The Curse of Big Snow

The cursed complex, battered by infinite delays and then Covid, is temporarily shuttered by fire

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A good time 6,000 days in the making

On Sept. 29, 2004, a coalition of developers broke ground on a project then known as Meadowlands Xanadu. Built atop a New Jersey swamp and hard by Interstate 95, the garish collection of boxes and ramps with their Romper Room palette could be seen from the upper floors of Manhattan skyscrapers, marooned in their vast asphalt parking lot, an entertainment complex with no one to entertain.

It sat empty for years. Crushed, in turn, by incompetence, cost overruns, the Great Recession, lawsuits, and funding issues, the building that would host America’s first indoor ski slope melted into an eternal limbo of ridicule and scorn.

I didn’t think it would ever open, and I didn’t understand the point if it did. This is the Northeast – we have no shortage of skiing. At four acres on 160-foot vertical drop, this would instantly become the smallest ski area in nine states. Wow. What’s the next item in your master development plan: an indoor beach in Hawaii?

Then, a miracle happened. On Dec. 5, 2019 – 5,545 days after the center’s groundbreaking – the indoor ski slope opened as Big Snow American Dream. The highly competent Snow Operating – which manages the large Mountain Creek ski area nearby – came with a novel vision: Big Snow would focus on learning, on easy access, on affordable packages that wrapped lift ticket, equipment rentals, warm clothes, and lesson into an all-inclusive package. Dropped into the heart of the 20 million-person New York City metropolitan area, it would bring skiing to a diverse population that otherwise may have never considered it. Within six weeks of opening, I went from skeptic to calling Big Snow the most important ski area in America.

I stand by that, and I think that indoor skiing anchored to large cities – some of which rarely, if ever, see natural snow – will prove to be the 21st century’s great snowsports incubator. Learn there, eyeball Colorado, away you go. That is the concept that Big Snow is riding, and that the nascent Alpine-X, led by John Emery – who improbably turned the indoor water park/resort from novelty to nationwide franchise – is hoping to make tangible in a network of 20 indoor ski areas nationwide.

But damn are we off to a slow start. On March 8, 2020, just 94 days after the lifts started spinning, Big Snow closed, along with the rest of America, in our early attempts to stop the spread of Covid-19. It remained closed for 177 days, reopening on Sept. 1 of last year. Then, overnight from last Friday into Saturday, a fire broke out in the building. MidJersey.News reported:

Multiple fire departments responded to Big Snow at American Dream Mall for a roof fire around 4:15 a.m. Upon arrival there was a reported “working fire” on the roof of Big Snow the indoor ski slope. … Fire crews charged a stand pipe system and charged hand lines to get water on the fire.

The fire went to three alarms before the main body of fire was knocked down just after 6:00 a.m. Fire crews are still on scene reporting that they have smoldering roof material on fire.

According to New Jersey State Police Sgt. Alejandro Goez, “The fire at the American Dream was reported at 4:15 a.m. inside the Big Snow ski slope. The fire was contained to the top of the ski slope and several area fire departments responded to extinguish the fire. The building was unoccupied at the time and there are no injuries reported. Preliminary investigation revealed that the fire has been deemed nonsuspicious at this time.”

Big Snow offered no details on the damage, saying on Instagram that the facility would be closed “at least through Oct. 2,” and promising automatic refunds for guests who had pre-booked sessions. Big Snow Vice President of Marketing Hugh Reynolds said via text message on Thursday afternoon that he had no additional details to share and hoped to have an update and expected reopening timeline “within 24 hours.” [UPDATE: following this article’s publication, Big Snow issued a statement saying that the fire damage was contained to a small area of the snowdome and that snow loss was minimal. The ski area will be closed for “several more weeks.”] In the meantime, reports from the Rutherford Daily Voice suggest damages could be extensive:

Responders said attacking the fire at the 16-story ski slope just off the NJ Turnpike was similar to battling a high-rise blaze. They pointed to heavy-duty air conditioning units that maintain temperatures inside the slope at 28 degrees.

Having knocked the bulk of the blaze down by 6 a.m., firefighters opened the roof to check for flame pockets.

"They are actually starting to tear the roof up," one of them said around mid-morning. "They started bringing heavy equipment in."

