Sunday River to Install First 8-Pack Lift, Setting up Monster Terrain Expansion

The new lift, which replaces the Jordan Express quad, creates “a portal that could double” resort’s skiable terrain

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A gateway to a kingdom not yet beheld

I don’t mean to belabor the story of the improbable Sunday River, the onetime-backwater-turned-New-England mothership under Les Otten’s American Skiing Company (ASC), but compare the 1980 version of the Maine ski area to the 1980 version of obscure-to-this-day Mt. Abram, just 12 miles away. Can you even tell which is which?

And here they are today:

For decades, Sunday River’s fate seemed to be humble Abram twin at best, irrelevance at worst. Then kaboom! Otten kicked the doors down with money blowing out of his pockets like a snowy reverse Scrooge McDuck, chainsawing his way west into the wilderness. Today Sunday River is one of the great spectacles of Eastern skiing: eight peaks, 18 lifts, 135 trails, 870 acres, an incomprehensible 2,000 snowguns. It’s an Eastern headliner on the Ikon Pass and one of the finest mountains in New England.

Boyne, not the RIP-ASC, owns Sunday River now, which is better for everyone. Stable, experienced, and aggressive, the company has lately made a habit of tossing out headliner lift projects like hand grenades from a passing Jeep – I never know where they’re going to land, and I’m always shocked with where they hit.

Today Boyne lobbed a big one, unveiling plans to drop an eight-passenger high-speed bubble chair in place of the current Jordan quad in 2022, a precursor to a massive terrain expansion called Western Reserve that could eventually double the size of the resort. Sunday River will remove the Jordan quad, then move it to Barker Mountain in 2023, where it will replace the aging Barker Mountain Express.

Each element of this plan – part of Sunday River’s massive 2030 overhaul – is worth a closer look:

The Usain Bolt of eight-packs

Sunday River says that the Jordan 8, a Doppelmayr D-Line with heated seats, will be “the fastest eight-person chair in North America.” A reconfigured top terminal and “the lift’s design” (presumably anti-sway technology), will, apparently, solve the wind issues that have long plagued the Jordan Bowl Express. Shaded with “Sunday River Red,” it’s going to be beautiful:

The more reliable, modern lift will be welcome, even if the scale of existing terrain makes it seem like initial overkill (more on why the large lift makes sense below). What’s likely to be far more controversial is dropping the 27-year-old Jordan lift onto Barker, one of Sunday River’s most congested areas. The current Barker lift is a sometimes-troubled 1987 Yan high-speed quad, one of the oldest detachables in New England. Lines can be excruciating. Sunday River loyalists have been screaming for a replacement here for years, and the resort’s 2030 plan stated that “a new chairlift” would “replace and upgrade” Barker. It wasn’t unreasonable to over-focus on “new” and “upgrade” and hope the resort was teasing at least a new six-pack.

It wasn’t. Sunday River says the Jordan Express has low hours for its age and is in good shape, and that it will be “redesigned and rebuilt” for its move to Barker. This somewhat mimics Boyne’s chairlift shuffle at Loon, where the old Kanc 4 high-speed quad will replace the Seven Brothers lift in 2022, after the Kanc 8 comes online this winter. Still, this part of the plan feels like a bit of a letdown.

An alternate solution would have been to replace the adjacent Locke Mountain Triple – a 1984 Borvig – with the Jordan Express, and bring the bottom terminal down off its ridge so that it’s a more obvious alternative to Barker. Sunday River did not include a Lock upgrade in the 2030 plan, but it didn’t include the terrain expansion either, so the mountain has leeway to surprise us still.

But back to that eight-pack: the announcement comes just a week after Boyne Mountain promised the Midwest’s first octobomber, also debuting for the 2022-23 season. After debuting North America’s first eight-passenger lift at Big Sky in 2018, Boyne Resorts seems to have fallen in love with them, and the Sunday River and Boyne Mountain lifts will be the third and fourth in the company’s fleet. The only other eight-pack in North America will be Park City’s Silverlode lift, which will replace the current six-pack in 2022.

Sunday River also said that its Merrill Hill expansion – a handful of trails served by a triple chair – will open for “select dates” this coming season, with a grand opening for the 2022-23 season. Since this pod will mostly serve new luxury housing on its peak, it probably doesn’t make sense to turn the lift on until construction is further along.

