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Why you shouldn’t miss skiing Whiteface.

Okay, let’s get this over with:

Iceface.

Feel better now? Because often, when I mention Whiteface to someone, they’ll roll their eyes and say Iceface in kind of a know-it-all way — even if they’ve never been there before. My advice: Get over it. Because if you don’t, you’re missing out on one of the best skiing experiences in the East.

IMHO, Iceface is a vestigial term, left from a time when there was little to no snowmaking or grooming and yeah, it was icy. Whiteface is a high mountain that gets a lot of wind and weather. So I have no doubt that this was correct.

But times change, and today, I don’t think Whiteface has any more or less ice than anyplace else in the East. Everyone gets their fair share. And there are ways to deal with it now that didn’t exist in the past.

Instead, I’d like to start talking about just how awesome Whiteface is.  Consider this: the Olympics were held there in 1980, and in nearby Lake Placid in 1932. A place has to be pretty special to have that happen. And Whiteface is.

A couple weeks ago, Whiteface invited me and a bunch of other ski journalists for a ski media day. If you read my blog post about Okemo’s media day, then you know that this is a time that the resort people set aside to familiarize the press with all the stuff they have going on. You go on mountain tours, sit through presentations, eat at the various restaurants, and so on. It’s fun and you learn a lot.

Suffice it to say that the one at Whiteface reminded me about why it’s a must-do in the East.

Here’s what I love about it:

Whiteface gondola.

Whiteface gondola.

Long, long trails: The highest lift at Whiteface unloads at 4,386 feet, a vertical drop of 3,166 feet to the base area, which sits at 1,220 feet. Its hike-to terrain, The Slides, is 264 feet  higher (4,650 feet), giving Whiteface the greatest continuous vertical drop in the eastern US (3,430 feet). This makes for some very long, very fun runs. The Wilmington trail, for example, at 2-1/2 miles long, and is the East’s longest intermediate trail. Zoooooom.

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Snowmaking: Whiteface has come a long way in this department. The day of my visit, the guns were blasting everywhere. But what impressed me the most was the quality of the snowmaking system itself. In addition to a hefty arsenal of snow guns that blanket 99% of the mountain with white goodness, Whiteface has 15 TecnoAlpin fan snow guns that are absolutely incredible. These energy-efficient guns produce snow that feels amazingly natural, without blasting your ears when you stop to talk or turning your goggles into a frosty nightmare when you ski past. They have an onboard weather center that tells them how much water to use based on wet-bulb temperature. And their basic operation (start, stop, snow quality and position) can be controlled from any computer or smart phone.

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Kids’ Program: Whiteface has an entire section of the mountain set aside just for kids/beginners — with its own lodge, dedicated trails, and lift. Which means you don’t get higher level skiers blasting through and creating problems for learners. Truly, it’s  one of the nicest beginner areas I’ve ever seen.

Whiteface Kids Kampus

Whiteface Kids Kampus

The View: The summit of Whiteface offers a 360-degree view of the Adirondacks. On a clear day, you can see all the way to Mount Mansfield in Vermont (home of Stowe) and even into Canada. It’s pretty incredible. Here’s a view down the back side of the mountain:

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View from the summit

Lake Placid: There are ski towns and then there are Ski Towns. Lake Placid is the latter. It’s amazing. The spirit of the Olympics permeates the place. There are Olympic venues and training facilities everywhere. It’s like it took place last week.  And there’s so much to do! In addition to skiing, there’s ice-skating, tobogganing, the Olympic bobsled ride (DO IT!), cross country skiing at the Olympic venue Mount Van Hovenberg. Plus there are lots of great shops, restaurants, and places to stay. Which leads me to the following…..

Andrew Weibrecht stands by his medals

Andrew Weibrecht stands by his Olympic medals at the front desk of the Mirror Lake Inn.

The Mirror Lake Inn: I can’t let this review go by without mentioning the Mirror Lake Inn, one of my very favorite places to stay, anywhere. I actually nominated it for USAToday’s Ten Best Ski Hotels, and it came in fourth. With good reason. Owned and operated by Ed Weibrecht, father of two-time Olympic medalist Andrew Weibrecht, the Mirror Lake Inn is a gorgeous, rambling building on the edge of the lake. Decorated in a style I’d term elegant-Adirondack, the main building features a series of cozy sitting rooms with large, comfy chairs and sofas punctuated by huge, blazing fireplaces, a terrific restaurant, and bar. Downstairs, there’s a first-class spa, a hot tub, an indoor swimming pool, and a fitness center. No, this is not your Econo-Lodge. It’s pricey, but go ahead — treat yourself. It’s worth it.

Mirror Lake Inn

Mirror Lake Inn

So should you go to Whiteface? By all means. And next time someone says Iceface and rolls their eyes, feel free to roll your eyes right back.

 

 



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Eleven Reasons to Visit Okemo.

One of the perks of being The Ski Diva is that from time to time I get invited to media events at various ski resorts. These are days that the PR people set aside to familiarize members of the press with all the stuff they have going on. You go on mountain tours, sit through presentations, eat at the various restaurants. It’s actually very nice.

Recently I went to one here in Vermont for Okemo Mountain Resort. Okay, you say, isn’t that your home mountain? It is. But it’s good to hear from management about the new stuff that’s going on, their plans for the future, and so on. And with press people coming from all over the place, it’s nice to have the chance to see the mountain through new eyes. Kind of gives me a new slant on things I see all the time.

So with that in mind, I thought I’d devote this week to giving you my perspective about Okemo: the stuff I really like  — I mean, besides the fact that I can be there in about 7 minutes, which is very nice, too.

 

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1) It’s a cruiser’s paradise:  If you love rippin’ the groomers, Okemo is for you. These trails are designed to make you feel positively giddy. If you’re not smiling by the time you reach the bottom, then I’m sorry, there’s no hope for you at all.

