The Powder Palace at the Top of the World
Snow, rain, wind, snow in that order
So of course the two feet-ish of early-December snow is only a precursor to rain and more rain and then winds enough to blow a house in from Kansas.
You have to get it while it’s here, because too too soon it’s gone. Plattekill went from it’s earliest opening ever with 100 percent coverage on Dec. 7 to not open at all last weekend.
I don’t know man. Sometimes it’s March 2018 and a Nor’easter drops several feet and then another one comes right after that and then the cycle repeats two more times and we’re like, “Take that, Utah.” And other times it’s just the Northeast and things suck.
Luckily, the Northeast is also home to some of the best snowmaking systems in the world, and anyone with a giant corporation hoisting them up offered a more than serviceable amount of terrain.
It really doesn’t matter that much. It’s not even calendar winter yet. The snow gift we got in early December, like Snowvember 2018 before it, was a bonus, like when you roll through the Taco Bell drive-through and order six tacos and you get down the road and open the bag and there’s eight tacos in there and you’re like, “Hey bros, we got extra tacos!” And you all eat your tacos even though you weren’t hungry to begin with and you were just rolling through Taco Bell for something to do and so then no one eats the extra tacos and they just go to waste. And most of us didn’t eat the free tacos and now we wish they were there, but the amount of free random tacos on that one night doesn’t have much to do with how many tacos will be available in the future. So let’s not panic just yet.
Besides, it’s snowing today:
Popping a sixer at Okemo
Vail announced this during its latest earnings call:
Lift Blog summarized the improvements thus:
Okemo Mountain Resort will complete two transformational projects. Quantum Four will be swapped for a detachable six place lift in the heart of Jackson Gore. The existing equipment, originally installed in 2002 and upgraded with bubble chairs in 2015, will move to replace the Green Ridge triple. Green Ridge is currently the only non-Poma lift at Okemo.
I don’t ski Okemo much, mostly because I have a hard time skiing while I’m asleep, but the online consensus by those who know the mountain well seems to be that this is a good thing.
This announcement should surprise no one who has paid any attention to Vail for the past two decades. They have invested in every ski area they’ve ever purchased. They plowed tens of millions of dollars into their little Midwestern feeders. They beefed up Stevens Pass and Crested Butte and hell even mighty Whistler.
I bring all this up because there seems to be an irrational fear circulating about the socials that Vail will neglect infrastructure upgrades at the former Peak Resorts. I would be astonished if that happened. Not only has Vail upgraded the lifts and infrastructure on every one of its mountains, it’s shown a deftness at doing this across vastly different properties, from the rad Kirkwood to the tourist epicenter of Breckenridge to the sprawling Park City. While Hunter, Mount Snow, and many other former Peak properties are already in excellent shape, I expect major improvements at Vail’s four New Hampshire mountains over the next several years.
Black on Indy
So I forgot to talk about this last week, but since I’m unreasonably preoccupied with multi-passes I intend to cover similar pass add-ons in the future. Anyway, Black Mountain, New Hampshire, along with the confusingly named Detroit Mountain, Minnesota, joined the Indy Pass.
