Wildcat and Why the Long Season Matters
Is Vail abandoning Wildcat's spring legacy?
The mystique of May skiing
The promise materialized, improbable and mysterious, on Greek Peak’s website a month ago:
It was a remarkable goal for a historically unremarkable ski area. A quietly reliable 1,000-footer seated on the southern hem of the Lake Ontario snowbelt, Greek Peak would occasionally hit April but typically folded up alongside its Central New York neighbors in mid- to late-March. A May closing would be a blockbuster in a state where even frozen Whiteface rarely reached past April. The ski area even produced a short chest-beating film, brashly titled You Can’t Stop Us!, to promote their quest:
Well, something did stop them. Probably the weeks and weeks of warm weather and rain that have raked over the state since the first half of March. The mountain announced yesterday that today, April 7, would be their last operating day. But I still admire the swag and the moxie, the adrenaline of the attempted stunt. It fits a re-energized Greek Peak, whose owner has invested substantially in lifts and snowmaking, aggressively thinned glades, dropped the mountain onto a joint pass with nearby Toggenburg, and joined the Freedom and Indy Passes. This is a skier’s mountain, a fact that a May 1 barn-burner would have indisputably etched into the psyche of every skier within 200 miles.
There’s something about May skiing. The sun and the slush. The quiet. It’s easy and empty. Warm. A little melancholy, most everything that makes the resort a resort shuttered and the snow slowly evaporating into the still-brown world sprawling for miles off the summit. After the wind and the ice and the cold and the crowds, it’s a release into a different-feeling sport altogether.
Most Northeast ski areas can’t or won’t hit May. But we love the ones that do and we despise the ones that stop. There’s a reason one of Mike Solimano’s first moves as Killington general manager was to bring back the mountain’s walk-to-the-bottom-if-you-have-to-but-damnit-we’re-skiing-until-summer-shuts-us-down legacy. I’ll never forget standing at the bottom of Superstar in June 1996, watching skiers click in and out of their skis as they threaded their way along the last patches of snow to the bottom. And I’ll never forget how disappointed I was when that same to-hell-with-you-and-all-your-damn-rules mountain shut down three times in April between 2008 and 2012. It’s probably not a coincidence that public sentiment about The Beast has by all accounts steadily grown since the mountain turned back to May and June closings in 2013.
Wildcat, unfortunately, may be repeating Killington’s mistake of abandoning the long season. Under Peak Resorts, the mountain closed on April 24 or later from 2014 to 2019. It made May 3 in 2015 and April 29 in 2017 and ‘18. Vail’s goal this season is April 18. Not terrible, but not keeping in the spirit of Wildcat, one of the oldest ski areas in the country and arguably the rowdiest in the state, 2,100-vertical-feet of bumpy, rugged terrain. It’s a place whose traditions and presence mean a lot to a lot of people. Wildcat is one of six New England ski areas – along with Jay Peak, Sugarbush, Killington, Sunday River, and Sugarloaf – that have regularly reached for May.
That is an elite roster. Voluntarily fleeing would be a mistake. Not the least because four of those mountains – all but Jay – are on the Ikon Pass. For the ski-until-your-friends-are-posting-selfies-from-beach-chairs crowd, that matters. And those skiers are who the five-days-per-year crowd consults when they’re wondering where to ski over February break.
It’s too early to gauge how Vail will treat Wildcat’s closing dates over the long term. They’ve only owned the mountain for two winters, and the first ended in the Covid shutdown last March. Vail has kept long seasons alive at Whistler and, occasionally, Heavenly. They began stretching Breckenridge’s season into late May or early June after Arapahoe Basin fled for the Ikon Pass. But they also closed Park City on April 7 two seasons back even as the town continued to get hammered by spring storms for weeks afterward (to be fair, so did Alterra’s Deer Valley, right next door). Kirkwood regularly shuts with enough base to bury a house. The long season just isn’t Vail’s brand, and, as in the East, the majority of the West’s late-operators – Mammoth, Squaw Valley, Snowbird, A-Basin, Crystal, sometimes Winter Park – are Ikon mountains.
