Tag Archives | Vermont

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.

 

food

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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A Day at the Races: The 2016 Audi FIS World Cup

I think my ears are ringing.

img_5045It’s no surprise, since it’s just two days after the 2016 Audi FIS World Cup at Killington Mountain Resort, and I think every cow bell on the planet was there. And why not? This was the best of the best in ski racing, only half an hour from home.

How could I not attend?

This was the first World Cup Alpine race in New England since 1991 (Waterville Valley, NH), and the first in Vermont since 1978 (Stratton Mountain). And oh yeah, it was the first World Cup I’d ever attended, too.

Having the race at Killington in November, I thought, took a tremendous act of faith. Weather this time of year just about anywhere is sketchy. The Men’s World Cup in Lake Louise has been cancelled, as has the men’s race in Beaver Creek. But kudos to the people at Killington, who put forth a tremendous effort to make sure their course was World Cup ready. The resort has been blasting snow since October — enough to cover a football field 40 feet deep — and was lucky enough to get some help from Mother Nature: 15 inches in the past week or so.

The lower GS course on Superstar

The lower part of the GS Course on Superstar

But having the race in the East over Thanksgiving weekend was also a stroke of brilliance. Four and a half hours from New York and three from Boston, Killington is easily reachable from major population centers. And this means a lot of excitement, loads of publicity, and a ton of people on hand to watch the race. I was there for the GS race on Saturday, along with an estimated 16,000 other people — by many accounts the largest US World Cup crowd ever. (Which also accounts for what I said before about the cow bells.) In fact, US Ski Association officials estimate the combined attendance for both Saturday and Sunday at nearly 27,000, making it one of the most well-attended women’s ski events in US history.

Just a few of the people who showed up for the race.

Just a few of the people who showed up for the race.

Was it exciting to be there? Yes. It felt like a festival. There was a temporary village set up at the base with tents from all sorts of vendors. There was a pre-race parade featuring a thousand kids from ski teams across the state of Vermont.  There was a free concert by O.A.R. in the base area afterward. And the crowd was clearly stoked, full of Vermont and East Coast pride.

The course was set up on Superstar, a fun run that’s readily visible from Killington’s base area. Superstar starts with a steep headwall, mellows out onto some undulating terrain, and then plunges again with another steep pitch. The starting altitude of the GS course was 3,701 feet and the finish altitude 2,559 — all together,  a vertical drop of 1,142 feet and a course length of 3,166 feet.

Here’s a GoPro preview of the GS course:

Fog on the course.

Fog on the course.

By now, the details of the GS race are well known. Conditions were challenging, with a changeable surface that rutted up quickly. Visibility wasn’t perfect, either, with flat light and fog rolling in and out throughout the day. Thirteen of the 61 racers, including defending GS champion, Swiss skier Lara Gut, either fell or skied off without completing the course. In the end, France’s Tessa Worley, the 2013 GS World Champion, finished first ahead of first-run leader Nina Loeseth of Norway, who finished 0.80 seconds back. Italy’s Sofia Goggia came in third, 1.11 seconds behind Worley. And 2014 Olympic Slalom gold medalist Mikaela Shiffrin ended up fifth after finishing 8th on the first run and 5th on the second.

BTW, Lindsey Vonn did not compete. She’s been sidelined by a broken arm she incurred training in Colorado.

What I especially loved was seeing the athletes up close and personal, and finding out that yes, apart from the fact that they’re amazing athletes and ski like goddesses, they’re very human, too.

Here are some small details that I dearly loved:

• Lara Gut wears a knit hat with her name as part of the design.

• Mikaela Shiffrin, who grew up skiing on the East Coast, had her 95 year old grandma there to watch her compete.

• Third place finisher Sofia Goggia uses Vermont Maple Syrup when she makes her favorite American pancake breakfast at home in Italy.

• Second place finisher Nina Loeseth loved the snow; she said it was more like European snow than the lighter snow she’s skied in Colorado.

• Mikaela Shiffrin does Word Searches with her mom before the race  to combat nerves.

• All the racers I heard speak said they loved hearing the roar of the crowd when they came down the final pitch.

• During her press conference the day before the race, Shiffrin talked about how she loved the passion of East Coast skiers. “It’s easy to love skiing in the West, because it’s amazing. When you’re in the East, it’s raining, snowing, sleeting, all in one day. If you’re still out there, it means there’s a passion.”

