This Is the Winter We All Needed

Finally

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So this is what winter looks like?

It’s been snowing for a month. Not everywhere and not all the time, but steady, consistent refills. The kind that might squirrel around in Northern Vermont most years as genuine snowpack built up around the Mansfield snowstake and the rest of us dodged mud puddles on New Year’s Day.

Temps have stayed below freezing. The snow has stayed snow. Skiable snow. The glades are in play everywhere. Even Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania! The Feb. 1 storm that sacked New York City and buried the Poconos and Mountain Creek in two to three feet of snow was an exclamation point on a two-week storm cycle that had kicked in around MLK Weekend, first suggesting and then guaranteeing bomber conditions. But wait, there’s more! The snow just keeps coming, and it look as though that will continue into the foreseeable future.

My home mountain, Mountain Creek, had not had meaningful snowfall in years. Years. Yes it would occasionally snow a few inches. A ruthless rain like some sort of Snow Death carrying his sickle would inevitably wipe the whole accumulation away within a day. For most daylight hours throughout most recent winters the ski area has sat in above-freezing temperatures, the whole sprawling operation stapled and taped together by a heroic snowmaking crew that had mastered the art of the improbable.

Now the place is buried, the liftlines immeasurable. This would be tolerable in most years but in the Covid era it feels like too much. I go elsewhere because it’s good everywhere, leave North Jersey to the masses. I go where conditions are best. For me, a five-hour one-way drive to ski is nothing. My fidelity is first to the snow: who has the most and who has the most recent? Next to the crowds or lack of them: who has the fewest people? Finally to the terrain: who has the most open?

Right now everything is open everywhere. Trailmaps in the Northeast are so often aspirational. You look on the website expecting a snowy kingdom and you arrive to find chalk marks down a volcanic landscape. Not this year. We are skiing terrain that hasn’t been open in years. Terrain that isn’t even terrain. Glades where the mountain doesn’t bother to thin glades because it never has the snow to support them and never for more than a few days when it does but this year the forests are wide open everywhere and trenched with long squealing tracks whether the mountain allows it or not. Only a few precarious special zones, like the Slides at Whiteface, remain off limits. The rest is ours.

The snow could not have come at a better time. Accustomed to rambling freely over our nine-state Northeast ski region, most of us are backed now into our own little quarantine corners. Crucially, Vermont, home to most of the best skiing and best mountains, is closed. Or it may as well be. I thought that would matter. Thought I would pine for it. As wave after wave of snow has buried the state from top to bottom that could have been true, but the snow has, for once, spread evenly across the region. Or evenly enough that I am happy to be in New York, floating through trees at Snow Ridge or Oak or Plattekill. The lift tickets are cheap. The mountains are big enough. And they are utterly empty. Especially on weekdays. I’ve burned through vacation days like fireworks on the Fourth of July. Conditions haven’t been this good for this long in years and they may not be this good again for years.

Last winter went like this: storm after storm cutting across the northeast with a rain line inching north until only the frostiest areas of Northern Vermont went untouched, a circumstance so dire I day-tripped to Bolton Valley from Brooklyn just for a good snow day – and it was borderline. Then the season ended suddenly and completely, cancelled by Covid, precluding a miracle of the sort that had spun out of the ether to save the season over the three consecutive Marches of 2017, ’18, and ’19, which in turn followed the awful 2016, which followed the last great winter of 2014-15.

We all needed this, a snowy winter like the winters of yore, like the winters flash frozen in our minds, like the winters we think we remember as children. The ski area operators facing evaporating income from food and beverage and lessons needed this. The people who maybe don’t consider themselves skiers but who can’t go drink beers in their buddy’s living room or sink into a cushioned movie theater seat needed this. The skiers who watched the would-have-been-glorious tail-end of last season ripped from them needed this. And damn it I needed this. An endless winter amidst our endless winter in our boxed-in Covid clusterfuck of a nation.

Snowmaking is just a fad anyway

At the end of January, New England Ski History inventoried New England’s yet-to-open ski areas: Maine’s Quoggy Jo, Baker, Mt. Jefferson, and Big Squaw; Vermont’s Lyndon Outing Club; and New Hampshire’s Mt. Prospect and Veterans Memorial.