Black is one of those mountains, like Loveland in the West, that sits in a neighborhood thick with bigger and better-marketed ski areas. Locked into the Triforce keyhole between Attitash, Wildcat, Cranmore, and not far from Btetton Woods, Cannon, Loon, Waterville Valley and Sunday River, is 1,000-vertical-foot Black. This description from skibum.net demonstrates why this is my go-to site for recon of any random ski area – I quote at length because I love this description so much:
Black Mountain calls itself “A New England Classic,” and rightly so. Ever wonder why 99 mountains out of 100 have a dopey trail called “The Thruway” or “The Turnpike” or some similarly-named avenue that cuts across the face of the mountain — including most of the expert trails — and presents a steady roadblock of cross traffic? Black Mountain has virtually none of this. If you’ve only skied at modern resorts with wide trails, fences, terrain parks and detachable quads, be warned that Black will change your entire perspective on ski areas. Narrow chutes open into broad meadows. Wide groomers branch into a number of narrow options. Drop off a headwall, skirt into a gorge, around some glades, and out into a field. Find yourself wondering, “how did I end up over here?” You can ski with map in hand all day, then suddenly find yourself on a trail you’d overlooked. It’s glorious. Lifts are slow, but liftlines are non-existent — you’ll make run after run after run. Lift tickets are cheap. Afternoon tickets are even cheaper. The place is usually empty, and the skiing is outstanding. Black Mountain will ruin a lot of other ski areas for you. Stuck in the shadow of Attitash, Cranmore, and Wildcat, Black is overlooked by the crowds. Snowboarders are few and far between. Teenagers and hotshots will hate this place, but intermediates and advanced skiers will love it. Wanderers will call it “small,” but be thoroughly pleased by its variety and quirkiness. Families can’t find a better ski area. For trivia buffs, Black is one of the few remaining ski areas where a chairlift passes over a platter-pull lift. It’s also one of the few places where fencing is minimal, and you can still see beginners unintentionally crash right into the parking lot. Most won’t call Black the best ski area they ever visited, but a lot of people call it their favorite. Note that if you buy your ticket after 2:00 pm, you are officially buying a ticket for tomorrow…so you can return free. Recommend.
The Saddleback deal may not be settled after all. Bangor Daily News:
A Boston investor that plans to buy the idled Saddleback Mountain ski area in Rangeley has asked the owners of the resort’s 121 condominiums to donate $5,500 each to help revive it.
Efforts by intended buyer Arctaris Impact Investors of Massachusetts to get condo owners and philanthropists to invest $5 million toward the property through donations to a nonprofit organization have raised eyebrows in the Rangeley community.
Regardless, “[Saddleback GM Andrew] Shepard said he expects the entire amount to be raised by the deadline, but if it isn’t, the sale is expected to close anyway Dec. 23.”
We’ll see. Let’s just be glad that similarly sized Burke didn’t shut down.
This week in skiing
Honestly I sat out the Great 2019 Northeast Meltdown in a Wasatch Snowglobe. It was a five-day trip, with 30 inches of light and dry powder over the three middle days. On day one I stomped tram laps off the Peruvian side and re-acclimated to the acceleration of turning into a Snowbird glade and looked sharp for “cliffs ahead” signs and passed through open gates into creamy snow, the base deep and the snow combustible and ice nowhere.
For the next three days it barely stopped snowing. I never stopped for lunch and I never stopped for anything else either. On day two I danced off the backside of the Snowbird cirque through ever-steeper pitches mostly untracked and tree-dotted, those big western glades where there’s room for enormous bouncy turns around the trunks and you feel like some kind of large graceful cat and like everything’s in slow motion and every 12 turns I had to stop because my quads seared and I was out of breath from the altitude and exertion and I’d turn to look back up at what I’d just skied and the pitch faded white and evergreen up toward the sky and disappeared into the storm.
On day three I stood for an hour in the Collins line at Alta and the mountain rose huge and untracked above us and the natural snowgun stalled and Alf’s High Rustler loomed Rushmorian with red ski patrol jackets bouncing down. For hours the KA-BOOM of mortars had echoed up the canyons and finally the Wildcat lift opened and then Collins and when it did the collective joyous shouting of those so fortunately assembled rumbled and we all surged forward and if there’s anything better in skiing than Alta on a powder day please let me know it. We spent the morning floating fresh lines off the High Traverse down God knows what runs because they don’t really mark them there except the few groomers they have and it didn’t matter the foursome I was skiing with just whooped our way down. Then big powder turns down Greeley Bowl and nothing was open worth skiing off Sugarloaf, the white walls of the Backside towering totemic and magnificent but sealed shut by patrol. And so we lapped Supreme until Supreme Bowl opened, and at that moment a local we knew crested the lift summit and exited and motioned toward it and we all piled in and he knew exactly where to go on that labyrinthine mountain and we just sailed through deep and fresh all the way down past magnificent enormous pines and open meadows, that fabulous Alta scenery so rolling and bucolic that you expect some chap to come sailing down the hills in a horse-drawn sled smoking a pipe and caroling.