• And this, from the NBC broadcast of the race later on that day (yeah, I watched it, too): Announcer #1: “What do you think they [the racers] have learned the most from the skiers who have gone before them in these conditions?” Announcer #2: “Now they know why skiers from Vermont are so good. Because conditions change every two seconds. You’ve got to know how to do all of it.”

Here I am talking to Swiss racing phenom Lara Gutt.

Here I am talking to Swiss racer Lara Gut. Note her hat, with her name knitted right in.

The Slalom Race took place on Sunday, and unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend. But I did catch it on TV, and congrats to Mikaela Shiffrin for her 22nd World Cup win and her 10th consecutive slalom victory on the World Cup!



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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 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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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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Snowmaking at Stowe: How to handle a tough season

There’s no denying it’s been a tough winter here in the East. Snow depth hasn’t been anywhere close to last year’s, some of the smaller resorts haven’t opened at all, and conditions have often been sketchy, at best. For a sense of the misery this is inflicting on eastern Ski Divas (me, included), check out the East Coast Whine thread on TheSkiDiva forum.

That said, I recently skied Stowe Mountain Resort, and I’m glad to report it was quite good. Why? Well, a few inches of natural snow certainly helped. But even without this happy dusting, the mountain has managed to keep skiers pretty well satisfied all season long, thanks largely to its state-of-the-art snowmaking ability.

Me skiing Stowe with Heather Burke of LuxurySkiTrips.com.

Me skiing Stowe with Heather Burke of LuxurySkiTrips. Click on the picture to see my interview with Heather.

This year’s warm weather and lack of snow have made snowmaking more critical than usual at Stowe. According to Scott Reeves, the mountain’s vice president of operations, snow depth at the top of Mount Mansfield is currently only about 24 inches. “To put that in perspective,” he said, “we generally record anywhere between 250 and 300 inches at the summit. We’re not even close to that, and there’s no way we’re going to make it up. Terrain with snowmaking has been king this year. That’s what’s been open since day one. Our natural terrain has been fluctuating.”

Stowe has invested heavily in its snowmaking operation, spending $10.5 million over the the past three years. This includes 600 HKD air/water energy efficient tower snow guns, 150 Ratnik air/water energy efficient land frame snow guns, 36 fan tower snow guns, and a new booster pump house. The mountain has doubled its water pumping capacity from 1,500 to 3,000 gpm (gallons per minute), added snowmaking to five trails, and replaced snowmaking pipe on 22 other trails. It’s also installed a state-of-the-art snowmaking control center that automates much of its snowmaking operation. By merely clicking a mouse, an operator can remotely start and stop guns at various locations and cause them to oscillate or rotate. The system also measures humidity, temperature and wind, and uses the data to adjust the amount of water and air needed to produce the desired quality snow. Thanks to the new technology and a 110-million-gallon reservoir, the resort can cover 56 acres in a foot of snow in only 24 hours.

Stowe's snowmaking operations center

Stowe’s snowmaking operations center

Despite this, the human touch is still important. Scott and his staff meet every morning at 11 to access snow conditions and evaluate weather forecasts. The staff also goes out on the snow each day to check snow quality. “I ski almost every day and my assistant skis every day,” said Scott,”so we’re constantly checking the quality of the snow. Even though the computer tells us we’re making dry snow, there’s no substitute for getting out on it ourselves.”

Snowmaking at Stowe. Photo by Martin Griff

Snowmaking at Stowe.
Photo by Martin Griff

How does Stowe decide where and when to make snow? “It’s pretty much based on market demand,” Scott said. “For opening week, we want a good mixture of intermediate and expert terrain, because that’s when our season passholder base starts up. As we get toward Thanksgiving, we begin thinking about terrain for families and beginners, so we expand snowmaking to what’s more suited for them. Certainly, in a normal season, we want 100% of our snowmaking terrain open by the December holiday. After that, we focus on quality and what we need in order to get to closing day.” As for the rest of the season, Scott says the mountain has been making snow like crazy for the past two weeks to achieve what he calls their  “spring depths.” “Our scheduled closing is April 24,” he said.  “I feel very confident that if we have a normal spring, we’ll make that date.”