Quoggy Jo, a 215-vertical-foot bump that’s served by a single T-bar and remote even by Maine standards, opened Jan. 31. Baker, 460 feet of vert an hour down the road from Sugarloaf, opened last weekend and intends to operate for the holiday week. Mt. Jefferson, which failed to open last year, states on its website that the 432-vertical-foot ski area with two T-bars and a ropetow “will be open for all of February school vacation from 9am to 4pm.” Big Squaw, which is in the midst of an active sales process, opened its lower-mountain chairlift on Feb. 5 and will be open all next week. Lyndon Outing Club opened its 433 vertical feet on Feb. 4. Mount Prospect opened its tow on Jan. 31. Veterans Memorial opened Feb. 5.

Here’s a crazy idea: ski one of these this weekend or next week. There will be no crowds. They cost almost nothing. They will sand away whatever cynicism you’ve built up waiting half an hour to board the 45-pack at Mount Asskicker. Will they challenge you? Unlikely. And if that’s your mission and sole concern, skip it. But if you’re just taking your kids out for giggly laps, this could be your escape hatch from the mega-meltdowns and chairlift lines backed up to Canada that the trifecta of a vacation week, fresh snow, and Covid distancing mandates is about to deliver. The future of skiing does not start with 900-resort access MegaPasses. It starts at these ropetow joints. Go see for yourself.

“Hey, they killed Tenney!”

Missing from this list of miraculously arisen slopes is forever-foiled Tenney, the dead-alive-dead-alive New Hampshire feel-good story that was most recently alive and is now once again dead. Or on pause. Or something.

As the 2020-21 ski season drew to its improbable and underwhelming launch, Tenney became the only Northeast ski area to preemptively suspend operations in response to Covid. Their somber statement, however, also included the caveat that “With Mother Nature’s help, we will open only on selected holiday/vacation weekends when it makes financial sense.”

With the season’s final holiday weekend approaching and ample snowpack from Connecticut north, it is clear this will not happen. The difference between Tenney and the aforementioned ski areas is likely this: Tenney is a business that relies on paid labor, the rest are community rescue jobs prodded onward mostly by volunteers (supplemented by some paid labor). Tenney is also comparatively large, with 1,400 vertical feet, a pair of chairlifts, and an impressive tangle of trails. I hope we see Tenney open again, but it won’t be this season.

Let’s get lit

A few weeks back on the podcast, Bolton Valley President Lindsay DesLauriers told me that night skiing was “off the hook this year.” Gunstock GM Tom Day said much the same a week before. Mountain Creek has been noticeably busier for night skiing this season (the snow has helped).

When I landed in the Northeast from the Midwest two decades ago, the lack of night skiing seemed bizarre. Everyplace in the Midwest (outside of Michigan’s Upper Penninsula), has night skiing. “It’s cold in the Northeast,” people say. Please. Your nose will fall off in 45 seconds if you step outside exposed in an Upper Midwest January.

Shutting the lifts at 4 p.m., as most Northeast ski areas do, may be a huge missed opportunity, as Slopefillers’ Gregg Blanchard wrote last week:

From my perspective, our industry significantly underappreciates the potential of night skiing to increase revenue, participation, and growth. It is such a great skiing experience:

  • The light is never flat

  • It’s a great way to unwind after a busy day

  • It’s cheaper

  • It’s a smaller time commitment

  • It’s honestly my favorite time to take my kids skiing.

Yet very, very few resorts make any effort whatsoever to sing those praises of this product or market it anywhere close to the level of its daytime counterpart.

One of the few Northeast megaresorts to offer night skiing is Sunday River, which President Dana Bullen told me spawns from parent company Boyne Resorts’ Midwest roots and a desire to meter arrival times throughout the day. This defies the other oft-cited reason for the lack of Northeast night skiing – distance from population centers. If Sunday River, right next to the middle of nowhere, can draw night skiers, so can places like Killington or Sugarbush, which have no problem filling their slopes in the daytime despite their remote locations.

