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The Sacrificial Zebra and the Future of Saddleback
Why we can only let this thing die once
With insurance approved by the Finance Authority of Maine and loans from various sources in place, Saddleback is a beat closer to getting the lifts spinning again next winter.
If you’re not familiar with Saddleback, it’s an underrated and under-trafficked standout pure skier’s mountain. And this is how big of a deal it is, according to Mainebiz:
Saddleback Mountain is one of three ski resorts in Maine with a 2,000-foot vertical drop — the other two are Sugarloaf, in Carrabassett Valley, and Sunday River, in Newry. Saddleback is one of seven New England mountains with a top-lift elevation of more than 4,000 feet, and third in size in Maine as far as number of trails. The resort has five lifts, 66 trails and a 7-acre terrain park, and plans to expand more than 20 acres by the 2020-21 ski season.
More color from Skibum.net:
Big mountain, steep narrow trails for experts, no liftlines. It’s a distant third in popularity behind Sugarloaf and Sunday River, simply because it doesn’t have nearly as much skiable acreage or a lot of clocktower village claptrap. For purists, it should be first choice. Hotshots have their work cut out for them; wanderers are better off at Sunday River. For the rest of us, the big mountain vertical and the appallingly short liftlines (on weekdays) are tough to pass up. Note that the upper, main ridge at Saddleback is mostly for pedal-to-the-metal experts. The rest of the place is suited to average skiers: Pure classic New England skiing with plenty of variety. The short section below the lodge is dreadfully flat; do it once and unless you’re a novice, you won’t be anxious to do it again. This is a big, big ski mountain. Whatever the future might bring, Saddleback is a terrific ski area, not to be missed. If it reopens.
You can see what they’re talking about - the mountain kicks ass:
There are a lot of reasons why getting this mountain back online matters, and it’s mostly all the usual things about rural employment and economic development and filling the existential “Dear-God-Why?” frustration of locals who just want their goddamn hill open because man it’s right f-ing there. But the reason in my mind why it mostly matters and why we need to do anything we can to keep all operating ski areas open is that it’s almost impossible to build new ones.
Only 10 ski areas have opened since 2000, according to the NSAA, and even that number is misleading: Crotched and Echo re-opened in 2003 and ’05, respectively, but both were recovered lost ski areas that previously operated for decades; Liberty Mountain Snowflex Centre is a carpet-skiing (er, Snowflex) facility; Deer Crest is a private ski area. Of the other six, Mount Bohemia and Silverton are basically inaccessible to anyone other than true experts (they have zero green runs and three blue runs between them), and Frisco Adventure Park and Gateway Parks can really only serve solid green beginners or parksters. Cherry Peak and Tamarack are the only true balanced-for-everyone mountains, and the latter has been cursed by mismanagement from the start (though it appears to be in the midst of a recovery).
There are many reasons why it’s so hard to cut new trails down a virgin mountain, from more stringent environmental regulations to a rise in Nimby-ism to more organized opposition from environmental advocates and previously marginalized groups. There are positives to all of these things, but the end result is that you have a better chance of finding an empty lift line on a Hunter Mountain holiday Saturday than you do of building a new ski area.
So we have to figure out how to protect what already exists. As difficult as it can be to reclaim a lost ski area, it is still far easier to resuscitate a dormant resort than it is to build one from scratch. That is not only because you typically have some basic infrastructure to work with, but also because you have a trail network or at least the outlines of it cut into the mountain. This sets up a precedent to exist. This is key. With that precedent established, developers can tie a direct line back to the communities that these ski areas once existed in and helped to support economically and socially. There are no hypotheticals.
This precedent is why it was possible to resurrect Magic in the ‘90s and Crotched in 2003, and why Les Otten’s sprawling Balsams project in far northern New Hampshire is not a complete pipe dream. This is why Big Tupper in New York could return. And the original failure to ever launch the potentially huge Bearpen Mountain in the Catskills is the reason why that project is unlikely to ever happen.
Saddleback probably never should have shut down. There are very few mountains of this quality that have been outfitted as ski areas and we are unlikely to ever see more cut in the Northeast. The family that ran it seemed overwhelmed and eager to get the hell out, and when they couldn’t sell, they froze the whole operation.
The ski industry as a whole needs to come up with a failsafe to help places like Saddleback that don’t have access to Broomfield Billions to bridge those tough times and keep the lifts spinning. We can’t keep treating this like the wild savanna where “well he was a nice zebra but someone has to die to keep the lions happy.” The industry is too interconnected. Even the biggest billion-acre back-bowl megamonster resort needs Mt. Dinkmore, Connecticut to transform 7-year-olds into its future slopeside condo-renting Christmas week diehards.
