“There Was No Political Pressure to Do This” - Vermont’s Suicide Six Changes Name to “Saskadena Six”
“If you had a business that had all those characteristics and you didn't have a name for it, would you ever sit down at the table and say, I'm gonna name it ‘Suicide Six?’ You probably wouldn’t.”
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It was the hill labeled number six on the map. On one side, a pasture would become the site of America’s first ropetow. On the other, Rhode Island native and Dartmouth graduate Wallace “Bunny” Bertram would buy 30 acres that the Vermont Standard described as “steeper’n a cow’s tail,” according to New England Ski History, which goes on to explain the provenance of the hill’s name: “Noting that it would be suicide to ski straight down the face, and recalling a lesson in alliteration in high school, Bertram chose the name Suicide Six.”
And that was it. It was 1936. The Great Depression. People had other things to worry about. And, besides, good old boys ran the world. Safety? Mental health? Toughen up, Son. Smoking everywhere, all the time. Child labor, commonplace. Seatbelts, nonexistent. U.S. life expectancy was 56.6 years for men and 60.6 for women (today it’s 76.6 for men and 81.7 for women).
That world is not this world, and few things that fit then fit now. Vermont changed and America changed and Americans changed. The definition of “suicide” remains as it has for centuries, but the word has become freighted. It’s one to use judiciously. It evokes, describes, tragedy. Not glory. Suicide is not adventure. Suicide is disaster. That, in 2022 America, where suicide rates have risen by 35 percent since 2000, is what this word means.
It was within this context that the ski area known for 86 years as “Suicide Six” last week changed its name to “Saskadena Six.” The new name, which means “Standing Mountain” in the Abenaki language of Vermont’s native inhabitants, echoes and honors the ski area’s history and legacy, while reorienting it toward a future uninhibited by an anachronistic name.
“Because of the brand characteristics that we exhibit, what are the qualities that we have?” the resort’s general manager, Tim Reiter said in a telephone interview with The Storm Skiing Journal last week. “We're engaging, we're family-friendly, we're trustworthy, we're fun. We're loving. If you had a business that had all those characteristics and you didn't have a name for it, would you ever sit down at the table and say, I'm gonna name it ‘Suicide Six?’ You know, you probably wouldn't.”
“I think we all knew in our heart of hearts that this was the right thing to do.”
Carrying “suicide” in the resort’s name had impacts both mundane and profound, practical and intangible. On the practical, low-impact side, the ski area had long simplified its merchandise logo to simply “S6.” “Kids couldn’t wear stuff with our name on it to the local schools,” Reiter said. Official communications and emails often carried this simplification as well.
Even something so simple as searching “Suicide Six” on Facebook or Google could, according to Reiter, trigger a pop-up that would block a user “from proceeding to a website without acknowledging the warning that popped up. Do you have a problem? Here's the suicide hotline.” (I was unable to replicate such a pop-up, perhaps because my search history is so corrupted by queries for ski areas that the algorithm has exempted me.)
Less hard to define was a sense that the name was misaligned with the zeitgeist of 2022 America, a feeling punctuated by occasional but powerful letters from individuals impacted by suicide. Reiter said he has received around two dozen such missives over his six-plus years running the ski area.
Still, no big public uproar drove the name change. Unlike Alterra’s 2021 rebrand of Squaw Valley to Palisades Tahoe, which was more or less the direct result of a decades-long lobbying campaign by local Native American tribes, Reiter and his team proactively initiated Suicide Six’s name change.
“I'm proud to say there wasn't a particular complaint or a particular group that said you should do this,” said Reiter, who took the general manager role in 2016 after several years in the industry, including as mountain operations manager at Killington. “I think we all knew in our heart of hearts that this was the right thing to do.”
That isn’t to say that the letters and the Google pop-ups and the fact that the resort couldn’t sell T-shirts to 12-year-olds had no impact on the decision. “All of those things were just fuel to the fire, but not the tipping point per se,” said Reiter. “They just more codified our decision, as opposed to directing it.”
Saskadena Six is born
Suicide Six had actually changed its name once before, simplifying it to “Six” in the 1970s. “The local outrage was so much even before the age of social media that they kind of shied away from it and went back,” said Reiter.
