gear guide and the photo annual are forthcoming. After that, Editor-in-Chief Sierra Shafer wrote on the magazine’s website, “we do not know if or when this hiatus will end.”
I’m not ready to mourn Powder just yet. The brand is too strong and the spirit of the thing is too powerful for me to believe it will just decompose, even if A360 puts it in a warehouse for a few years. They will bring it back or, more likely, sell it. Whoever buys it is going to need a new vision. I don’t mean content-wise, because the writing and the photography in Powder have always soared, but the glossy newsstand magazine business model is broken. This is not a skiing-specific problem. We are all phone zombies now, and Powder 2.0 is probably going to have to find a way to exist inside of that Matrix.
Or maybe not. We are in a period of grand media experimentation. Mountain Gazette (a Storm Skiing Podcast sponsor), has arisen again, this time in a limited-edition, super-premium format that owner Mike Rogge told me builds off a model that has worked in other genres. Whether it works for skiing (though MG is not exclusively a skiing mag), remains to be seen. But it is a promising departure from the cheap subscription model that ski publications have existed on for decades and seem to be riding one after the next into oblivion, and it may inform a future version of Powder.
Talk about burning down the grain silo because you don’t want to pay the heating bill
Well no one ever talks about that because I don’t think grain silos have heat (I actually don’t know anything about grain silos, but I’m going to go ahead and assume they store grain for future use), but this is essentially what first Pennsylvania and now New Hampshire is doing by mothballing their respective kids-ski-free programs for the 2020-21 ski season.
For those unfamiliar with these programs, they vary in their details but typically provide kids in the 8- to 11-ish age range with a set number of free lift tickets at participating ski areas across the state for a nominal fee. The programs often have lesson and rental components for beginners. For families desperate to do something over the winter other than stare at their devices and get fat but intimidated by skiing’s high cost of entry, discounted-to-the-point-of-free skiing could ignite a new something-to-do-together that could carry on indefinitely.
We will be sharing more detailed information once officials with the State of New Hampshire have reviewed and approved ski area reopening guidance, but in the meantime, ski areas are developing plans to ensure that they can safely manage onsite visitor traffic flow, and as such the Ski NH Board of Directors unanimously voted to suspend sales of our Ski NH good-anytime tickets and 4th & 5th Grade Snowsports Passports for the 2020-21 ski season. We apologize for any inconvenience this has caused you and your family.
This, I believe, is a mistake. I understand the crowding concerns, and I also understand the (unstated) reality that many ski areas are going to see significant revenue declines this year as social distancing requirements push down income from ticketing, lessons, rentals, food and beverage, lodging, and, well, everything else. But the $50 ticket you’re comping today could be costing you decades of $10,000-per-week family vacations for a ski-obsessed adult who would never have discovered skiing if not for this program. The industry is not great in general at making skiers, and this isn’t going to help anything outside of the very short term.
Well I just looked up grain silos and it’s kind of interesting if you care to see.
Next up for Jay Peak: robot volcanoes
My early nominee for ski resort most f-ed by Covid is Jay Peak, which draws as much as half of its business from closed-since-March Canada, just a few miles north. The mountain had already promised to pro-rate or refund passes in the event of continued border closures, but appeared to weary of waiting around last week, when it announced that it would simply refund them all:
Jay is promising to make passes available at pro-rated early-bird rates if the border re-opens. Which, given the recent Covid upticks in both countries seems about as likely as a Trump-Biden dinner party at the Michigan governor’s mansion. But the mountain has been a leader in Covid response since the virus decided it would re-order our civilization in March, becoming the first large mountain in the region to shut down and one of the first to offer a season pass guarantee.
All of which is remarkable considering what the mountain has been through. It’s been for sale for years after the businessman equivalent of Krusty the Clown did his best to crater the whole operation in an EB-5 visa scandal. Preliminary purchase offers came in lower than expected. And now half its business is about to evaporate because we can’t collectively manage a virus that we’ve had clear guidelines on how to manage since April.
Which should all be a suitable prelude to next month’s arrival of robot volcanos, which if you’re wondering are 900-foot-tall robots with volcano heads that simply walk around crushing things with their steamroller lower bodies while spewing lava in horrifying rainshowers of death. They will also flatten the mountain and leave nothing in its place save a big pile of rocks and this one word, “unless.” Cue the last page of The Lorax. Whatever. I’m done with this fucking year.
Magic Mountain moves first, again
From a marketing and community-building point of view, no one in the Northeast is moving more deftly than Magic Mountain. It was the first ski area in the region to overhaul its season pass plan in response to Covid, the first to announce an updated ops plan to accommodate social distancing, and now the first to follow a diversity pledge into something tangible with the hiring of what may be the first Black ski school director in the country.
