Wintry Mix Podcast Wraps With Episode 101

A mic drop by one of ski podcasting’s OGs

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“Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.” - Dr. Seuss

One of the best and worst legacies of the internet is its ruthless assassination of the gatekeeper. Anyone, anywhere, can publish anything they want, anytime they want. Which is amazing. And also horrible. Because most ideas are bad and should not be written on the infinity ink which is the internet. They should be exhaled in streams of weed smoke from bros sitting on 40-year-old couches with stuffing leaking out of the seams at 2 a.m. deepthink sessions and die forever in that room.

So when, sorting through the great shitpile of mediocrity and incoherence that is the modern weberspace, you encounter something entertaining, interesting, well-made, and consistently executed, you notice. And probably just about everyone reading this had that experience when they encountered Alex Kaufman’s Wintry Mix Podcast. It was varied, rich, layered, imaginative, quirky, surprising. There were episodes on the traffic catastrophe that is I-70, how to feed your ski family off castoff baselodge chicken fingers, the virtues of the tiny house. He could tell a concise story – his preseason Odds of Skiing pandemic episodes were masterpieces of brevity and depth. He was smart and had a great radio voice. And he was prolific: over nearly six years, Kaufman kicked out 101 episodes of Wintry Mix.

And then he called it. With no official warning but plenty of yeah-I’ve-had-it foreshadowing tweets, Wintry Mix published it’s last episode earlier this month.

“We are done here,” Kaufman says in the intro to the episode, which mostly features Arapahoe Basin staff interviewing each other. He cited many reasons for this sign-off, including an active role coaching his kids’ soccer teams, a new guitar-strumming hobby, a declining personal interest in the business of skiing as he explores the hike-to terrain of the Front Range foothills, growing professional responsibilities, and a proliferation of ski podcasts.

“It’s a noisy scene I am bowing out of,” he said. “No, I’m not going anywhere, but the pod’s going on ice. The social feeds will ‘Weird Foothill Guy’ while pivoting back to my family, and I’ll be open to new projects or none at all. If we’re all lucky, maybe I’ll get inspired once a year if a mountain pod like the one you’re about to hear lands in my lap. We’ll see. No promises.”

Frankly, I don’t blame him. Making a podcast that doesn’t sound like it was recorded in the back of a garbage truck is harder than it sounds. Transforming an idea into a coherent final audio file fit to share with the world involves hours nailing down sources, researching, conducting interviews, writing copy, and stapling it all together in edit. And my Storm Skiing Podcasts are simple one-on-one conversations – Kaufman more often created stories, a craft considerably more complex and time-consuming.

He’ll be missed. There are a lot of ski podcasts. Some are quite good. Most, lacking that essential spark of determination, grit, and do-one-thing-a-day-chip-awayism, never pass the five-episode mark. They’ll drift in cyberspace for eternity, an idea launched without a plan. I don’t know if Kaufman ever had a plan, but he had plenty of ideas. To the uninitiated, all skiing is Okemo, 121 trails and every one the same. Those of us who know it recognize the sport’s boundless creativity and variety, a fecundity that defies outsider’s cartoon ideas of what skiing is. For six years, Wintry Mix distilled that impossible energy into an auditory world that was a pleasure to be a part of.

There’s a chance this could be a hiatus. One of the great benefits of murdering the gatekeepers is that you’re no longer bound to anyone’s schedules or impulses other than your own. The podcast cannot be commandeered or given to a new host or be stuffed into a can and shot into space. It will exist for as long as the internet does. And if Kaufman, who regardless of what he does has cemented himself as one of the OGs of ski podcasting, decides to Michael Jordan us with a comeback two years from now when his baseball contract is up, I wouldn’t be shocked. After all, it’s hard to put that ball down for good.

If unions were actually terrible then businesses wouldn’t hate them so much

Last week, The New York Times ran another in an endless series of stories juxtaposing the benefits and working conditions of union workers against those of their counterparts:

Caring for others runs in the Williams family. Danielle Williams, 52, and her daughter, Brittany, 35, have spent their entire adult lives caring for others: doing the unpaid labor of tending to family members and looking after older and disabled adults in their jobs as home care workers.

Their workdays are largely similar. Both mother and daughter rise early and make a lengthy commute — up to one hour by car for Danielle and up to two hours by bus for Brittany. They make their clients’ meals. They shop for groceries and clothes, pick up medicine, run to the post office. They care for pets. They dress and undress, change diapers and give baths. They assist with medication. They dust, vacuum and do the laundry. They talk and listen to the stories of their clients’ lives, often for hours.

But the similarities end there. Brittany makes nearly $20 an hour, usually working five days a week. But without child care for her 8-year-old son during the pandemic, she’s been working no more than four. She has paid time off, medical and dental insurance, a retirement plan and many other benefits. Danielle works seven days a week making half Brittany’s wage. She has no benefits through her job, qualifies for Medicaid and is barely able to survive.