It’s true that the surge in night skiing may be a temporary sympton of nothing-else-to-do Covid life. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for some growth in what has been an overlooked opportunity in the Northeast.

Elsewhere

Vermont Ski + Ride with a moving account of skier Ian Forgays’ life and recent death-by-avalanche on Mt. Washington. Growing pains in Vermont’s growing backcountry scene. An incredible overhead look at Sugarbush liftlines. New York Ski Blog on Platty opening for a rare midweek pow day, Toggenburg after the storm, and Labrador. Sutner on kite surfing and the joy of skiing with family. Ski areas in Ontario prepare to re-open. Boyne Resorts will offset approximately 70 percent of its carbon footprint in partnership with CMS Enterprises. Read the entire September 1976 issue of Powder Magazine. Hey Steamboat kinda needs that new gondola like tomorrow.

This week in skiing

The atom bomb of a winter storm that curled out of the West last Monday bullseyed the improbable tandem of Northeast Pennsylvania and North Jersey, burying a dozen mountains that had not resembled actual ski areas in nearly half a decade. I turned west, to the bunched resorts of the Poconos and Endless Mountains, to immerse myself in this. When Pennsylvania is good I must ski Pennsylvania because there is no way to know when or if it will ever be good again. Skiing in a state where the sport is more of an after-school activity than a destination adventure means my four-resort meander was filled with a good number of oh-this-is-really-happening moments, as you’ll see below.

Elk Mountain

Why it was great: I arrived in a fat and steady snowfall to find the mountain deep, wide-open, and empty, nothing I would call a liftline. Steep fall lines, bumps everywhere, a thousand vertical feet on buttery and still-falling snow. Slow lifts but I don’t care about that. The mountain just spectacular, otherworldly by Pennsylvania standards, like it isn’t Pennsylvania at all but something socked into a forgotten corner of New England, the way that Florida doesn’t feel like the South but like some chopped-up and re-ordered combination of Long Island, New Jersey, and Ohio but with palm trees and alligators.

But oh that’s so Pennsylvania… But inexplicably the mountain is rooted in some 1980s no-fun-zone alternate dimension in which tree skiing is Bad and Dangerous and Mustn’t Be Allowed and there are signs everywhere proclaiming this in foreboding language, promising eviction from the property and possible beheading if caught. Of course I skied the trees all day anyway because the pitch is incredible and the spacing was great and the snow was three feet deep in the woods and evaporated upon contact like the family cat stepping in front of an alien phaser beam. This is a great mountain but the tree-skiing ban makes it feel like a bad mountain. Free the trees.

Montage

Why it was great: A gentle and meandering upper mountain tapers down to a crush of freefalling steeps below, genuinely frightening terrain with moguls the size of Burger Kings heaped along a trio of double blacks. The place has a bizarre lack of pine trees which makes the upper mountain feel high-alpine and foreboding and exotic as though you are not in Pennsylvania but some wild foreign land where the hills taper into sparsely vegetated zones populated by snow leopards and wolves and probably some kind of bears and all the wily things these carnivores devour.

But oh that’s so Pennsylvania… The top-to-bottom Long Haul triple happened to be out the evening I was there which I get and can forgive but the upshot of this was bursting liftlines populated by bands of teenagers rooted in the why-do-I-need-a-winter-jacket-this-hoodie-is-mad-warm-enough-for-this-16-degree-evening phase of adolescence. They also seem to have concocted some sort of secret language conveyed from chairlift to chairlift via smoke signals emitted from their vape pipes because I have never seen such consistent dedication to smoking down on the chairlift. And while I’m sure there are rippers who frequent Montage the skill level of the average evening skier can best be classified as terrible but since self-awareness is low and risk-tolerance is high among the vaping-and-hoodies set this fact of being awful at skiing did not discourage them from throwing themselves headlong down Montage’s considerable steeps. And so there they sat in various states of crash-landing between every mogul on the vertiginous double-blacks, like game pieces set and waiting for their spin to decide how indeed they will ever extricate themselves from this place.