Stowe isn’t the only Vermont ski area where snowmaking plays an important role. More than 80 percent of the trails in the state are covered by snowmaking. That’s the most of any state in the union by far, 20 percent more than New Hampshire, and way more than any ski area out West. In the past few years, the state’s ski areas have participated in a program with Efficiency Vermont that’s provided rebates for purchasing newer, more energy efficient snowmaking equipment. Thanks to this partnership, Stowe has been able to eliminate the diesel compressors it previously used for its snowmaking operations, saving the resort 100,000 gallons of fuel per year and greatly improving its carbon footprint. Scott also noted that the partnership has allowed the resort to make its computer control system more efficient, as well as help purchase more energy efficient snow guns. “Basically, for every gun we used to run we can now run three.” he said. “That helps us put snow out there faster and increases our snowmaking capability.”

Stowe’s snowmaking has brought it national recognition, too. In 2014,  Outside Magazine awarded the resort its 2014 Ski-Season Travel Award for Best Backup Plan because of its (then) two-year spending spree on snowmaking. The magazine highlighted Stowe as spending “more than any other resort in the East,” and praised its ability to work “more efficiently even in temperatures up to 28 degrees.”

So thank your local snowmaker, especially here in the East. Without them, we might not be skiing at all this year.



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How to survive a snowless ski vacation in New England.

What a difference a year makes. Last winter New England was positively drowning in snow. Early season was fantastic. There was snow everywhere, and all the resorts were going full blast.

So who could blame you for booking a ski vacation for Christmas week? Seemed like a no-brainer. So what if you were locked in and couldn’t get your money back. We were going to get hammered again, right?

Uh, no. Mother Nature is fickle, and this year she’s been keeping all the snow out West (and yes, they deserve and need it, given the abysmal snow drought they’ve been through) and throwing nothing at New England but warm temps and rain. It’s actually the East’s lowest snow year on record. Yay us.

Just take a look at this tongue-in-cheek snow report posted on December 19th by Mad River Glen. If it wasn’t so funny,  I think I’d cry. (Keep in mind that MRG depends heavily on natural snow and has very little snowmaking.)

 

The bottom line is that a ski vacation in Vermont, New Hampshire, or Maine is going to be a bit of a challenge this year. The skiing right now, frankly, doesn’t look too promising. Still, who knows. We could get lucky. It could snow. And even if it doesn’t, the resorts are doing all they can to blast snow the moment that temperatures allow.

But before you scream obscenities at the sky, take a moment. Breathe. Believe it or not, you could still have a great vacation. It might just be different than what you had in mind. There’s still a lot to do in ski country, if you’re creative and a bit flexible.

Among the most obvious: explore the surrounding area. This is something you might not have a chance to do when you’re spending all your time on the slopes. For example, if you’re in Vermont around Stowe or Sugarbush, you could visit the Ben & Jerry’s factory, where they make all the good stuff. Not far from Killington, the town of Woodstock, one of the most picturesque in the state, is well worth checking out. Visit Long Trail Brewery in Bridgewater or Harpoon Brewery in Windsor. If you’ve got kids, a good choice is Billings Farm & Museum or VINS (The Vermont Institute of Natural Science). And farther south, the town of Manchester, VT, offers terrific shopping and one of the best bookstores anywhere.

The resorts have a lot non-skiing options, too. For example, Jay Peak has its 50,000 square foot Pump House indoor water park. Okemo and Killington both have alpine coasters that rocket riders down the mountain all year long. And Bretton Woods has a 3-hour canopy tour that’ll have you zip lining through a network of platforms high in the trees, as well as an indoor slopeside climbing wall.

Bretton Woods Canopy Tour, from the Mount Washington Valley Chamber of Commerce

Bretton Woods Canopy Tour, from the Mount Washington Valley Chamber of Commerce

TimberRipper

Timber Ripper at Okemo, photo courtesy of Okemo Mountain Resort

Many of the resorts have scheduled a lot of events during Christmas week to keep the family entertained. You’ll want to visit the resorts’ websites for a complete listing, but here’s a sampling of some of the things going on:

Stratton Mountain is holding “The Running of the Bears” 5k, which will take place at the resort’s golf course on December 28.