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The Sunburst Six Bubble Lift

2) The Bubble Lift: The official name is The Sunburst Six, but everyone just calls it The Bubble. To be honest, when they first put it in a few years ago, my initial reaction was man, how decadent. What do we need this for? But seriously, on a cold day, when the wind is blowing and the wind chill is below zero,  this is the lift that everyone heads for. Not only does it offer protection, but did I mention that the seats are heated? This Can. Not. Be. Beat. Extra Okemo fact: there’s a second bubble lift at the Jackson Gore area. No, the seats aren’t heated, but it’s a godsend on cold days.

3) Friendly employees: I’ve skied at a lot of places, and I have to say the employees at Okemo are the best by far. They always, always act like they’re happy to see you. This can’t be easy, but somehow they manage to pull it off. It may seem like a small thing, but it really makes a difference.

 

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Photo courtesy of Okemo.

4) Food: I’m not talking about food in the cafeteria at the base lodges — though the food at the Jackson Gore base lodge is actually pretty good. And to be honest, I’m cheap; I usually bring my lunch. But if you want a treat, try Epic, the sit-down restaurant at the Solitude base area. I’ve eaten there a few times, and it’s excellent.

 

Okemo's Women's Alpine Adventures. Photo courtesy of Okemo..

Okemo’s Women’s Alpine Adventures. Photo courtesy of Okemo.

5) Women’s Alpine Adventures: Okemo’s women’s ski clinic is very well known. In fact, I wrote a review about it here. If you’re a Mikaela Shiffrin, or aspire to be, the WAA, as it’s known, probably isn’t for you. But if you’re looking to gain confidence, have a terrific time, make new friends, and pick up some pointers, you’re definitely in the right place.

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The Magic Carpet

6) The Magic Carpet: Little known fact: the Magic Carpet conveyor lift at Okemo is FREE. For everyone! Which is great for beginners. Oh, don’t think I don’t know the score: the idea is to get you hooked so you want to pay the big bucks for the lift. But it’s a great way for newbies to learn the basics so they can ski more safely before they go up in the chair.

7) Ice Skating: Okemo installed its skating rink in 2006, and this year they’ve improved it with a new refrigeration system that can make ice at temperatures well above freezing. A lot of fun when you don’t feel like skiing.

8) The Timber Ripper: Okay, you’re there for the skiing. But honestly, how can you resist taking what’s essentially a roller coaster ride down the mountain? It starts with a five-minute, 1,600-foot climb followed by a 375 vertical-foot descent along 3,100 feet of track that follows the contours of the mountain, at speeds of up to 25 mph. And it’s open all year long.

Timber Ripper Coaster. Photo courtesy of Okemo.

Timber Ripper Coaster. Photo courtesy of Okemo.

9) Summer concerts: Okemo has a lot of stuff going on in the summer. But to me, the best thing by far is the free Friday night concerts in the Jackson Gore base area. People pack picnics, bring lawn chairs, and just enjoy being out on a summer evening. Everyone loves it.

10) Ludlow: This is the town that’s at the base of Okemo. I’ll be honest: if you’re looking for a picture-perfect Vermont town, this ain’t it. But Okemo is the only ski area in the state that has a town right there. And that does have some advantages. For example, in addition to the ski shops right on the mountain, there are five in town (plus one shop just for boarders). And, love ’em or hate ’em (I’ll leave that up to you), there are lots of restaurants and places to stay.  Which weighs heavily on the convenience factor.

11) Hey, it’s Vermont! What can I say. There’s something special about the Green Mountain State. The rolling hills, the quaint villages, the lack of suburban sprawl, the state’s no billboard policy…it’s New England at its best. All I know is that when I tell people I live in Vermont, it’s like I’ve told someone I live on a tropical island; I get the same sort of reaction. No, it doesn’t have the gnarly terrain as Utah or Colorado. But it’s pretty unique, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

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How a Community Saved a Small Ski Area: Mount Ascutney, Vermont

Whenever you drive around ski country, no matter what the state, you can’t help but encounter a defunct ski area or two. This is no surprise. Since the 1980’s, roughly 33% of ski areas in the US have gone out of business, and few have any hope of ever coming back.

Sad, I know. Many of these were smaller, more affordable places that were great for families and beginners. They also provided something larger resorts generally lack: a measure of character and community involvement that goes to the heart of what skiing is all about.

Today I’d like to focus on a ski area that’s had a much happier ending. After opening and closing multiple times, Mount Ascutney, Vermont, has almost literally risen from the ashes (the base lodge burned in 2015) .

Mount Ascutney Trail Map, 1969

Mount Ascutney Trail Map, 1969

In its heyday, Ascutney boasted 1,800 vertical, 57 runs, 5 chairs, and 1 surface lift. But after riding a financial roller coaster for many years, the mountain closed for good in 2010. Its lifts were sold, and it looked like the end for a mountain that had operated, albeit intermittently, for six decades.

In 2015, the mountain was purchased by the local community of West Windsor, VT, and re-opened for skiing in December that same year. Laura Farrell,  Executive Director of Mount Ascutney Outdoors, the non-profit charged with operating the mountain, would be the first to tell you that this was the result of efforts by many, many people.  And she’s right. But as Executive Director, Laura is responsible for overseeing the entire operation. I talked to her recently at the base of the resurrected ski area.

Laura Farrell

Laura Farrell

SD: So Laura, tell me a bit about yourself. When did you start skiing?
LF: I’m 64, and I’ve been skiing since I was two. Honestly, I’ve been in the ski industry almost my entire life. When I was a young adult I became a ski instructor, and then I founded Vermont Adaptive Ski & Sport, a non-profit dedicated to providing recreational opportunities to athletes of any age and any disability. It was incorporated in 1987; back then there was nothing like it anywhere in the Northeast. I was involved in everything from teaching skiing to examining instructors, running clinics, and overseeing a race program. Then I moved on to coaching able-bodied kids, which I did for a number of years.

