Smugglers’ Notch Plans Gondola Interconnect with Stowe; “No Discussions” on Vail Buying Smuggs
“We have the possibility of creating what we think will be a very unique ski and riding experience by connecting these two resorts” – Smugglers’ Notch owner Bill Stritzler
The Storm Skiing Journal and Podcast is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, please consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
“What is an independent gonna do?”
Consider New England in 2017. No Epic Pass. No Ikon Pass. In Vermont, Jay Peak, Smugglers’ Notch, Stowe, Bolton Valley, Mad River Glen, Sugarbush, Burke, Okemo, Bromley, and Magic were all independent or part of small companies that owned two or three ski areas. Only Mount Snow (Peak Resorts), Stratton (Intrawest), and Killington and Pico (Powdr), were owned by out-of-state conglomerates.
Then that all changed, suddenly and probably forever. Vail bought Stowe in 2017, Okemo the next year, and Mount Snow the year after that. Alterra materialized from the ashes of Intrawest and bought Sugarbush, uniting that plus Stratton, Killington, and Pico on its Ikon Pass. Last year, Utah-based Pacific Group Resorts scooped up Jay Peak. Out-of-state skiers dropping Vermont into their ski-season algorithm suddenly had a far simpler choice than toggling through stats and lodging options at the state’s 15 thousand-plus-vert ski areas: Epic, Ikon, or Indy, which Jay, Bolton, and Magic all joined.
That rapid re-ordering of a skier’s basic ski-season building blocks left Smugglers’ Notch owner Bill Stritzler with a problem.
“The question for an independent like Smugglers’ became: what is an independent gonna do?” Stritzler said in an interview on Friday with The Storm Skiing Journal. “How are we going to survive, take care of our guests, take care of those who own homes here, take care of the employees in this new environment? Our team internally was asking ourselves ‘how are we gonna survive when we're surrounded by giants who have extraordinary amounts of capital to invest that we don't have?’ What are the things that we might be able to do that would enable us to continue to compete?”
The answer, Stritzler and his team decided, was a gondola. Seated just a half mile from the top of Smuggs’ mainly intermediate Sterling Mountain is the top of Stowe’s Spruce Peak. Skiers had been skating between the two resorts for decades. Why not connect the two mountains – both widely considered among the best ski areas in New England – with a fast, modern lift? A sort of Alta-Snowbird – or at least a Solitude-Brighton – of the East? Two owners, one interconnected ski experience.
“We have the possibility of creating what we think will be a very unique ski and riding experience by connecting these two resorts,” said Stritzler. “I don't believe in marketing this way, but all you have to do is do trail counts and acreage and elevations, and pretty soon you get to the conclusion that if you can offer Smugglers’ guests the opportunity to also take advantage of what Stowe has to offer, and you can offer the two in some kind of combination through a connecting lift, well, now suddenly you're not quite so nervous about all the consolidation taking place, because you’ve got something to respond with.”
So Stritzler called Bobby Murphy, who at the time was Stowe’s general manager (Vail recently promoted him to chief operating officer of Beaver Creek). Smuggs would pay for all the environmental studies and the initial designs, would handle the permitting for a lift to cross the state-owned land that separates Spruce from Sterling. Stritzler, who has owned and worked at Smuggs for decades, had long pushed similar plans with Stowe’s former owner, AIG, and the mountain’s various managers. The closest he ever got was a short-lived groomed trail across Sterling Pond. But in Vail Resorts, Stritzler at last found a willing partner.
Planning started six years ago, according to The Morrisville News & Citizen, which broke news of the gondola project on Thursday morning following a public records request with the State of Vermont. The gondola, which Stritzler said the resort has been planning with Doppelmayr, would load 26 cabins near the top of Smuggs’ Sterling double and Stowe’s Sensation Quad, following a nine-tower line straight across the peak. Capacity would be 1,200 skiers per hour:
When news of the gondola project broke on Thursday, online speculation ignited that the lift project foreshadowed Vail’s purchase of Smugglers’ Notch. Stritzler insists that the lift means no such thing.
“I can say to you, without having to pass the red-face test, that there are no discussions and have not been any discussions with Vail or with Stowe officials on the subject of what would we do if we get approvals for this lift,” Stritzler told The Storm. “We have no wink-wink arrangements. We have no written arrangements. The only communication that we've had with Stowe has been regarding preparing the material to determine whether or not we're gonna be able to have a lift. That's it.”
The two resorts have yet to discuss how or if they would offer a joint lift ticket. There is precedent for a Vail-owned ski area trading nice with neighbors: Vail’s Andermatt-Sedrun resort, in Switzerland, offers a joint ticket with neighboring Disentis. Stritzler did not rule out the possibility of Smuggs joining the Epic Pass as a partner resort, but said that no discussions on the subject had happened.
The lift’s construction is far from assured. State officials are still reviewing the proposal. Once approved, the lift would take two years to build, in order to avoid construction during the endangered Bicknell’s thrush mating season. Stritzler says that the towers would disturb “more or less an acre of land,” and that Stowe and Smuggs would jointly donate 164 acres directly adjacent to the forest.
Stritzler anticipates and is prepared for environmental challenges. He also acknowledges the vast differences in character between the two ski areas. For decades, he has been cultivated a very specific Smugglers’ Notch experience: focus on families, on grooming, on snowmaking, on building a sense of place. The chairlifts, two of which are more than a mile long and date to the 1960s, are all fixed-grip doubles. Smuggs is not planning any lift upgrades to complement the new gondola. The focus, Stritzler says, would be on adding to the Smuggs experience without compromising it.
If the lift is approved, that would give Smuggs the “opportunity to sit down and talk to Stowe about the need – not just the business need, but our emotional needs to make sure that we don't leave our long-term customers behind in the dust when this, if this transaction were to take place,” Stritzler said. “And we're internally, we're talking about, if it looks like the deal would be harmful to our employees, our guests, or our season pass holders, would we still do it? And the clear answer in my team is ‘nope.’ We would walk away.”
What would it mean for Stowe and Smugglers’ Notch to connect via lift? Would it compromise one mountain or the other? Or the land between them? Can such an ambitious interconnect happen in Vermont, with its strict environmental laws, and in 2023, when everyone protests everything all the time? Here’s a deeper look at the proposed lift, and what it would mean for two of New England’s greatest ski areas.
Vail Resorts representatives declined to comment for this article, deferring all questions to the team at Smugglers’ Notch.
Below the paid subscriber jump: Can we finally kill the stupid and false “New England ski areas have no vertical drop” narrative?; A deep look at Stowe, Smuggs, and Northern Vermont; appeasing environmentalists and skiers; a history of ski area connections; possible joint lift-ticket schemes; and more.