Sugarbush has added programs through its Schoolhouse Adventure Camp like guided nature hikes and field games. They’ll also be holding a Gingerbread House Building Workshop on the 26th, and a Food and Wine Sampler on December 28.

Jay Peak is planning to play ski movies in the resort’s ballroom every day during the holiday. They’re also holding a mixology class for adults.

Q Burke Mountain Resort is offering an adult dinner and comedy show on December 26

Okemo will be screening Warren Miller’s Chasing Shadows on December 27.  They’re also hosting a DJ Dance Party on December 28, Paint & Sip on December 30, and an early Family New Year’s Eve Party on December 31.

There’s a pretty good list of events at ski areas in Vermont here.

Loon Mountain is hosting a Best Damn Ugly Sweater Party on December 26, Kids Face Painting on December 27, and Kids Karaoke on December 28.

Sunday River has a bunch of off-slope activities planned, including twin ziplines, family games, live music, a fire dancer, and fireworks. They’ve added a second family dinner at the Peak Lodge on 12/29. For New Year’s, they’re having a Black Diamond Entertainment party geared toward families and kids, with laser tag, a photo booth, and an inflatable sumo wrestling ring — all before 8pm, so the countdown will be on Icelandic time.

Of course, there’s the usual stuff, too. A lot of resorts will be having firework displays. Many provide spa services, like facials and massages. And your lodging may have a pool. For the kids, that’s often enough.

I know, I know. There’s no denying that the skiing situation in New England is awful. The important thing is not to let it ruin your vacation. You’re out of the house and away from work. You’re with people you love. Enjoy one another’s company. Go out to eat. Talk to each other and be sure to listen — really listen — too. Remember it’s the season for peace, family, and love. Just enjoy your time together.

Wishing you a very happy holiday and remember, THINK SNOW!

 



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What’s new in Vermont for ’15/’16

Okay, I admit it: this one’s for me. Since I live and ski (mostly) in Vermont, I’m more than a little skimapinterested in what we’ll be seeing this coming season at resorts throughout the Green Mountain State. So if you’re interested, too, here’s a list:

 

BOLTON VALLEY

  • The new South of Solitude restaurant at Timberline will feature a south of the border menu including burritos and tacos made to order from fresh ingredients.
  • The Poolside Lounge in the Sports Center will serve up wraps, sandwiches, paninis, beer and wine.
  • The resort has also added a significant amount of new ski and snowboard stock to its rental inventory.

BROMLEY MOUNTAIN

  • The Learning Zone is being updated, with regraded terrain to both improve the experience for beginners and also reduce the amount of snowmaking necessary to build Terrain Based Learning features.
  • The grooming fleet is being updated. They’re also re-nozzling their snow guns to make them more energy efficient.
  • The popular Super Duper 6-Pack now includes a snowboard option. The $649 package includes 6 all day Kidsrule (ages 5-14) lessons, free Rossignol skis or Burton snowboard, an earned season pass, plus exclusive discounts at the ski shop.
  • The full service Rental & Repair shop will be adding new high end Rossignol Experience skis, plus men/women-specific boots to the fleet.

JAY PEAK RESORT

  • Thirty-six  more mountain cottages will open this winter.
  • Site work has begun on the new movie theater, slated to open by spring.
  • Forty tons of food scraps will be diverted by the resort and turned into compost for the numerous gardens found around Jay Peak.

KILLINGTON

  • Snowmaking and lift operations are being improved. This includes replacing primary water lines, rebuilding pumps and hydrants to boost efficiency, and upgrading lift drives including the K-1 Express and Skyeship Express gondolas, making them more reliable.
  • Also new at Killington is the $3.5 million Snowshed Adventure Center, boasting a nearly mile-long Beast Mountain Coaster, a soaring Skyeride over 100 feet above Snowshed Pond, a four-story Skye Ropes Course and much more.

MIDDLEBURY COLLEGE SNOW BOWL

  • Nearly 2000’ of snowmaking pipe is being replaced, and 10 HKD tower guns are being added.
  • A designated uphill route will be open for skinning during operating hours.

MOUNT SNOW RESORT

  • New snowmaking pipe that will allow them to maximize the use of the 645 new guns installed last season. Ten miles of new, larger pipe has replaced older, inefficient pipe.
  • Significant progress has also been made on West Lake, Mount Snow’s future 120 million gallon snowmaking water reservoir, which is expected to be completed before the 2016/2017 winter season.
  • The seasonal locker room got a major facelift, including new ceiling, floor, walls, security, and the lockers themselves.