This is not a call to shield incompetence with block grants, but rather a recognition that the ski industry herd as a whole is better off when it sends a doctor to check up on the sick buffalo. Maybe he has wasting buffalo disease and there’s no hope for him and yeah it’s dinnertime for Simba. But maybe he just has a broken leg and he needs a couple weeks in the buffalo hospital and he’ll be all better.
I just don’t think Saddleback was the dying buffalo. It was just a little sick. And there should have been a larger industry response than, “Hey Man, nice knowin’ ya.” If court-appointed receiver Michael Goldberg, who took control over Jay Peak and Burke, would have shut operations down, the fallout would have been catastrophic, for the state and for the whole regional industry. He made the right choice and pushed through, even in very challenging circumstances. Saddleback, out of options, folded. There should have been options.
I don’t know what those options would look like. Maybe it’s some kind of loan from a pool that all ski areas contribute to. Maybe it’s a more localized state-by-state initiative. But whatever it looks like, Saddleback, if it actually comes back, cannot be allowed to shut down again.
John Fry, icon of ski journalism and inventor of NASTAR, dies at 90
I have a very long and ever-expanding list of people I’d like to interview on The Storm Skiing Podcast. Most of them run mountains but I also obviously really enjoy interviewing folks who run websites dedicated to the sport, which includes some people who are hobbyists and some who are journalists and at the very top of this list was John Fry.
That interview will never happen. Fry died on Jan. 24 at the age of 90. If you’re not familiar with Fry’s work, I’ll quote here at length from the International Skiing History Association’s coverage of his death:
Over a 60-year career devoted to ski journalism, Fry served on the staffs of the magazines Ski Life, Ski, Snow Country and Skiing Heritage (now Skiing History). He was editor-in-chief of Ski, founding editor of Snow Country, and served as president and then chairman of the International Skiing History Association.
Fry edited America’s Ski Book, revised edition (1973), co-authored with Phil and Steve Mahre their autobiography No Hill Too Fast (1985), and authored the award-winning book The Story of Modern Skiing (2006) and a work of Canadian history, A Mind at Sea: Henry Fry and the glorious era of Quebec-built giant sailing ships (2016).
In addition to his writing, as editor-in-chief at Ski Fry created the Nations Cup of alpine skiing, ranking the worlds’ national ski teams based on World Cup points; and NASTAR (National Standard Racing), the nationwide recreational alpine racing series now owned and operated by the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association.
Fry was elected to the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame (1995), to the Laurentian Ski Hall of Fame (2016), and to the Canadian Ski Hall of Fame (2018). A founding member of the International Skiing History Association, he first served as its president in 2001, and from 2014 until his death was the association’s chairman. He also served as a director at the environmental organizations Riverkeeper (1992-2000), Pinchot Institute for Conservation (1994-1999), and Beaver Dam Sanctuary (1995 until his death). In 1997 he was honored by the International Ski Federation (FIS) with its Journalism Award.
Watch Fry at length:
As sad as it is to see someone go, it is somewhat uplifting in a melancholy way when that person has lived a full and good life and contributed things that mattered and done so with a consistent commitment to excellence. I never met John Fry, but he seemed by all accounts like that kind of person.
This is what happens when ski journalism shrivels
Cheddar’s almost nine-minute explainer on why ski resorts are dying mostly explains why Cheddar is not my go-to source for information on skiing. Mistakes, assumptions, and misrepresentations in this video include but are not limited to:
· Nevele “ski resort,” their lead example of why the industry is doomed, was never a true ski resort at all, but rather a Borsch Belt Catskills getaway of the type Midge’s family absconds to in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. It had a modest ski slope as an add-on, in the way that a hotel might have a basketball hoop on the back lawn even though you would never call it a “basketball resort.” It was just one thing of many to do there. Nevele shriveled and died with most of its peers when air travel arrived and made long weekends to Florida possible for the New York City metro rich folk who had long sustained them. The best surviving approximation to Nevele is probably Rocking Horse Ranch in Upstate New York, a sort of here’s-a-bunch-of-crap-to-do-with-your-kids weekend getaway spot that has a modest ski slope and that exactly no one considers a ski resort.
· The video claims that, “last season, ski visits were down 11%.” This is untrue. NSAA statistics show that last year was the fourth best on record for total skier visits, and those visits increased substantially over the previous season.
