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The Storm Skiing Podcast is an interview series exploring the business, history, and culture of skiing in the Northeastern United States. Subscribe to The Storm Skiing Journal Newsletter at

Stuart Winchester

    • Nov 28, 2022 LATEST EPISODE
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    Podcast #108: Vail Mountain Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Beth Howard

    Play Episode Listen Later Nov 28, 2022 75:56

    To support independent ski journalism, please consider becoming a free or paid subscriber. This podcast hit paid subscribers' inboxes on Nov. 28. It dropped for free subscribers on Dec. 1. To receive future pods as soon as they're live, please consider an upgrade to a paid subscription.WhoBeth Howard, Vice President and General Manager of Vail Mountain, ColoradoRecorded onNovember 14, 2022About Vail MountainClick here for a mountain stats overviewOwned by: Vail ResortsPass affiliations: Epic PassLocated in: Vail, ColoradoClosest neighboring ski areas: Beaver Creek (20 minutes), Copper Mountain (23 minutes), Ski Cooper (42 minutes), Keystone (42 minutes), Loveland (43 minutes), Arapahoe Basin (47 minutes), Breckenridge (50 minutes) - travel times may vary considerably in winter and heavy traffic.Base elevation: 8,120 feetSummit elevation: 11,570 feetVertical drop: 3,450 feetSkiable Acres: 5,317* Front Side: 1,655 Acres* Back Bowls: 3,017 Acres* Blue Sky Basin: 645 AcresAverage annual snowfall: 354 inchesTrail count: 276 (53% advanced/expert, 29% intermediate, 18% beginner)Lift count: 32­­ (one 12-passenger gondola, one 10-passenger gondola, 4 six-packs, 14 high-speed quads, 1 fixed-grip quad, 2 triples, 1 T-bar, 3 platters, 5 carpets)Why I interviewed herI articulated this as well as I could a couple months ago, in an article about Vail Resorts' decision to limit lift ticket sales for the coming ski season:It was a notion quaint and earnest. Simplistic but no less authentic. To start with Vail would have seemed presumptuous. This American place most synonymous with skiing. Three-sided and endless, galloping back into valleys, super-fast lifts shooting in all directions. I wanted to be ready. To feel as though I'd earned it.My first trip West was in 1995. But I did not ski Vail until 2004. In our megapass-driven, social-media-fueled moshpit of a present, I doubt anyone thinks this way anymore. Vail is a social-media trophy – go seize it. But I proceeded slowly to the big time. Primed on Midwest bumps, anything would have seemed enormous. First, the rounds of Summit County. Then Winter Park. As though skiing were a videogame and I could not pass to the higher levels until I'd completed those that came before.  And then there it was. That first time standing over Sun Down Bowl, the single groomed path winding toward High Noon below. Eleven thousand feet over Colorado. Sliding down the ridges. Powder everywhere. Back to Blue Sky. Laps all day through unmarked glades. Refills from the sky even though it was April. Three thousand feet of up and down. The enormous complexity of it all. The energy. That impossible blend of wild and approachable.Vail Mountain and – on that same trip – Beaver Creek, were exactly what I needed them to be: the aspirational summit of America's lift-served skiing food chain. The best mountains I'd ever skied. I won't say it was The Experience of a Lifetime. But it was the best five days of skiing that I had, up to that point, ever done.I'm not sure what else I can add to that. Vail Mountain sits at the summit of American lift-served skiing. Yes I know, Backflip Bro: the terrain is not as Rad-Gnar as Snowbird or Jackson Hole or Taos or Palisades Tahoe or Big Sky. It does not get as much snow as Alta or Baker or Wolf Creek or Kirkwood. It does not minimize and mitigate crowds like Telluride or Aspen or Sun Valley.But Vail Mountain stands out even on that hall-of-fame lineup. Five thousand-plus acres of approachable terrain seated directly off the interstate. The Big Endless: 18 high-speed chairlifts, the Back Bowls™, a bit of rowdy and wild back in Blue Sky, a frenetic base village. If any mountain in Vail Resorts' sprawling, intercontinental empire is almost guaranteed to deliver The Experience of a Lifetime™, it's the namesake OG of them all: Vail Mountain. Even after all the growth and change and the Epic Pass atom bomb, Vail Mountain remains one of the greatest ski areas in North America.It's also a personal favorite of mine, and one that I've been eager to feature on the podcast since I expanded The Storm's focus from the Northeast to the entire country last year.What we talked aboutOpening weekend at Vail Mountain; staying open until May in 2022 and whether the ski area could do it again; marking Vail's 60th anniversary; Vail's founders; building the mountain and the town from raw wilderness; Vail in the ‘80s; Afton Alps; transitioning from food-and-bev to resort leadership; a Colorado-Tahoe comparison; what it means for Vail Mountain to share the Vail Resorts masthead with Whistler; going deep on the Game Creek Express upgrade and the new Sun Down Express lift; how Vail decides between a four- or six-place lift, and why Game Creek got the promotion to sixer; the future of fixed-grip lifts on Vail Mountain; why it was finally time to build the long-proposed Sun Down lift, and how that will change the ski experience and flow around the mountain; how this happened at High Noon Express (in February 2020), and how unusual it was:How Sun Down may help prevent a repeat; why Vail built Sun Down before the proposed Mongolia Express outlined in the resort's master plan (see below); thinking through the future of the Eagle Bahn gondola; a potential future portal at West Lionshead and the sorts of lifts we could see there; how Pride Express could evolve up and down the mountain; how the Cascade Village lift could better serve day skiers; the potential for terrain expansion in Blue Sky Basin; the growth and future of snowmaking on Vail Mountain; housing drama with the town at East Vail; why Vail rejected the town's $12 million offer for the land; how Vail's housing market has devolved to crisis levels over the decades; what other towns are doing to fix housing and whether any of that could work at Vail; the evolution of two housing markets – one for locals and one at market rate; the potential for Ever Vail; reaction to $275 walk-up lift tickets; and the factors that will go into setting lift ticket limits each day this season.   Why I thought that now was a good time for this interviewI've already written extensively about the valiant and courageous VAIL SHEEP DEFENDERS, an elite squadron whose mission is to ensure that local bighorns only have to poop next to rich people. In May, this group of nincompoops – the Vail Town Council – voted to condemn land where Vail Resorts planned to build 165 beds of worker housing on six acres of a 23-acre parcel (the remainder was to be set aside for bighorn habitat). Vail, which had already spent years permitting the project with the previous council, pushed back, and now the whole disaster has been swallowed by the courts, where it will likely remain for years.Meanwhile, the VAIL SHEEP DEFENDERS somehow missed the groundbreaking on, among other properties, a nearly $8 million, 5,700-square-foot mansion rising on that same bighorn habitat. This image – provided by Vail Resorts – distills the absurdity of the whole thing pretty well:In September, I chatted about this with Colorado Sun reporter Jason Blevins, who has lived in Eagle County for decades. He had a much more nuanced view:“Both sides have completely valid arguments here. Vail Resorts needs housing. They have the property, they went through three years of planning with the previous council to win all the approvals to develop this thing. They created a bighorn sheep management plan … Election came, new council came in, and that new council is more inclined to protect that herd than accommodate with housing. They've offered the company different spots in the valley where they could build. But the process has progressed, and it's along, and Vail is ready to pretty much break ground right now …“Yes, this is about bighorn. That council 100 percent supports the bighorn herd, and in their heart of hearts they are working to protect the bighorn. … And those bighorn have been there longer than us, and this is their winter habitat. They unquestionably come down in the winter … along the highway there.”The whole situation, Blevins told me, is reminiscent of the Telluride Valley Floor drama in the late ‘90s, in which the town and a developer took a land dispute all the way to the Colorado Supreme Court (read the court's full decision here). The town ended up paying $50 million to acquire the land. “Think of all the housing you could have build with $50 million in the early 2000s,” Blevins said.Unfortunately, Blevins said, “this one is lining up to follow that track. Could this fight go all the way to the Supreme Court? Could the town of Vail end up having a public fundraising campaign with rich residents giving money to support sheep habitat? Will it go that far? With the complaint filed last week, it certainly appears as though this is going to be a protracted legal battle that will end up costing the town millions and millions of dollars if they buy it from Vail Resorts. And the end result is no more new housing. So the true losers on this are the people in this town who need a place to sleep and live in that town.”  You can listen to our full exchange on this topic, including a long discussion of the elusive NIMBY, starting at 56:50:So the housing drama made the pod timely. But so did the fact that Vail is installing two new chairlifts and celebrating its 60th anniversary. So did the fact that its peak-day lift tickets just hit $275. Really though, I wasn't sitting around waiting for an excuse to talk about Vail. It's Vail. One of the greatest ski areas in America. It's always interesting, always relevant. It's one of a handful of ski areas that evokes skiing whether you ski 100 days a year or never. Aspen, Telluride, Vail. The podcast was built to score interviews like this: a big-time mountain seated at the heart of our collective lift-served skiing experience. Enjoy.Questions I wish I'd askedI would have liked to have explored the impacts of the mountain town housing crisis on employees and the environment a bit more deeply. What does it mean to have a 50- or 60-mile commute through one of America's most extreme wintertime environments? How does such a setup further exacerbate the I-70 traffic that everyone so loathes? How sustainable and safe is this whole ecosystem?Last year, Vail Resorts, Alterra, Boyne Resorts, and Powdr – America's four largest ski area operators – launched “the ski industry's first unified effort to combat climate change with shared commitments around sustainability and advocacy.” These efforts include portfolio-wide shifts to renewable energy sources, climate advocacy, and “responsible” stewardship of the environment. All admirable and necessary steps toward creating sustainable 21st century businesses.However. I would propose an additional pillar to this joint pledge: these operators must commit to working with local, state, and national governments to encourage building density, expand mass transit, and limit individual car use wherever possible within the mountains.It is not just the ski area operators that are missing this. We built modern U.S. America on the premise of unlimited land and unlimited individual, anytime mobility. But this model does not scale up very well. When Congress passed the Interstate Highway Act in 1956, the nation had 156 million residents. It now has around 338 million. Interstate 70 through the Colorado Rockies is a miracle of engineering and one of the most beautiful roads in the world. But this thoroughfare, combined with poor regional planning and a U.S. American mentality that thinks you can shape the Colorado High Country in the same fashion as suburban Atlanta, have delivered Los Angeles-caliber traffic to the otherwise pristine high alpine.This is not sustainable. It was a dumb way to build a country. Sprawl and our car-centric culture are environmental and human disasters, the invisible antagonists to all our high-minded climate goals. Ski area operators and the municipalities they operate in have an incredible opportunity to showcase a different sort of America: a transit-oriented, weather-resilient, human-centered built ecosystem in which employees walk or ride a bus (or, God help us, a gondola) to work from hubs close to or on the mountain; the great mass of skiers arrive via transport other than a personal vehicle; and a Saturday on Interstate 70 does not resemble a wartime evacuation.For those of you fearful that this means Manhattan-in-the-mountains, that's not what I'm proposing here. Nor am I suggesting a Zermatt-style ban on individual automobiles. Just a better transit and housing mix so people who don't want the expense and hassle of wintertime commuting can avoid it. We actually have a pretty good model for this: the college town. Most students live, without cars, in dorms on or close to campus. Free and frequent shuttlebuses port them around town. A dense and walkable university center gives way to successive waves of less-dense housing, for more established employees or those with families. Some commuting occurs, but it is minimal. The university is a self-contained world that absorbs as much impact as it can from the problems it creates by concentrating many humans on a small footprint.The fact that the Town of Vail cannot accommodate 165 humans on 23 acres of land is pathetic. Their willingness to invest $12 million into ensuring people cannot live on this parcel crystalizes how unserious they are, long term, about creating a more sustainable, livable Vail. Rather than fighting Vail Resorts, the town ought to be partnering with them – as the previous council did on permitting this project – to see if the company could shrink the six acres down to three or four, and bump the 165 beds up 30 or 40 percent, with select units reserved for employees who agree to live car-free and use a shuttle system instead. The town's current, combative posture is only going to push the employees that could have lived in East Vail farther out into the mountains and into daily, likely solo commutes in a car, all of which will further degrade the mountain environment the town claims to treasure. This project could have been a model for cooperation and imaginative development. Instead, it's turned into a spectacle, a disappointment, the most predictable and U.S. American thing imaginable.   What I got wrongI pronounced Vail Mountain founder Pete Siebert's name as “See-bert,” rather than “Cy-ber.” We also discussed Vail Mountain's remaining fixed-grip lifts, putting that total at just one. However, the ski area still has three fixed-grip chairlifts: the Cascade Village quad, the Gopher Hill triple rising out of Vail Village, and the Little Eagle triple at the top of Eagle's Nest.Why you should ski Vail MountainThere's a lot of pressure on Vail Resorts' flagship. While it's fairly easy to get to and navigate, Vail Mountain, for most skiers, is big, far, and exotic; a thing of myth, considered with reverence; less vacation destination than fantasy. It's work to get there, and no one wants to work without reward. Ride to your New England or Wisconsin or North Carolina local on a Saturday, and you'll cope with whatever mess they came up with. Arrive at Vail, and you expect the best skiing of your life.Vail can give you that. Yes, I know, Wasatch Bro, “Vail is great. Everyone should go there.” Sick burn, Bro. Original and hilarious. I'm not saying it's better than Utah or Tahoe or Aspen or Winter Park, but I am saying that the skiing at Vail Mountain is usually very good, often spectacular, rarely bad. It is big enough that there are always uncrowded bits somewhere. And since such a large percentage of the skiers here are tourists, and since most tourists are allergic to anything off-piste – and since only a small percentage of a 5,317-acre resort can be groomed at any one time – you can ride the ungroomed all day, most days, in relative isolation (meaning you're not speed-checking every four seconds at Fort Meyers Freddy arcs edge-to-edge turns over the fall line).I've often wondered how many skiers there are on Vail Mountain on any given Saturday. They won't tell me, but I'm guessing it's the population of a small city – 30,000 people? While the sorts of liftline nightmares profiled above do occasionally happen, they are, as Blevins (a Vail local) said in our interview, pretty rare, and pretty short-lived. The ski area moves people around really well.Everyone should ski Vail Mountain at least once. There is a sense of awe in being there. It is one of the best pure ski areas on the continent. Great terrain for (nearly) all abilities (sorry Backflip Bro, but you can hike over to East Vail). A terrific little town. Easy to get into and out of (off peak, at least). Affordable if you have enough sense to purchase an Epic Pass in advance. There are bigger and emptier and snowier ski areas out there, but Vail is going to give most skiers just about everything they want and a lot more than they need. The high expectations are earned, and, nearly always, met.Podcast NotesHoward and I talked quite a bit about elements of Vail Mountain's 2018 masterplan. Here's where new lifts could run on the frontside:And here's where they could run on the backside. You can also see potential new trails in Blue Sky Basin and Teacup Bowl:Vail is also aggressively building out snowmaking on the front of the mountain. Here's what that system could look like at full build-out:The Storm publishes year-round, and guarantees 100 articles per year. This is article 127/100 in 2022, and number 373 since launching on Oct. 13, 2019. Want to send feedback? Reply to this email and I will answer (unless you sound insane). You can also email Storm explores the world of lift-served skiing year round. Join us. Get full access to The Storm Skiing Journal and Podcast at