A “massive” terrain expansion

When I hosted Sunday River President Dana Bullen on The Storm Skiing Podcast last year, he said that the resort owned three peaks beyond Jordan, but that it was unlikely to develop them for the foreseeable future. The 2030 plan did not mention any terrain expansion beyond Merrill Hill.

Something changed.

“This chairlift sets the stage for a massive expansion in the future,” said Boyne Resorts CEO Stephen Kircher.

The Western Reserve will include the already-developed Jordan and Oz peaks, as well as parts of “several thousand acres of land beyond Jordan Bowl.” 

“The Jordan 8 is a significant jumping off point for the Western Reserve, creating a portal that could double our skiable terrain in the coming decades,” said Bullen.

That is… completely awesome. A terrain doubling would make Sunday River the largest ski area in the East, leapfrogging Smugglers’ Notch, Sugarloaf, and Killington. With no practical limits on water use and full ownership of the developable land, the resort faces few obstacles other than capital and ambition. Boyne, which is also massively expanding its Sugarloaf resort in Maine, appears to have both.

At A-Basin and Magic, lift capacity goes up as the number of skiers goes down

There are a few interesting things about Arapahoe Basin’s announcement last Saturday that it plans to replace the Lenawee triple with a Leitner Poma six-pack. First, the current lift only dates to 2001. A-Basin, in fact, has one of the newest lift fleets in the country – the oldest besides Lenawee dates to 2007. Second, when the mountain replaced the Pallavicini double last year, it replaced it with… another double.

“While there is a heck of an argument to build a much bigger lift here, there is also an argument to replace Pali with the same type of lift,” Arapahoe Basin COO Alan Henceroth wrote. “The Pali Lift and terrain work so well, we didn't want to mess with that little chunk of paradise.”

So replacing a triple with a sixer was surprising. But the third reason the capacity upgrade from 1,800 riders per hour to 2,400 was so shocking is that it comes amid a years-long period during which the mountain has deliberately worked to decrease the number of skiers on the mountain, first by fleeing the Epic Pass and then by limiting sales of daily lift tickets and season passes. The mountain also significantly expanded in 2018 with the addition of the 500-acre Beavers area.

This deliberate improvement of the ski experience by bumping lift capacity and skiable acreage while decreasing the number of skiers has been rare in U.S. skiing. And while Covid forced capacity restrictions at most ski areas last season, few seem committed to maintaining them.

A select few are. On the other side of the country, Vermont’s Magic Mountain is engaging in a similar, albeit slower-to-the-finish-line upgrade. A summit quad will complement the longstanding summit double. Season pass sales will be limited to just five percent more than last season, and Magic will cut off day ticket sales – including Indy Pass redemptions – at 1,500 per day.

“We are putting a premium on the experience over profits,” said Magic Mountain President Geoff Hatheway in an email. “Our approach should result in less than 10-minute liftlines on our busiest days and our typical uncrowded trails.”

Installation of the quad has been slowed by engineering problems, unreliable contractors, Covid, and other factors. Magic is not A-Basin, riding on pots of Epic gold. But they will eventually get the chair – Stratton’s old Snowbowl quad – installed. Once that happens, the double will run on weekdays and the quad will take over on weekends, Hatheway says. Both would spin on busy Saturdays and holiday Sundays and Mondays. A terrain expansion is unlikely, but the mountain is plenty big for the number of skiers it gets - the problem, up to this point, has been an occasional need for more uphill capacity.

I don’t know what’s going to happen when record Epic Pass sales meet wintertime. I am a little worried about it (Ikon Passholders may not do any better). Vail has dropped its Covid-era reservation system, but will load lifts to capacity, two facts which will hopefully cancel each other out. The company’s massive investment in lifts next year should help further. Still, if things go sideways, the limited-access, increased-uphill-capacity model that A-Basin and Magic are cobbling together may become a very appealing way to capture megapass refugees.

Filling the condo-shaped gap in New York skiing

Back in April, I hosted West Mountain, New York owners Sara and Spencer Montgomery on the podcast to discuss their remarkable transformation of the ski area, which I framed this way:

West Mountain is one of the best stories in New York skiing. A decade ago, the place was falling apart. Trails-in-name-only had become overgrown and were rarely open. A handful of homemade mobile snowguns serviced the mountain. A trio of doddering antique chairlifts rose from a cluster of ramshackle or abandoned buildings. Night-lighting was inconsistent and covered only portions of the mountain. The place puttered along on 30,000 skier visits per year. Then the Montgomerys arrived with a new vision and energy, moving their family of six to the base of the mountain and initiating a $17 million gut renovation. Eight years after their arrival, the place is transformed, with a forest of tower guns that can bury the full trail network in a few days, three new lifts, 100 percent night skiing, widened and consistently open ski runs, renovated lodges and cafeterias, and reinvigorated race and after-school programs.