OKEMO MOUNTAIN RESORT

  • A second new, high-speed bubble chairlift named Quantum Four is being installed, this time at Jackson Gore.
  • Also at Jackson Gore, Snowmaking is being expanded to include White Lightning and Rolling Thunder.
  • At SouthFace Village, the Sunshine Quad will connect the Village Center to the South Face Express Quad and provide access to the new Suncatcher trail.
  • RFID ticketing is being introduced this season.

Q BURKE MOUNTAIN

  • A brand new 116 room Hotel and Conference Center is slated to open. This offers countless outdoor venues, has over 4,800 square feet of conference, reception and meeting space, a day lodge, restaurant, pub, and café.
  • Snowmaking is being expanded to include  the installation of 20 state-of-the-art energy efficient fan guns as well as the construction of a new summit booster pump station. This is the first phase of a three-phase snowmaking expansion and upgrade which will allow Q Burke to open earlier with more terrain.

THE QUECHEE CLUB

  • Take advantage of Bring a Friend Friday. This includes two full day lift tickets and a ten dollar lunch voucher for only $30.00.
  • Learn-To Lift Tickets include up to two beginner lessons for only $40.00 per lesson.

SMUGGLERS’ NOTCH RESORT

  • New snow gun placement this winter will serve a favorite learning trail where novices enjoy their first experience with natural features by sliding through Billy Bob’s Bear Den and Yellow Cat Woods.
  • A newly completed snowmaking pipeline ensures optimal water availability while adhering to the resort’s own goals for environmental responsibility as well as state benchmarks for environmental management.
  • Fans of Smugglers’ one-day women’s clinic will appreciate the option of a three night getaway incorporating massage and yoga with ski and ride instruction for all abilities.

STOWE MOUNTAIN RESORT

  • Several new facilities are being built around a new ice rink that will double as a community plaza and green in the summer. These include a new state-of-the-art children’s Adventure Center with ski/ride school, year-round daycare facilities, and a children’s activities center.
  • A new Stowe Mountain Club Alpine Clubhouse will also be delivered as a part of the expansion. Retail shops, restaurants, food markets and a parking garage for Club members, will additionally be constructed to enhance the Spruce Peak Plaza.

STRATTON MOUNTAIN RESORT

  • A 4,000 square foot addition is being added to the original lodge, built in 1961. This will result in approximately 350 more seats.
  • A webcam is being installed on the summit.

SUGARBUSH RESORT

  • The Valley House Double is being replaced with the Valley House Quad, a fixed-grip, high-speed quad that will take skiers and riders to the top of The Mall. Sugarbush also restructured the area at the top of The Mall and Stein’s for a more fluid interaction, as well as brought the bottom terminal of the lift down next to Super Bravo Express.
  • The resort is also constructing the next phase of real estate development in Gadd Brook, sixteen ski-in/ski-out condominiums at the base of Lincoln Peak.

SUICIDE SIX RESORT/WOODSTOCK INN & RESORT

  • Suicide Six will be celebrating its 80th anniversary with a new snowmaking upgrade and a state of the art compressor, new main lift controls and wiring, and added terrain features.
  • The Woodstock Inn & Resort has also partnered with Tubbs Snowshoes & Fischer Skis, creating an Adventure Center that pairs world-class vacations with world class gear. Extensive improvements have also been made to the trail network on Mount Peg and the Nordic Center will be located at the Woodstock Country Club with trails right out the door.

 

 



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Skiing the Sun Mountain: Bromley, Vermont

It used to be  you couldn’t swing a cat in Vermont without hitting a ski hill (not something I’d recommend, by the way). Sadly, that’s no longer the case. According to The New England Lost Ski Area Project (NELSAP), there are  111 closed ski areas throughout the state. As for the smaller areas that remain, well, it’s easy to ignore them as you rush down the road to the bigger resorts like Stratton, Killington, Okemo, and Stowe.

But that’d be a mistake. Granted, they might lack the high speed lifts or the fancy amenities of the larger areas. But the smaller mountains have a charm all their own. The skiing’s a blast, lift tickets are generally cheaper, and they’re great places for family skiing (I lie — they’re great places for just about everyone).