    Podcast #107: Leitner-Poma of America President Daren Cole

    Play Episode Listen Later Nov 23, 2022 71:10

    To support independent ski journalism, please consider becoming a free or paid subscriber. This podcast hit paid subscribers' inboxes on Nov. 23. It dropped for free subscribers on Nov. 26. To receive future pods as soon as they're live, please consider an upgrade to a paid subscription.WhoDaren Cole, President of Leitner-Poma of AmericaRecorded onNovember 10, 2022About Leitner-Poma of AmericaHere's the website boilerplate:Leitner-Poma of America offers a complete line of cable transport systems, including surface lifts, chairlifts, gondolas, MiniMetro® urban transport, trams, inclined elevators, and industrial trams.And this, which makes me go cross-eyed:Leitner-Poma of America, Inc. is a North American subsidiary of Poma S.A., a corporation with headquarters in Voreppe, France and a sister company of Leitner AG, a corporation with headquarters in Sterzing, Italy. Leitner–Poma of America engineers, manufactures, installs and services all types of ropeway systems for the ski industry, amusement parks, and urban transport.Cole and I sort through all of this on the podcast. What you need to understand though is that Leitner-Poma is basically one half of the U.S. ski-lift industry. The company also owns Skytrac, which only builds fixed-grip lifts. The other half of the industry is Doppelmayr, though saying “half” is not exactly correct: Doppelmayr claims more market share than Leitner-Poma. Other companies also claim a handful of lift projects most years - MND is building Waterville Valley's new six-pack, for example, and Partek is building the new Sandy quad at Saddleback.Why I interviewed himThe Storm is built around a very specific ethos: that machines are good, and that we should allow them to transport us to mountaintops. I respect and admire Uphill Bro. If I lived in the mountains, perhaps I would be him. But I do not and I am not. I am a tourist. Always and everywhere. I want to arrive to an organized experience. Uphilling is too much work, too much gear, too much risk for my coddled city soul.And so I ride lifts, and I've very specifically focused this newsletter and podcast on the world of lift-served skiing. This is the disconnect between 99 percent of skiers and 99 percent of ski writers. The former live in cities and suburbs and ski Seven Springs three to eight days per year and take a weeklong trip to Park City in February. The latter live in ski towns and hunt the novel by trade, normalizing the fringe. And while I enjoy the occasional Assault Mission recap of the skin up Mount Tahoe Grizzly Ridge, I don't really care (though I do enjoy following - and highly recommend - the WFG on Twitter or I care about is The Machine: how is this sprawling, tangled world of lift-served skiing continuously morphing into the wintertime realms of the 21st century, in which a relatively unchanging number of ski areas must accommodate a megapass-driven increase in skiers armed with rectangular megaphones capable of instantly broadcasting #LiftFails to Planet Earth's 5 billion internet users? How will an industry still spinning a not-immaterial number of Borvig, Hall, Riblet, and Yan lifts that pre-date the invention of written language modernize without bankrupting the hundreds of family-owned ski areas that still dot the continent? How far can technology push these simple but essential machines, and how high can that technology push their pricetags? How far can ski areas tap them to suck skiers out of the base before they multiply, Midwest cityhill-style, like ants across the mountain and create something more dangerous than congested liftlines – congested, and perilous, trails?This podcast does not really answer any of those questions, though all are recurring themes within The Storm. Instead, it acts as a primer on what is essentially one half of the U.S. ski industry: what is Leitner-Poma (and how, for God's sake, do you pronounce it)? What do they build, and where and how? Why are ski areas building so many lifts all of a sudden, and why are those projects encountering so many and so varied delays, from labor shortages to supply chain knots to permitting issues to locals rocking their pitchfork-and-bag-of-rotten-tomatoes NIMBY starter kits to town meetings? Is all this construction sustainable, and can Leitner-Poma and their main competitor, Doppelmayr, adapt to this demand and streamline their processes to forestall future construction delays?Lift design, construction, and installation is a fascinating, complicated world tucked into - and a fundamental component of - the fascinating, complicated world of lift-served skiing. And it is evolving as fast as skiing itself. Here's a peek inside.What we talked aboutThe wild and unexpected travel routes of an old-school salesman for Purgatory-Durango ski resort; working for Vail Associates in the Arrowhead/pre-Summit County days; Wild West days at Crested Butte; the insane, rapid evolution of the U.S. lift industry; the days when you could order a lift in August and have it spinning by Christmas; how Covid changed the lift game; when you take over a giant company just before a global pandemic; U.S.A.!; the legacies Leitner and Poma, and why the companies merged in 2000; Grand Junction as old-school ski hub and why it's a great place for manufacturing; how the Leitner-Poma subsidiary-parent company relationship works between Europe and America; Direct Drive; U.S. America hates mass transit; “a chairlift or a gondola is essentially an electric vehicle”; what it will take to spur greater urban lift development in America; what Leitner-Poma of America (LPOA) builds in Grand Junction, and what's imported from Europe; why LPOA bought Skytrac; expansion time; why the fixed-grip lift persists in our era of bigger-faster-better; how long can America's antique lift fleet last?; what may finally push independent ski areas rocking ancient Halls and Riblets to upgrade; a record year for LPOA; the changing culture around chairlift permits; breaking down the delays in Jackson Hole's Thunder lift as a mirror for lift-installation delays around the country; why haul ropes aren't made in America, and whether they could be; “at the end of the day, I own those delays”; building a better supply chain; are two-year lift builds the future?; labor shortages and building a better place to work; examining the lifts that are on time and why; building the Palisades Tahoe Base-to-Base Gondola; the differences between building on an all-new liftline versus building a replacement lift; how LPOA, the ski area, and the ski area planner work together to decide which lifts to put where; the return of the high-speed quad; and designing a better 2023 lift-construction season.Why I thought that now was a good time for this interviewWe are witnessing one of the busiest lift-construction seasons in modern times: 66 new or relocated lifts are rising across North America, according to Lift Blog. Some monsters, too: new gondolas at Palisades Tahoe, Whistler, and Steamboat; eight-packs at Boyne Mountain and Sunday River; 13 high-speed six-packs. Here's an overview of the 25 (or 26, if you insist) lifts that Leitner-Poma of America and its subsidiary, fixed-grip specialists Skytrac, are building:Cole joined Leitner-Poma of America in 2014. The company built six lifts that year (Skytrac, then an independent company, built another six). Scaling up any business is challenging, but scaling up amidst a re-ordering of the global economy and geopolitical environment, and in the midst of a pandemic, is flipping the game to MAXIMUM CHALLENGE mode.The modern world is both miraculous and mysterious. Where does all this crap come from? An incomprehensible network of mines and foundries and factories and warehouses and tools and vehicles and fuel and laborers and engineers and designers transform the raw materials of planet Earth into medicine and chairs and soccer balls and televisions and Broncos and yard furniture and suitcases and Thule boxes and Hanukkah candles and plastic dinosaurs and Optimus Prime toys. And chairlifts. A book documenting that journey would be an atlas of modern life and this spinning ball it occupies. It would also expose the enormous risks and faults in this impossibly far-flung system, and how a haul rope spun out of a European factory can impact construction on a lift rising up a Wyoming mountainside.Questions I wish I'd askedCole said that LPOA had re-sourced all the materials it had been getting in China to U.S. suppliers. I should have followed up to get a clearer understanding of why the company pulled out of China, and which parts had been flowing from that country.What I got wrong* In our discussion of urban gondola networks and whether we could ever see one in the United States, I pointed to how well existing systems had worked in “South America, Central America, and Mexico.” While such networks exist throughout South America (in Colombia, Bolivia, and Venezuela), and Mexico, none yet exist in Central America, as far as I can tell. While such systems have been proposed for Panama and Honduras, the one that appears closest to approval is an 8.9-kilometer, 11-station network in Guatemala City that would be built by Doppelmayr.* I stated that only seven of New York's 51 ski areas ran high-speed chairlifts. The correct number is eight: Belleayre (1), Windham (4), Hunter (3), Gore (2), Whiteface (1), Holiday Valley (4), Bristol (2), and Holimont (1).* I pronounced the name of the company as “Lee-tner-Poma” several times throughout the interview. I actually butchered it so bad that I re-recorded Cole's introduction – during which I included the name four times – after we spoke. Sorry dudes.Podcast NotesCole, in discussing his time with what was then known as “Vail Associates,” referred to the “Arrowhead days.” This is a reference to what is now the Arrowhead section of Beaver Creek, but was for a short time in the 1980s and ‘90s a separate ski area. Here's the 1988 trailmap:The modern Beaver Creek retains some of the old trailnames on what tends to be a very empty part of the resort:Additional thoughts on urban gondolasIt took about four seconds from the invention of the chairlift for engineers to realize they could attach a little house to the overhead cable instead of a chair. Tada: the gondola. Let's go skiing.But a gondola, it turns out, is a pretty efficient means of transit just about anywhere. It just took the world a while to realize it. Since 2014, La Paz, the high-altitude (12,000 feet!) Bolivian capital city, has built a massive gondola network stringing together its far-flung districts:While Mi Teleférico – as the system is known – was not the world's first urban gondola system, it is the first to consist solely of cable cars – other systems complement trains or buses. It is also the longest and most extensive. And it is getting longer – at full buildout, the system could consist of 11 lines and 30 stations. The only thing more astonishing than the speed with which this network has materialized is how incredibly inexpensive it has been to build: puts the total cost of the 11-line network at around $1.4 billion. For comparison's sake, New York City's three-station expansion of the Q subway line, which opened in 2017, ran $4.5 billion.Gondolas are relatively cheap, efficient, environmentally friendly, and insanely easy to build compared to new roads or rails. Which of course means U.S. Americans are terrified of them. It's true that the nation, as a whole, is allergic to mass transit, preferring to tool around in 18-wheel-drive F-950s. Fighting anything new is the U.S. American way (where were these NIMBYs when we were punching interstate highways through city centers in the 1950s?). But generations raised in the backs of minivans seem especially horrified by gondolas. The hysteria around the proposed Little Cottonwoods gondola – which would substantially mitigate atrocious powder-day and weekend traffic on a road that probably never should have been built to begin with – is indicative of U.S. American reaction toward non-ski gondolas in general. Everywhere such systems – or even simple, two-station lines – are proposed, they meet instant and widespread resistance.There are practical reasons why the U.S. has not yet developed an urban gondola network: most of our cities are too sprawling to tie together with anything other than surface transportation (i.e. buses). La Paz, the Bolivian model city cited above, is hilly and tight, laced with narrow webs of centuries-old roads that would be difficult to widen. But there are places such systems would make sense, either as standalone networks or as complements to existing train-and-bus lines: Chicago, Portland (Oregon), New York City, many college towns. A forthcoming gondola connecting a Paris suburb to the city's metro, soaring over a “hellish carscape” of highways, demonstrates the potential here.Any such proposal in U.S. America, however, will have to overcome the reflexive opposition that will attend it. In Utah, Little Cottonwood gondola proponents are fighting a basket of idiotic arguments ranging from aesthetic concerns over the height of the towers (as though a car-choked paved road is not atrocious) to indignance over taxpayer funding for the machine (as though tax dollars don't build roads) to warped arguments that mass transit is somehow elitist (instead insisting that we all need personal vehicles equipped with $1,000 sets of winter tires). It's all a little pathetic. And that's for a simple, three-station line way up in the mountains. Just wait until some Portland resident launches a Save Our Cats campaign because a rider in a passing gondola car might glimpse Fluffy pissing in her litterbox.I'm cynical, but Cole, fortunately, is far more optimistic and diplomatic, suggesting that it will really only take one successful instance of a non-ski, non-tourist-attraction gondola for the notion to take hold in America. I hope he's right.The Storm explores the world of lift-served skiing year round. Join us.The Storm publishes year-round, and guarantees 100 articles per year. This is article 126/100 in 2022, and number 372 since launching on Oct. 13, 2019. Want to send feedback? Reply to this email and I will answer (unless you sound insane, which, given the Little Cottonwood take above, I fully expect). You can also email This is a public episode. If you'd like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit

    Podcast #106: Boyne Resorts President and CEO Stephen Kircher

    Play Episode Listen Later Nov 22, 2022 116:19

    To support independent ski journalism, please consider becoming a free or paid subscriber. This podcast hit paid subscribers' inboxes on Nov. 21. It dropped for free subscribers on Nov. 24. To receive future pods as soon as they're live, please consider an upgrade to a paid subscription.WhoStephen Kircher, President and CEO of Boyne ResortsRecorded onNovember 9, 2022About Boyne ResortsBoyne Resorts owns 10 ski resorts, a scenic chairlift, and a bunch of hotels and golf courses that you can read about in my other newsletter, The Storm Golfing Journal. Here's an overview of the stuff we're covering here:Why I interviewed himSkiing, as a business, is ruthless. More failures than triumphs. More ghosts than living souls. Like humanity itself, I suppose. Enough corpses exist to create a knucklehead talking point for anyone doubting the long-term viability of, for example, Vail Resorts. They just point to the graveyard and say, “Well what about American Skiing Company? What about SKI? What about Intrawest?”Well, D*****s, what about Boyne? Founded 74 years ago on a Michigan hillside and now a 10-resort, continent-spanning titan, Boyne Resorts is the Ford Motor Company of skiing. Imagine old Everett Kircher, chomping a cigar and riding eight-foot-long skis down Hemlock, a good-old-boy of the Michigan backwoods, getting a load of Boyne Resorts 2022, with its arsenal of megalifts and Ikon Pass access tags all blippity-blinging on the social medias. It would shock him no less than Henry Ford stepping out of his 1903 workshop and stumbling upon a plugged-in F-150 Lightning with satellite radio and $100,000 pricetag.Both of these companies started a long time ago as something very different and evolved into something very Right Now. This is what good companies do, and what almost no companies actually manage over time. See: Kodak, Blockbuster, K-Mart failing to envision digital film, streaming, ecommerce. Boyne Resorts is the longest-running multi-mountain ski company in North America, and possibly in the world. Why? They adapted. Part of their evolution, as Stephen and I discuss in this podcast, was persistence through the near-bankruptcy of key properties in past decades. Part of it was having the vision to build a scenic chairlift in, of all places, Gatlinburg, Tennessee in the 1950s. Part of it was relentless investment in snowmaking. Part of it was a pivot to showmanship and experience. And part of it was dumb luck and timing. There's no single reason why Boyne Resorts has survived and evolved for 74 years, and there's no guarantee that anyone else could exactly replicate their model. But Boyne Mountain, the company's namesake and original resort, is one of the last ski areas in the country to persist under its original ownership. There's a lot we can learn from that fact, and from what Boyne Resorts did in the years since their original mountain's founding to keep the thing from becoming another wintertime phantom.What we talked aboutBoyne's system-wide commitment to the long season; Boyne Resorts' many and varied 2022 lift projects; Sunday River's massive growth potential and how the Jordan 8 will serve that; “people don't understand the idea of rebalancing”; why the company is dropping an eight-pack at Boyne Mountain; what happened when a helicopter had to dump a Cypress lift tower, and whether that impacted the project's timeline; why Boyne didn't buy Sun Valley, Telluride, or Jackson Hole; Boyne Resorts' decades-long expansion; why Boyne had to back out of half-ownership of Solitude; why Boyne purchased Shawnee Peak and what the potential is there for upgrading lifts and expanding terrain; whether Pleasant could ever join the Ikon Pass ; changing the name to Pleasant Mountain; whether Boyne will buy more ski areas; ski areas that the company passed on buying; EuroBoyne?; how Crystal Mountain exited Boyne's portfolio – “It was a bummer that we lost it from the Boyne family”; preventing overcrowding; “there's a collaborative approach within the Ikon”; whether Boyne bid on White Pass; how close Boyne came to closing Boyne Mountain in the 1990s, how the finances had deteriorated to that point, and how the company saved itself; how a Tennessee chairlift saved the whole company; why there aren't more scenic chairlifts in America; dreaming up and building the Michigan Sky Bridge; the five things driving Boyne's incredible investment spree and whether it's sustainable; the importance of owning the resorts that you run and the land that you operate on; “I think it's a Golden Age for North American skiing”; how European skiing leapt ahead of North America in on-hill infrastructure; how and why Boyne brought the first eight-pack chairlift to the United States; how Boyne's 2030 plans are unfolding with a different strategy from 2020; “growth changes the flow of traffic”; why it's taken longer to get 2030 plans for Cypress and Brighton than for Boyne's other resorts; “we had a lot of old Riblets in our system”; the importance of creating a sense of place without the pitfalls of becoming “Intrawest 2.0”; why Boyne finally went wide with RFID; why liftline fast lanes have flopped at Boyne's resorts in the past; and Boyne's obsessive focus on snowmaking.Why I thought that now was a good time for this interviewBoyne is just absolutely rolling right now. In September, when The Highlands announced that it would retire three Riblet triples for a D-line six-pack in 2023, I itemized the big projects underway across Boyne' Resorts' portfolio:About five years ago, statement lifts started raining out of the Montana sky. After rolling out four high-speed lifts in five years (the Powder Seeker six in 2016, Ramcharger 8 and the Shedhorn high-speed quad in 2018, and the Swift Current 6 in 2021), Big Sky recently unveiled a gargantuan base-to-summit lift network that will transform the mountain, (probably) eliminating Mountain Village liftlines and delivering skiers to the high alpine without the zigzagging adventure across the now-scattered lift network. Skiers will board a two-stage out-of-base gondola cresting near the base of Powder Seeker before transferring to a higher-capacity tram within the same building.Impressive as the transformation of Big Sky has been, it represents a fraction of the megaprojects going on across Boyne's 10-resort empire. Here's a survey of what's happening around Boyneworld this offseason alone:SugarloafAs the centerpiece of their 450-acre West Mountain expansion, New England's second-largest ski area is currently rebuilding and retrofitting the Swift Current high-speed quad from Big Sky. Installation is scheduled for next summer. I discussed this expansion and the rest of the mountain's 2030 plan with GM Karl Strand two years ago:Sunday RiverBoyne's third eight-pack is rising on Jordan Peak. It's gonna be a bomber, an overbuilt look-ahead lift that will eventually serve an outpost called “Western Reserve,” which may double the 870-acre resort's size. The mountain is also continuing work on the Merrill Hill expansion, a big piece of the mountain's 2030 plan.LoonLast December, Boyne opened eight-pack number two at Loon Mountain, New Hampshire. The event was electric. Meanwhile, the quad that once served that side of the mountain sat in the rebuild barn, so it could replace and retire the Seven Brothers triple, work that has been ongoing all summer.Pleasant Mountain (formerly Shawnee Peak)Boyne bought Maine's oldest ski area less than a year ago, so they've yet to announce any big-time lift projects. For now, the company did the impossible, winning social media for a day with their unanimously lauded decision to change the ski area's name back to Pleasant Mountain, which it had carried from 1938 to 1988. While this doesn't alter the ski experience in any way, it does show that Boyne is here to wow people. Just wait until they start talking lifts and expansion.Boyne MountainEight-pack number four will be here, on Boyne's shortest ski area, a 500-foot Michigan bump. The chair will replace a pair of ancient triples, dropping skiers atop one of the best pods of beginner skiing in the Midwest, a delightful jumble of long, looping greens threading through low-angle forest.Big SkyI mean what isn't happening at Big Sky? This gondola-tram complex will instantly become one of the most iconic lift networks in North American skiing. I recapped the Montana flagship's evolution from backwater to beefcake with mountain COO Taylor Middleton earlier this year:BrightonBoyne's snowiest mountain is also one of the few without a long-term 2030-type plan. This, Boyne Resorts CEO Stephen Kircher explained to me, is because the resort sits on Forest Service land, complicating the long-term planning process. No matter. The ski area recently began the permitting process for a D-Line (what else?) sixer to replace Crest Express, the ski area's oldest high-speed quad.Summit at SnoqualmieThe motley agglomeration of what was once four separate ski areas is about to Rip Van Winkle its way into modernity. The ski area's 2030 plan, announced in April, sketches out eight new or upgraded lifts, including a trio of triples at freewheeling Alpental. The first lift is going in as I type this – a fixed-grip carpet-loaded triple to replace the old Hidden Valley Riblet double. GM Guy Lawrence and I went through these updates in a podcast recorded two days prior to the announcement:CypressBoyne's only Canadian ski area is upgrading its Sky summit double with a carpet-loaded quad.One month later, Loon announced a 30-acre South Peak expansion that will finally connect the monster Escape Route parking lots with the ski area via a carpet-loaded quad next year:Here's the full story:It had been more than two years since Kircher's last stop on the podcast, and the big projects just keep dropping. There are plenty more on the way, too, but this seemed like a pretty good time to check in to see what was driving this investment binge.What I got wrong* I referred to Sunday River's upcoming Western Reserve expansion as the “Western Territories.”* In framing Boyne's expansion story, I asked why the company started buying additional resorts “in the ‘90s.” The company began expanding in the ‘60s, of course, with the addition of The Highlands. What I had meant to ask was, why did the company begin expanding in earnest with the 1997 purchase of Crystal Mountain. Over the next decade, Boyne would add five more resorts, doubling its portfolio.* I said that Vail “bought” Andermatt-Sedrun in Switzerland. They only own a 55 percent stake in the ski area – the other 45 percent is under the control of local investors.* I said in passing that Deer Valley was not on the Ikon Pass. It is, of course, as a seven-day partner on the full pass. What I had meant to say was that the Ikon Pass is not Deer Valley's season pass.* I said that Boyne had been a “laggard” in RFID. Kircher points out that the company had introduced the technology at Brighton and Crystal a number of years ago.* I stated that there was no snowmaking at Summit at Snoqualmie – Kircher points out that the resort uses “a small amount” on their tubing hill and terrain park.Podcast NotesThe Gatlinburg Skylift is a pretty incredible complex. I stopped by in September:As Kircher noted, SNL had its fun with the Sky Bridge (5:20):Boyne Resorts on The Storm Skiing PodcastStorm archives are well-stocked with Boyne Resorts interviews. This is Kircher's third appearance on the podcast. Funny note: The Storm featured Kircher for podcast number 6, and 100 episodes later on number 106.My interviews with the leaders of Big Sky and Summit at Snoqualmie both rank in the top 10 for total number of all-time Storm Skiing Podcast downloads (out of 117 podcasts):Leaders of each of Boyne's New England resorts have appeared on the podcast multiple times. The exception is Pleasant Mountain, which I'll feature on an episode once their long-term plans come together.I also interviewed the leaders of each of Boyne's Michigan resorts:That just leaves Brighton and Cypress. I'll get to Brighton soon enough, and I'll wrap Cypress in after I officially enter Canada in May.Meet my new co-host, Rocky the catMy cat wouldn't shut up and is the third party in this podcast. His name is Rocky. He is 17. Or so. He looks like he's about 700. He could be. I adopted him from a shelter in May 2006. Meaning he's been in my life longer than either of my kids, by several years. A fact that astonishes me, really. All he does is meow meow meow all goddamn day. He wants to eat every five minutes. Meow meow meow. That's the problem during this podcast – he is demanding his five-times-hourly feeding. Otherwise, he is a sweet animal. He comes when you call him, like a dog. He hates the outside and sheds like a yeti. He's best buddies with my 5-year-old son and he looks like a miniature cow:He's moved all over New York City with me, though he would be just as happy living in a box truck in a Tampa strip mall. He can no longer run or jump, though he still manages the stairs quite well. He is not a smart animal, and that may have contributed to his longevity – he is not curious enough to get himself into trouble. He still manages to make quite a mess. A cat is the highest-maintenance animal I can manage, and just barely. But I quite like him, even if he chose an unusual hour, on this one day, to vary from his normal 22-hour-per-day sleep schedule and interject himself into our conversation.The Storm explores the world of lift-served skiing all year long. Join us.The Storm publishes year-round, and guarantees 100 articles per year. This is article 125/100 in 2022, and number 371 since launching on Oct. 13, 2019. Want to send feedback? Reply to this email and I will answer (unless you sound insane, or, more likely, I just get busy). You can also email This is a public episode. If you'd like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit

    Podcast #105: Sundance Mountain President and General Manager Chad Linebaugh

    Play Episode Listen Later Nov 17, 2022 71:54

    To support independent ski journalism, please consider becoming a free or paid subscriber. This podcast hit paid subscribers' inboxes on Nov. 17. It dropped for free subscribers on Nov. 20. To receive future pods as soon as they're live, please consider an upgrade to a paid subscription.WhoChad Linebaugh, President and General Manager of Sundance Mountain, UtahRecorded onNovember 7, 2022About SundanceClick here for a mountain stats overviewOwned by: Broadreach Capital Partners and Cedar Capital PartnersPass affiliations: Power PassReciprocal pass partners:* 3 days at each Mountain Capital Partners ski area: Arizona Snowbowl, Purgatory, Hesperus, Brian Head, Nordic Valley, Sipapu, Pajarito, Willamette Pass* 3 days each at Snow King, Ski Cooper* 1 unguided day at SilvertonLocated in: Sundance, UtahClosest neighboring ski areas: Park City (47 minutes), Deer Valley (50 minutes), Woodward Park City (50 minutes), Utah Olympic Park (51 minutes), Solitude (57 minutes), Brighton (1 hour), Snowbird (1 hour, 7 minutes), Alta (1 hour, 10 minutes) – travel times may vary considerably in winter.Base elevation: 6,100 feetSummit elevation: 8,250 feetVertical drop: 2,150 feetSkiable Acres: 515Average annual snowfall: 300 inchesTrail count: 50 (20% black, 45% intermediate, 35% beginner)Lift count: 9 (1 high-speed quad, 4 fixed-grip quads, 1 triple, 3 carpets)The map above is last season's, and does not include the Wildwood expansion that's coming online for the 2022-23 ski season. Here's where the new terrain will sit - you can see Jake's landing looker's right, and Flathead rising looker's left:And here's an overhead view of the new terrain:Update [11/24/2022]: the new trailmapWhy I interviewed himIt sits inconspicuous and unassuming, 13 air miles and 49 road miles south of Little Cottonwood Canyon. Five hundred acres in a 5,000-acre resort. Step off your plane at Salt Lake airport and you're 40 minutes away from half a dozen powder bangers and this is not one of them. It's Sundance. “Isn't that that film fiestival?” Epkon Bro asks as he punches Park City into his GPS. “No time for that on my HASHTAG POWDY TOWN TRIP!”And that's OK. We won't be needing Epkon Bro for today's stop. Because where we're going today is Utah before Utah skiing went nuclear. Before the California invasion. Before this state with just 15 ski areas became third in the nation in annual skier visits. When Snowbird opened in 1971, Utah had 1.1 million residents. Today it has 3.1 million. On any given Saturday, every single one of them is angling their SUV toward the mouth of the Cottonwoods.Except everyone skiing Sundance. Here's the locals bump we all wish we had: 300 inches of snow, 2,000-plus feet of vert, owners with the cash Gatlings blowing full auto. Everyone else, somewhere else. Most of the tourists. Most of the Salt Locals. Certainly the Epkon hordes, trying to ski their passes down to $5 a day. So, here it is: Utah skiing before all the things that changed Utah skiing, mostly for the worse. Twenty years ago? Thirty? Who cares. You found it. Enjoy it.What we talked aboutEarly snow in the West; from breakfast waiter to running the resort; when big brother takes you skiing; Sundance in the 1970s; setting yourself apart when you're the ski area down the road from the Wasatch; the longest-tenured ski resort employee in the country?; Timp Haven; enter Robert Redford; the resort's expanse and legacy of conservation; working for Redford; the origins and impact of the Sundance Film Festival; why Redford sold Sundance; a profile of the new owners; industry veteran Bill Jensen's impact on the resort; Sundance's rapid and radical transformation under its new owners; the fantastically weird Ray's lift and why the mountain finally upgraded it; bringing back the old Mandan lift unload and corresponding terrain; breaking down the new alignments for Stairway and Outlaw; why Red's isn't a high-speed lift; the massive new lift project Sundance is planning next and the potential terrain expansion that could go with that; what the new lift would mean for Flathead; why Outlaw ended up as a quad, rather than a six-pack; how Outlaw ended up running chairs from Big Sky's Swift Current quad; why the resort retired the Navajo lift in 1995, and brought back a similar lift called Jake's a decade ago; why Jake's runs on a different line than Navajo; Jake's odd lower mid-station; re-thinking the road that runs beneath Jake's; Sundance's huge snowmaking expansion; going deep on Sundance's Wildwood expansion and new lift; the return of hot bread and honey-butter; potential far-future expansion; upgrading the Bearclaw lodge; night-skiing; whether Sundance could expand its group of season pass reciprocal partners; and the possibility of Sundance joining Indy Pass.Why I thought that now was a good time for this interviewA decade ago, Sundance was a relic. Old lifts. Slow lifts. Fixed-grip lifts all. A handle tow at the bottom. No carpets. One chair out of the base: the unbelievable Ray's, a mile-long up-and-over doozy with two midstations and a ride time longer than the State of the Union. Some snowmaking. Not a lot. Not enough.Two years ago, longtime owner Robert Redford sold the joint. The new owners brought in Bill Jensen, a U.S. Ski & Snowboard Hall of Famer and onetime overlord of Breckenridge, Vail, Telluride, and Intrawest. Overnight, they smashed the place to bits and remade it in the image of a modern ski resort: Ray's demolished (it's going to live on at Lookout Pass), in its place a high-speed quad up the frontside – all the way up the frontside, to where the Mandan lift once landed – and a short connector lift in back; expanded night-skiing; dramatically expanded snowmaking; a trio of progression carpets at the base; more parking. This year: a 10-trail, 15-acre beginner-focused expansion. On its way out next: the 47-year-old Flathead triple. With what? You'll have to listen to the podcast for details on that.Once Flathead goes, Sundance will have one of the newest lift fleets on the continent (Redford did replace Arrowhead with a lift called Red's in 2016, and put in a new lift called Jake's in 2012), a reliable and modern collection buffeted by an ever-evolving snowmaking system that can defend the place from its relatively low elevation. It will have better skier flow, and (probably) more terrain for them to ski on.What it won't have are any of the ever-increasing numbers of Epkon Bros. The ones who won't ski anywhere off-pass. The ones obsessed with stats and biggest-tallest-most. The ones how don't mind company.Sundance is building something different. And it's something worth trying. What I got wrongI asked Chad why Jake's lift did not have a mid-station, like the old Navajo lift. Jake's does have a mid-station, of course, but it's just a touch higher than the bottom load. What I'd meant to ask was this, “why doesn't Jake's have a mid-mountain mid-station, as Navajo had?” I also incorrectly stated that Jake's followed the same line as Navajo, which was a bad reading of the trailmap on my part. Regardless, we sort it all out on the pod.Why you should ski SundanceIt's worth going a bit deeper on passes here, as Utah has what is probably the most mature megapass market of any major ski hub in America. All 14 of the state's major commercial ski areas are affiliated with one pass or another, including Sundance:If you've never heard of the Power Pass, it's the season pass for Mountain Capital Partners eight ski areas: Arizona Snowbowl, Purgatory, Hesperus, Brian Head, Nordic Valley, Sipapu, Pajarito, and Willamette Pass. Like the Ikon Pass, which includes Alterra's 14 ski areas plus a bunch of partners, the Power Pass has some add-ons: Copper Mountain, Loveland, Monarch, and Sundance. Here's the full roster:Anyway, it's a relatively low-volume regional pass, in no danger of overrunning Sundance or any other partner.Sundance doesn't have the elevation, snowfall totals, or sheer size of its megapass neighbors just to its north, but it doesn't have their crowds either, and it has just enough of those other things to make the skiing interesting. On weekends, on holidays, on fight-for-your-life LCC powder days, this is your post-up spot, an alternative where you can rack vert without really worrying about it and without really trying.Podcast notesSundance has one of the most interesting lift histories in the country. Most ski areas simply drop new lifts on their old lines. Sundance rarely does that, instead shuffling machines all over the mountain to try different configurations. Here's what the mountain looked like in 1988:In 1995, they removed the Navajo and Mandan doubles and installed the wacky Ray's, which landed lower than Mandan before curling over the mountain's backside:By 2012, Sundance realized it needed a second out-of-base lift again, and it build the Jake's quad. This lands approximately where Navajo did decades earlier, but follows a shorter line, starting from the newer, upper parking lots:Interestingly, the new Red's quad, built in 2016, follows approximately the same line as the Arrowhead triple, the 1985 Yan lift that it replaced, but Outlaw and Stairway both follow different lines than Ray's, with different load, unload, and mid-station points. Don't expect a direct replacement for Flathead either – Linebaugh outlines what that dramatic change will look like in the podcast.The Storm publishes year-round, and guarantees 100 articles per year. This is article 124/100 in 2022, and number 370 since launching on Oct. 13, 2019. Want to send feedback? Reply to this email and I will answer (unless you sound insane, or, more likely, I just get busy). You can also email Storm explores the world of lift-served skiing all year round. Join us. This is a public episode. If you'd like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit

    Podcast #104: Loon Mountain President and General Manager Brian Norton

    Play Episode Listen Later Nov 15, 2022 95:42

    To support independent ski journalism, please consider becoming a free or paid subscriber. This podcast hit paid subscribers' inboxes on Nov. 14. It dropped for free subscribers on Nov. 17. To receive future pods as soon as they're live, please consider an upgrade to a paid subscription.WhoBrian Norton, President and General Manager of Loon Mountain, New HampshireRecorded onNovember 1, 2022About LoonClick here for a mountain stats overviewOwned by: Boyne ResortsPass affiliations: Ikon Pass, New England PassReciprocal pass partners:* Unlimited access to Sunday River and Sugarloaf* 3 days each at Pleasant Mountain, Boyne Mountain, The Highlands, Brighton, Big Sky, Summit at Snoqualmie, CypressLocated in: Lincoln, New HampshireClosest neighboring ski areas: Kanc (3 minutes), Cannon (21 minutes), Campton (26 minutes), Mt. Eustis (28 minutes), Mt. Prospect (35 minutes), Waterville Valley (37 minutes), Bretton Woods (38 minutes), Cranmore (55 minutes), Veterans Memorial (55 minutes), Ragged (58 minutes), King Pine (58 minutes), Attitash (1 hour), Gunstock (1 hour, 6 minutes), Black Mountain NH (1 hour, 7 minutes), Pleasant Mountain (1 hour, 7 minutes), Wildcat (1 hour, 13 minutes), Abenaki (1 hour, 15 minutes)Base elevation: 950 feetSummit elevation: 3,050 feetVertical drop: 2,100 feetSkiable Acres: 370 (will increase to 400 with next year's South Peak expansion)Average annual snowfall: 160 inchesTrail count: 61 (20% black, 60% intermediate, 20% beginner)Lift count: 11, plus one train (1 four-passenger gondola, 1 eight-pack, 3 high-speed quads, 1 fixed-grip quad, 3 doubles, 2 carpets - view Lift Blog's of inventory of Loon's lift fleet). Loon will add a second fixed-grip quad - this one with a carpet-loader - rising approximately 500 feet off the Escape Route parking lots, in 2023.Why I interviewed himThere are 26 ski areas in New Hampshire. And lots of good ones: Cannon, Waterville, Bretton Woods, Attitash, Wildcat. Black and Cranmore and Ragged and Gunstock and Sunapee. Pats Peak and Crotched and King Pine. Don't “you forgot…” me, You-Forgot-[Blank] Bro. I'm making a point here: there are more good ski areas in this state than even You-Forgot-[Blank] Bro can keep track of.That means I have plenty of podcast material: I've hosted the leaders of Cannon, Gunstock, Waterville Valley, Whaleback, Ragged, and Pats Peak on the podcast. And Loon, a conversation with then-President and General Manager Jay Scambio shortly after the resort launched its so-call Flight Path 2030 plan in early 2020.So why, before I've checked off Bretton Woods or Black or Cranmore or any of the four Vail properties, am I revisiting Loon? Fair question. Plenty of answers. First, the Loon I discussed with Scambio in February 2020 is not the Loon that skiers ski today. And the Loon that skiers will make turns on before the end of this month is not the same Loon they'll ski next year, or the year after that. Kanc 8 – New England's first Octopus Lift – changed the whole flow of the resort, even though it followed the same line as the legacy lift. This year's Seven Brothers upgrade should do the same. And next year's small but significant South Peak expansion will continue the evolution.Second, Scambio, young and smart and ambitious, jumped up the Boyne Resort food chain, and is now chief operating officer for the company's day areas (Brighton, Summit at Snoqualmie, Cypress, and Loon), clearing the way for the young and smart and ambitious Norton to take the resort's top job.Third, my first Loon Mountain podcast did not age well from a technical point of view. Pre-Covid, I relied mostly on a telephone recording service to capture podcast audio. Sometimes this landed fine, but Jay and I sound as though we're talking in a 1940s war movie recorded in a field tent. I also sound considerably less enthusiastic than I actually was. I wish I could re-master it or something, but for now, Storm Skiing Podcast number 12 is an artifact of a platform in motion, seeking its shape and identity. The Storm is a far better product now, and this is as close to a re-do as I'm going to get.Fourth, the guest I originally had scheduled for the week of Oct. 31 had to cancel. Loon had just announced the South expansion, and the timing seemed perfect to revisit a New England favorite. Norton was good enough to step in, even in the midst of intensive preseason prep.So here you go: Loon podcast number two. It won't be the last.What we talked aboutHow Loon determines opening day; potential changes to the terrain-opening cadence; “I hate the thought that you do something one way because you've always done it that way”; from college student/East Basin liftie to president and general manager; Wachusett nights; that New Hampshire vibe; Planet Terrain Park; living through the Booth Creek-Boyne Resorts transition; Loon, the most popular kid on the block; managing skier volume; why Loon doesn't have night skiing, and whether the ski area has ever considered it; the amazing Kanc 8; “so much of our guest's day is not skiing”; how the new lift changed Loon skier patterns and other reflections on season one; Kanc's chaotic, wonderful lift queue; evolving the Governor's Lodge side of the resort; the Seven Brothers upgrade: “it's a new lift … you won't recognize it”; the slight modifications to the location of the top and bottom terminals; the fate of the Seven Brothers triple; comparing the new and old lifts; the importance of terrain parks to Loon; thinking through long-term upgrades to the South Peak and North Peak Express quads and the gondola; what having “the most technologically advanced lift fleet in New England” means; thoughts on the future of the East Basin double; breaking down the 2023 South Peak expansion; what it means to finally run a lift up from the massive Escape Route parking lots; the importance of connecting Loon to Lincoln; evolving Loon's learning experience; breaking down the bottom and top terminals of the coming quad lift and why it will sit slightly away from the parking lot; where the expansion will fit into the terrain-opening sequence; Loon's evolving glade philosophy; where Loon will be eliminating a glade and why; where new glades will be coming online; three huge projects at Loon in three years: “this is a commitment across the board to grow”; what the Westward Trail expansion is and when we could see it; breaking down potential additional development on North Peak; why Lincoln Peak Express doesn't go to the summit of South Peak; Loon's absolute commitment to snowmaking; why Loon will require Ikon Pass reservations this coming season, and how the mountain will set the number of reservations for each day.Why I thought that now was a good time for this interviewIt's all just changing so fast. Ever since dropping Flight Path 2030 plan in early 2020, Loon has built the massive and gorgeous Kancamagus eight-pack (New England's first), rebuilt the old Kanc quad and moved it across the mountains to replace the Seven Brothers triple chair, and announced a 30-acre 2023 expansion that will finally knot the ski area's massive Escape Route parking lots to the rest of the resort with a lift. And the mountain has built all that around Covid-19, with all its operational disorientation and a one-year delay on construction of Kanc 8 (originally scheduled to go live in 2020).They're just getting going. Flight Path's overarching goal, from a skier-experience point of view, is to stand up “the most technologically advanced lift network in the East to increase uphill speed and achieve ultimate comfort.” That means upgrades to the Lincoln and North Peak high-speed quads and that weird little four-person gondola. The snowmaking system, hundreds of guns that can already bury most of Loon's 370 acres by Christmas, is going full auto. New trails are likely incoming for North and South peaks. More glades, too. The Westward Trail expansion could potentially add hundreds more acres and shoot Loon past Bretton Woods for the largest-in-New Hampshire title.Even if Loon stopped with next year's expansion, the place would be in good shape. Lincoln Peak Express is only 15 years old. North Peak is 18. Kanc 8 is a glorious, beautiful machine, standing monolithic at Governor Adams, so smooth in its ascent that it appears to float up the rise. And Seven Brothers is more than a lift-and-shift – “It's a new lift,” Norton tells me on the podcast, after Doppelmayr spent a year on an overhaul so thorough that “you won't recognize it.”The 500-vertical-foot, beginner-oriented expansion, to be served by a carpet-loaded fixed-grip quad, seems small in the scale of 2,100-vertical-foot, super-octopus-lift-served Loon. But the new pod is a crucial connection both to the checkerboard of outer-edge parking lots currently served by shuttlebuses, and to the town of Lincoln, the edges of which sit walking distance to the new lift. The expansion will also add new beginner terrain, a product that extra-intermediate Loon currently lacks in meaningful quantities. Here's a peek:And here's how the little pod will fit in with the rest of the resort:With so much so recently accomplished, and so much more incoming, this seemed like a perfect moment to check in with one of New England – and, really, America's – most rapidly evolving ski areas.What I got wrongRumors were all over the place last year that Kanc 8 experienced intermittent power issues last season. I asked Norton about this in the podcast, and it turns out that the rumors weren't true. But I asked the question in a way that presumed they were. Instead of asking “what was happening with the intermittent power issues,” I should have framed it this way: “There was a lot of chatter that intermittent power issues interfered with Kanc 8 operating last year – was that true?” I'll do better.Why you should ski Loon MountainIf you're questing for rad, keep driving. Cannon is 20 minutes up the road. Loon is many things, but challenging is not one of them (watch this be the site of my next catastrophic injury). Here's what it is: one of the best exactly-in-the-middle mountains in New England skiing. Its peers are Okemo and Mount Snow and Bretton Woods; lots of fast lifts, ExtraGroomed and extra busy, with lots of skiers welcomed by the welcoming terrain.Loon is, in other words, what every ski area east of the Rockies was trying to be before terrain parks and glades and bumps made skiing more interesting: a perfect groomed ski area. Approachable and modest, big and sprawling enough to feel like an adventure, well-appointed with Boyne's particular brand of largess.Loon has an amazing terrain park, of course. Some steeper stuff off North and South. Some trees if you're timing is right. But that's not the point of the place (well, the park sort of is), and it doesn't need to be. Loon is for blue skiers like Jay is for glade skiers and like springtime Killington is for bump skiers. Groomers are the point here. Let them run.But stop, please, mid-mountain beneath the Kanc 8. Watch this beautiful machine glide. Up and over and away, the smoothest lift in skiing. Rising from frantic load terminal to propelled silence as it advances toward the summit, floating and flying and encased in a bubble. Then catch the J.E. Henry railroad over to the gondola, ride to the summit, board Tote Road – the party lift – across the mountain decorous with pines, sprawling like a mini-Sugarbush, and roll the endless, glorious blue-square Cruiser or Boom Run to the base. This is Loon – a big ramble, quirky and stimulating and easy – easy to ski, easy to like, easy to settle into and ride.Podcast notes* Norton noted that previous plans for the South Peak expansion had included two proposed lifts. This version, which, according to New England Ski History, dates to 2013, shows one possible alignment, with two crisscrossing fixed-grip quads oriented against the existing Cruiser and Escape Route trails. This plan also included the magic carpets:* We also briefly discussed the so-called “Westward Trail expansion,” which Flight Path 2030 names as a potential late-stage project. Norton noted that several hundred additional acres exist within Loon's permit area, that plans for such an expansion have existed for decades, and that this is what the Westward Trail expansion referred to. Unfortunately, I've been unable to locate these maps. If you are in possession of any, please send them over.* I attended Kanc 8's grand opening last December. Here's video of the first-ever chair:* And of course, the J.E. Henry, an honest-to-goodness steam engine that skiers ride between the Governor Adams and Octagon base areas:The Storm explores the world of lift-served skiing year-round. Join us.The Storm publishes year-round, and guarantees 100 articles per year. This is article 122/100 in 2022, and number 368 since launching on Oct. 13, 2019. Want to send feedback? Reply to this email and I will answer (unless you sound insane, or, more likely, I just get busy). You can also email This is a public episode. 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    Podcast #103: Bromley Mountain President and General Manager Bill Cairns

