Tag Archives | Resorts

Want some old school, off the radar fun? Try June Mountain.

I’m sitting here with a huge smile on my face. We just wrapped up this year’s annual gathering for members of TheSkiDiva.com, and as usual, it was an amazing experience. This year we met at Mammoth Mountain, and a week of good fellowship, great skiing, and 70 inches of fresh powder made it a trip I’ll never forget.

But for me, the icing on the cake was a day spent post-gathering at June Mountain, half an hour up the road. And though it’s owned by Mammoth, it couldn’t be more different. For one thing, it’s a lot smaller: 1,500 skiable acres vs Mammoth’s 3,500. And it’s at a lower elevation, so it gets less natural snow: June averages 250 inches per year, as compared to Mammoth’s 400. But the biggest difference is the ski experience, itself. On a Saturday a few days after a big dump, when weekend crowds were converging on Mammoth like ants on a picnic lunch, June was uncrowded, unhurried, and perfectly divine.

To put it simply, I loved it. How much? If I could, I’d wrap it up and take it home with me. Why? Two main reasons. For one, the aforementioned vibe. June is a chill place. Even though it’s owned by Mammoth, it has less of a corporate feel than its parent resort. It’s more welcoming. More laid back. Less crowded. And it’s incredibly family friendly (kids under 12 ski free!). Sure, some of the lifts are slow. But you’re not there to book run after run after run. You’re there because of its character. June is closer to the soul of skiing than a large corporate ski resort. It speaks to me. I don’t care if it’s not the gnarliest place around. It’s just plain charming.

The other thing I love? The scenery. It’s gorgeous. No matter where you look, there’s one spectacular view after another. My pictures don’t do it justice, but I’ll post a few, anyway.

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June Mountain base lodge

We at lunch outdoors mid-mountain at Stew Pot Slim's

We at lunch outdoors mid-mountain at Stew Pot Slim’s

A rocky history

Things haven’t always gone smoothly for June. Opened in 1962, June was purchased by Mammoth in 1986. But poor profits led Mammoth to close the resort for the ’12-’13 season, potentially for good. Community action turned things around, and June re-opened the next year. It began to position itself as a more family-friendly destination with lower lift prices and a greater emphasis on beginner and intermediate skiers. I, for one, am glad it’s there.

Other stuff about June

• June consists of two peaks: Rainbow Mountain, with an elevation of 10,040 feet, and June Mountain, with a peak of 10,090 feet.

• There are 41 named trails and 2 terrain parks.

• The trails are 16% beginner, 40% intermediate, 26% advanced, and 18% expert.

• June is on the IKON pass for ’18-’19.

• Average sunny days: 70%

• Number of lifts: 7. Two quads, 4 doubles, and 1 carpet.

• Vertical drop: 2,590 feet

• June has an open-boundary policy so you can duck the rope and ski wherever you want.

So what’d you think, Ski Diva?

Most definitely, two ski poles up. Sure, ski Mammoth. It’s a great mountain. But for a different sort of experience, don’t miss June.

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Click on the map for a larger version.



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Dear Ski Diva: Which pass is best for me?

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I’m sure all of you have heard about the multi-resort passes that have come on the market for next year. There’s the IKON pass, the Epic Pass, the Mountain Collective Pass, the Peak Pass, and so forth and so on. It’s enough to make your head spin. Well, don’t despair; you’re not alone. Skiers far and wide are tying themselves in knots trying to determine which pass is best for them. Simply put, you need the foresight of Nostradamus and the wisdom of Solomon to sort it all out. Or, you could send a letter to The Ski Diva, because natch, I have all the answers. Here are a few of the many I’ve received:

 

Dear Ski Diva —
I’ve been dating a terrific guy (I’ll call him Chad), and until recently, things have been going great. Chad and I share a lot of the same interests. We both love to eat oatmeal, walk barefoot on gravel roads, and collect vintage Tupperware containers. Even better, we both share a passion for skiing! The problem is that Chad has always been a MAX pass sort of guy and is set on buying the IKON pass. I, on the other hand, love the Mountain Collective resorts and think that’s the way to go. Our discussions are escalating into arguments. Last night, after an especially heated exchange, Chad had his evening bowl of oatmeal without me. I was devastated! What should I do?
Sincerely,
Heartsick in Denver

Dear Heartsick in Denver —
Don’t despair. Mixed relationships can work if you’ll only compromise. Fortunately, both of those passes share a few resorts. For example, both cover Big Sky, Aspen Snowmass, and Jackson Hole, to name a few. If that doesn’t work, you can always take separate ski trips. As they say, absence makes the heart grow fonder!
All the Best,
Ski Diva

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Dear Ski Diva —
I live in New England, and I’m really confused about which multi-resort pass makes the most sense. My best ski friend, Stephanie, says she’ll only ski with me if my pass covers Killington during  Christmas Week. But my oldest friend, Deb, wants us to take a ski trip to Stowe. And my next door neighbor, Jill, says we simply have to ski Mount Snow. Then there’s my annual trip out west. Jennifer, my ex-college roommate, is really pushing for us to go to Vail. But my other friends — Sally, Lauren, and Emily — want us to go to Squaw Alpine Meadows. I feel like I’m being pulled in half a dozen directions! I really don’t enjoy skiing alone and I don’t want to disappoint my friends, so which should it be: IKON, Epic, Mountain Collective, or something else?
Yours in confusion,
Baffled in Boston