· The video also claims that, “the number of active participants fell from over 11 million, to just over 8 million.” This is also untrue. The NSAA claims 10.3 million active participants last year, a considerable jump over 2017-18’s 9.1 million.
· The claim that there were 45 fewer ski areas in operation than 20 years before is untrue by the NSAA statistics that the video cites. There were 509 ski areas in operation in 1998-99, and 476 last season, a difference of 33.
· The video confuses skier visits with the number of active skiers, and doesn’t tell a coherent narrative linking various numbers together. The editors bizarrely choose the awful 2016 winter as a benchmark of success (they also fail to clarify whether they are referring to the winter of 2015-16 or 2016-17; I am assuming the former, as the bulk of any season falls after the New Year), which the NSAA ranks as only the 25th best winter in the last 40, and the second worst since the 1999-2000 season. The video claims 20 million active skiers that season, contradicting the NSAA’s tally of 9 million, and then say that “skier visits fall by 5.5 million” to 14.5 million in low snow years (again, confusing active skiers with skier visits). But the lowest number of skier visits on record is 39.7 million, in 1980-81 – part of an era that the video points to as a boom time for skiing.
· The video points to lower-elevation “ski areas” like “Utah, Idaho, Nevada, and parts of California” as being especially susceptible to climate change. What exactly the criteria is for low elevation is unexplained: I live at sea level and can barely sleep when I take my annual trip to Snowbird, which sits at 7,760 feet. Alta is another 700 feet higher, and most mountains in the state sit above 6,000 feet. California and Nevada post similar stats, and the lowest ski area base in Idaho is Schweitzer, at 4,000 feet. Far better examples would have been Mid-Atlantic mountains that don't have a lot of elevation or long bouts of cold, like Roundtop in Pennsylvania. Also, ski areas are not states.
· The video adds up the 43 North American mountains on the Epic Pass and the 33 on the Ikon Pass and comes up with 58 North American resorts where the passes work. Granted, this is a little confusing because of the way that “destinations” are bundled under the Ikon Pass so that Aspen’s four mountains are one and Alta and Snowbird together are one, but I really don’t understand where they came up with 58.
· There are also some debatable assertions that every new skier requires lessons and must travel very far to try it, and a messy attempt to string together the high cost of skiing, climate change, and student loan debt that are probably partially all correct in isolation, but just sound like #OKBoomer word salad as presented. There is also a pretty weak attempt to tie skiing’s aging base to future revenues, which completely ignores the surge in pass revenue and attendant travel spending that is the true story of skiing right now.
This video’s whole thesis is flimsy to anyone who has spent any time skiing or looking at the ski industry. Someone at Cheddar thought skiing must be dying because climate change and because $219 Vail lift ticket headlines and because Millennials hate everything, and they set out to prove that. “The ski industry is struggling,” the narrator says as she tromps through the wreckage of never-was-part-of-that-industry Nevele.
The whole thing feels like it was made five years ago, before the big boys started really consolidating and launched the pass wars that flooded their accounts with dollars and their mountains with skiers. For a more optimistic and realistic take on the state of the industry, go buy Chris Diamond’s Ski Inc. 2020, whose subtitle tells the real story of American skiing right now: “Alterra counters Vail Resorts; mega-passes transform the landscape; the industry responds and flourishes. For skiing? A North American Renaissance.”
While I can’t guarantee that Cheddar would not have made this video if a more mainstream ski media existed in the same robust form that it did 25 years ago, I have to imagine that there would have been less imperative to do so, and also a louder cry of, “Hey this is bullshit,” had it been released. But unfortunately so much of the editorial infrastructure from those fat magazine days has been burned to the ground and never replaced by anything other than rant-and-rave social media groups that no such organized intelligent opposition exists.
The most depressing thing I read all week
I don’t understand a lot of things about America and one of the things that most puzzles me and always has is why so many people hate being outside. It’s like all winter long everyone complains about the cold and can’t wait for summer and then summer comes and all anyone does is sit around in the air conditioning all day long and complain about how hot it is. And I just in general find this really depressing how we collectively isolate ourselves from our world, and since I was a kid I’ve wandered around on nice warm summer days and I’m constantly like man where the hell is everyone?
And it turns out that they’re all inside. The Outdoor Industry Association released a disturbing study last week itemizing that only 20 percent of Americans did something outside every week last year, and all this added up to a billion fewer outdoor outings last year than happened 10 years earlier.
I’m going to complain about this a little bit so if you only care about the skiing go ahead and skip this part.