Hopefully Big Snow can come back online quickly. While the facility itself has the benefits of strong management and a powerful formula to create new skiers, it is attached to the shipwreck of the American Dream Mall, a slow-motion disaster that defaulted on its loan sometime during the pandemic. As I wrote in April:

Ultimately, Big Snow may meet death by proximity. The team that runs the mall seems to have entered the “fuck it” stage of PR. “It would have been much better if American Dream had burned down or a hurricane had hit it,” American Dream senior vice president of development Kurt Hagen told Forbes recently. “Financially, we would have been covered by insurance, but this pandemic that we did not see coming has not been covered, and it is the worst scenario possible.”

When you find yourself in a circumstance in which a preferable outcome is annihilation by hurricane, it’s safe to assume that you’ve breached the event horizon and you’ll soon be swallowed by infinite space.

The ski slope building has a history of failure. Heavy snow and ice in 2011 caused a 150-foot section of roof to partially collapse. Looking back, it’s somewhat miraculous that anyone had the wherewithal to repair the damage on a vacant and quasi-abandoned structure.

Maybe Snow Operating can just dissemble the thing and put it back together in the mammoth and seldom-full Sand Hill Road parking lot at Mountain Creek. Sure, that would cause a bit more downtime, but 6,210 days after a long-gone developer broke ground on the complex, Big Snow has been open for a grand total of 482 days. Maybe that location is cursed. North Jersey has been good for skiing – fly that thing home.

Boyne Mountain unveils massive “$10,000-plus” mountain upgrade

Boyne Mountain, namesake of the sprawling Boyne Resorts and the company’s original ski area, must have finally gotten tired of my endless raving that Granite Peak was home to the Midwest’s best lift system. Yesterday, the mountain rolled out an ambitious 2030 plan that will include the region’s first eight-passenger chairlift and long-term upgrades to most of its remaining lift fleet.

The eight-pack, a Doppelmayr D-Line that will scale Boyne’s 500-ish vertical feet in 3.16 minutes, will replace the Disciples Ridge and Disciples II triples ahead of the 2022-23 ski season. The lift will serve what may be the best green-circle pod in Michigan, a spiderweb of pokey trails threading through the forest, tucked away from the mountain’s steep front side:

Longer term, Boyne says it will upgrade the Meadows quad, Super Bowl quad, Victor quad, Boyneland triple, and the Mountain Express (America’s first six-pack when it debuted in 1992). It is unclear if these lifts will be replaced or upgraded, though Super Bowl and Victor are decades-old Riblets and Boyneland is an old Borvig triple, making them good candidates for replacement. Meadows, however, is a relatively new Doppelmayr CTE quad with a loading carpet, so it will be interesting to see what the ski area does there.

The headline here, however, is the eight-pack, Boyne’s third in four years, after the Ramcharger 8 at Big Sky and the Kanc 8, debuting at Loon this season. Last week, Vail announced that it would install the nation’s first eight-pack outside of the Boyne network, when it replaces the Silverlode 6 at Park City next year. More are sure to come, but Boyne is way out ahead, part of an aggressive system-wide fleet upgrade that will include a new six-pack at Big Sky this season.

Boyne Mountain has long been a center of lift innovation. The bones of the world’s first chairlift still spin there: Sun Valley’s single chair arrived via train in 1948, and stands today as the seldom-used Hemlock double. Boyne Mountain was the site of the world’s first quad chair in 1964. And, as stated above, America’s first six-pack landed there in 1992.

There’s plenty more to Boyne’s ambitious 2030 plan. RFID gates are coming ahead of this season. A solar array, extensive facilities upgrades, and, of course, significant snowmaking enhancements are on the way. The headliner is a non-skiing tourist attraction that Boyne is calling “SkyBridge Michigan,” a year-round, 1,203-foot-long pedestrian bridge connecting McLouth to Disciples Ridge. This video gives a good overview:

I’m sad to report, however, that a user on Facebook’s Overheard in Michigan Ski Resorts group completely stole Boyne’s thunder with this amazing comment:

I have no idea how much Boyne’s new lift will cost, but company CEO Stephen Kircher told CNET back in 2019 that each chair on the Ramcharger 8 “costs more than a Porsche.” Here’s how much Porches cost.