    Play Episode Listen Later Nov 7, 2022 74:55

    To support independent ski journalism, please consider becoming a free or paid subscriber. This podcast hit paid subscribers' inboxes on Nov. 7. It dropped for free subscribers on Nov. 10. To receive future pods as soon as they're live, please consider an upgrade to a paid subscription.WhoBill Cairns, President and General Manager of Bromley Mountain Resort, VermontRecorded onOctober 24, 2022About BromleyClick here for a mountain stats overviewOwned by: Joseph O'DonnellOperated by: The Fairbank GroupPass affiliations: NoneReciprocal pass partners: 1 day each at Jiminy Peak, CranmoreLocated in: Peru, VermontClosest neighboring ski areas: Magic Mountain (14 minutes), Stratton (19 minutes)Base elevation: 1,950 feetSummit elevation: 3,284 feetVertical drop: 1,334 feetSkiable Acres: 300Average annual snowfall: 145 inchesTrail count: 47 (31% black, 37% intermediate, 32% beginner)Lift count: 9 (1 high-speed quad, 1 fixed-grip quad, 4 doubles, 1 T-bar, 2 carpets - view Lift Blog's of inventory of Bromley's lift fleet)Uphill capacity: 10,806 skiers per hourWhy I interviewed himVermont is one of those states where you can see a lot of ski areas from the tops of other ski areas. I find this thrilling. I love all ski areas. Relish them. That such machines, so similar yet so distinct, could be so concentrated sparks within me some thrill of exotic immersion, of adventuring into zones dense and wild and compelling.Of these peak-to-peak views, none is more dramatic than south-facing Bromley viewed from north-facing Stratton. In Vermont, which manages sprawl better than the rest of U.S. America, your view is most often of mountains, the endless Greens, treed and rippling toward Canada, radio towers blinking against the sky. But Bromley, etched magnificently into the expanse, owns the view from its larger neighbor.Bromley and Stratton are two points of Southern Vermont's so-called Golden Triangle. The third is Magic. The three ski areas have a weird joint history. Of owning and buying and selling and sometimes closing one another. Right now they're all friends. Or so they say. They're each so different that it's hard to even think of them as competitors. Ultimate Indie Magic gets the beards and the FTW narrative. Ultimate Corporate Six-pack-a-tron Stratton gets the Ikon Pass-toting New Yorkers.And what is Bromley? Bromley is Ultimate Bromley. I'm not sure how else to describe it. And Bromley skiers ski Bromley. And they love the place. And why wouldn't they? The front side is blue square glory, fall lines straight and steady, cut New England narrow through the woods. There are chairlifts everywhere, flying in all directions from the base. Old doubles mostly. How ski areas once were before they simplified and streamlined. The Blue Ribbon side (like Pabst Blue Ribbon, like PBR – get it guys*), is a slightly shorter, black-diamond version of the frontside.All of this oriented gloriously toward the sun. When there's sun. In Vermont, in the winter, when it's a thousand degrees below zero, that matters a lot. This is not a great position for snowpack. Most North American ski areas face north for a reason: shadows block the sun, preserving snow depth. But skiing into May is not the point of Bromley, or its goal. The place gets enough snow, and has a good enough snowmaking system, that it can usually make the first weekend in April. Which is when Bromley skiers are tired of skiing.Or maybe they buy the Killington spring pass and keep going into June. In Vermont, you have options. The state has the same number of ski areas (26) as California, which is 17 times its size by area and 60 times larger by population. To succeed here, a ski area needs something compelling. Thirty miles south of Bromley lies the Hermitage Club, formerly Haystack, 1,400 vertical feet and 200 acres, a near Bromley clone size-wise. Yet the ski area has closed at least three times since its 1964 founding. No one could ever figure out how to compete with – or be little brother to – Mount Snow, the snowmaking Godzilla four and a half miles up the road. And yet Bromley, half the size of Stratton, which sits gigantic in the vista from Sun Mountain's frontside trails, has operated for 85 consecutive seasons. It's not like Bromley skiers don't know they have choices. They just don't care. Ultimate Bromley, with its little base village and its one high-speed lift and its zillion low-speed lifts and its sunshiney aspect, is home.*That sound you hear is every hipster in Brooklyn simultaneously mounting their single-speed banana-seat bicycles and riding north toward Vermont.What we talked aboutThe accidental career; Snow Valley, Vermont; Bromley in the ‘80s; the complex and interesting challenge of the ski business; where loyalty comes from; “our efforts are the same on a Tuesday in January as they are on a holiday Saturday at Christmas”; Vermont's first chairlift; the incredible puzzle of modernizing Bromley's snowmaking in the ‘90s; the importance of water pressure; “summer's always been a big deal at Bromley”; grab a PBR and pop a tab for this Bromley Mountain origin story; Fred Pabst's unlikely skiing legacy; snowmaking in the 1960s; Stig Albertsson buys the mountain; the arrival of the current owner, Joe O'Donnell, and his legacy and style as an owner; that one time Bromley owned Magic, or Magic owned Bromley, or Stratton owned Bromley, or something; why Bromley closed Magic; the return of The Golden Triangle; what happened when a fire hit Bromley 10 days before Christmas; the Fairbank Group arrives; last year's massive upgrade to the Sun Mountain Express; why Bromley upgraded rather than replaced the lift; the incredible resilience of Hall chairlifts; the biggest challenge in running a fleet of decades-old lifts; where else a detachable lift might make sense on the mountain; a thought experiment in what would make sense to upgrade the Plaza chairlift and Lord's Prayer T-bar; the utility and future of the old double-double; the incredible efficiency of modern snowmaking and the concomitant rise in lift-maintenance costs; managing snow quality with Bromley's southern exposure; the Bromley snow pocket; Bromley's lost trails; potential future glade and trail development; backcountry access now and in the future; the challenges of Forest Service expansion; “in some respects, the very best skiing at Bromley is not cut”; the base village; pricing season passes in the Epic and Ikon era and how Bromley has maintained its pricing power; rethinking the mountain's lift-ticket pricing structure; why we're unlikely to see a Bromley-Jiminy Peak-Cranmore joint pass anytime soon.         Why I thought that now was a good time for this interviewThe Epic Pass hit New England like a tsunami. For decades, season pass prices had ticked upward like post-IPO Google stock. Then Vail bought Stowe, and everything instantly changed. As I wrote in March 2020 (a few days before I had something more urgent to write about), in an article headlined “The Era of the Expensive Single-Mountain Season Pass Is Over in the Northeast”:  For the 2016-17 season, the last before the Broomfield Big Boys scooped up Stowe, a season pass at that most classic of New England rough-and-tumble mountains was $2,313, according to New England Ski History. Pass prices to the other large Vermont resorts were similarly outlandish: $1,779 for Sugarbush, $1,619 for Okemo, $1,486 for Killington, $1,199 for Stratton, $1,144 for Bromley (!), $999 for Mount Snow, $992 for Mad River Glen, $974 for Jay Peak, $899 for Burke, and on and on.Granted, these were probably not early season prices, and these are presumably adult no-blackout passes. But price differential from just four seasons ago – four! – is remarkable. And none of these passes, with the exception of Killington, which gave you Pico access, came with additional days at any other mountains as far as I am aware [2022 note: the Mount Snow pass, as I'm now aware, was a Peak Pass, which would have been good for unlimited access at three New Hampshire ski areas, Hunter, and all of Peak's smaller ski areas in Pennsylvania and the Midwest]. In 2020, you can now get full unrestricted access to Stowe, Mount Snow, and Okemo for $979 on an Epic Pass [2022 note: this was the season before Vail lowered Epic Pass prices by 20 percent]. You get full Sugarbush and Stratton access for a $999 Ikon Pass, and a Beast 365 pass would be $1,344 and get you unlimited Killington and access to Sugarbush and Stratton every day of the season outside of a few blackout days.In other words, for less than the price of a Stowe season pass four years ago, you can now have season passes to six of Vermont's largest mountains. If you don't mind dealing with blackout days, you could pick up a $729 Epic Local Pass and a $699 Ikon Base Pass and ski Vermont every day of the season for $1,428 (and Okemo and Mount Snow are still not even blacked out on the Epic Local Pass). And you can further reduce this by, say, picking up a $599 Northeast Epic Pass and a (if you're renewing), $649 Ikon Base pass, which would give you blacked-out season