SD: Things didn’t look promising when Ascutney closed in 2010. What is Mount Ascutney Outdoors, and how’d it come about?
LF: Mount Ascutney Outdoors is a non-profit that’s responsible not only for the future of the mountain, but for creating and developing year round recreational opportunities that are accessible and affordable to everybody — skiing, mountain biking, hiking, cross country skiing, snow shoeing, fat-tire biking. It was formed in 2010, when the chairman of the West Windsor select board brought up the idea of purchasing the mountain after it closed. This is a small community, and we were all hit hard when it went under, so the idea was to revitalize both the mountain and the town. The proposal received almost unanimous approval. Fortunately, we were able to get some help from a national non-profit, the Trust for Public Land. The Trust raised the money for the purchase and then handed the mountain over to us.

SD: So how’d you get involved?
LF: Even though the town bought the mountain, it didn’t want to develop, manage, or finance its recreational opportunities or events. And they didn’t want to increase the town’s tax burden, either. So I was asked to help start the non-profit that would develop, manage, and finance all the activities that go on here.

SD: What’s your role as  Executive Director?
LF: Essentially, I’m something of a jack of all trades. Obviously, right now I have my fingers in everything from fundraising to installing the rope tow, to managing the volunteers, projects, and events, but in reality it’s not just me. There’s an amazing group of people that believe in this project, and we all work together. We have nine board members, and they all have different responsibilities.

Ascutney's rope tow.

Rope tow.

SD: So what’s at Ascutney now?
LF: Let me say first that we’re a complete volunteer organization, so everything we have has been donated or built by volunteers. For example, six of us installed a thousand-foot rope tow. We had some help from an engineer, and of course, it had to be inspected by the state. But we did it all ourselves, and it’s a thing of beauty. I can now put rope tow installer on my resume.

So right now, we have 32 miles of trails that are used for mountain biking, hiking, snowshoeing, and cross country skiing. We have the rope tow, which serves three trails that we mow like lawns, so we only need six inches of snow to ski — we don’t have snowmaking because we wanted this to be a sustainable area. You can also skin up the rest of the mountain for backcountry skiing, and that’s a huge portion of the winter activities here. It’s great terrain. We’ve been clearing the old trails up there that haven’t been taken care of for 5 or 6 years. And we have a new warming hut at the base — again, donated and built by volunteers — that can be used year round for all our recreational activities and events and camps.

Once we get enough snow, we’ll be open Wednesdays from noon to 6, Thursdays 4 to 8, Friday 2 to 8, Saturdays 10 to 8, and Sundays 10 to 4. During holidays and vacation weeks, it’s 10 to 4 and on Fridays and Saturdays, 10 to 8. On Thursday nights we’ll have a locals race series under the lights. We’ll also have an informal race program on Friday nights, as well as on Saturday and Sunday. We’ll have courses set up and there’ll be coaches for anyone who wants to come and train. We have lights this year, which is exciting, so people can come out after work. There’s even a grill on the deck of the warming hut so they can cook their dinner.

As I said before, we really want to keep this affordable for anyone who wants to come. This is important. A lot of families can’t afford to get out and ski at the larger, corporate mountains. But we think it’s important to get everyone on the hill. So our rope tow is free to anyone who wants to ride it during our day hours — though we also accept donations — and ten dollars at night.

SD: What are the future plans for the mountain?
LF: The old lodge burned a few years ago but much of it is still standing. But it doesn’t belong to us; it belongs to another property owner. We hope to purchase it so we can tear it down, clean it up, and eventually build a really nice base camp. We’ve been donated a timber frame for just that purpose. We’re also hoping to install a chair lift up to the old mid-station  – the conservation easements only allow us to go up so far. We could also use the lift for mountain biking in the summer, or fat-tire biking in the winter. Needless to say, we’re very excited about the things we have going on here. It’s great to have it back.

New warming hut and old burned-out base lodge.

New warming hut and old burned-out base lodge.

View from the top of the rope tow down.

View from the top of the rope tow down.

Editor’s Note: I was totally charmed by Mount Ascutney and impressed by the hard work, mission, and spirit of  Ascutney Outdoors. The non-profit is funded entirely by donations. and I encourage you to contribute to keep this great community resource going. Click here.

 



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What’s new in Utah for ’15-’16

utahIf you’re planning to ski Utah this winter, then I’m sure you’ll find this of interest. The coming season brings a number of new improvements to Utah’s resorts. Here are a few of the things you can expect:

Snowbird: After spending $35 million on capital improvements last season, Snowbird has rebuilt its Creekside Lodge. The lodge, in Gad Valley at Snowbird Entry 1, is currently undergoing massive reconstruction to triple the building’s square footage. The larger facility will be the base of operations for all Snowbird Mountain Ski and Snowboard School lessons, eliminating shuttling students from the Tram Plaza and allowing for a lot more time skiing and snowboarding on the mountain. A new 500-foot conveyor lift will help skiers and riders get from the new Creekside Lodge to Snowbird’s Baby Thunder lift at the far western edge of the resort.

Snowbird is also replacing its 40-year old tram cables, and installing a fiber optic line into the cable, as well. The line will boost the resort’s online webcams to high definition and speed up the free Wi-Fi in the resort’s new Summit Lodge atop the tram. Finally, Snowbird is completing the remodel of the Cliff Lodge, its flagship slopeside lodging property, for the 2016-17 season.

Powder Mountain Resort:  Powder Mountain is adding two new lifts accessing Mary’s Bowl and Lefty’s Canyon, both previously accessible only by snowcat. These lifts will expand Powder Mountain’s skiable terrain to 1,000 acres.