I’m bidding $10,001, Bob.

I’ll look forward to discussing all of this when I host Boyne Mountain GM Ed Grice on The Storm Skiing Podcast next month.

Exhausted by crowds, Crystal makes big changes

When 2021-22 Ikon Pass details dropped in March, the big news was an access-level change at Washington’s Crystal Mountain. As I wrote at the time:

The first three iterations of the Ikon Base Pass included unlimited access to Washington’s Crystal Mountain, the monstrous, powder-hammered, and completely unsung ski circus two hours south of Seattle. For decades, this 3,100-vertical-foot, 2,600-acre goliath with nearly 500 inches of annual snowfall sat at the snowy end of the road, a dearth of lodging keeping it off the national resort radar.

Then came Alterra and its cheap Ikon Passes. Passholders from the affluent city to the north flooded the place, causing traffic backups for miles down the narrow access road and compelling Crystal to temporarily halt walkup ticket sales on weekends and holidays. These problems became apparent pre-Covid and pre-2020-21 pass release, and I was shocked to see Crystal remain on the unlimited tier – still with no blackouts – when Alterra announced pass prices last spring.

Seeing Crystal moved to the more rarified unlimited-on-full-Ikon-only tier along with Steamboat, then, is unsurprising.

Turns out they weren’t finished. Yesterday, Crystal announced an overhaul of how skiers will access the ski area this coming season:

First, the big news is that we’ve shifted our lots to paid parking on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Free parking will be included with the purchase of a season’s pass, and passholders will be required to register their plates before arrival so we can gauge capacity. We will not have a reservation system to ski this season. Carpooling will be radically encouraged and free for four or more with designated spaces and priority shuttles. Paid parking revenue will directly fund free bus transportation from Enumclaw on peak weekends as we embrace more efficient and more environmentally conscious ways of accessing our mountain.

Crystal Mountain confirmed to me that an Ikon Base Pass qualifies for free parking, even though that is no longer a true “season pass.” Anyone with a Crystal Local Pass, Hall Pass, or Anytime pass will also park free, as will four-person carpools.

It’s hard to see what other choice Crystal had. Forty-mile traffic jams and full parking lots by 7:30 a.m. is not a sustainable recipe for a good time. The resort is boxed in by a number of factors beyond its control: it’s seated at the end of a canyon reached via a non-expandable two-lane road through a national park, and it’s close to a growing, affluent population in a state with too few ski areas and little chance of building more. Washington, with 15 ski areas, is the same size as New England, which has 94. It’s not a perfect comparison – Washington has 7.6 million people, to New England’s 14.85 million, and western ski areas tend to be far larger than their eastern counterparts. Still, Washington ski areas are, for the foreseeable future, going to be in the unusual position of trying to get fewer people to come to visit, at least at peak times.

Long term, the solution probably lies in changing skiers’ commuting behavior. We can’t expect people to do this without alternatives. The free buses from Enumclaw are a good start. The wildly popular ski trains from Denver to Winter Park are another. People will use mass transit if it’s offered. Creating it will mean ski areas working with local governments to find creative, convenient, sustainable, and affordable solutions.

This ain’t Europe, but that doesn’t mean we can’t try

One of the great shortcomings of American skiing is the lack of a sense of place beyond the mountain itself. Beyond a few ski areas fortunately situated above pre-existing towns – Breckenridge, Aspen, Telluride, Steamboat, Park City – U.S. base areas tend to be a mishmash of utilitarian buildings that do little to inspire extended lingering or create an after-hours atmosphere.

This is why I have little issue with master-planned base villages. Tacky as they sound, they provide a more complete experience for vacationers. Vail Village is a boisterous place, despite being carved out of the wilderness after the ski area’s founding. Killington, the Northeast’s most lively ski area, suffers greatly from the lack of something similar.

So Snowbasin’s announcement last week that it intended to build out a base-area pedestrian village is welcome. Here’s what the mountain’s base area looks like today:

Here’s the full conceptual build-out:

Not every mountain needs this, and not every one can afford it. But as someone who mostly day-trips from home, I want something different from a destination. Mostly, I don’t want to pack up the car every day and drive 45 minutes to the mountain. I want to step out my door and ski, especially when I have the kids with me. Utah, which just set a single-year record for skier visits, needs more of this sort of development outside of Park City and other isolated base-area developments.