Dear Baffled in Boston —
The choice is clear: you need new friends. Ditch ’em all and only ski with those who have the same pass as you. Sure,  it may not be easy at first. And you may have to pay an emotional toll. But it’ll be a heck of a lot easier than to accommodate all those losers who are hinging your relationship on your ski pass.
Happy Trails,
Ski Diva

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Dear Ski Diva —
I’m seriously worried about the future of skiing. All the multi-resort passes are great for skiers’  bank accounts, but what does this mean for the smaller ski areas? What’s the incentive for a skier to go to a smaller, independent resort, if they can purchase an Epic pass and ski multiple resorts for the same amount they’d spend for one? And with Vail and Aspen-KSL having such deep pockets for investment, how can a smaller area survive?
Signed,
Seriously Concerned about Skiing

Dear Seriously Concerned —
I’m worried, too. 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 that didn’t have the resources to survive a bad winter or invest in things like snowmaking or lifts. But that doesn’t mean they should just go away. Smaller areas are great places for beginner skiers and families, and serve as feeder hills for larger resorts like Vail. What’s more, they offer something larger resorts generally lack: a measure of character and community involvement that goes to the heart of what skiing is all about. What’s the answer? Damned if I know. But some of the smaller resorts are banding together to offer their own multi-resort passes of their own. The Denver Post covers some of them here. What can you do? Support your small local area before it’s too late. Because there’s more to a ski area than just dollars and cents.

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Mount Snow: Still going strong at 64.

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When you look into Mount Snow’s history, one of the most interesting things you learn is that its founder, Walter Schoenknecht, petitioned the Atomic Regulatory Commission to detonate an A-bomb on the mountain’s backside to increase its vertical.

This was back during the Cold War, and fortunately for all of us, his request was denied. But that doesn’t minimize the role that Schoenknecht played in creating a lasting legacy in eastern skiing. This year, the mountain celebrates its 64th anniversary. And although it’s been through several owners — Schoenknecht sold it in the early 70’s — Mount Snow been part of the Peak Resorts family since 2007.

Mount Snow is the first major ski resort you hit when you enter Vermont from the south, so its easily accessible from major population centers in the Northeast. But the mountain has more going for it than just proximity. Peak has made significant investments designed to keep people coming back, year after year. Here are a few I learned about during a recent visit:

 

Snowmaking Photo courtesy of Mount Snow

Snowmaking
Photo courtesy of Mount Snow

A new $30 million snowmaking system
Resorts in the east live and die because of snowmaking, and Mount Snow just gave itself an enormous boost with a $30 million upgrade that doubles its previous capacity. This has been years in the making. The mountain constructed an entirely new reservoir, installed a new pumping system complete with 3 pump houses and 18 miles of pipe, and added 220 new higher-efficiency snow guns. The result: a lot more snow, faster and more efficiently. Which means more snow on more trails earlier in the season, and faster recoveries from wild weather swings.

 

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The Blue Bubble
I’m no wuss (well, maybe I am), but riding a lift while being hammered by the wind is not my idea of a good time. The Blue Bubble, otherwise known as the Bluebird Express, has a shield you can pull down for protection from the elements. And yeah, it makes a huge difference. Mount Snow installed its six-pack bubble chair in 2011, and it’s the go-to lift on a blustery day.

 

Carinthia Terrain Park, courtesy of Mount Snow

Carinthia Terrain Park, courtesy of Mount Snow

The best terrain park in the east.
I don’t play in the park, but if I did, this is where I’d come. Newschoolers.com named Mount Snow’s Carinthia Park #1 in the East in 2018, and it’s made top ten lists all over the place ever since it opened in the ’08-’09 season.  The park encompasses 100 total acres of terrain with nine different terrain parks ranging in size from small features to extra-large features, plus a 400+ foot superpipe with 18-foot walls. Mount Snow was cohost of the first Extreme Games in 1995 and host of the Winter X-Games in 2000 and 2001.

 

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New Carinthia Lodge under construction Photo courtesy of Mount Snow

And coming soon, a huge new lodge
If there’s been a shortfall at Mount Snow, it’s in the base lodge department. The main lodge has been around for a long, long time, and truly, it wasn’t built to handle the amount of traffic it gets, particularly during weekends and holidays. Mount Snow is working big time to change this by building a $22 million dollar 42,000 square-foot lodge. Slated to open for the ’18-’19 season, the lodge will have seating for 500 people and house a full-service restaurant, a cafeteria, two bars(!)  and a coffee counter. It’ll also have a rental shop, a tune shop, lift ticket and ski school sales, a retail and convenience store, and bag storage. The area will also feature a new parking garage as well as 102  2-3 bedroom rental units measuring from 1,600 to 2,800 square feet.

Haven’t been to Mount Snow? Here are some stats:

Total acreage: 600
Base elevation: 1,900′
Summit elevation: 3,600′
Vertical drop: 1,700′
Ability level: 16% green, 66% blue, 18% black
Average annual snowfall: 156″
Trails: 86
Lifts: 20
Longest run: 3 miles

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I had a great day skiing Mount Snow. The terrain is lots of fun, the mountain easy to navigate — the blues are in one section of the mountain, the blacks in another, and the terrain park entirely separate —  and the people who work there are friendly and engaged. If you’re looking for a place to ski in southern Vermont, this is it. Give it a try.