So after years and years of driving past Bromley on my way somewhere else and saying, “Oh, that’d be a fun place to ski,” I finally went ahead and tried it. And I’m glad I did.

Bromley Mountain in Peru, Vermont, has been there for what seems like forever. Founded in 1936 by Fred Pabst Jr., the son of the founder of Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer, Bromley is known as the Sun Mountain because unlike most ski areas, it faces south so it gets the sun when others don’t. If you’ve ever skied at Stratton, you can see it shining like a beacon across the valley (why aren’t I skiing over there?) while you’re stuck in a cold, gray day.

Plaque commemorating Bromley founder Fred Pabst, in the Bromley base lodge.

Plaque commemorating Fred Pabst, in the Bromley base lodge.

Bromley, courtesy of Bromley Mountain

Bromley, courtesy of Bromley Mountain

Not so during my visit. It snowed like crazy and from time to time, we had a near white out. The upside: boot high powder, fantastic conditions, zero crowds, and loads of fun.

Did I say zero crowds? It didn’t look that way when I first entered the lodge at 8:30 on a Monday morning. The Vermont High School State Championships were underway, and the old-style lodge was packed with teenagers putting on their gear. This cleared out within half an hour or so, and really, I didn’t see them for the rest of the day.

Bromley isn’t huge. It stands at the west side of a valley ringed by Stratton on one side and Magic on the other. On a sunny day, you can get fantastic views from the peak. The mountain is also on Vermont’s Long Trail, which is hiking trail that extends the entire length of the state, a favorite among hikers during the warmer months.

But more about the skiing: while the vertical isn’t as high as some of bigger resorts, you can easily have just as much fun. There’s a nice mix of terrain with everything from good, long cruisers to glades and bump runs. Even better, it’s easy to navigate. All the trails end up at the same place — in front of the base lodge. So it’s easy to meet up with friends, and hard for kids to get lost.

Granted, the lifts aren’t super fast. If you’re looking for a gondola or a bubble lift, you’re going to have to go elsewhere. It’s a slower pace, and yeah, for a lot of people, that can be a drawback. But what you’re getting in return is a more old-style Vermont ski experience. And there’s a lot to be said for that.

Here are some stats:

  • Lifts

    • Number of Lifts: 9
    • High-speed quads: 1
    • Quad chairs: 1
    • Double chairs: 4
    • Surface lifts: 3
    • Uphill Lift Capacity: 10,806 skiers per hour
    • On Mountain Lodging: Bromley Village and Sun Lodge
  • Elevation
    • Base: 1,950 feet
    • Summit: 3,284 feet
    • Vertical drop: 1,334 feet
    • Longest run: 2.5 miles – Runaround
    • Snowmaking: 86%
  • Types of runs
    • Beginner: 32%
    • Intermediate: 37%
    • Advanced: 31%

Bromley also has a learning center that features Terrain Based Learning, of which I’m a huge fan (you can read my posts about it here and here). TBL uses natural features that allow students to focus on the movements, sensations, and body positions that form the basis of good skiing. Basically, it eliminates the traditional anxieties so learners can spend less time learning how to stop, and more time learning how to go.

Does the fun stop at the off season? At Bromley, no. The mountain has a Mountain Adventure Park with all sorts of fun stuff in the summer: an alpine slide, an aerial adventure park with ropes, ziplines, and bridges spread across the tree canopy, and

So if you’re in Vermont, should you race past Bromley on your way to bigger mountains? If you do, you’ll be missing out on a really fun day. I’m only sorry I didn’t discover it sooner.



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What’s new in Vermont for the ’14/’15 season.

Last week I talked about all the new things you’ll see in Colorado this coming season (if you’re interested, go here). Now for all you eastern skiers, here’s a round-up of the capital improvements you’ll find in the Green Mountain State in  ’14/’15:

skimapOkemo Mountain Resort
Okemo will be replacing its Northstar Express Quad with The Sunburst Six, a new high-speed six-person bubble chairlift with heated seats – the first of its kind in North America. Operation Snowburst returns for a second season of snowmaking improvements with the addition of 100 new, energy-efficient HKD tower guns. This follows a $1 million snowmaking investment that allowed Okemo to open early with top-to-bottom skiing and riding last winter.