If there were a This Old House of skiing, West would be the pilot episode, the one that astonished viewers into returning for more. But West isn’t finished. Gut renovation complete, they are adding on: a small pedestrian village will anchor 174 residences and a hotel and conference center at the base of a high-speed chairlift that will “allow access to the back side” of the mountain.

Just how big the ski part of this expansion is remains to be seen. West’s decision to go with a high-speed lift is somewhat surprising, since they settled on fixed-grip lifts to replace their other three chairs, and suggests the new terrain could be substantial. It’s unclear how many new trails are coming, however. All we have so far is the conceptual village design, which shows two trails cutting skier’s left of A.O.A., with the lift landing downhill of the Apex Chair:

In this case, however, the build-out of substantial ski-in, ski-out lodging is the headline. New York State is criminally lacking in this sort of arrangement. This is somewhat the product of laws that curtail mountainside development at the state’s largest ski areas – Gore and Whiteface – but it also reflects the reality that most New York ski areas are small, family-owned, and unable to lay out the huge capital necessary for such projects. As a result, slopeside lodging, where it exists – Windham, Hunter, a few other places – is tight and expensive. For West, which is positioning itself as a racing hub, this sort of on-mountain housing inventory is necessary. For the rest of us, it may correct an imbalance that has persisted in the state’s ski network for far too long.

Every day, I wake up and wish only for this

You know what would be awesome? If someone would buy Jay Peak. We may be getting closer. Vermont Public Radio reported earlier this week:

Jay Peak ski resort's leaders are "actively engaged" in sale discussions with several potential buyers, according to recently filed court documents.

Michael Goldberg, the court-appointed receiver who runs the resort, wrote in Friday's filing that draft purchase agreements have been exchanged — though he didn't say how many.

The process of selling the ski resort ground to a halt last year due to the pandemic. Goldberg restarted the search earlier this year.

“Multiple buyers reviewing contracts and organizing their bids; that’s it,” Jay Peak GM Steve Wright wrote via email in response to a request for more information.

So who will buy Jay Peak, and who should? I have no leads. I do have opinions. And my opinion is: enough with the carnival barker assclowns like former owner Ariel Quiros, who is accused of three-card monte-ing $200 million from foreign investors and putting both Jay and Burke ski areas on the endangered species list. Someone who knows how to run ski areas without descending into cartoon mafioso scheming needs to buy it. I don’t care if it’s Vail or Alterra or Boyne or Powdr or Snow Operating or Berkshire East. I don’t care if it lands on Epic or Ikon or stays on Indy – it just needs a competent caretaker.

Why it hasn’t sold yet, I have no idea. It’s the best ski area in Vermont – anyone who can afford it would be lucky to have it.

When you’re suing a 9-year-old, maybe you’re doing life wrong

In 2012, local resident Stephanie Donovan stopped to take a picture on a green slope at Park City. Nine-year-old Shelby Sutton lost control and hit her. Patrol reportedly evacuated Donovan in a toboggan, and the woman said she required several surgeries to recover from her injuries. Four years later, she took the family to court. The case made its way to the Utah Supreme Court, which fortunately is presided over by people more intelligent than Stephanie Donovan. Last week, the court ruled against her. KSL.com reported:

The Utah Supreme Court agreed with decisions made at the district court and the appellate court and ruled that neither the child, nor her parents were negligent.

The court said it is reasonable that a 9-year-old beginning skier would lose control and fall. The opinion states that the girl had ski lessons the year before, they were on a beginning hill, and her father was there to help her.

"We hold that a person has a duty to exercise reasonable care while skiing. And a 9-year-old beginner skier on a beginner ski run is held to the standard of care commensurate with children of the same age, experience and intelligence under similar circumstances," the opinion said.

No kidding. Thank you, Stephanie Donovan, for wasting five years of this family’s life, public resources, and, presumably, your own money to conclude that stopping on a beginner ski hill to take a picture and being surprised to subsequently encounter a human-shaped bowling ball is like stepping off the side of a boat and being surprised to hit water. Dental floss includes instructions because people like you exist.