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Yes, I love skiing. But here are some things I’d change.

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Let me start by wishing skiing a very Happy Valentine’s Day. Yes, skiing, I love just about everything about you: the activity, the culture, the weather, the scenery. To me, skiing has been a gift that has enriched my life in oh so many ways. Yet true love doesn’t mean unconditional acceptance. You can love something and still recognize its flaws. In fact, the more you love something, the more you want to make it better.

So this week, I thought maybe it was time I took off the rose-colored glasses and addressed some of the issues the ski industry needs to work on. No, I don’t have the answers. These are complicated problems that many people have been puzzling over for years. But as a (very) interested observer, here are some of the things I would change, if only I could:

• Greater affordability, particularly for families: There’s no denying that skiing is expensive. Sure, there are ways to cut costs: ski clubs, buying tickets in advance, ski swaps — all of these can do a lot to make it more affordable.That said, it’s a wonder that anyone can afford to be out on the slopes. At $189, Vail’s walk-up rate is firmly in nose-bleed territory. And while that may be an extreme example, it still demonstrates that the industry is pricing a lot of people out of the sport. When I see a family on the slopes and I think about what they’re paying for lodging, food, gear, lessons, and lift passes, I’m frankly at a loss to know how they do it.

• Better pay and benefits for instructors.* Anyone who takes a lesson knows you pay a pretty hefty price. But what most people don’t realize is that instructors only receive a very small portion of that amount. Typically, instructors are only paid about 10 to 20% of the revenue they generate for major US resorts. Sure, they get perks: the free pass is nice, and they may get discounts for food or gear. But the amount they receive is way out of whack when you look at what’s being charged. *Oh, and while we’re at it, let’s up the pay and benefits for patrollers, too.

• More affordable housing for ski resort employees. The problem with working in a ski town is living in a ski town. The market for high-end vacation homes has made affordable housing nearly impossible to find. So what’s the average liftie/instructor/food service worker to do? Typically, commute in from farther and farther away. You can read a good article about the problem here, but it’s a crisis situation that needs to be addressed.

• More diversity on the slopes:  From 1974 to 2016, the percentage of Americans skiing fell from 25 percent to 17 percent. And while the number of minorities in the country is continuing to rise — by 2060, the US will be a ‘minority majority’ nation — 73% of skiers are white.  What’s more, a key demographic — the Baby Boomers — are aging out. If skiing is going to survive, we need to bring younger, more diverse people into the sport.

• A viable model for smaller, family-friendly resorts. 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. It breaks my heart to see these places close. Small hills play an important part in skiing. These are where many of us get into the sport, and are an important, affordable place for families to play. Keeping these areas going is essential for the life blood of the sport. I’ve written about one solution, Mountain Rider’s Alliance, here. But there need to be others, too.

• And while we’re at it, a little less sexism. This covers a whole lot of ground: everything from relegating women to soft goods sales in ski shops, to only paying attention to women racers who look a certain way, to producing skis in girly colors with flowers and butterflies (thankfully, this is a trend that’s disappearing). It’s simple: Women want to be appreciated as the athletes we are. We don’t want to be talked down to like children or treated as sex objects. The industry has made a fair amount of progress in this, but it still has a long way to go.

 

 

 

 



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How to survive skiing during the holidays.

 

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For a lot of people, Christmas week isn’t complete without skiing. You’re off from work, the fam is together, and besides, you have all those vacation days you have to use up. Nonetheless, this isn’t the easiest time to be out on the mountain. There are loads of like-minded individuals who are going to be there. It may even be your first ski day of the season. And let’s not forget holiday pressure: You WILL have a good time! It’s Christmas! Be HAPPY! But if you’re determined to ski this week, there are a few things you can do to make it more fun:

Start early. I know it’s vacation, but really, the earlier you start, the better the snow and the less crowded the mountain. So while a lot of people are still in bed nursing their hangovers, make an effort to be out when the lifts start spinning. Really, you get out of bed early for work and that’s a heck of a lot less fun. I know you can do it.

Go to a smaller resort. You don’t have to ski the mega resorts to have a good time. Smaller, more off the radar resorts can offer just as much fun, at prices that are a lot more family friendly.

Lock your skis. Don’t let the beautiful surroundings lull you into a false sense of security. Yes, there are some nasty characters around, and yes, they have their eye on your skis. Well, on anyone’s skis for that matter. I can’t fathom how these sleazebags get their jollies making off with someone else’s equipment — it’s sort of the anti-Santa Claus — but somehow they do. Ebay is full of them. So if you’re going into the lodge, lock up your equipment. You’ll save yourself a lot of pain, and maybe put the sleazies out of business.

Bring your lunch. Unless you  have a hankering for a hamburger that tastes like cardboard and is made from God knows what, this is really the way to go. Food at ski resorts doesn’t just taste bad, it can cost a small fortune. So bring your own, save big bucks, and eat a lot healthier.