Sundance Resort: Sundance is installing a new Arrowhead Lift to replace an aging triple chair on the mountain. The new lift will be a quad with new safety bars and improved loading and unloading areas. It willincrease uphill capacity by over 500 people per hour and assist in decreasing lift lines.

Cherry Peak: In its second year of operation, Cherry Peak is continuing to expand by adding a third lift. The new Summit Lift nearly doubles the mountain’s skiable terrain to over 400 acres. Cherry Peak is also installing lights in this area so it can continue to offer night skiing throughout the resort.

Brian Head: The resort has built a new state-of-the-art 2,000 square foot restaurant kitchen and BBQ pit. The improvement will triple the size of the previous facilities and double Brian Head’s current capacity for serving up brisket, ribs, chicken or pork every Friday and Saturday evening.

Solitude Mountain Resort: Now in its second year owned and operated by Deer Valley, Solitude is rebuilding the Roundhouse restaurant that was destroyed by a fire after the mountain closed last spring. The building’s architecture will closely mimic that of the former structure.

Other news out of Ogden Valley is the official opening of Whisper Ridge Cat Skiing, which starts on December 26. Whisper Ridge operates on over 30,000 acres of private ski and ride terrain east of the Cache Valley hamlet of Paradise, plus on over 12,000 acres of land south of Snowbasin, and uses eight custom PistenBully snowcats for access. Whisper Ridge is offering single to multi-day cat-skiing tours and optional first descent helicopter drops.



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What’s New in Vermont for ’16/’17

The beach at Chincoteague, Virginia

The beach at Chincoteague, Virginia

I’m on a beach vacation this week on Chincoteague Island on the Eastern Shore of Virginia (yes, the place that’s known for its wild ponies). It’s beautiful, the water’s great, the biking’s FLAT (quite different from Vermont), and I’m having a wonderful time. That said, I still can’t get my mind off the coming ski season. So when I got this information from Ski Vermont about what’s new for ’16/’17, I thought I’d share it here. Start waxing your skis, boys and girls. It’s coming, and here’s some of the new stuff Vermont skiers will find:

skimapKillington Resort
Killington Resort is bringing Alpine World Cup skiing back to the eastern US for the first time in 25 years, when the Audi FIS Ski World Cup takes place November 26-27. Giant Slalom and Slalom races will pit the best female technical alpine skiers against one another on Superstar trail, the infamous New England steep that is regularly the Eastern US’s last remaining open ski trail through late May or June. The general public is invited to view the women’s giant slalom and slalom races in a free general admission area at the base of the trail with a jumbo screen for watching the full race course, plus a weekend loaded with festivities including free live music, multiple movie premiers and additional surprises to be announced.

Magic Mountain
Magic will be under new ownership in 2016-17 as SKI MAGIC LLC purchased the area with an initial 5-year plan to invest capital into lifts and snowmaking. With a robust operating budget and new snow guns, Magic will have more snow in 2016-17, made earlier than ever before to improve the consistency and reliability of skiing on both the easier East Side and more challenging West side trails. For the first time in years, both bottom-to-top summit lifts (1,600’ vertical) will be in full operation. There will also be new daycare facility for young parents and some refurbishing to the lodge and Black Line Tavern.

Stowe Mountain Resort
Stowe Mountain Resort is opening an $80 million Adventure Center. Located at Spruce Peak and adjacent to Stowe’s new outdoor Ice Skating Rink, Stowe’s Adventure Center is home to all Stowe’s children’s programs. From daycare facilities to ski and ride programs for kids 3 and up, the new Adventure Center has significantly advanced and expanded family amenities and services at the resort. The building also includes new shops, an Indoor Climbing Center (called Stowe Rocks), and family-friendly dining.

Smugglers’ Notch Resort
After investing $5 million in snowmaking enhancements over the last four winters, Smugglers’ Notch Resort is turning its attention to the resort village’s most popular amenity for families, the FunZone. One section, designed to appeal to families with kids ages 2-10, will feature inflatables, games, and areas for imaginative play. A second area, targeted to older children and adults, will include features such as a ninja warrior-type obstacle course, laser tag, a climbing wall, column walk, slot car racing, and arcade and redemption center. A $4 million investment, the new Fun Zone is expected to open mid-winter 2016-17.

Quechee Ski Area
The Quechee Club ushers in a new experience for its members, visitors and area guests this winter season with the completion of a newly constructed Aquatic Complex and fitness club expansion.

Burke Mountain Resort
The Lodge at Burke Mountain opened its doors on September 1st. The 116-room hotel is situated mid-mountain and provides a true ski-in ski-out experience. Suites range from a standard studio to three bedroom with onsite amenities including a pub, restaurant, heated pool & hot tub, fitness center, arcade, retail and repair shop for guests to enjoy. Striking views of the Willoughby Gap and Burke Mountain can be seen from nearly every window in the Hotel.

Jay Peak Resort
Jay Peak is increasing the snowmaking capacity to its LZ and Jug Handle parks by 60%, running a new waterline up the Interstate trail, and installing 20 new guns along the Interstate. The expansion will not only allow the Jay Peak parks to open sooner, but will also allow the resort to open learning terrain at its Tramside area earlier, as well.

Okemo Mountain Resort
After several years of major snowmaking improvements totaling more than $1 million, Okemo has once again expanded its snowmaking system. 18,000 feet of new pipe will introduce snowmaking capabilities on Catnap and Suncatcher in the South Face area. A Prinoth Bison X park cat, equipped with a Caterpillar 400 horsepower, tier 4 engine that meets all federal emission standards, is the newest addition to Okemo’s fleet of grooming machines as Okemo enters its third year of partnership with Snowpark Technologies. Rental equipment upgrades include 515 Volkl skis, 153 Burton snowboards and more than 1,000 pairs of boots. Also, Okemo has joined the MAX Pass family of resorts this year. Okemo season passholders can take their pass on the road – up to 30 mountains with an Add-On upgrade.