There is something about being indoors, especially in the summer, that I have always found deeply unsettling. I love winter obviously and spend as much time out in it as possible but I kind of get why people hate it especially people who haven’t come up with something to do in the relentless cold which let’s face it is not a three-month season but like half the year. But when brief and fleeting summer finally settles over the region and the leaves burst green and full over the landscape and you can go stand outside in a T-shirt I see no justification for being indoors for any reason other than to sleep. I get restless and antsy and frankly resentful anytime I’m indoors for more than two minutes at a time in the summer and especially when I can see the world brilliant and full and alive out the window. Like I’m seriously borderline pathological about it and people think I’m weird but being outside in the sumer is what we did for like a million years and suddenly we just all stopped doing that. And I find that disturbing.
When I was amping up to launch The Storm last summer I needed a long period of uninterrupted time to work and so I took two weeks of vacation. It was July and brilliant out and every day I’d get up at six and work out and then have breakfast on my patio in Brooklyn and then haul out all my notebooks and laptop and sit out there all day long working. I had an umbrella for shade and when it got really hot I’d flip on a fan but damn it felt good out there and I can’t imagine ever having the choice to be outdoors and not making that choice. In fact any time that I work from home in the summer I do it outside at least if it isn’t raining, and if it is raining I open all the windows and sit inside and listen to the rain and work that way. And yes I realize that sitting outside and writing is not exactly what the Outdoor Industry Association means by “outdoor recreation,” but the larger point here is that we have normalized being indoors to the point that it seems unusual to us when anyone does anything outside other than like mow the lawn.
And besides the fact that Americans are doing less outside even though there are obviously more people living here than there were 12 years ago, one of the more depressing things about this study was the fact that “kids went on 15 percent fewer annual outings in 2018 than they did in 2012.” I’ve given my opinion on this American habit of confining our children under our maximum security zones of protection recently, and this is I think probably an extension of that. I mean when I was a kid I don’t think I did anything inside in the summer other than eat dinner and I basically had to be forced at gunpoint to do that. When Nintendo came along when I was 11 or 12 that changed a bit but the gut of summer was still outdoors.
I’m not going to speculate too much on what’s behind this shitty long-term trend but I think the main culprits are obvious and are the same phalanx of unrelenting electronic distractions that have transformed the majority of us into endlessly scrolling and so-focused-on-everything-that-they-can-focus-on-nothing zombiedroids. And while this cultural sickness of indoors-ism far predates the dawn of the iPhone and Flixstream or whatever the everywhere-all-the-time digitization of our society hasn’t done us any favors when it comes to making time to do things out in the un-electrified wilderness.
I’m guessing that the overlap between 10-day-per-year skiers who buy Epic or Ikon passes and New York Times readers is fairly substantial, and so it’s unsurprising that news of the Great Crystal Mountain Meltdown of 2020 reached the paper last week.
New England Ski Journal visits Loon:
This week in skiing
I spent an evening last week at Mountain Creek, the parks built up now and teenagers cursing and screaming off the chairlift and their music thump-thumping over the night. They flew in wild packs over the mountain and I suppose this sort of thing angers a certain sort of skier at times but on weekday nights the mountains should be theirs and they are, and man actually I’m just really glad to see kids out there still doing this because of all the things they could be doing this is probably the best option for a peaceable and healthy society. It was cold and fast and wild and thrilling off the little ramps, the slopes icy in the middle and piled up in grainy bits off to the side. I skied until last chair at 9 p.m. and I wish I could have skied longer.
Saturday I spent on the magic carpets at Catamount with my wife and my 3-year-old son. His first time on skis and he said he couldn’t wait to go skiing and then that he wanted no more skiing and then when I tucked down the grade with him between my legs that I had to go faster and then that he was sick of skiing. In and out of the lodge all day like that, up and down the conveyor belts and man was I so not pining for the ropetow days at that moment. He never really skied but was just happy to ride down with me holding him, and it was a glorious thing to be part of as he laughed and said, “let’s race Mommy,” and asked to go up again and again.
And the next morning at breakfast when I asked him if he liked skiing he said, “yeah,” and when I asked him if he wanted to go again, he thought for a moment and said, “no thanks.” And that was pretty damn funny.
New podcast Thursday. Probably.
The Storm Skiing Podcast is on iTunes, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, TuneIn, 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 & Pico 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 | Berkshire East & Catamount Owner & GM Jon Schaefer| Vermont Ski + Ride and Vermont Sports Co-Publisher & Editor Lisa Lynn| Sugarbush President & COO Win Smith|