Eat early. Or late. If you really want to avoid crowds in the cafeteria, eat when others don’t: either way before noon, or way after. Added bonus: you’ll see fewer people on the mountain when everyone else is chowing down.

Try the singles line. It’s a lot faster. Plus, if you need a break from your friends and family, this is definitely the way to go. Besides, you never know who you’ll end up on the lift. Hey, it could be Mikaela Shiffrin under that face mask!

Establish a meet up place in case you get separated. And a meeting time, too. Sure, you can always text one another. But texting’s not always convenient and if you’re like me, you’re not always aware when a text comes in.

Leave plenty of time. For EVERYTHING. Renting equipment, buying lift tickets, parking. It’s all going to take a lot longer, especially if you have kids. Recognize this. Embrace it. Live in the moment. And breathe. Just breathe.

Have Fun. The seems so basic, but a lot of people forget to enjoy themselves, especially since skiing during the holidays can be full of frustrations — the lift lines, the crowds (I don’t need to go on). Realize there are lots of things you can’t control, and decide at the outset that you’re going to have a good day. Your attitude can make a big difference not just in your own enjoyment, but in the enjoyment of people around you. So suck it up, buttercup. Leave your complaints in the car.

Remember, ’tis the season. Peace, love, and good will to all. And happy holidays.



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A chat with Laura Davies, or how to ski 15 countries in one year

Laura backcountry skiing  outside of Cerro Catedral resort in Bariloche, Argentina

Laura backcountry skiing outside of Cerro Catedral resort in Bariloche, Argentina

How many countries have you skied in? One? Two? Maybe, just maybe three or four? What would you say if I told you I’ve come across someone who’s skied in fifteen countries in just one year? Incredible, right? But that’s just what 27-year old Laura Davies did. In August, 2016, Laura did what most of us only dream about: she left a corporate job in Denver, Colorado, and embarked on what anyone would call the ski trip of a lifetime.

I spoke to Laura recently to find out more.

Ski Diva: What an amazing experience! How’d you come up with the idea to ski around the world?
Laura: The idea came from my first international ski trip to Chile in the summer of 2015. By several accounts this was the worst vacation I have ever taken. I went with four friends to ski Portillo and Nevados De Chillan and we experienced disaster after disaster. We got hit by a truck on our first day and totaled our rental car, a friend got her credit cards stolen, every bus we took broke down, and we lost power in our lodging.  Despite all of that, the skiing was decent and I loved it. I liked the challenge of the travel, the excitement of exploring new mountains, and skiing in the middle of summer just makes you feel like a badass. I was hooked.

Ski Diva: Okay, so you like to ski internationally. How did that turn into quitting your job to ski around the world?
Laura: I was sitting at work one day talking to one of my mentors, Ian, about the next step in my career.  I was at a point of transition and needed to decide if I was going to pursue a change to an operations role in my company or go back to business school. I had been raised in Texas and grew up thinking this was the path to success and happiness: stable job, promotions, marriage, children, a house, etc.  Well, guess what? I wasn’t happy on that path and didn’t see that changing with more money or a better house. I needed to do something different.

So, Ian being the awesome person he is, pushed my thinking and said “Well, if you don’t want any of that, what do you want to do?” It took me a second but it finally clicked: I would ski. I would spend my time skiing around the world. And that was it, the trip was born.

Ski Diva: How were you able to do this? I mean, didn’t you have obligations?
Laura: Sure, I had all of the ones you typically have: an apartment, good job, steady life, and a new relationship. As my dad likes to say, life is a series of trade offs.  I traded all of the stability in my life for an around the world adventure.

Don’t let the simplicity of that answer fool you though, it wasn’t an easy decision.  At 28 I was essentially disregarding every responsible expectation of what I should be doing with my life such as buying a house, finding someone to marry, saving for my 401K, etc. Mentally that was a pretty big hurdle to get over but that standard path wasn’t giving me much happiness and I am so thankful I pursued it.

Ski Diva: How did you go about planning your trip?
Laura: I had a white board in my office and for about six months there was a list of months written on the left hand side and I would research where there was consistent snow during each of those months. I would rigorously check snow reports, resort websites, and country tourism sites to see when resorts were opening and how much snow they would have. I also did a lot of research on the Mountain Collective and Epic Pass resorts to try and align the countries with places where I already had a ski pass. By August I had picked my first country and started the clock on the twelve months.

Ski Diva: Sounds like you were pretty laissez faire with a lot of your planning. Did that strategy ever backfire?
Laura: Absolutely. I was a few hours late in submitting my eVisa for India and ended up getting stranded in Amsterdam because I didn’t have the visa code, even though I had a confirmation email to say I had been approved. The visa number would have been provided by the time I landed in India but apparently that wasn’t good enough for the airline so I was stuck. I stayed in an awesome hotel, CitizenM, and was well rested for the long flight. It was stupid but turned out fine.

Another time, I showed up the day the resort closed in South Korea. That was a huge blow; I was really excited to ski where the 2018 Winter Olympics were going to be held. I had just spent two weeks not skiing trying to reduce swelling from my recently torn ACL and had traveled ten hours only to arrive and be told the resort closed early to lack of snow. Great. I spent about two hours crying in my hotel room before determination set in. I grabbed my touring gear the next morning and skinned up the resort to get my run.