After last year’s evacuation, it’s hard to get grumpy about anyone closing too early this season. It wasn’t a great snow year. Vail has lost a lot of money. But so did everyone else. In February, Jay Peak GM Steve Wright said in an email announcing 2021-22 season pass sales that:
“… this seems to be as good a time as any to also announce that we plan on pushing the season as long as we can this year. While an absence of Canadian week holiday periods and an early Easter holiday might be rationale enough to shut things down- we all feel strongly that, on behalf of those Season Passholders who trusted us with their pandemic-season, we owe it to them to let the good times roll out as long as possible. We may get to weekend-only operations late in the season, and we may adjust lift schedules to reflect traffic patterns, but we won’t be shutting down to stop any metaphorical bleeding; we’ll adjust operations, while still managing to offer lift access, because we told you we would when you bought your season pass back in the fall.”
In its other regions of resort density, Vail has designated one resort as its late-season flag-holder: Breck in Colorado and Heavenly in Tahoe. It should have such a place in the Northeast, and that place should be Wildcat. As Killington’s Solimano has said many times, they stopped worrying about whether the mountain made money in October or June a long time ago. It’s part of their brand, and the long season buys a tremendous amount of goodwill. It’s part of the brand at Wildcat too. I hope Vail understands that.
But we’re getting down to it anyway
Following another wave of ski area closings on Sunday, here’s what we’re left with in the Northeast:
Maine: Sugarloaf, Sunday River, Saddleback
New Hampshire: Bretton Woods, Cannon, Loon, Mount Sunapee, Waterville Valley, Wildcat
Vermont: Jay Peak, Killington, Mount Snow, Smugglers’ Notch, Stowe, Stratton, Sugarbush
New York: Whiteface, Gore, Hunter, Greek Peak
After Wachusett and Seven Springs wrapped up over the weekend, every ski area in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts is now closed for the season. Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Jersey (save the eternal Big Snow), are also shut until next winter.
About half the remaining resorts plan to make this coming Sunday, April 11, their final day of the 2020-21 season. Once Mount Snow, Stowe, and Wildcat shut the following week, we’ll be left with the usual roster of late operators: Sugarloaf, Sunday River, Killington, Jay Peak, Sugarbush, and possibly Saddleback.
Saddleback is an interesting one. An April 30 closing date is circulating. While the mountain recorded a May 1 closing in 2011, it did not historically reach past mid-April or so until its final few years of operation, when the Berrys’ millions in snowmaking investments must have kicked in. With substantial natural snowfall, a healthy latitude, a high base area, and ongoing investment from its new owners Arctaris, Saddleback could well join its Maine neighbors Sugarloaf and Sunday River in the May Day Club. As far as yeah-we’re-back-from-the-abyss-for-real statements go, this would be a pretty strong one.
Here’s a $300,000 question about Killington, Stratton, and Sugarbush: are they “primarily based in Vermont?”
Covid-era quarantine restrictions, the Canadian border closure, and a lousy start to the season conspired to blow a hole the size of Lake Champlain in Vermont’s ski industry. In January, skier visits had plummeted 30 to 70 percent from the previous season. And while Ski Vermont President Molly Mahar told me on The Storm Skiing Podcast in February that steady snowfall over the previous several weeks had helped stabilize the state’s resorts, this season was clearly something the industry was doing its best to just get through.
Part of that getting through involved government assistance. In the case of government rules that directly impacted revenue through no fault of the business, this seems appropriate as a general principle. A recent report by VPR, however, raises questions about how some of that aide was distributed:
VPR’s study of the relief programs utilized by the ski industry found the following:
Some economic recovery grant awards seemed to fall outside the program parameters. There were two significant limits on the economic recovery grants. Statute dictated that these programs should serve businesses based primarily in Vermont, and they were subject to a $300,000 cap. But the rules used by state agencies to assess these metrics allowed some businesses to get around them. Three entities under Jay Peak’s receivership each received the maximum award allowed for a single business, totaling $900,000. And the program's definition of domicile allowed Stratton Corporation and Sugarbush Mountain Resort, Inc. – both owned by Alterra Mountain Company, which owns 14 resorts across the United States and Canada and is headquartered in Denver – to each receive the maximum award of $300,000.
The Economic Recovery Grants and Ski Area Recreation Safety Grants reportedly evaluated applicants’ financial need based on their tax information, but statute renders their applications and the income details they contain confidential. While some of the state’s COVID relief programs – like the Ski Area Recreation Safety Grants – require recipients to report how they spend their awards, the Economic Recovery Grants program does not, giving private companies virtually free reign to spend public funds, with little opportunity for public oversight. For example, there is no way for the public to know how Killington spent its $300,000 in economic recovery grants, or what Magic Mountain did with its $150,000 award. The state auditor is investigating the program and whether its metrics sufficiently evaluated financial need.