On day four the mortars began predawn and the canyon closed and the Cliff Lodge erected signs saying we could not leave and this is called being interlodged so you don’t die in an avalanche. The result of this was that when they’d fired enough munitions into the hillside to have fairly high confidence that it was safe to travel we made it to Alta before the hordes backed up in the canyon 15 miles below were allowed to pass through and we ate and booted up at Goldminer’s Daughter and walked right onto the Collins lift. A full-on blizzard descended, the thickest of the trip, dense so that you couldn’t see the sky or the mountains or anything other than what was in front of you and sometimes at the summit not even that. And it was snow so flitting and insubstantial and delicate that it seemed improbable that it could stack up into anything so big as Alta’s annual 500-whatever inches; it was like krill in the ocean and they’re like nothing and yet somehow the largest animal in all of Earth’s history eats those and only those and somehow Alta snow is this and only this and it is the powder capital of North America. We lapped the trees on Collins and then lapped the Supreme lift all day long and in the shelter of trees devoured steep short lines just bounding down the mountain indefatiguable and ecstatic.
And on day five no new snow fell and my ski partners had all left and I dropped off the tram alone and found untracked faces throttled between the runs. They barely groom anything at Snowbird and it is perfectly built for that, knolls like tiny islands floating off the 3,000 vertical feet and trees spaced so you could weave a speederbike through them without Speilberg’s VFX crew and traverses leading to lost faces that could have swallowed a Midwestern ski area and all the obvious lines taken but skiing is a horde sport and there’s always some leftover if you’re creative and a little daring. In the afternoon the sun had started rotting the snow off the cirque and I skied slowly down quads burning and caught a 2 p.m. shuttle to the airport.
I take this trip every year with a local ski club. Two years ago we hit a drought and fumbled around scraping rocks while early snow blitzed Vermont back east. Last year it dumped on day one and that gave us a pow day on day two and then a freeze-thaw cycle settled and we swished through the remaining snow in the trees.
And this year even though every local we talked to droned on about early season conditions while they blew past 150 inches by December freaking 14th and buildings slopeside appeared half buried and the whole place resembled not Vermont on its best day but a recreation of Vermont on its best day, like those fake hamburgers they build for McDonald’s commercials that make you want to eat a real McDonald’s hamburger even though you know they’re inedible, it was absolutely sublime, perfect in every way a thing could be, that snow so endless and deep. Hitting Alta-Snowbird from the East during a storm cycle must be what it is like to be a hobo and then wake up a rich guy in one of those whacky Hollywood out-of-body misadventures, but you only get to be rich for like five days because if you miss your Delta flight back to JFK there’s no telling what moral wrath you’ll call from the body-swapping gods.
And the most amazing part of all this is after leaping half mad with joy down the snowy majestically treed hillsides through endlessly refilled powder so deep you can’t find the bottom with a pole stuck handle-deep into the incline you descend from this frozen kingdom thousands of feet but only dozens of minutes to bland and sprawling Salt Lake City, not a snowflake on the ground, the whole of it so jarring and typically American that it’s hard to believe in the majestic land you just left. This is not like driving up to Killington from Rutland on an October or June day and being like, “Cool there’s snow,” which is a novelty and a triumph of technology. This is more Disney, more Tolkein, like a land where there’s realms and each realm is themed and magnificently distinct even though they appear stacked one after another on ancient hand-drawn scroll maps marked with dragons and sailing ships and skulls. And down below is the realm of the Big Box and the interstate wide and flat, and above is the Winter Realm, a triumph of nature, where a snow trap tens of millions of years in the making spins out a microclimate so wild and improbable and brilliant that the only way to believe in it is to go and stand there and say holy fucking shit man it’s actually real.
The Storm Skiing Podcast is on iTunes, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, TuneIn, Spotify and Pocket Casts. The Storm Skiing Journal publishes podcasts and other editorial content throughout the ski season. To receive new posts as soon as they are published, sign up for The Storm Skiing Journal Newsletter at skiing.substack.com. Follow The Storm Skiing Journal on Facebook and Twitter.
Check out previous podcasts: Killington 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