Blue Mountain (not that Blue Mountain)

Why it was great: When you pull into the parking lot of most Pennsylvania ski areas there’s an awe-that’s-so-hokey-and-cute moment when you scope out the side-by-side chairlifts hooked to common towers or the lodge cut and pasted from a 1950s storybook about riding a horse-drawn sleigh down to the hill for some snowskiing fun with grandpa. There’s none of that at Blue, an absolute monster heaving out of the countryside, a high-speed quad and a high-speed six-pack unravelling side-by-side up the incline. The frontside double-blacks are steep and abrupt and groomed smooth as asphalt, and the blacks tucked off to the sides have bumps and it has actual on-the-map glades that are not at all challenging but make you say hey thanks for trying. If Alterra is looking for a Pennsylvania outpost and Camelback is not available then this place is ready. They even have RFID, and all I had to do to retrieve the card was to wave the email barcode in front of a scanner and it popped right out of the machine, an absolutely flawless procedure when I was prepared for at least 10 minutes of air-punching frustration.

But oh that’s so Pennsylvania… Unfortunately Blue is an catastrophic Goddamn mess. Overrun even on a Thursday, the ski area makes absolutely no attempt at line control. As a result legions of skiers descend upon the loading stations in a mob-like self-sorting situation that ought to have a blinking sign hanging overhead declaring, “If you want to catch Covid, start here” with a giant arrow pointing downward. I mean you just need one person directing traffic. One. And skiers will listen but no apparently there was no one in the state of Pennsylvania population 12.8 million available that day to undertake this rigorous task. At the slow-poke bumpkin ski areas I’ve been visiting no one had tried splitting a chair with me for weeks but here they were aggressive and relentless. At first I demurred and waved them ahead but every ski area has its own culture and I soon realized I was swimming upstream and shared a ride with a couple up the six-pack. I tried switching to the slowpoke double crawling up the west side but as I was turning to sit on the chair I see some knucklehead doddering his way up the lane to join me and I’m like hey Bro no offense but there’s this thing called Covid and if you want to sit four inches away from me as we crawl 800 vertical feet in this 36-year-old chairlift then hey maybe we should at least discuss it first? I barked him off and rode up alone and skied to the bottom and left after six runs. I’ll go back one day when it’s snowing hard or raining or the world is no longer under the siege of a deadly rampaging disease.

Shawnee (not that Shawnee)

Why it was great: Shawnee was not far from Blue and it was comparatively empty and organized, a small queue bunched at the bottom of a high-speed quad and managed by a resort employee, who dispersed riders in waves from the staging area (see Blue it’s not so hard). My appetite for lines of any kind had evaporated however and so I spent the day riding the slow-ass double chair parallel to it. I was fine with this. The sun was out and the terrain was not terribly compelling and it was nice to just sit and watch the world amble past, including several skiers, at distinct times and isolated from one another but united in their bewilderment, marching downslope with their full accompaniment of gear awkwardly bundled in their arms. Before the snow turned to thick sun-rotten marshmallow fluff around 1:30 I made turns in the woods that almost no one had skied since the storm hit three days earlier. The snow was deep and the trees well spaced and there are some long glades between the marked trails where you just have to avoid stream bottoms and in one case a utility road that cuts through and under the resort.

But oh that’s so Pennsylvania… That Shawnee was overrun with unskilled skiers was not special; every Pennsylvania ski area has that. What set Shawnee apart was their almost complete contempt for anyone not stepping off a school bus into the rental shop, as expressed by several closed trails buried still in the three feet of snow they’d claimed from Monday’s storm. There was no reason not to open this terrain, other than a couple easily navigable water bars that breached a couple of them toward the bottom. But here it sat, days after the storm, rotted by day’s end in the sun. Of course people had skied it anyway and of course I skied it anyway and admittedly their tiny “closed” signs untethered by cross-trail ropes seemed designed only to shoo the novices away and not really to lock the terrain off, but considering how rare and precious powder and free-from-nature snowfall are around these here parts, they ought to show it a little more respect when it does fall.