Mount Snow Resort
Snowmaking enhancements continue at Mount Snow with the arrival of 645 brand new low-energy snow guns; the largest single snow gun upgrade in the resort’s history. The entire snow gun arsenal is now 100% low-energy. Also making its debut this winter is Smart Snow; a state-of-the-art snowmaking control system, the same one used for the snowmaking operation at the Winter Olympics in Sochi. Thousands more feet of snowmaking pipe have been replaced and a number of trails have been electrified so high output fan guns can be operated on them.

Smugglers’ Notch Resort
The addition of 156 new high efficiency tower guns and one additional fan gun signals the completion of Smugglers’ conversion to a fleet comprised fully of high efficiency snowguns. This will be Smugglers’ third consecutive winter of snowmaking improvements. 250 new guns were incorporated into the fleet over the previous two winter seasons.

Stowe Mountain Resort
Stowe Mountain Resort’s state-of-the-art snowmaking operations have been supplemented by a three-year $9.8 million dollar snowmaking expansion. Totals for the 3-year project include over 100,000 feet of new snowmaking pipe — almost 20 miles worth, 615 HKD SV10 tower guns, 150 Ratnik Baby X2 land frames, 20 SMI Super PoleCat snow towers and 8 HKD Turbo snow towers. Stowe has also completely renovated its  summit Gondola on Mt. Mansfield and improved family lift service on lower Spruce Peak with a new Quad chairlift and two new carpet surface lifts.

Stratton Mountain Resort
Stratton has invested in  58 new gondola cabins, 350 more energy efficient HKD snowguns, two new snowcats, new glades, buses and bullwheels, rental gear and more in year two of a total $21 million investment in the overall resort experience. With a trip of just eight minutes, the Stratton gondola carries 2,400 people per hour and runs 7,590 feet from base to the summit of southern Vermont’s highest peak. The latest HKD purchase brings Stratton’s tower snowgun fleet to over 1,000 and completely eliminates the use of diesel. 

Sugarbush Resort
Sugarbush spent more than $1 million on both mechanical and electrical upgrades to the lifts. The resort also invested $1.8 million in snowmaking equipment, completing a five-year, $5 million capital project. Over the summer, crews installed 351 new Snowlogic, HKD, and Ratnik low energy snowguns, and made significant improvements to infrastructure, replacing a variety of snowmaking pipes, pumps and valves. The resort also replaced one of its winch cats with a new Pisten Bully 600. Parking for busy days has been expanded to create 450 new parking spaces. Permitting continues on a new Valley House lift. All told, the resort invested $4.5 million this year in infrastructure.

Killington Resort
Killington continues to invest in essential infrastructure projects ahead of the 2014-15 winter season, including over $1 million in lifts and lift improvements, $2 million worth of new energy efficient snow guns, and continual trail and glade maintenance.

Bromley Mountain
Bromley’s snowmaking system will be completely and efficiently up to date for the Winter 2014/15 season. Mountain Operations has taken full advantage of Efficiency Vermont’s Great Ground Gun Round Up, and traded in all the old air-hogs for new efficient tower guns. The snowmaking team is also working with HKD to develop portable ground guns on tri-pods to cover some of the tricky terrain that made those old inefficient ground guns necessary.

The Hermitage Club
After more than two years in construction, the Hermitage Club’s new 80,000 square foot, state of the art Club House is due to open for the 2014-15 season. The Club House will offer members gourmet fine dining, a fitness center with lap pool and hot tubs, full treatment spa, day care, retail, upscale locker rooms and more, all with a  360-degree view of Vermont’s Haystack Mountain.

Over $5 million in mountain infrastructure upgrades start with the new Stag’s Leap Lift which connects the lower mountain with the upper for the first time in over 12 years and offers a mid-station unload with access to more than 24 acres of learning terrain. Snowmaking expansion and energy efficiency initiatives continue with an additional 17 new Techno Alpin fan guns, an additional new 110 HKD Impulse Tower guns, 25 new Evo Rubis towers and additional 70 new Ratnik land guns.

Magic Mountain
This season Magic will have the capability of making snow on 75% of its terrain.  In addition, each year Magic expands the “off-piste” opportunities by clearing out new glades.

 



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