The master plan will also include several lift upgrades or additions: the resort will replace the Middle Bowl triple with a six-pack prior to the start of the 2021-22 ski season, an upgrade to Little Cat Express, and new beginner lifts. The resort also plans to add parking and, crucially, access road upgrades.

With a short shuttle ride to the moon, you’ll be staring down at America’s largest vertical drop!

Timberline, Oregon has officially absorbed Summit Pass, a 300-vertical-foot ski area situated downslope of the massive Mount Hood, home to three other ski areas (the even larger Mt. Hood Meadows, the mid-sized Mt. Hood Skibowl, and little Cooper Spur). Since you can ski from Timberline down to Summit when natural snow covers the connecting trails, the ski area is claiming it now has the largest vertical drop in America:

Timberline's Summit Pass (formerly known as Summit Ski Area) is officially part of the Timberline ski area as of July 2021, increasing Timberline's vertical terrain to 4,540 feet, the longest in the United States. …

While this entire giant vertical, from Timberline to Summit Pass, is not yet lift-serviced, it is accessible via other transportation methods and available when there is enough snow at all elevations. In the winter, skiers and snowboarders with a lift ticket or season pass can take the Timberline Resort Shuttle from Summit Pass in Government Camp up to Timberline. At Timberline, catch the Magic Mile Chair Lift up to the Palmer Snowcat access point to be taken to the top of Palmer. Enjoy the ride down to the Alpine Trail or West Leg Road, which ends at the bottom of Summit Pass.

Which, OK, I guess. But it’s a little like if I went out into my yard, dug a hole down to bedrock, then climbed a tree, taped 80 ladders to the top, and said, “see, I now live in the tallest building in New York City.” Like, it’s fun that I can ski that far in one run, but not by going through a shuttlebus-chairlift-Snowcat routine that makes the Iditarod sound logistically straightforward. Here’s the route on the trailmap:

Aside from Timberline, here are the current largest lift-served vertical drops in the U.S.: Snowmass: 4,406 feet; Big Sky: 4,350 feet; Jackson Hole: 4,139 feet; Telluride: 3,830 feet (4,410 if you hike Palmyra Peak); Aspen Highlands: 3,572 feet (4,292 feet if you hike Highlands Bowl); Beaver Creek: 3,340 feet.

I mean I guess Timberline wins now, but I’ll feel a lot better about it if they can get a lift going between Summit and the main ski area. The resort included a gondola connection between the two ski areas in its recent master development plan.

Elsewhere

Epic Pass sales increased 42 percent in units sold and 17 percent in sales dollars year-over-year. Vail will require all employees to be vaccinated and will require guests to show proof of vaccination to dine at on-mountain cafeterias; will load lifts to full capacity with no mask requirements, even on gondolas. Magic, Vermont, does not expect to have restrictions, “given the high (and growing) percentage of vaccinations in Vermont and other Northeastern states.” Lift Blog breaks down new terrain expansions coming online at five North American mountains. A group called Friends of Quarry Road is attempting to revive the former ski area at Colby College in Maine. Donate here. Doppelmayr revenue declined 12.5 percent this past fiscal year. Alterra seeks $200 million in lawsuit with insurer over Covid losses. Loon’s Kanc 8 is looking awesome. This is what Alaska looked like five days ago. The Ski Wisconsin Passport offers one lift ticket each at 18 of the state’s ski areas for $179 (sadly, Granite Peak is not included). Also I am not joking about this:

And I am pretty stoked about this possibility:

This week in not skiing

Among the items my wife and I have purchased over the past year that either broke immediately, never functioned or grew as intended, or required extensive repairs are three electric blankets, two cat drinking fountains, a device to murder fruit flies, various yard plants and vegetables, and, most frustrating of all, a dishwasher. Every other package I receive from Amazon reveals, upon opening, a product that is either split open or leaking, or is something like a carton of eggs packed beneath an anvil. This, combined with general supply chain shortages and shipping delays, are contributing to a general sense of society disintegrating in slow motion. Which perhaps it is. But oh well, at least I haven’t run out of beer yet.

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