When I provide ski trip advice to other people, which I love doing, I try to give them more detail than I use for my own trips. The last minute style isn’t for everyone.

Chamonix, France - Hikers coming down off of Mt. Blanc

Chamonix, France – Hikers coming down off of Mt. Blanc

Ski Diva: Did you go alone? If so, what was that like?
Laura: Yep, at least 95% of the time I was doing this as a solo female. I would occasionally meet up with friends to ski if they were already in the same country, but there were only a handful of times that happened, so most often I was alone.

The majority of the time I found the solo travel invigorating. People, both men and women, were shocked that I was doing such a big undertaking alone and I loved altering their perception of what is possible. I think traveling to ski towns actually made things easier — you have a common love of the mountain you can bond over.

Ski Diva: How many days did you ski in each country?
Laura: To be honest, I didn’t count. I skied one day in Kazakhstan and spent over a month in Switzerland. It really depended on how much I liked the country and how injured I was at the time. I was skiing with a torn ACL, torn meniscus, and a broken wrist for most of this travel. I’m sure I could have gotten more days on mountain if I stayed home and played it safe. Oops.

Gulmarg, India - Looking out over the Himalayas

Gulmarg, India – Looking out over the Himalayas

Ski Diva: Did you go from country to country, or did you return home in between?
Laura: A little bit of both. For my first five trips I was still working, so I would fly out to ski for a week or two and then come back to Denver for work. Starting in January I left my job to ski full time hoping to start in Japan and work my way back west before going to ski Australia and New Zealand.

Due to some unanticipated injuries I did have to fly back to the US for a few weeks in May for a surgery.  The longest I was out of the US continuously was about three and a half months.

Ski Diva: You mention a number of injuries. What happened?
Laura: Unfortunately, two days after I quit my job in January I was skiing the backcountry of Beaver Creek and smashed into a rock. I broke several bones in my wrist and dislocated my hand from my arm.  We had to ski for two hours to safety and then I was put into surgery the next morning. I was supposed to take off on the biggest portion of my trip two days later starting with meeting some friends in Japan to ski. Obviously that didn’t happen.

After surgery I spent six weeks in Colorado rehabbing and was able to fly to India in February to resume my trip. A week after India I was skiing in Kazakhstan and had a binding malfunction on some rental skis and ended up tumbling down the hill and tearing my ACL. I took two weeks to rehab that injury and then skied the rest of the trip in a knee brace. That worked well until the last week of my trip. I had just started down my first heliski run in New Zealand and heard the dreaded pop on the same knee I had a torn ACL. Something else just went… great. I paid a lot to ski so I was determined to finish the rest of the day and even convinced our guide to give us a bonus run since this would be my last time skiing for several months. After that I only skied one more day and flew home to the US for knee surgery.  The surgeons were surprised I was walking, much less skiing.

The Remarkables, New Zeland - The view from the Remarkables resort truly lives up to the name

The Remarkables, New Zeland – The view from the Remarkables resort truly lives up to the name

Ski Diva: Did you find differences in ski culture between the countries that you visited?
Laura: Such a great question and at the core, no.  I think the best part of skiing is going around the world and knowing that no matter where I am, no matter what language someone speaks, we can relate at a base level over our love of mountains and snow. That feeling was at the heart of every mountain town I went to from Banff, Canada, to Almaty, Kazakhstan.

That said, each place I have skied has things that make it unique and different which is what makes me so passionate to continue skiing around the world.  I have a giant ski bucket list that  I developed as a result of this trip. Some of the coolest things I checked off of my list this year were:

  • Partying with Richard Branson in Verbier, Switzerland
  • Heli skiing in July in New Zealand
  • Skiing on an erupting Volcano in Chile
  • Skiing with snow monkeys in Gulmarg, India

Ski Diva: So what were your favorite — or at least your top three — ski areas and why?
Laura: This is everyone’s favorite question. My favorite resort was Gulmarg in Kashmir, India. I think it is an incredibly underrated hidden gem. When I talk to people about skiing internationally they immediately think Japan, but I believe India is the ultimate powder destination. It has just as much snow, 6,000 ft vertical drop terrain, no lift lines, and the whole trip can cost you less than $2,000 including your guide. I liked it so much I even help book trips for the company I used, KLineadventures.

Las Trancas, Chile - Volcanic eruption on the mountain while skiing.

Las Trancas, Chile – Volcanic eruption on the mountain while skiing.

 



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A chat with Kelly Pawlak, new president of the National Ski Areas Association

Kelly Pawlak

Kelly Pawlak

There’s nothing unusual about female ski instructors. And women in resort human resources, marketing, communications, and sales? Common as dirt.

But women general managers are a somewhat rarer breed. According to statistics from the National Ski Areas Association [NSAA], there are only about 20 to 30 nationwide. It’s more or less a boys’ club.

All this is about to change. Because starting in January, the boys’ club will have a woman in charge. Kelly Pawlak, GM of Mount Snow, VT, will become NSAA’s first female President and CEO. NSAA represents 313 alpine ski resorts that count for more than 90 percent of the skier/snowboard visits nationwide, as well as 414 supplier members who provide equipment, goods, and services to the mountain resort industry.