passes to Okemo, Mount Snow, Stratton, and Sugarbush, and 10 days at Stowe and five at Killington, for all of $1,248.I could go on. There is no need to. Skiers will figure this out for themselves, and quickly. Anyone buying a season pass in Vermont just four years ago was more or less locked into that mountain for the season, as the number of ski days required to justify the pass purchase was significant, and any days invested elsewhere probably seemed excessive and indulgent. In the three-year instant it took Vail to buy Stowe and Okemo and Peak and integrate them into a regional pass, and Alterra to buy Stratton and Sugarbush and introduce the Ikon Pass and then significantly expand access in the region, the consumer expectation has shifted from season pass as an aspirational indulgence reserved for locals and second-home owners to a bargain product that offers limitless access to not one but multiple high-quality mountains, not just across the East, but in the snowy towering West.I then called out Bromley in particular:In this environment, not even the burliest mountains can stand alone. Killington just conceded that. Boyne did something similar with its New England Pass last week, tossing an Ikon Base Pass in with its $1,549 Platinum-tier product, which provides unlimited access to its standout trio of Sugarloaf, Sunday River, and Loon.All of this leaves skiers – especially mountain-hopping skiers like myself – in the best pass-shopping position imaginable. No matter which pass we buy, it will come not just with limitless days at our local mountain, but bonus or unlimited days at at least half a dozen other mountains that we can easily travel to.All of which creates a very difficult reality for independent mountains: skiers now expect access far beyond their core mountain when purchasing a season pass, and they expect those passes to be massively discounted from what they were less than one presidential election cycle ago.On both price and additional access, many independent ski areas are far behind. Bromley's season pass, for example, is $925 (all prices are for adult, no-blackout passes, unless otherwise indicated). That's early-bird pricing. It includes no free days at any other mountains, even though its parent company also owns or operates Jiminy Peak in Massachusetts and Cranmore in New Hampshire [2022 note: Bromley, Cranmore, and Jiminy Peak passes now include one day at each of their sister mountains]. It does offer some non-holiday discounts of up to half off day tickets at partner resorts, including Jay Peak.This is a completely untenable position. Bromley is a fine mountain. It is terrific for families. It has some fun terrain off the Blue Ribbon Quad. It is very easy to get to. But it is right down the road from Stratton, which is far larger, has a far more sophisticated lift network, and is on the Ikon Pass, meaning a pass to Stratton is only $74 more than a pass to Bromley and also includes a pass to Sugarbush, days at Killington, etc., etc. Unless you have a condo on the mountain and you ski there and only there and have for years and years and have no aspirations or intentions of going anywhere else ever, there is no way to justify that pass price with no access to any mountain other than your own in today's competitive ski pass environment.One of two things needs to happen in order for independent mountains to remain competitive in the season pass realm: they need to join a coalition of other independent ski areas to offer reciprocal free days at one another's mountains for passholders, or the price needs to come way down. And in most cases, the answer is probably some combination of both of those things.Well I was wrong. Bromley never joined a pass coalition and its pass price keeps increasing, and yet every year, the mountain sells more passes. So I'll own my mistake. My template was too simplistic, too focused on price and variety and size as a skier's primary motivating factors, too anchored to the assumption that all skiers were like me, seeking the most mountains for the lowest cost. It would have been like saying Whole Foods business model sucks because Kroger has larger stores and sells groceries for less money. Consumers will pay a premium for exclusivity and quality. And Bromley offers both: good snow, fewer people. A predictable, repeatable experience for a tight community of families and condo owners. These things matter more than I had supposed.Select independent ski areas all over the country are thriving in the megapass era by snubbing the trends of the megapass era: Wolf Creek, Mt. Baker, Bear Valley, Whitefish, Bretton Woods, Wachusett, Plattekill, Holiday Valley. Part of this is Epkon burnout, refugees seeking respite from the crowds. Part of it is atmosphere and community, skiers buying into a gestalt as much as a place or activity. Bromley operates in one of the toughest neighborhoods in skiing, seated within a two-hour's drive of dozens of competitors, many of them bigger and cheaper, with more terrain variety and more snowfall and more and faster lifts. And yet the Sun Mountain keeps winning. There's a reason for that, and I wanted to figure out what it was.What I got wrongI stated in the interview that Joseph O'Donnell had purchased Bromley in 1990, intimating that marked the start of his involvement with the ski area. Cairns points out that O'Donnell had worked with Bromley beginning in the 1980s.Why you should ski BromleyMount Snow and Stratton, nice as they are, tricked out as they are, have downsides. Especially on weekends. Especially midwinter. Neither does a great job managing skier volume, and neither seems particularly interested in trying. I don't know how much that really matters. It's New England, and skiers expect crowds. It's all part of the experience, like overgrooming and boilerplate and safety bars dropped on your dome before the chair is out of the barn.How to escape the human anthill ski experience? Well, you could join the Hermitage Club, which at last check-in cost $50,000 upfront and $15,000 annually thereafter. You could ski Magic, which is uncrowded but snowmaking-challenged, with just 50 percent of the mountain covered and one fixed-grip double to the top (though the Black Quad may finally be close to launch). Or you could ski Bromley, with the snowmaking and grooming firepower of its bigger corporate neighbors, but without the mosh-pit atmosphere. Unlike most of Vermont, the place is tolerable even at its busiest.And the sunshine effect is real. Stratton is often abandoned after 2:30 p.m. The sun dips, the snow bricks up, and everyone leaves. When the clouds aren't bunching heavy over New England and the wind stays down, Bromley is just a more pleasant place to be. It doesn't have the tough-guy terrain like Killington or the expanses of glades like Stratton. And it doesn't need them. Bromley, the Ultimate Bromley, is just fine being exactly what it knows it has to be.Podcast notes* We go deep on Bromley's long history, but New England Ski History has a great overview of the ski area's development, going back to the wild early days of recorded Vermont history.* Bill and I discuss the lost Snow Valley ski area extensively. Though this little spot, parked off Vermont state highway 30 between Bromley and Stratton, closed in 1984, it remains popular among backcountry skiers. Someone still maintains several runs, and the property was recently listed for sale (it was scheduled for auction in September, but I'm uncertain how that went). While it's highly unlikely that anyone could redevelop Snow Valley as a lift-served ski area, it could become New England's version of the uphill-only Bluebird Backcountry ski area in Colorado. Here's a 1982 trailmap:* Bill discusses the rising cost of everything, but point in particular to the exploding price of chairlifts. He notes that the Sun Mountain Express cost Bromley $2.7 million in 1997, and estimates that it would run $7 million to install a similar lift today. Had chairlifts followed general inflationary trends, the lift would run around $5 million today.* Bill references a 1950s trail called “Bromley Run,” that ran off the summit and didn't return to the lifts. You can see it marked as trail 10 on this “Big Bromley” trailmap from 1950:* Bill and I discuss potential terrain expansions (unlikely), and the possibility of backcountry skiing – possibly guided – from the summit down to Peru, to the east, and East Dorset, to the northwest. He also refers to the Best Farm quite a bit, which is the large circled area off highway 11. The Fairbank Group's website currently has this space scoped for real estate development. Here's the ski area in relation to these various areas:The Storm explores the world of lift-served skiing year-round. Join us.The Storm publishes year-round, and guarantees 100 articles per year. This is article 120/100 in 2022, and number 366 since launching on Oct. 13, 2019. Want to send feedback? Reply to this email and I will answer (unless you sound insane, or, more likely, I just get busy). You can also email Get full access to The Storm Skiing Journal and Podcast at