These differences come down to where Brittany and Danielle live. Brittany lives in Washington State and belongs to a union of long-term-care workers, S.E.I.U. Local 775, that has worked with the state for better pay and working conditions. Danielle lives in Arkansas, where she has none of that. Across the nation, this pattern repeats itself: Home care aides in states where the work force has unionized and won the right to collectively bargain with the state have living wages and benefits, while those in states without unions have lower wages and minimal benefits — if any at all.

In an increasingly unequal nation, one of the best mechanisms for redistributing wealth is through labor. In other words, rather than tax the rich and redistribute the money via government bureaucracy, simply pay laborers more upfront. Unions help with that by creating a united front to bargain with employers. In one small pocket of skiing, the trend toward unionization is accelerating:

In the tweet’s click-through story, Blevins, who happens to be the best ski reporter in the country, points out that, “The increasing cost of living in and around ski towns — coupled with stagnant wages, year-round workloads and the increasingly corporate ski area ownership model in the rapidly consolidating resort industry — has buoyed recent efforts for unionization of ski patrollers.”

Vail was apparently “disappointed” with the outcome. Which means workers – and, in this case, we are talking about essential workers – probably aim to benefit from the arrangement. Good for them.

“As mega-corporations such as Amazon grow — including Vail Resorts, which owns 37 ski areas — labor champions point to the power of collective bargaining as a tool for protecting workers,” Blevins writes. “Ski patrol unions in Telluride and Aspen-Snowmass have led to higher wages and better benefits.”

I’m not in a union now, but I spent nine years in the UFCW and UFT. I liked it. The union carries a weight to it, a lawyerly respect for mutual rules and boundaries that I found comforting rather than oppositional. My pay, benefits, and job security always surpassed those of my non-union counterparts in similar jobs. This essential story has been lost, beaten to death by decades of slander from a business community begging for an Ayn Rand everyone-for-themselves dystopia.

Unions aren’t the right solution in all circumstances, but they can be enormously powerful for classes of workers who all do similar jobs but are not speaking with a common voice. These newly organized patrol groups will serve as test cases for a ski industry that has many such workers, without which the modern ski resort could not function.

Wait, what $2 million? Oh that $2 million. Yeah I don’t have that.

After Covid clobbered the ski industry last spring, resorts partnering with Liftopia got an extra gut-punch when millions of dollars processed through the online retailer’s e-store disappeared. You can read a detailed recap of what transpired here and how (spoiler alert) a federal judge eventually dismissed an attempt by affected ski areas to force Liftopia into bankruptcy. Or you could read this first draft of a dramatic based-on-real-events screenplay that I’m writing:

SKI AREA OPERATORS: Hey Liftopia, where’s our $2 million bucks, Chief?

LIFTOPIA: [SEARCHING POCKETS] Sorry, I left it in my other pants.

SAO: You carry $2 million around in your pockets?

LIFTOPIA: [POINTING FRANTICALLY] Oh my God, is that 18-passenger hot-air balloon lift equipped with hammocks and a minifridge?

SAO: [TURNING TO LOOK] Where!?

LIFTOPIA: [TURNS AND RUNS FULL SPEED OFF SCREEN]

A year later, after blowing its chance to become skiing’s e-commerce king, Liftopia has rebranded its tech platform to Catalate, a roll-up of its “cloud store, dynamic pricing, analytics, and distribution,” according to an executive from a competing platform who explained the change to The Storm Skiing Journal. The public-facing site retains the Liftopia brand.

At the top of this rebranded entity sits former Liftopia CEO Evan Reece, now the CEO of Catalate. Former Liftopia partners, still waiting for last year’s payments, were left fuming at this news:

Reece’s title-change announcement on LinkedIn got booed off the digital stage by Vajtay, who owns Plattekill mountain with his wife and says they were Liftopia’s first customers. Liftopia still owes them money from the 2019-20 ski season, the ski area’s last using the platform.

Someone needs to make this right, and soon.   

And look what just came wandering out of Grandad’s scrapbook

You’d have a better chance of loading the Mad River Glen single chair on your snowboard than you’d have of building a new ski area in the Northeast. Resuscitating a lost ski area, however, is considerably easier (which is not to say it’s easy). Saddleback, Crotched, and Magic all dug themselves out of a grave after sitting dormant for years. All are big, burly hills wiped out by bad snow years, bad investments, bad choices, or some combination of the three. They just needed some investment and some vision and to make their viability as businesses clear.

But every once in a while, a dormant ski area so obscure that it makes Hot n’ Now look like Burger King tumbles back out of the ether. That’s what is on the cusp of happening now at Farr’s Hill, a 200-vertical-foot ropetow bump in a Vermont farmer’s backyard that’s been closed for 55 years. New England Ski Industry News reports that the hill could open for this coming season with an antique T-bar recently yanked off the bunny slope at Oak Mountain, New York. New England Lost Ski Areas Project (NELSAP) documented the tiny slope’s legacy:

According to an article written by M. Dickey Drysdale in the Winter 1987 Vermont Life, a rope tow operated in Randolph at the Harold J. Farr farm on Elm St. The tow served approximately 200 vertical feet.  There was no charge to use the tow and was used mostly by the local children. Farr operated the area solely for the purpose of giving locals (mainly children) a safe and free place to ski during the winter. Wouldn't it be great if there were areas like this today? … The tow was shut down in 1966 because of the opening of nearby Pinnacle Skiways (also another lost area!).