That’s a pretty big responsibility. According to its website, NSAA’s primary objective is to meet the needs of ski area owners and operators nationwide and to foster, stimulate, and promote growth in the industry. To do this, it analyzes and distributes ski industry statistics; produces annual conferences and tradeshows; produces a bimonthly industry publication; and is active in state and federal government affairs. It also provides educational programs and employee training materials on industry issues including OSHA, ADA and NEPA regulations and compliance; environmental laws and regulations; state regulatory requirements; aerial tramway safety; and resort operations and guest services.

I recently spoke to Kelly about her new position.

SD: You’ve been in the ski industry for a long time. How’d you get started?
KP: Quite honestly, it was sort of by accident. When I graduated from college, I realized that if I wanted to ski, I’d have to pay for it, myself. My dad wouldn’t do it anymore. So I looked for a job, found one at Mount Snow, and never left.

SD: You really came up the ranks, too. I understand you held a variety of positions, correct?
KP: Yes, I’ve been there since 1985, and I’ve worked in marketing, sales, operations, events…pretty much everything.

SD: So how has this has helped prepare you for your position at NSAA?
KP: Well, I think it helps me understand some of the needs of the 300-plus member ski areas. Clearly, my expertise is not very strong in the west and midwest, so I have a lot of learning to do there. Luckily, I’m not alone. There’s an extremely qualified staff of about 12 people behind me, so I’m confident that with their assistance, and talking with the folks at the ski areas, retailers, and suppliers, I’ll be a quick study.

SD: Women GM’s are few and far between, and you’re the first female president of NSAA. What are your thoughts on that? Why aren’t there more female execs in the ski industry?
KP: There are more and more women every year. Certainly there aren’t as many as men. But it’s a demanding schedule and it’s a woman’s choice to decide whether or not she wants that lifestyle. I often joke and say that most of my women friends who work in the industry are too smart to take a position like mine because they know the hours I work. I was lucky – I was able to work it out with my husband so I could do this job. He put his career on the back burner for me, and I’m grateful for that.

SD: There are a number of issues facing ski areas today. Off the top of your head, what do you think are the biggest challenges and which do you think you’ll be addressing right away?
KP: The biggest issues are already being addressed by NSAA, but I have two that interest me the most. The first is getting enough people to fill the jobs at ski areas and ski towns. As you know, the hospitality business requires a lot of people to get the job done; it’s not as automated as some other industries, so finding staff is difficult.

SD: I understand  there have been a lot of issues recently regarding  J-1 Visas. [Ed. Note: there are reports that the President is considering axing the program that allows students from all over the world to work U.S. ski area jobs in the name of cultural exchange.]
KP: Exactly. We’re trying to make our legislators understand that if we could fill all the positions with domestic staff, we would, but it’s just not possible. So we support the international staff members.

The other challenge – and we’ve been working on this for years – is bringing new skiers into the sport and retaining them, once they try it. I think this is an area where we need a lot more discovery. We’re going to have to try some new things. Skiing is an amazing opportunity for people and once you’ve tried it and had an enjoyable experience, you’ll want to do it for life. We have to discover what those hurdles are and break them down and make it easy for folks to ski. There’s more work that needs to be done and we’re going to have to be a bit more innovative.

SD: How do you feel about all the consolidations that have been going on in the ski industry?
KP: There are pros and cons, depending on where you are and who you are. It’s not black and white; it’s gray. At Mount Snow, I’ve been part of three different ownerships and each one brought different benefits to the resort. A lot of times when a ski resort changes hands it really motivates other resorts in that demographic to try new things. I know that for Peak Resorts, which owns Mount Snow, buying Hunter Mountain was a really good move because we were able to connect all of our ski areas, so now our skiers could buy our Peak Pass and ski the Poconos, Hunter, and Mount Snow. So in that case, it was excellent for our portfolio.

SD: Consolidations can also make it difficult for the smaller resorts to compete. What can NSAA do to support them?
KP: Besides working with the larger areas, part of my new job will be visiting some of the smaller ski companies so I can better understand their challenges. It’s important to address their needs just as much as the larger ski areas.

SD: I know climate change is another major challenge. That has to be high on your agenda right now, too.
KP: Yes. Again, NSAA has been working on this for many years. There isn’t a ski resort that isn’t focused on sustainability. NSAA is great about sharing knowledge, so every time we can learn about a resort that’s lowering their kilowatt hours or reducing their dependence on diesel air compressors, we share that throughout the industry. What helps one helps us all.

SD: And it seems that so many of them are working on becoming four season resorts, too.
KP: Absolutely. The ski industry is becoming so versatile. We have resorts that do better in the summer than in the winter.

SD: On a personal note, you’ve been living in Vermont for a long time. I suppose you’ll be moving to Colorado now? You’ll have to trade your ice skis in for powder skis.
KP: Exactly! I’m going to have to take some lessons and learn how to ski powder. I’m looking forward to that. But this position does have quite a bit of travel involved, so I still plan to come back east to ski. This time, however, I’ll be a guest so I can do all the things I couldn’t do when I was focused on providing the guest experience at Mount Snow. I’m looking forward to that.

 

 



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What’s it like to ski in June?