Stratton Mountain Resort
Stratton announces an addition to its slope-side Village dining fleet– Karma: an Asian fusion experience. A menu inspired by the Asian travels of Karma’s chef will debut with traditional ramen bowls and dumplings fresh-made with local ingredients, imaginative entrees and craft cocktails with a twist like vodka filtered through Herkimer diamonds for a side of positive energy.

Stratton’s snowmaking fleet gets a new computerized control system, allowing snowmakers to record real time energy use for increased snowmaking efficiency.

Mount Snow Resort
Mount Snow’s is now offering the Peak Pass, which features a total of six pass options valid at seven different mountain locations across four states in the Northeast. It’s also increasing the uphill capacity in its beginner terrain park by 50 percent, replacing its Ski Baba Lift with a 400’ SunKid conveyer called Grommet (Lift One). The resort has also spent over 1600+ hours pruning, mowing and clearing new lines through tree skiing areas in preparation for powdery runs this winter.

Suicide Six Ski Area
Woodstock Inn & Resort’s Suicide Six Ski Area replaces chair #1 with a new quad chairlift that will double capacity. Leitner-Poma of America, Inc., will install the lift at an estimated cost of $1.5 million.

Bolton Valley
Bolton Valley have given major upgrades to most suites and rooms at its hotel. Improvements include new carpet, drapes, furniture, painting, renovated bathrooms, new mattresses and new artwork to greatly enhance guest comfort.

Sugarbush Resort
Sugarbush has invested $750,000 into capital improvements for the 2016-17 winter season which include lift improvements and improvements to the snowmaking pond. The resort has also completed Gadd Brook Residences, sixteen ski-in/ski-out condominiums at the base of Lincoln Peak available as two-, three-, and four-bedroom units.

 



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Is Vail taking over the ski world? And is this a good thing?

@Vail Resorts

@Vail Resorts

Last week the ski world reverberated with the news that Vail was entering into an agreement to buy Whistler Backcomb, arguably the crown jewel of Canadian ski resorts, and one of the best and largest in the world.

This is anything but small potatoes. Vail is spending $1.1 billion for the acquisition, or $1.4 billion Canadian. As part of the deal, Vail would acquire 100 percent of the stock of Whistler Backcomb and Whistler Blackcomb shareholders would receive C$17.50 per share in cash and 0.0975 shares of Vail Resorts common stock, for a total value of $27.38 per share or C$36.00.

There’s no denying that Vail has been on a bit of a spending spree, buying nine resorts in three countries in less than six years. Here’s what they’ve acquired over the past fourteen, and for how much:

  • 2002 • Heavenly, California: $99.2 million
  • 2010 • Northstar At Tahoe, California: $63 million
  • 2012 • Kirkwood, California: $18 million
  • 2012 • Afton Alps, Minnesota; Mt. Brighton, Michigan: $20 million
  • 2013 • Canyons, Utah: $305 million (50-year lease)
  • 2014 • Park City Mountain Resort, Utah: $182.5 million
  • 2015 • Perisher, Australia: $136 million

Can they afford it? According to Jason Blevins of the Denver Post, “Vail Resorts last fall reported $1.4 billion in revenue for fiscal 2015, marking the sixth time in the last decade the company’s annual revenues surpassed the billion-dollar mark. The company showed a 36 percent in EBITDA to $365.8 million in fiscal 2015 and strong sales of its popular Epic Pass in the spring of this year has the company tracking toward another record year for fiscal 2016.”

In a nutshell, they’re doing well. And if they can afford it and it fits with their business plan, well, they’re free to do as they like.

For skiers, the benefits of all these acquisitions are obvious: Ski areas are capital intensive, and Vail’s deep pockets can mean greater investments in things like lifts, snowmaking, grooming, on-site amenities, and so on. It might even mean better salaries for resort employees, which can help attract top tier people to its resorts. And it can mean investments in more and better non-skiing activities, which are essential in turning its resorts into four-season destinations —  critical for their survival in the face of climate change. What’s more, a growing roster of mountains under the Epic pass  umbrella gives skiers greater access to some of the best skiing in the world. Nothing wrong with that.

But still, I’m conflicted. Like a lot of people, I’m not convinced that the Vail-ification of the ski world is a good thing. I’m always a little nervous when one company gets too big in any particular industry, and I’m afraid this is what we’re seeing here. Sure, Vail is doing well now. But as a publicly traded company — and a big one, at that — Vail is certainly captive to the crazy gyrations of the stock market. A bad stock year can cause problems not just at the Mother Ship, but at all its resorts, across the board. What’s more, Vail has a responsibility to its shareholders to continually improve its bottom line. And this doesn’t always engender practices that are to the customers’ liking. If Vail decides to increase its lift prices, for example, a lot of people at a lot of mountains are screwed. The competitive incentive is gone. And that’s not good.

For the acquired resorts, there’s the issue of having a remote corporate overlord.  Will decisions have to be approved by someone hundreds of miles away? Everything from expansion plans to the color of ski school jackets may now have to through a number of corporate layers. Will pay for employees go down, instead of up? Will issues that affect the community get the consideration they deserve? And will the acquired resorts become more and more homogenized, so they bear more resemblance to one another and lose the characteristics that once made them so unique?

I’m also worried about the tremendous influence a company as large as Vail has in the ski world. Whatever Vail does — good or bad — can have a profound effect. If Vail offers a particular amenity, for example, a lot of other resorts are going to feel pressure to do the same, whether it makes sense or not.

