Sending Thoughts and Prayers to Save Your Ski Season

As Europe considers shutdown, U.S. carries on

Let’s keep Jesus on speed dial just in case

When Italy closed tighter than a submarine in early March to stop the spread of Covid-19, I was skeptical that the United States would ever follow it into lockdown, despite the desperate pleas blipping across Twitter like Morse-coded messages from a warzone. I was stunned when we actually did, shuttering ski areas and everything else in a profound moment of national unity and pants-shitting fear.

That lasted about three weeks, at which time armed protesters channeling their inner Paul Revere stormed state capitols across the land to warn Americans about the existential danger of stay-at-home orders. Because nothing says freedom like an AR-15, wraparound shades, a tactical vest, and a goatee. I guess.

Thus began a partisan snowball fight over the efficacy and need for masks, social distancing, re-opening schools, and on and on. Somewhere in there, full shutdowns became political poison. President-elect Joe Biden has repeatedly said he will not shutter the economy. And as we learn more about how the virus spreads, we’ve arrived at a version of reality in which we can mitigate risk while certain sorts of commerce and fun continue. This includes skiing.

Or does it? After a cautious start to the ski season, Europe is jumping out the tram doors without checking the snow depth first:

… with the Christmas holiday season in sight, leaders in France, Germany and Italy indicated this week that ski slopes would remain closed at least until the end of the year, wary of repeating the waves of infections fueled by negligence in the early days and relaxed restrictions over summer.

Yet with Austria and Switzerland vowing to reopen their resorts, a high-altitude rivalry is once again putting to the test attempts by European countries to coordinate their response to the pandemic when it comes to tourism.

The obvious question becomes whether these European ski area shutdowns, which are part of larger national actions, are once again a bellwether to U.S. closures. And the answer, I think, is probably not. The skiing cultures – and the governments that regulate them – are too distinct on either side of the Atlantic to draw easy comparisons.

“If you think about the European model, the resorts don’t control on-mountain food and beverage; people rent two- to 12-bedroom chalets by the hundreds of thousands, with other households; their lift ques are set up completely in an uncontrolled fashion; and the communal after-ski experience is so much a part of their scene - how could you unwind that and stay open?” said Boyne Resorts President and CEO Stephen Kircher. “While here in the U.S., we have such a ski focus and the rest is managed as the state and local restrictions allow, which puts us in the category of every other business: open, reduced-capacity or closed on the inside. Not to mention the U.S. industry has come together to create a unified response, including the NSAA's Ski Well, Be Well guidelines.”

Yes, skiing is currently shut down in New Mexico. But it sprints ahead elsewhere, held back in the Northeast only by unseasonably warm weather and a desire to have more terrain open than usual to accommodate social distancing.

But there will be no national lockdown. Not in 2021 and not in any of our lifetimes. The concept, novel in March, has sprouted, flourished, and then ossified into a political flashpoint as bitter as any other. And like so many other urgent national issues, we’ve collectively decided that the best action is no action. The president, long checked out of any Covid response, doesn’t appear to be doing much other than golfing and complaining about voter fraud on Twitter. A new administration is roughly two months from taking power. The United States, meanwhile, continues to lead the world in Covid cases, even as the pandemic accelerates across the nation. The New York Times:

… the sheer breadth of the current outbreak means that the cost in lives lost every day is still climbing. More than 170,000 Americans are now testing positive for the virus on an average day, straining hospitals across much of the country, including in many states that had seemed to avoid the worst of the pandemic. More than 1.1 million people tested positive in the past week alone.

Forty-four states have set weekly case records and 25 states have set weekly death records in November, as the nation’s death toll has surpassed 264,000 and officials worry that Thanksgiving gatherings may cause infections to spread still more widely in the coming days.

As mass shootings became something of a national sport over the past 20 years, America decided that the best way to combat this unsolvable problem that basically every other country has solved was to habitually offer thoughts and prayers to the victims, a reality so comically stupid that I’m not sure I’d believe it was real if I didn’t live here. In practical terms, the feds kicked the problem back to the states, which in turn handed it off to businesses and individuals to sort out. Whether Jesus has time to get involved is up to Him. This has worked out so well that we’re repeating the pattern with Covid. The disastrous results clear, we once more carry on into oblivion.