When Woodstock Inn, which owns the resort, hired Reiter six and a half years ago, the name change was a discussion point, but not a priority, he said. “They had been in conversation for years, and it was something that they weren’t ready to tackle. There were certainly other operational needs first,” Reiter said, such as installing the ski area’s first quad, a much-needed upgrade from an old double chair that was Reiter’s first major project as general manager.
By 2019, however, the ski area was ready to proceed with the name change, hiring an agency and mapping out the process. Covid stalled progress, but a core team kept working in secret. Only four people at the resort knew that the name change was underway.
One of the group’s first tasks was to gather 30-ish stakeholders – passholders, Ski Vermont President Molly Mahar, the head of Vermont Adaptive – and ask them how they would feel about a name change.
“The overwhelming response, even from the most diehard Suicide Six fan, was that they understood that a change was necessary,” Reiter said. “So that felt really good to get that buy-in from all these people connected to the resort in different ways.”
The group also coalesced around shared guidelines for the new name. Everyone liked the notion of retaining “six” as part of the name, Reiter said. They considered simplifying to “S6,” but “then the question is, well, what does the S stand for?” Reiter said. “You're not really getting very far from the original name.”
The team considered a “baffling” number of names, Reiter said, including some without “six.” Retaining the numeral, however, became a symbolic way to honor the resort’s 86-year history. Perhaps the new name could also honor history beyond that, the team thought. The resort engaged Chief Don Stevens of the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk-Abenaki Nation, who, according to Reiter, is one of the only living linguists of the Abenaki language. “Saskadena,” which means “standing mountain,” quickly became the top choice for the resort’s new name.
“Not only because of the geographic shape of the mountain, but because ‘standing mountain’ symbolizes so much of what the resort stands for, the values that we stand for,” Reiter said. Maintaining the alliteration of “Suicide Six” was also important. “The fact that it started with an ‘S,’ and it does roll off the tongue more so than some of the other names we looked at.”
Saskadena Six’s red ball logo revives one of the resort’s original logos, with some modifications. The shift from the hexagon casing of the ski area’s last logo to the circle was deliberate, Reiter said, subtly signifying change. The vibrant palette, grounded in earth tones and inspired by Abenaki tribal colors, retreats from the bolder reds and blacks, swapping them for something “more symbolic of our landscape,” Reiter said. This fusion of present with past underscores the point that a name change is not a disregard for or discarding of the ski area’s nearly century-long history.
“We'll continue to honor our past as we always have,” Reiter said, noting that the historic photos that blanket the base lodge and document the resort’s history stretching back to the ‘30s will remain. “We have a history wall talking about the evolution from the first ropetow in America, which was on the backside of this mountain. And of course the legacy of Bunny Bertrum and his family and their ingenuity, and all the firsts that we've achieved in the industry, from the longest-running ski-and-ride program, to the oldest ski club with the Woodstock Ski Runners.”
Additional installations will honor the Abenaki nation, and Saskadena Six will implement ski-and-ride programs to ensure tribal access to the slopes.
“Because the name change was done with such respect, I feel confident – and I believe the rest of the team feels the same way – that this was cultural appreciation and not appropriation,” Reiter said.
The reveal – ““Everybody has of course mixed feelings or reservations.”
Saskadena Six was born last Wednesday, July 13. The resort dropped this video on its website to help contextualize the change. “It is time that our unwavering character and strong values are represented by our name,” a narrator says over footage of families schussing down groomers:
No one outside of Saskadena Six’s branding agency – Origins Outside – and the core four-person internal team new the name until an hour before it went public. “We showed our video at an executive meeting and there wasn't a dry eye in the room,” Reiter said. “Everybody has of course mixed feelings or reservations. Change is hard. But everybody's response overall, especially internally, was just so positive.”
The response in the wider world has been more mixed, but “overall incredibly positive,” Reiter said. “We've received so much positive feedback from people that personally I hadn't expected to be so excited or overjoyed about it. There has been some negativity, of course. It’s really easy for anybody now with a keyboard to claim that this is woke-ism or cancel culture or some sort of political move, without really understanding that there was no political pressure to do this. This is something we wanted to do, and we're certainly not canceling our past or hiding our history. In fact, we embrace it here probably more than anyone.”