Part of this ability to act quickly is due to inherent advantages in its small size. Of course Magic can overhaul their season pass plan faster than Vail, which did so in a 9,000-page document that was only slightly less confusing to read than the screenplay of Vanilla Sky translated into runes on a cave wall. But Magic is consistently formulating, executing, and communicating these plans faster and in a more thorough way than any of its fellow independent resorts, even those far larger and with more resources.
The mountain isn’t perfect. The original plan was to get the Black Chair installed for last season, but the mountain ran into a series of delays, including an AWOL contractor, that a larger operation may have been able to throw money or lawyers at. Long term, Magic needs to expand its snowmaking plant. But for a small-time operation in a big-time ski state, it is showing its more-established neighbors how to build a following in the modern ski world.
Long term, we’re going to need more diverse folks working in skiing if we want citizens of our increasingly diverse nation to know, on a mass scale, that they are welcome at the mountains. Magic’s new hire is a good start. Let’s see everyone else follow them. Again.
Lots of New Hampshire: John Lowell is retiring as Attitash GM after 17 years at the mountain. Greg Gavrilets, GM of Vail’s Hidden Valley Ski Area in Missouri, will replace him. New Hampshire ski legend Phil Gravink has died. New Hampshire issues ski-area operating guidelines.
Vail Resort Northeast comms manager Jamie Storrs on Out of Bounds Podcast to answer Epic Pass questions. An update on New England’s major chairlift projects. Win an Indy Pass through New York Ski Blog. Some gorgeous Vermont shredding photos in Vermont Ski + Ride. I wrote a Covid ops preview for Vermont Ski + Ride. Freeskier with a history of snowmaking. Anyone know which New York ski area this is for sale?
Ski with their annual ranking of Eastern resorts, which I still don’t agree with. My top five, in case you’re wondering, are Sugarloaf, Jay, Sugarbush, Stowe, and Killington, in that order. Here’s the Western list too if you’re interested. It’s a bit more in line with reality but Snowbird at 29 like K Brah I get it’s a reader survey but come on.
How good does Mad River Glen look through the eyes of ski map-making legend James Niehues? If you zoom in, you can probably see the frozen waterfall.
This week in not skiing
Dear People of the Future: Yes those of us alive in this time of awe and wonder and mass stupidity were aware in this third week of October 2020 that we were collectively aboard the nation-state version of the Titanic and headed toward a K2-sized iceberg at 1,000 miles an hour with PT Barnum at the helm. But there’s no time or way really to stop the collision now and frankly we just want to see what happens, because we’ve become quite bored over these last 75 years or so with all this peace and stability and general economic prosperity and we think it would be fun if instead we just burned down our whole system of government and started killing one another in the streets. But if you’re curious about what I was doing in these days leading up to a potential collapse of civilization just look back through your time decoder from whatever planet you evacuated to after we ruined this one and find the moron in the Ski The East hoodie and ballcap and surgical mask and aviators spinning in circles on his bicycle in a Greenpoint parking lot like he’s 7 years old and still thinks he’ll be skiing next month. There you’ll see some kind of tranquility but also willful obliviousness of the type that’s necessary to not be consumed by the generally horrible state of everything in these decadent and angry days.
COVID-19 & Skiing Podcasts: Author and Industry Veteran Chris Diamond | Boyne Resorts CEO Stephen Kircher | Magic Mountain President Geoff Hatheway | NSAA CEO Kelly Pawlak| Berkshire East/Catamount Owner & Goggles for Docs founder Jon Schaefer | Shaggy’s Copper Country Skis Cofounder Jeff Thompson | Doppelmayr USA President Katharina Schmitz | Mt. Baldy GM Robby Ellingson| Alterra CEO Rusty Gregory | NSAA Director of Risk & Regulatory Affairs Dave Byrd
The Storm Skiing Podcasts: Killington & Pico GM Mike Solimano | Plattekill owners Danielle and Laszlo Vajtay | New England Lost Ski Areas Project Founder Jeremy Davis | Magic Mountain President Geoff Hatheway | Lift Blog Founder Peter Landsman | Boyne Resorts CEO Stephen Kircher | Burke Mountain GM Kevin Mack | Liftopia CEO Evan Reece | Berkshire East & Catamount Owner & GM Jon Schaefer| Vermont Ski + Ride and Vermont Sports Co-Publisher & Editor Lisa Lynn| Sugarbush President & COO Win Smith| Loon President & GM Jay Scambio| Sunday River President & GM Dana Bullen| Big Snow & Mountain Creek VP of Sales & Marketing Hugh Reynolds | Mad River Glen GM Matt Lillard| Indy Pass Founder Doug Fish | National Brotherhood of Skiers President Henri Rivers | Winter 4 Kids & National Winter Activity Center President & CEO Schone Malliet | Vail Veterans Program President & Founder Cheryl Jensen | Mountain Gazette Owner & Editor Mike Rogge | Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows President & CMO Ron Cohen | Aspiring Olympian Benjamin Alexander | Sugarloaf GM Karl Strand – Parts One & Two| Cannon GM John DeVivo|