We will have a ski season (we already do). And we should. Resort operators have turned their operations upside down to make sure we can ski safely. I believe in their plans. But they have in many cases been left on islands of sanity amid oceans of maskless sharks. And if these hordes attack, there may not be much the individual ski areas can do other than fall on their swords and close for a week or two.

But let’s hope not. And while we’re hoping, get in all the days you can while you can. Thoughts and prayers.

Hey I can’t find the complaint department on this trailmap

So this greeted me at Hunter Mountain on Wednesday:

Not a huge surprise, but an unwelcome one. I’m a fan of trailmaps, so much so that I have defied the Microsoft Word spellchecker’s insistence that it is not a word via a permanent entry in my custom dictionary. My laundry room is a shrine to ski days past, as told through trailmaps:

Ostensibly, per Vail PR, this move to digital guides is to “reduce contact.” Which, OK, but aren’t trailmaps usually just sitting in gigantic piles all over the resorts? Paper doesn’t appear to be a primary vector for virus transmission, though I appreciate the notion of reducing person-to-person touchpoints.

More cynically, this could be viewed as a cost-cutting move. The printing bill for trailmaps at 37 resorts, some of them roughly the size of Puerto Rico, must be astonishing, and Vail can hardly be blamed for finding savings when the sort of high-end destination travelers that fuel its empire are likely to do less traveling, and to closer destinations. Vail is not alone in this, as Jackson Hole also yanked paper maps for the season.

While I am hoping paper maps reappear next season (or whenever Covid disappears), my guess is that they will be another casualty of the digital age, a thing we no longer bother with because it is not absolutely necessary to have them in tangible, holdable form. They already stand, in billboard fashion, at the top and bottom of almost every chairlift in America. That will have to do if you are one of the five people who still doesn’t have a smartphone. If you absolutely must have a paper map, you will likely find them for purchase, the ski area equivalent of a program at a baseball game. It is possible that some highly regulated states, such as Vermont or New York, may mandate their availability as a safety consideration, but they could go away just about everywhere else.

I would prefer a physical artifact. Like a wicket ticket, a trailmap is a physical representation of the mountain, a keepsake and a piece of art, a memory. I have one for just about every ski area I’ve ever visited, including many that no longer exist, and including many that are too small to really need one. It’s a sentimental part of the skiing experience that I’m not ready to let go of just yet, and I hope they stick around.

The worst ski area owner in the Northeast may be on his way out

The Northeast is fortunate to have many dedicated, smart, innovative owners to steer its remaining mountains through the thicket of climate change, industry consolidation, and the need to appeal to a more diverse demographic. Magic, Smuggs, Berkshire East, Jiminy Peak, Wachusett, Plattekill, Butternut, Bolton Valley – these are places where success was not inevitable. They exist and thrive because of the vision and tenacity of their owners.

Unfortunately, every teeter-totter has a counterweight. In the case of the Northeast, it is James Confalone, without question the most negligent ski area owner in the region. Since purchasing Big Squaw in 1995, he let the Maine ski area’s lodge, hotel, and upper mountain fall into disrepair. A chairlift that malfunctioned in 2004 was never repaired. He shuttered the ski area for several years, and it operates in wilted form today only because a non-profit Friends of The Mountain group stepped in to run it. And the state recently found him guilty of illegal timber harvesting, a crime so ridiculous it sounds like something a cartoon villain would cook up in a fit of cackling laughter.

Now his reign may finally, mercifully be ending. From the Bangor Daily News:

A Superior Court judge has ordered the owner of a ski resort overlooking Moosehead Lake to repair and restore the ski mountain, ski lifts and other resort property to the condition they were in before James Confalone of Florida purchased it from the state 25 years ago.

The ruling from Superior Court Justice William Stokes marked the end to a long legal saga that began in August 2016 when the state filed a lawsuit alleging that the failure of Confalone and his company, Moosehead Mountain Resort Inc., “to invest, maintain, expand and operate the entire ski area and resort has had a devastating impact on the economy of Greenville and surrounding communities.”

Piscataquis County commissioners intervened in the case in early 2019 in hopes of finding a way to revive the ski resort that once included a lodge and a motel as an “economic engine” for one of the state’s poorest counties, said their attorney, Severin Beliveau of Portland. He also said there is a potential buyer for the property who is interested in reviving the ski area as a tourist destination in the Moosehead Lake region.