Which leads me to the following: all this makes it increasingly difficult for smaller ski areas to survive What’s the incentive for a skier to go to a smaller, independent resort, if they can purchase an Epic pass and have access to multiple resorts for the same amount they’d spend for one? And with Vail having such deep pockets for investment, how can a smaller area compete? Before you shake your head and say, well, that’s the market at work, survival of the fittest and all, consider this: Since the 1980’s, roughly 33% of US ski areas have gone out of business and up to 150 more are considered threatened by industry experts. Sure, there are a lot of factors that have caused this to happen. Many of these places were smaller Mom and Pop hills. And though they had limited lifts and trails, they also nurtured beginner skiers and served as feeder hills for resorts like Vail. What’s more, they offered something larger resorts generally lack: a measure of character and community involvement that goes to the heart of what skiing is all about.

Are there ways for smaller areas to stay competitive with the Vail behemoth? Not many. In recent years, the ski industry has seen little to no growth, so skiers who go to one resort tend to take  business away from someplace else. In short, one resort tends to cannabilize another. For example, Vail sold about 50,000 season passes less than a decade ago. Now the number is closer to 550,000. These skiers are choosing Vail over some other resort. And while it’s great for Vail, it’s not so great for wherever it is they’re not going.

One organization that’s trying to help stem the tide is Mountain Riders Alliance, which has made it its mission to champion smaller areas that are environmentally friendly and have a positive effect on the local community. I’ve written about them here and here, so if you want to find out more about the good work they’re doing, take a look.

The bottom line is this: Vail Resorts may be getting bigger and bigger, but I’m not sure that’s best for the ski industry. What do you think?



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Celebrating the Fourth, Ski Town Style.

July 4th Celebration, Steamboat Springs, CO

July 4th Celebration, Steamboat Springs, CO

The biggest weekend of the summer is almost here, and I know what you’re thinking: I’d like to celebrate the Fourth of July in my favorite ski town, Ski Diva, but I’m not sure what’s going on there. Can you help?

Absolutely! Here’s a sampling of the festivities in some of our favorite ski towns across the country:

Okemo, Vermont
Celebrate freedom and the holiday weekend with the best party of the summer. Okemo’s Jackson Gore Courtyard will be transformed into an all-American backyard barbecue with live music, games, a hot-dog-eating contest, frosty-cold beverages and fresh-from-the-grill burgers, hot dogs plus lots more. New activities this year include an inflatable water slide, a 65-foot inflatable challenge course and a combo bouncy house/slide. Saturday, July 2, 11AM – 6PM

Stowe, Vermont (Stowe Mountain Resort):
Enjoy a multi-dimensional day-long extravaganza of food, music, entertainers, fireworks and more! Starting with the Moscow parade and ending with Stowe’s incredible annual fireworks display, this is a great day to spend in Stowe.

Lake Placid, New York (Whiteface):
The ever popular I Love BBQ and Music Festival will run this year from July 2 – 5. Come out and watch some of the best BBQ competitors in the country, taste their creations, and listen to some live music at this popular annual event. On July 4th there’ll be a parade and the blockbuster “Set the Night to Music” fireworks extravaganza.

Bethel, Maine (Sunday River):
The Fourth of July features a Community Picnic at Bethel Historical Society, plus an outdoor concert by the fabulous Portland Brass Quintet.

Vail, Colorado
A true summer celebration featuring exceptional entertainment including Vail’s celebrated 4th of July parade and fireworks. The parade will begin at Golden Peak at 10:00 AM on July 4 and will wind its way through the villages, ending in Lionshead. This year’s parade theme is Celebrate the USA! Great Moments in American History.

Aspen, Colorado:
Approximately 20,000 local residents and visitors come together to honor the nation’s birthday in true American style. Festivities include a parade, the 16th annual “America’s Birthday” carnival, a community picnic, a concert, and spectacular fireworks over Aspen Mountain at 9:15.

Breckenridge, Colorado:
Celebrate Independence Day with lively entertainment, free activities, and dynamic family fun. Breck’s Independence Day celebration kicks off with a 10K trail run and continues throughout the day with the Firecracker 50 bike race leading the Fourth of July Parade on Main Street, July Arts Festival, live music, kids’ activities, concerts and much more. End the night with the National Repertory Orchestra performing a patriotic concert at the Riverwalk Center followed by fireworks at 9:45PM.

Steamboat, Colorado:
Steamboat’s Fourth of July celebration runs from July 1 through July 4. There’s everything from a hometown parade and pancake breakfast to a rodeo, block party, and fireworks.

Lake Tahoe, California:
NBC’s Today show recognizes Tahoe South’s Lights on the Lake Fireworks display as one of the country’s top Fourth of July weekend Celebrations. The fireworks are launched from offshore barges and can be seen from all corners of town. South Shore offers convenient access to viewing areas via public transportation, paved bike trails, and nearby park and walk venues.

Sun Valley, Idaho:
The festivities begin with a parade at 10AM, and continue with a bike race, a kids’ carnival on the Main Street, a rodeo, and of course, fireworks at dusk.

Park City, Utah: 
Kick the day off with a pancake breakfast in the City Park then head up to Historic Main Street for the Annual 4th of July Parade. Spend the rest of the day with a full day of activities in the City Park with live music, rugby games, beer gardens and plenty of family fun.  Fireworks go off at Park City Mountain Resort at dusk!

Big Sky, Montana
Here you’ll find lots of community booths, children’s activities, lots of food, beverages, and live music capped by a firework finale.

Jackson Hole, Wyoming:
The day-long celebration includes a pancake breakfast, a 10K run, a parade, music, and fireworks.

Have fun, be safe, and remember, don’t drink and drive!