Yes, New England Lost Ski Areas Project, it would be great if there were more areas like this today. These sorts of backyard tows, which represent the great majority of known lost ski areas, play a crucial role in the lift-served skiing ecosystem, providing a first-chance ski experience to many kids who would otherwise never try it. In the era of 92-passenger cannonball lifts and $250 lift tickets, we need more of the simple and the cheap. It’s incredible to see one angling toward a comeback. Follow their story on Facebook. The NELSAP story has some incredible vintage photographs.

Octuplefest will be here before we know it

After a dud of a Covid-lashed offseason during which only a handful of new lifts rose across the Northeast, construction is banging along on some major projects:

  • Kanc 8 is moving along at Loon, while the Kanc 4 has to undergo a refurbishment that’s “a lot more sophisticated than just a trip across the parking lot” before it can replace the Seven Brothers triple for the 2022-23 season:

  • Loon sister resort Sunday River is meanwhile clearing trails and a liftline for installation of a new Doppelmayr triple ahead of the 2021-22 ski season (Lots of great pics here):

The new 500 vertical foot lift line has been cleared, running from the junction of Ridge Run and Second Thoughts to an area east of Merrill Hill's 1,914 ledgy summit. More than half of the lift line has been grubbed. At least three trails have been cleared from the top of the complex, with portions already grubbed. In addition, the Second Thoughts trail has been widened.

  • Seven Springs provides details on its offseason replacement of the Avalanche Quad with a new Doppelmayr fixed-grip quad:

  • Whiteface will replace Bear and Mixing Bowl with a fixed-grip quad prior to next season. The mountain is also starting substantial snowmaking upgrades. Minutes from ORDA’s April board meeting nod to the project:

[ORDA President and CEO Mike] Pratt detailed several challenges due to the age of the Whiteface snowmaking system, and the large vertical drop of the mountain, which is the greatest in the East. New technologies provide good tracking and real-time information about snowmaking results, which further illustrate some of Whiteface’s challenges. The proposed improvements would allow Whiteface to make more snow faster, using less energy. This would open trails earlier in the season and increase guest satisfaction.

Pratt also noted that:

Season pass sales were record-breaking and overall revenue and visitation is up year to date. Due to both online shopping enhancements and encouragement of touchless direct-to-lift ticketing, e-commerce volume tripled this season. Mr. Pratt and Mr. Lussi both noted the growth of midweek business.

A lot of what Covid brought is not going to vanish when Covid does.

So this snowskiing thing is really starting to catch on

Ski put together an excellent recap of lift-served skiing visitation for the 2021-22 ski season:

7 Major Takeaways

  • Aside from some isolated closures due to staffing, all U.S. ski resorts remained open throughout the season.

  • Most Covid outbreaks at resorts were among staff and spread through employee housing.

  • Smaller ski areas in drive-to markets fared better overall than destination resorts.

  • Almost all ski areas reported, or expect to report, losses due to reduced food and retail sales and lodging bookings.

  • Resorts got creative with non-contact food sales, parking apps, and outdoor après options, some of which will be integrated in their (non-pandemic) operations in future seasons.

  • Ski areas saw increased interest in learning to ski as well as visits by lapsed skiers returning to the sport.

  • In general, season pass sales were steady or up, while day tickets sales were down.

As expected, preliminary numbers show that skier visits tanked in Vermont and were up slightly in New York and New Hampshire. Full read recommended.

Elsewhere

Vermont Ski and Ride wins the New England Newspaper and Press Association’s General Excellence Award for the second consecutive year. It was also named Best Niche Publication. The newly established Alterra Mountain Company Community Foundation “will provide financial support to members of the North American communities in which Alterra operates.” New York Ski Blog hits Killington. Ski Bums Podcast hosts Ski Rex Media’s Tim Meyer. This SAM timeline of ski area ownership changes is absolutely killer – I just wish they’d drop it into a larger window. Bromley Outing Club is hiring an executive director.

Mountain Gazette owner and editor Mike Rogge joins Out of Bounds Podcast (where they give some love to The Storm, which MG sponsors). I also do a Q&A about The Storm with New York Ski Blog founder Harvey Road.

Hey you should really follow me on Twitter because I share things like this in real time:

This week in skiing

No skiing. My last day was that tremendous snowstorm that slammed Mount Snow just before their closing weekend. I’m not calling it yet because maybe there’s a Killington day where the weather and my schedule will sync just right and I’ll get one last ride in before it’s me and Big Snow ‘til autumn. Or maybe not. It’s been a damn good season either way.