Big corporations and wealthy private clubs seemed to fare as well or better than smaller businesses. Looking at the Vermont Ski Area Recreation Safety Grants, the Hermitage Club – a member-owned private ski area in southern Vermont with a $50,000 initiation fee – received the maximum award of $175,000. In contrast, Cochran’s Ski Area in Richmond, which offers $19 day passes and primarily serves about 400 local families, received a grant of just over $8,600.
Some ski areas big and small say the programs helped them stay in business and comply with new COVID restrictions. For example, Bolton Valley president Lindsay DesLauriers said the $175,000 Bolton received from the Ski Area Recreation Safety Grants program helped the resort move its ticketing system outside, and switch from paper passes to RFID scanning for contact tracing.
The guidelines and scale of the Economic Recovery Grants program, designed to replace businesses’ lost revenue, raised a red flag for State Auditor Doug Hoffer, who is now auditing the program.
Written by former Vermont Ski + Ride writer Abagael Giles, the report is comprehensive and worth a full read.
New York Ski Blog at Belleayre and Whiteface. Sutner on diversity in skiing. Some good history on the decline of pass prices here. For a lot of skiers, pass choice is going to come down to price. Ontario closes skiing again as shutdowns also cascade across British Columbia. Donate to the victims of the Camelback chairlift accident. Making the car-as-baselodge work. Ski editor-in-chief Sierra Shafer on Low Pressure Podcast. A skier slides 1,000 feet down Mt. Washington and has to be carried out on a stretcher after a failed helicopter rescue. The latest New England Ski Journal TV features conversations with reps from Wachusett, Killington, and Sugarloaf:
This week in skiing
Tuesday, March 30 – Windham
If there was no such thing as powder or storms and the only kind of skiing was spring skiing I would still love skiing like I do now. Windham sat empty and lacerated after the multi-week thaw, the six-pack spinning beneath a yawning cloudless sky. My daughter was on spring break so I’d taken most of the week off to ski with her and we skied long loping routes off the summit, curlicuing down the long tree-canyon routes through the slushy sunshiny snow. I’ve been critical of Windham in the past for not pushing the season late enough but it was remarkable that the place was open at all on this day, a testament to their ability and will to make skiing happen when no skiing should be. At day’s end my daughter tired from the heavy snow so I dumped several high-speed laps off the steep blacks skier’s left of the summit while she waited at a picnic table in the sunny plaza below.
Wednesday, March 31 – Belleayre
The snowpack at Belleayre made Windham look like Glacier National Park, with holes the size of New York Harbor melted through open runs. Still everything was open. Everything. And they spun the gondola and the express quad to the top all day long. I’ve skied Belle many times but never without children in tow and my daughter felt ill that day and stayed home and so I spent the afternoon trekking across the ridgeline and methodically exploring each successive run. On the trailmap these stacked runs off the summit all look the same but on this day some were bumped and some were smooth and some were cratered and as these blacks and double-blacks gave way to the winding blues below they rambled through the woods with gaps like landmines shucking up out of the terrain. It was Maximum Attention skiing, the snow soft and forgiving at least and rain teasing all day and spritzing but never really opening up. And all day I rode the gondola alone and that had never happened before.
Friday, April 2 – West Mountain
Wednesday into Friday a storm moved across the Adirondacks and coated Whiteface and Tug Hill and some other places, but reports did not suggest the new snow was enough to bury the recurringly refrozen crud beneath and so I went to West. From the parking lot the place looked blown-open and impossible but on mountain the base stood deep and the peak-to-peak connection skied like midwinter. The new snow unfortunately had almost entirely bypassed West and the surface was Thruway-worthy and it was not a day to be skiing after all. I explored the whole mountain and found some softer snow off the Apex Chair which I lapped a few times before driving home.
Saturday, April 3 – Plattekill
Concrete-wary after the previous day I slept in and did not arrive at Plattekill until 11 a.m. By then the sun hung blaring out of the cloudless abyss above. Only the triple was spinning and only two routes wound from the top but the snow had crystalized into flawless corn and all day I alternated between steep Upper Face and Sundown, where a series of four little kickers stood above the hairpin turn back toward the bottom. All day skiers ducked the “closed” rope and hiked over to double-diamond Blockbuster and they did this in full site of the Patrol shack and nobody gave a damn because that’s what Plattekill is like. At lunchtime I did something I haven’t done all year which is go sit on the patio and order a burger and a beer and I just sat there in the sun watching the skiers come down and the people talking and laughing all around me and if my season had ended on this day it wouldn’t have been the worst way for it to wrap at all.