I’m the type of person that would ski all year, if I could. Unfortunately, for me that’s not possible. Some Ski Divas, however, are luckier than I am, and are still out making turns, even after Memorial Day. Since it’s something I’ve never done, I asked Ski Diva forum member, Rachel Vecchitto, to give us her take on skiing in June. So take it away, Rachel!

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When I moved out west six years ago, there were lots of reasons I chose Boulder, Colorado: 300+ days of sunshine a year (it’s true!), plenty of jobs in my field, respectable mass transit, and an unbeatable location right at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. If I’m honest with myself, though, the biggest reason I chose Boulder was probably because I’d have easy access to lift-served skiing 9 months a year at Arapahoe Basin.

You can ski into late spring and early summer in more places than you might think. Snowbird and Mammoth stay open as long as they can, which almost always extends their seasons into June and beyond. Whistler and Timberline both have high alpine snowfields that usually stay open for limited skiing and riding all summer long. Few places, though, match A-Basin’s commitment to keeping as much terrain open for as long as they can (the 10,600ft base elevation and north-facing slopes don’t hurt).

I headed up to A-Basin on Saturday, June 3rd, excited for a solid day of late spring skiing and another month of getting out on the snow. Crowds have usually died down by June, and Saturday was no exception. By the time early spring and its surprise snowfalls have passed, everyone except the most dedicated skiers have moved on to mountain biking, climbing and all the other summer activities the mountains have to offer. It’s fantastic; you can roll into the parking lot at a leisurely 10:30AM and not worry about finding a place to park, and you’re sharing the slopes with super enthusiastic skiing superfans who are so psyched to still be out on the snow that it’s impossible not to get caught up in the energy and have a great time.

Excited to still be making lift-served turns in June.

Excited to still be making lift-served turns in June.

Conditions were excellent for so late in the season. A-Basin runs two lifts this time of year, but as summer gets closer the terrain that’s served becomes increasingly limited as snow melts and conditions deteriorate. On June 3rd, though, thanks to a solid early winter and some great late spring snow, just about all of the possible terrain was still open. I was able to ski wide open alpine faces, slushy bumps and soft groomers, pop off a few cornices, and pick my way down playful gullies. When I lived back east I made the pilgrimage to Tuckerman Ravine and took advantage of Killington’s late season operations, but in my experience it’s hard to beat the variety and quality of terrain that A-Basin works so hard to offer in the springtime.

A-Basin in June 2017: a few bare spots surrounded by tons of skiable terrain.

A-Basin in June 2017: a few bare spots surrounded by tons of skiable terrain.

Even at 10,600 ft, the weather is warming up by June, and temperatures from about 50F to 65F are common. I usually wear a light long-sleeved baselayer and a T-shirt, but that’s mostly just because I don’t think there’s enough sunscreen in the world to keep me from frying in the June high alpine sun. Many others are braver than me, and wear bathing suits, tank tops, shorts and all kinds of crazy costumes. My favorite this spring was a skier dressed as a giraffe, playing a vuvuzela. Combined with all the usual springtime skiing trappings — pond skimming, live music, BBQ, tailgating — it’s quite the scene.

June 1, 2017: a crowd cheers on the skiers and riders during their pond skimming attempts.

June 1, 2017: a crowd cheers on the skiers and riders during their pond skimming attempts.

I really do think that A-Basin in the springtime should be on every skier’s bucket list. There’s usually no powder, but you’d be hard-pressed to find an experience that’s more fun, more novel, or more likely to get you counting the days until next season.

 



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Is Consolidation Good or Bad for the Ski Industry?

Unknown-1In recent weeks, the ski world has been rocked by a number of acquisitions: Vail bought Stowe, and then Aspen and KSL Capital Partners formed a partnership that led to the purchase of Intrawest resorts, followed by Mammoth, June, Bear, and Snow Summit.

UnknownConsolidations are nothing new, though they seem to be getting more and more common. Let’s take a look at the biggest, so you understand who owns what (keep in mind, though, that things could change any moment):

Vail Resorts owns Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, and Keystone in Colorado; Heavenly, Northstar and Kirkwood in the Lake Tahoe area of California and Nevada; Park City and Canyons in Utah; Afton Alps in Minnesota; Mt. Brighton in Michigan; and Stowe in Vermont.

Aspen-KSL Capital Partners owns Snowmass, Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk, Winter Park, and Steamboat in Colorado; Alpine Meadows, Squaw Valley, and Mammoth in California; Snowshoe in West Virginia; Blue Mountain in Ontario; Mont Tremblant in Quebec; and Stratton in Vermont.

On the smaller side, there’s Peak Resorts, which owns Alpine Valley, Mad River Mountain, and Boston Mills/Brandywine in Ohio; Attitash, Wildcat, and Crotched in New Hampshire; Hunter Mountain in New York; Jack Frost and Big Boulder in Pennsylvania; Mount Snow in Vermont; Hidden Valley and Snow Creek in Missouri; and Paoli Peaks in  Indiana.

And let’s not forget Boyne Resorts, which owns Big Sky in Montana; Boyne Highlands and Boyne Mountain Resort in Michigan; and Crystal and Summit at Snoqualmie in Washington. Boyne also has long term operating agreements with —but does not own — Brighton in Utah, Cypress Mountain in British Columbia, Loon in New Hampshire, and Sugarloaf and Sunday River in Maine.