Response from the Abenaki tribe has been positive. “As a place-based people, the Nulhegan Abenaki tribe appreciates the opportunity to work with the Woodstock resort team to rename this place and recognize its historic context as part of the land,” said Chief Stevens. “This ‘standing mountain’ has been used by thousands of Abenaki ancestors for over 11,000 years and hopefully many more in the future. By acknowledging the original language of this place, the name Saskadena Six will honor the ancient legacy of the Abenaki alongside that of the generations who have loved it over the past 90 years and into the future.”
Big Beaver Road, Exit 69
Interstate 75 is one of the great infrastructure achievements of America, a road stretching 1,786 miles from South Florida to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the second-longest north-south route in the interstate highway system. It transnavigates Florida and bulls eight lanes wide through downtown Atlanta and weaves dramatically through the mountains of Tennessee and Kentucky before training on the Midwest flats through Ohio and up into Michigan.
And here, a dozen or so miles north of Detroit, one finds a landmark so curious that it cannot be bypassed unremarked upon, even by the most stoic and self-serious among us:
If you are not from America, or you do not speak English as a first language, or you do not live after, say, 1991, this sign may seem innocuous. Exit numbers are bureaucratic tracking devices anchored in real-world figures and distances. Road names may have a colorful story but in most cases few people remember why they are called what they are (you can, however, read the Big Beaver Road origin story here). In its most earnest interpretation, Big Beaver Road is a throughway important enough to merit its own exit on the most important highway in the state of Michigan, and it happens to sit 69 miles from the border of Ohio along this route.
And for a long time after this exit opened around 1963, that’s probably how most passersby thought of it. And then the culture around I-75 changed. Now, this is the sort of thing that could inspire a Beavis and Butt-Head movie: two chucklehead teenagers voyage across America on a riding lawnmower to set off firecrackers and pound Red Bull in front of Big Beaver Road, exit 69. Hilarious. And stupid. And uniquely U.S. American. But real – this sign evokes things it did not once evoke, and the local county or the state or the feds or whomever makes localized interstate signage decisions might consider changing the road name to “16 Mile,” which the throughway becomes just 3.5 miles east of the interstate.
I don’t know if that will ever happen, but we are living in a world in which this exit sign is a perpetual joke for as long as it remains. Keeping things around that ought to be retired has consequences. And Saskadena Six just liberated itself from whatever future consequences it may have faced for hanging onto a resort name that belonged to a different time.
Absent a public pressure campaign to respond to, the ski area now known as Saskadena Six can decide how big of a flex to make here. When Squaw Valley changed its name to Palisades Tahoe last year, the resort set the name down and walked out of the room. They did orchestrate a large initial media push, but it seemed entirely defensive. When a top-five U.S. ski resort changes its name, people notice, so they were prepared. But then Alterra left it alone. It was the right move. While a handful of Very Angry Ski Bros with nothing better to do continue to spam social media with angst and outrage, most of us have shifted our attention to Palisades Tahoe’s forthcoming base-to-base gondola, a monster project that will redefine and finally unite the two sides of this Tahoe icon.
Saskadena Six is, of course, not Palisades Tahoe. It is the 17th largest ski area in Vermont, three lifts and 24 trails that could fit into Killington’s lunch bucket. The mountain’s profile has inched up over the past few years, a function of its addition to the Indy Pass, but I’m not sure how much attention the average skier is paying to Saskadena Six. Since the ski area probably relies more on Woodstock Inn guests than day skiers to keep the lifts spinning, I don’t think it matters much. Stay at the Inn, ski on the hill. For a small mountain that’s lasted 86 years in big-mountain Vermont, it’s clearly a strategy that works. The name is gone. Let it go.
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Always appreciate the longer form writing that fills in the blanks. So much around this and other issues that instantly put people in one of two camps, it’s awful. Everyone puts up a click bait headline and filler, no filler detected here.
Honestly surprised the ad angle didn't come up sooner. The Buffalo Bill's apparently had similar problems on Facebook for a while -- the site would de-rank posts because they thought "bills" meant dollar bills, in conjunction with some kind of scam.
Interesting to see the process they went through for the new name!