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On Snow Reports: Keeping it Honest at Mad River Glen

How many times have you heard a glowing snow report, only to hustle over to the mountain and find yourself the victim of, well, some generous exaggeration?

What? Ski areas lie? It’s not a shock to anyone that they want to put the best face on things so you’ll buy a lift ticket. But for those of us who have real lives — jobs to take off from, child care to arrange, travel to endure — it can be a costly annoyance.

So imagine how refreshing it was in December — the beginning of one of the east’s worst ski seasons on record — to see this video snow report from Mad River Glen:

Single chair at Mad River Glen. Photo By Jeb Wallace-Brodeur

Single chair at Mad River Glen. Photo By Jeb Wallace-Brodeur

If you don’t know Mad River Glen, you may know its very famous tag line: Ski It If You Can. Mad River is known as an old school Vermont resort without the glitz and glamour you’ll find at other eastern resorts like Killington, Stratton, or Stowe. There are no condos or on-mountain amenities. Just skiing. In fact, Mad River is unique in two ways: It has one of the two operating single chairlifts left in the US (the other is at Mt. Eyak, Alaska), and it’s one of three ski resorts in North America that don’t allow snowboarding (the others are Alta and Deer Valley). What’s more, it’s a fully owned co-op, which means instead of being owned by a large, faceless corporation, it’s owned entirely by shareholders — people like you and me who invest capital toward the ski area’s expenses. Mad River Glen isn’t huge — only 115 acres — but the skiing’s great and it’s got a vibe that’s definitely chill.

So about this snow report: Sure, the news was bad. I mean, look at it! But the telling was so honest, so humorous, so unique in its delivery, that it ended up all over the internet. Which is how I came upon it myself.

I wanted to know more about the backstory here, so I spoke to Eric Friedman, Mad River Glen’s marketing director, for some insight.

SD: So just how was it at Mad River this year?
EF: To put it mildly, it wasn’t our best year. We had a total of about 120 inches of snow, which is about half our average. We budget for being open about 110 days a year, based on 50 years’ worth of data. This year we were open a total of 45 days. And of those, the main mountain was open for just 35; for 10 it was just the practice slope. As you can imagine, our financial numbers were down in corresponding amounts.

SD: Isn’t there any snowmaking?
EF: Mad River has a grand total of four guns, and really, we can’t use more than three at a time. We make snow on less than ten percent of our terrain – all of the low elevation, high traffic areas; basically, just the run-outs. Everything else comes from the heavens. People don’t come here for our snowmaking, but it’s important to us, even though it’s limited.

SD: Your snow reports made quite a splash, particularly the one in December. Can you tell me about it?
EF: Sure. The whole idea behind all of our snow reports is immediacy — I want to show people what it’s like here right now. So about this particular report: It was a Saturday, and I wasn’t planning to come to work at all. I was bringing my girlfriend’s daughter to the mountain for junior instructor training. I pulled into the parking lot, and decided to walk over to my office to get something. And that’s when I saw it: this little patch of snow with 40 people doing laps. It was our ski school in training. It was so funny that I decided to do a snow report right then. The majority of people who saw the video thought it was staged, but really, it wasn’t. I did the whole thing in one take, completely off the top of my head. I honestly didn’t think that much of it, but when I posted it, it went nuts.

SD: It was funny and sad and entertaining, but mostly, it was refreshing in its honesty. I think that’s why it connected with so many people.
EF: Well, one of the things about Mad River is that it’s a different kind of a place. It all starts with the fact that we’re owned by the skiers. So we have a little different take on things.

SD: Did you get any blowback from your boss?
EF: Actually, no. We have a good relationship and he trusts me to do my job. I’m also one of the few marketing directors that do the snow report themselves. Most ski areas have a staff of snow reporters, but at Mad River, I’m it. And I never lie; if it’s raining, I say it’s raining.  I’ve been here twenty years, and very early on I took the attitude that I was going to have the most honest snow report in the business. I took a longer view of the relationship with our skiers than many other places do. I’m not going to give a snow report to try to sell you a lift ticket today. I’m trying to develop a relationship of trust with our customers and shareholders. I never exaggerate our snowfall totals, so very often it looks like we have less snow than any other area in the state. I’m not under pressure to inflate it like some areas are. Actually, the biggest criticism I get from our shareholders is that I undersell too much and that it’s better than I said in the report. But really, you’re not doing anyone any favors by lying.

SD: Have you been surprised by all the attention you’ve been getting?
EF: Absolutely. I couldn’t believe it. As a marketing professional, it reinforced how interconnected social media is and how they feed off one another. The amount of PR we got from that video was incredible.

SD: By doing that report, you set a pretty high bar for yourself. You did some others, too. I know you did one after the mountain closed for the season that was pretty funny, too. Was that off the cuff, as well?
EF: Yes. It was totally unscripted. Folks just want to know what’s going on up on their mountain,  so whenever anything interesting — or not so interesting — happens here I try to show it. I do mountain reports all summer long.

SD: Let’s take a look at that one, too.

There’s a little bit of black humor there, but truly, I can appreciate the honesty behind it. I wish more ski areas would follow Mad River’s lead.

Mad River glenMad River ended its ski season on March 14, more than a month earlier than 2015, with a poignant letter to its shareholders. In it, Mad River Glen’s president, Jamey Wimble, told members that its seasonal staff had been laid off earlier this season and full-time workers would be taking unpaid furloughs in the offseason. “The mountain finds itself in the most challenging financial situation it has seen since the founding of the Co-op in 1995,” the memo stated. “Other regional ski areas are experiencing similar or even worse financial challenges.” The marquee outside the resort reflected its surrender to the dismal weather.

There’s a lot to be said for the honesty exhibited by Mad River Glen. Given the great response they’ve received, other resorts would do well to take a page out of their book.

Here’s hoping for a better season next year for Mad River Glen and all the eastern ski resorts.