Skiing on Aspen Mountain, Aspen, Colorado

Skiing on Aspen Mountain, Aspen, Colorado

So is this good? Is it bad? And what does it mean for skiers?

Depends by what you mean by good and bad. After all, it’s a matter of perspective.

For skiers,  it may mean lower lift prices — at least for now. For example, let’s look at what’s been happening in Vermont. Days after Vail bought Stowe, Killington slashed the price on adult season passes by several hundred dollars, to $899. Sugarbush dropped the price of its early-bird adult season pass from $1,149 to $799, extended discounts to skiers up to age 40, and announced that it would join the Mountain Collective network for the first time. And Stowe became part of Vail’s multi-resort Epic Pass, which means skiers will pay less than half of the $1,860 Stowe charged for its adult pass rate this season.

There are other benefits, too. Ski areas are capital intensive, and the deep pockets of large corporations 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 the resorts into four-season destinations — which is critical for their survival in the face of climate change. What’s more, a growing roster of mountains under multi-resort passes, like the Epic pass  or the Mountain Collective Pass, gives skiers greater access to some of the best skiing in the world. Nothing wrong with that.

But still, I’m conflicted. 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, Aspen-KSL and Vail are doing well now. But a bad year could cause problems not just at the Mother Ship, but at all their resorts, across the board. What’s more — and this applies to Vail, a publicly traded company — there’s a responsibility to shareholders to continually improve its bottom line. And this doesn’t always engender practices that are to customers’ liking. For example, If Vail decides to increase its lift prices, 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? Finally, will the emphasis become less on skiing and more on real estate development, retail, and off-slope amenities?

I’m also worried about the tremendous influence these large companies have in the ski world. Whatever Vail or Aspen 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 and Aspen 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 consolidated resorts? 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 smaller areas compete is Mountain Riders Alliance. MRA is involved in forging partnerships with community ski areas to help them become sustainable, community-oriented playgrounds that focus more on skiing than on real-estate development. I interviewed Jamie Schectman, one of MRA’s co-founders, here.  He has an interesting perspective that’s worth checking out.

So what does the future hold?

Don’t expect to see many changes for ’17/’18. The Intrawest resorts will honor current passes for next season, including the Rocky Mountain Super Pass and the MAX pass. And according to Mike Kaplan, Aspen Skiing’s president and CEO, there are no immediate plans to change lift ticket prices or amenities at any of the acquired resorts.

Longer term, things could get interesting. But it certainly makes you wonder who’s next in the acquisition line-up. Jackson Hole? Crested Butte? Telluride? Sun Valley? Will Aspen-KSL and Vail make further inroads into the East? And what about the smaller groups, like Powdr or Boyne? If Intrawest can be acquired, can one of these be purchased, too? Will we eventually be left with just two ski companies?

One thing’s a pretty safe bet: We haven’t seen the end of this trend. Stay tuned for more…….

 



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Announcing TheSkiDiva’s Best of the Year: Our 2017 Mountain Top Picks

It’s the season for awards. This past weekend the US Ski Hall of Fame inducted its Class of 2016, which included three women: Ellen Post Foster, Marion Post Caldwell, and Gretchen Rous Besser (for more about them and the other inductees, go here). Congratulations, one and all.

MTP-2017But that’s not the only award that’s being handed out right now. Because at TheSkiDiva, we’ve come up with our Mountain Top Picks — our selections of the best of the best in skiing for the past year. Sure, there’s no fancy-dancy ceremony, no gold statuette, and no certificate with ornate Latin script. And no, you won’t see any celebrities posing on a red carpet with paparazzi taking pics. Instead, our winners just get the satisfaction of knowing they’re a favorite of all of us at TheSkiDiva.com — which by itself, is pretty darn cool. And yes, they can even use the logo here, if they want. S’okay.

So now, for your reading pleasure, here are TheSkiDiva.com’s Mountain Top Picks for 2017:

[Drum roll here]

Ski Gear
Favorite ski for groomers: Volkl Kenja
Favorite ski for deep snow: Nordica Santa Ana
Favorite all mountain ski: Blizzard Black Pearl
Favorite ski boot brand: Lange
Favorite Ski Goggle: Smith IO/S*
Favorite Helmet Brand: Smith Vanage

H16-VAMBLGMIPS

Favorite Helmet Brand: Smith Vantage Helmet

Ski Apparel
Favorite Brand of Baselayers:  Smartwool
Favorite Brand of Socks: Smartwool*
Favorite Jacket Brand: The North Face
Favorite Brand of Ski Pants: Arc’teryx*

Favorite Base Layer: Smartwool

Smartwool Base Layer

Ski Resorts
Favorite Eastern Resort: Sugarbush
Favorite Western Resort: Mammoth
Favorite Resort, eastern Canada: Mont Tremblant*
Favorite Resort, western Canada: Whistler-Blackcomb*
Favorite European Resort: St. Anton
Favorite Women’s Clinic: Okemo Mountain Resort
Favorite Kids Program: Smugglers Notch

Favorite Eastern Resort: Sugarbush

Sugarbush

*Second win in a row! For a list of our 2015 Mountain Top Picks, go here.

Congratulations to all!



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