This explains the guy who drives his riding mower to his next-door neighbor’s house

This is what Wisconsin Resorts’ Bittersweet ski area looks like:

For a Michigan ski hill, this general arrangement is unremarkable – 350 chairlifts on 350 vertical feet. It’s for families, it’s for spinny-do park people, it’s for midweek laps. It’s better than nothing.

What’s unusual about Bittersweet is that high-speed quad raking up the incline. It’s ride time, according to Lift Blog, is 1.7 minutes. And what’s even more unusual is that the ski area is dropping a second high-speed lift on the hill ahead of the 2022-23 ski season. Per Lift Blog:

Bittersweet in Michigan is making way for a second detachable chairlift in 2022. The mountain’s current high speed quad, the Sweet Express, will move northwest to replace the Poison Ivy triple this season. That late model Hall has been moved the other direction to replace the Chickory double. Along the way, Chickory will be upgraded with a brand new Skytrac drive terminal.

This is all just so bizarre. It feels like driving to your mailbox. Or ordering a 45-pound Thanksgiving turkey for a family of two. Or explaining Star Wars by forcing someone to sit through all nine movies in one session. Like, more than what’s strictly necessary, you know?

Wisconsin Resorts’ Mount Holly, rising 250 vertical feet on the opposite side of Michigan, also has a high-speed quad. So this is a thing they do. Investment – even puzzling investment – is good for skiers. Why they’re investing in Bittersweet, rather than in immediate upgrades to the Civil War-era lift fleet at their recently purchased Alpine Valley, Michigan ski area, I’m uncertain (though I’m confident upgrades are coming).

They should ask someone who’s skied more than zero times to edit these lists before publication

Dear God Conde Nast Traveler’s list of the top 40 U.S. ski resorts. Apparently the magazine polled 800,000 people to come up with these composite scores, and apparently none of them have ever been skiing. If you had also never been skiing, you might think this is an accurate list of the top ski areas in America (the numbers to the right of the resort name are some sort of aggregate score based on the poll, and I’m only including the top 20 here):

  1. Deer Valley 87.24

  2. Sundance Mountain Resort 86.93

  3. Aspen Highlands 85.6

  4. Beaver Creek 83.93

  5. Snowbird 83.75

  6. Vail 83.01

  7. Crested Butte 82.97

  8. Camelback Mountain Resort 81.42

  9. Whitefish Mountain Resort 81.12

  10. Alyeska 80.67

  11. Jackson Hole 79.81

  12. Big Sky 79.72

  13. Sun Valley 79.58

  14. Telluride 79.42

  15. Keystone 77.24

  16. Snowmass 77.07

  17. Camelback Mountain 76.67

  18. Steamboat 76.62

  19. Whiteface Lake Placid 76.23

  20. Mount Snow 76.2

Saying that Sundance is the second-best ski area in America is a little like saying that robins are the second-best bird in America. Sure both have strong name recognition and we like them, but it’s just lazy to say that and we know it’s not true. But let’s move past that and focus instead on “Camelback Mountain Resort,” America’s eighth greatest ski area according to this list. There it sits, just after Crested Butte and above Whitefish, Alyeska, Jackson Hole, Big Sky, Sun Valley, Telluride, Keystone, and Snowmass. Hmmm. Are you sure about that, 800,000 people who contibuted to this list? I’m not even sure that Camelback is a top eight ski area in Pennsylvania, let alone the entire country. OK maybe this is a test run by the robots to see if they can bamboozle us. No human is this stupid. Let’s see what else is on the list…

And there, at number 17 – as in, the 17th best ski area in the entire United States of America according to this list - is…. Camelback Mountain. Which is the same fucking thing as Camelback Mountain Resort.

Yes, journalism is dying, but it wasn’t supposed to be this fast.

Elsewhere

Ikon Pass prices will increase $100 on Oct. 16 – that would make a full pass $1,149 and a Base Pass $879. Snow Ridge co-owner Nick Mir tells New York Ski Blog that “skier visits were through the roof” last season and that the ski area will add five new trails for 2021-22. James Niehues steps away from painting trailmaps. I still don’t want to tele-ski after reading this. Skiing could return to Sleepy Hollow in Des Moines – the center has only allowed tubing, sledding, and other activities for the past several years. I don’t think you’ll have to contend with Epic or Ikon crowds in Uzbekistan, which sounds like Telluride or Jackson Hole 50 years ago. Pennsylvania says Camelback is no longer bad at operating chairlifts. Don’t abandon hope next time you lose one of your sticks in deep pow: researchers re-united this pair 1,300 years after their final shred:

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