 

 



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A Ski Diva’s Guide to the Solar System

It’s sad but true: climate change is real, and it’s going to mean big problems for us skiers. So even though our skiing right now is limited to Earth, someday we may be forced to look elsewhere. Luckily, we live in a solar system with 8 other planets and a multitude of moons and asteroids. And who knows — one day these could end up as primo ski destinations.

With that in mind, I’ve put together a handy guide to help us Ski Divas know what to expect. Some of this is from Popular Science, some from Wikipedia, and some from NASA, itself. And while I don’t think we’ll be doing this any time soon, it doesn’t hurt to be prepared:

 

Imagine skiing a mountain that’s nearly three times higher than Everest! That’s Olympus Mons, the tallest planetary mountain in the solar system. Located on Mars, Olympus Mons stands  at 21.9 km, or 13.6 miles. In addition to being tall, it is also very wide (340 miles or 550 kilometers) and covers an area larger than the entire chain of Hawaiian islands.

Screen Shot 2016-03-22 at 7.30.46 AM

 

Tune up your ice skis! Yes, there is ice on Mars. The planet has northern and southern polar ice caps that grow and shrink depending on the season. During the winter, the poles get absolutely no sun, and the resulting drop in temperature freezes both water into ice and carbon dioxide into dry ice.2

Mars Polar Ice Cap.  Photo from NASA

Mars Polar Ice Cap.
Photo from NASA

Moon

Enceladus

 

Saturn’s sixth largest moon, Enceladus, may be the ideal place for hitting the interplanetary slopes. Covered in miles of ice, Enceladus is home to numerous geysers, which jettison ice particles into the air above the moon’s surface. The result is something like snowfall as the ice particles fall back to the ground, coating Enceladus in extremely fine ice crystals. Paul Schenk of the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston notes the “snow” would provide great skiing conditions. However, there’s not enough on the surface yet. Give it a couple tens of millions of years or so, and the slopes will be piled high. The other problem? The temperature is -330 degrees Fahrenheit. 2

 

Remember to pack your warmest layers. The largest of Neptune’s 13 moons, Triton, is one of the coldest objects in our solar system. Also home to ice volcanoes, the moon’s surface belches out a mixture of liquid nitrogen, methane, and dust, all of which freeze immediately in the air. The flakes then snow back down to Triton’s surface, which mostly consists of frozen nitrogen. An almost non-existent atmosphere doesn’t help to curb the freezing temperatures (-391 degrees Fahrenheit). 2

 

Seasons on other planets are extremely different from the traditional spring, summer, fall and winter here on Earth. Although they generally have to do with orbital variations and axial tilt, weather variations are typically more pronounced for those planets closer to the Sun. With an axial tilt of only 3 degrees, for example, Jupiter and Venus have literally no difference between the seasons. However, Jupiter’s distance from the sun cause its seasons to change more slowly. The length of each season is roughly three years. And seasons on Neptune can last for 40 years! Talk about endless winter!  

 

If you decide to take a ski trip to Mars, better be prepared to be gone a while. According to NASA, a vessel carrying humans would take roughly six months to travel to Mars and another six months to come back. In addition, you’d have to stay 18-20 months on Mars before the planets re-align for a return trip. In all, the mission would take roughly 2 1/2 years.3

So anyone packing their bags?

References:

1. Wikipedia
2. Popular Science
3. Infoplease

 

 



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Good Riddance to a Dismal Season* (*in the east).

Mad River glen

Photo: Mad River Glen

Yep, the sign on the left at Mad River Glen pretty much sums it up. Mother Nature, you’ve brought us to our knees. We surrender. I personally give up. My ski season is over.

I know, a First World problem, right? Boo hoo — instead of skiing 88 days like I did last year, I only clocked 53.

Yes, I’m whining. But here in the East, the worst ski season in years has had terrible repercussions, not just for skiers, but for the resorts and businesses that depend on them for income. Peak Resorts, for example, which owns 14 eastern resorts, reported revenue down 16 percent from the same quarter last year. Overall visits to Peak properties dropped 23 percent compared to the same quarter in 2015.  And they’re by no means alone.

Call it what you want — The Year of No Winter,  The Winter That Never Was — I’ll just call it dreadful. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, all six New England states set records for warmth, a marked reversal from last winter, one of New England’s harshest. You can read more details in this article in the Washington Post.

In Vermont, the season started bad and never got better. Christmas Day saw temperatures climb into the 70’s. The Nor’easters that typically bring blockbuster storms never materialized. We were plagued with freeze/thaw cycles. And we got far too much rain.

The results speak for themselves. Sugarbush, for example, got roughly half the snow they typically get during an average winter. And as of March 31, Jay Peak was at 55% of normal snowfall and is likely to have the lowest snowfall season in its 35 years of data. Even worse, some smaller ski areas never even managed to open.

For the larger areas, it was all about the snowmaking. Without it, I don’t think we’d have had any ski season at all (for my post about how the snowmakers at Stowe handled the season, go here). To the snowmakers out there, two ski poles up. Thanks for all your efforts. You truly are miracle workers.

Yes, I know. The ski areas in the West have had a banner season. Reports are coming in left and right of resorts that are extending their ski season. And I’m glad for it. Last year was a bad one out there, so yes, they deserve it. Still, I get heartache watching the photos of major dumpage parade by on my Facebook feed.

In the East, though, many ski resorts have wrapped up the season early. Ski shops, loaded with unsold merchandise and struggling to stay afloat, are having blowout sales. And me, I’ve put my skis to bed. If I could manage another trip out west, I would. But since that isn’t going to happen, it’ll probably be seven long months before I ski again.

Goodbye, winter. Don’t let the door hit you on your way out. Here’s to a better ’16/’17.

 



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