It’s only the middle of March, and next year’s season passes are already on the market. Alterra and Vail both launched their respective passes on March 5: Alterra its updated IKON pass, and Vail its EPIC FOR EVERYONE, a revamped offering of its popular EPIC pass. The Peak Pass and Mountain Collective Pass dropped a few days later, and as they say, we’re off to the races.
I don’t know about you, but it’s hard enough to decide where I’m going to ski next week, let alone figure it out a year in advance. As one of the members of TheSkiDiva put it so well, I think you need to have a Masters degree in Planning and Logistics, plus a Bachelors in Meteorology with a minor in Statistics, to navigate the ski pass landscape and make decisions for next year’s passes. I’m tired just thinking about it.
But fellow Ski Divas, don’t despair. If dealing with the multi-resort passes makes your head spin…or if you’re really not into the corporate ski experience…or if you think that EPIC and IKON resorts are getting far too crowded…there are still lots of choices out there.
Here in Vermont, one of best options is Magic Mountain. Often called the Mad River Glen of Southern Vermont, Magic has captured a lot of attention in the past few years. In ’17/’18 Liftopia readers voted it Overall Best in Snow in North America, and with customers saying it’s “the best kept secret in the Northeast” and “a true skier’s mountain.” Liftopia readers also rated it #3 in Best Family Resort. And the Wall Street Journal named it one of the best-kept secret ski resorts in the US. Throw in a cover story in SKI Magazine, and you have a small ski resort that’s getting noticed.
Is it EPIC? Is it IKON-ic? No. It’s neither. It’s just…Magic. As Geoff Hatheway, Ski Magic president said to me when I sat down with him last week, “Whenever there’s a large scale movement one way, there’s always an opportunity to be the yang to the yin. I think more and more people want something that’s authentic; a real Vermont ski experience. Fortunately, a few of those places are still around. Each one is different; each one has its own character. And that’s why we’ve won these awards, because we’ve got a really passionate user base that just loves to ski, that understands the type of terrain Magic has to offer, and that’s looking for a great community experience. Things just happen here that don’t happen at other places. So I think there’s a subset of skiers that’s into that.”
Things weren’t always rosy for Magic. Originally founded by Swiss ski instructor Hans Thorner, the mountain prospered in the 1960s and 1970s. But by the 1990s times were tough, and Magic actually closed for a few years. And though it re-opened for 1997-98 season, it was often under-funded and struggled to gain traction. Lifts had difficulty passing inspection, snowmaking continued to decrease, and the lodge began falling into disrepair. Eventually a co-op concept was adopted but failed due to legal and administrative issues.
But in 2016 an investor group purchased Magic, and things began to change. Three years ago the group started a major capital improvement campaign, the results of which are evident today.
Here’s what’s been accomplished so far:
• Improved snowmaking capabilities: Magic recently replaced its diesel air compressors with cleaner, more efficient, more reliable electric compressors. It also increased the capacity of its pump house as well much of its piping , and added over 75 new HKD tower and mobile guns for more efficient, better quality snowmaking. The mountain is also doubling the capacity of its snowmaking pond (this will be completed by next season). All of this adds up. In the 2000’s, Magic was making snow on about 25% of its trails; by next year it’ll be up to around 70%.
• New lifts: Anyone who skied Magic in the past knows the lifts were, shall we say, sketchy. But that’s history. Last year they installed a Magic Carpet for beginning skiers along with a new chair that goes mid-mountain to access beginner and intermediate terrain. And this summer they’ll install a fixed grip quad to replace the old, notoriously awful Black Chair. So things are indeed looking up.
So what’s it like to ski Magic?
When you drive up the (short) access road, you see a sign:
You’ve now officially taken the road less traveled.
That pretty much sums it up.
If you’re looking for high speed lifts, glitzy hotels and shopping, and fancy restaurants, you’d be better off going elsewhere. Because you’re not going to find it at Magic.
Magic is what you’d call a skier’s mountain. Here, it’s all about the sport. The terrain is fabulous: terrific vertical, lots of winding trails that follow the contours of the mountain, tremendous tree skiing, and a decidedly laid back vibe.
Did I like it? Oh, yes. There’s something about the place that seems closer to the soul of skiing than a big mega-resort. It’s not huge, but there are a lot of ways to get down that are interesting and fun. The glades look tasty (not a good tree day when I was there), the moguls made by skiers and not machines, and there’s a lot to challenge just about any level of skier. Sure, there aren’t any high speed six packs to whisk you to the summit in record time. If you want to book runs, you’re not going to be able to do it here. But then again, are you after quantity or quality? If it’s quality, this is the place to be.
And now for some stats:
Base Elevation: 1,350 feet
Summit Elevation: 2,850 feet
Vertical Drop: 1,500 feet
Longest Trail: 1.6 miles
Steepest Trail: 45°
Average Snowfall: 145″
Trails: 24% beginner, 32% intermediate, 18% advanced.
Uphill Lift Capacity: 2,000 skiers per hour (with completion of new Black Chair next season)
Can Magic compete with the EPIC and IKON resorts?
According to Geoff, the low priced multi-resort passes present Magic — and all independent resorts — with a bit of a challenge. “Advance pass sales help fund the improvements we make over the summer,” he said. “For us to sell a cheap pass, it’s hard to survive to some extent. On the other hand, we’ve always considered ourselves a very affordable place to ski, and we mean to keep it that way.” The multi-resort passes have caused Magic to become quite creative in their offerings. A look at their website backs this up. Magic has a slew of season passes that are a bit different: there are Sunday-only passes, holiday-only passes, a pass for midweek and powder days (the resort is open Thursday-Sunday, as well as holiday periods and powder days), passes for Vermont teachers and students, passes you can share. In short, there’s something for everyone.
What’s more, the resort has a self-imposed daily ticket sales limit (2,000 with new Black Line Quad Lift for 2019-20) to keep lift lines and crowds to a minimum, even on the busiest holiday weekends. A season pass guarantees you access to Magic even if they stop selling day tickets when they reach their maximum day ticket sales threshold.
What’s the long term vision?
There are some interesting things down the pike. Geoff said that this may include more summer activities, such as a bike trail that connects a number of communities in the area, as well as a partnership with local golf courses. As for skiing, there’s the potential for expanded glade skiing on the front side and even backcountry skiing off the backside.
Geoff put it simply: “We’re trying to design everything so it doesn’t change the character of the place, but makes it more accessible to a variety of people who want a different type of experience. It’s a really unique space. We’re carving out our own niche in the business and having a great time doing it.”
Can’t wait to see what they do next.