Like the resurgent Saddleback, Big Squaw – which Confalone has defiantly said he would not rename – has been a decades-long victim of poor luck and unstable management that curtailed its potential:

The state owned the resort from 1974 to 1986. It passed through several owners before the 1,216-acre ski area was sold in 1995 to Confalone for $550,000 “with the explicit understanding that the purchaser would invest in and improve the ski area and resort, and maintain and operate it as an attractive and safe resort for the benefit of the people of Maine and the Greenville community,” according to the state’s legal complaint against Confalone.

Hopefully, the aforementioned potential buyer is in the Saddleback mode and not the Confalone/Ariel Quiros mode that has made such a disaster out of successive Northeast ski areas in recent years. Of the three upper New England states, Maine has been most frustrated in its long-term development potential, and it deserves more good ski areas.

Meanwhile in New York, the Big Tupper saga takes another turn

New York State often brags that it is the home to the most downhill ski areas in the United States (never mind that all of them combined could probably fit within the boundaries of Park City). Less discussed is the spectacular number of failed ski areas littering the state’s hills and mountain ranges.

Yes, many of these were modest operations – Farmer Bob rigged up a ropetow using a tractor engine and a pair of deer antlers, and Snow Pole Ski Adventure Fun Park was born, where you could ski all day for a nickel. Three years later it was gone. But the state also has a substantial number of ghost areas where multiple lifts and sprawling trail networks sit abandoned: Bobcat, Cortina, Hickory, Scotch Valley, Tuxedo Ridge, Wing Hollow, and Highmount (slated to become part of Belleayre, maybe). Among the most substantial of these is Big Tupper. The 1997 trailmap:

After several false starts, another plan has coalesced, this time from a group of locals. From the Adirondack Daily Enterprise:

An ambitious group of Tupper Lake business and community members pitched the town on a multi-phase, multi-million-dollar plan to build out the town’s recreational infrastructure Thursday, starting with a request for the town to purchase the Big Tupper Ski Area this spring.

The Tupper Lake Business Group said it would return to the town’s December board meeting to further discuss the plan and seek the town’s investment of tax dollars.

Board members greeted the idea with excitement and support for what it would do — create, expand and improve the many recreational trails in Tupper Lake — but stopped short of saying if and how much the town would commit to such a plan. They said their first responsibility is to taxpayers.

So could it happen? I would love to believe so. But the numbers cited by the group to bring the ski area and related recreational facilities online sound absurdly low:

Group members estimate the total cost of all four phases will be $2.6 million. Town board members think this is low.

Councilman John Quinn said these cost estimates “seem to be at odds” with some of the town’s, adding that “they do seem on the low side.”

No shit. Big Tupper has no snowmaking and an antique lift fleet, meaning the chances of success in a typical New York winter are about zero. Consider that Arctaris invested $18 million beyond the purchase price to bring Saddleback online this offseason, and that was after the former owners put $40 million into the place over a decade.

I want Big Tupper back. But unless a serious buyer who understands what it takes to run a ski resort in the Northeast in 2020 steps up, I don’t see it happening anytime soon.

Elsewhere

Sunday River organizes drive-in employee orientation. Thoughts from New England Ski Journal on skiing with kids in this pandemic winter. Thoughts on the uphill pass at King Pine from Slopefillers. New York Ski Blog suggests that the easiest way through may be to find a way to be a local. Lift Blog reports that Belleayre renamed the Superchief quad “Belleayre Express,” ostensibly for the same reasons Squaw Valley is changing its name. Bye for now, Powder.

This week in skiing

And it happened, at last, eight and a half months after slush turns at Mountain Creek I made slush turns at Hunter. One lift open, two trails, my skis and body all out of tune. But it was glorious, the crowds light, the liftlines well-managed, the six-pack to myself for most of the day. On Hellgate, coming off the steep shoulder after passing beneath the lift, I found an almost vertical line that I skied over and over, the snow mounded and contoured, a hop-turn decent exhaling onto more gentle terrain. I alternated that with long cruisers on Belt Parkway, my edges sinking into long arcing turns, slowing for families, accelerating into the straightaways. Over and over, 19 runs, 26,620 feet of vertical, and that was enough for day one.