    Podcast #102: Mount Bohemia Owner, Founder, & President Lonie Glieberman

    Play Episode Listen Later Oct 26, 2022 104:05

    To support independent ski journalism, please consider becoming a free or paid subscriber. This podcast hit paid subscribers' inboxes on Oct. 26. It dropped for free subscribers on Oct. 29. To receive future pods as soon as they're live, please consider an upgrade to a paid subscription.WhoLonie Glieberman, President of Mount Bohemia, MichiganRecorded onOctober 21, 2022About Mount BohemiaClick here for a mountain stats overviewOwned by: Lonie GliebermanPass affiliations: NoneReciprocal pass partners (view full list here):* 3 days each at Bogus Basin, Mission Ridge, Great Divide, Lee Canyon, Pine Creek, White Pine, Sleeping Giant, Mt. Spokane, Eaglecrest, Eagle Point* 2 days each at Porcupine Mountains; Crystal Mountain, Michigan; Giants Ridge; Hurricane Ridge* 1 day each at Brundage, Treetops, Whitecap Mountains, Ski Brule, Snowstar* Free midweek skiing March 1-2, 5-9, 12-16, and 24-25 at Caberfae when staying at slopeside MacKenzie LodgeLocated in: Mohawk, MichiganClosest neighboring ski areas: Mont Ripley (46 minutes), Porcupine Mountains (2 hours), Ski Brule (2 hours, 34 minutes), Snowriver (2 hours, 35 minutes), Keyes Peak (2 hours, 36 minutes), Marquette Mountain (2 hours, 40 minutes), Big Powderhorn (2 hours, 43 minutes), Mt. Zion (2 hours, 45 minutes), Pine Mountain (2 hours, 49 minutes), Whitecap (3 hours, 8 minutes).Base elevation: 600 feetSummit elevation: 1,500 feetVertical drop: 900 feetSkiable Acres: 585Average annual snowfall: 273 inchesTrail count: 147 (24% double-black, 49% black, 20% intermediate, 7% beginner)Lift count: 2 lifts, 4 buses (1 double, 1 triple - view Lift Blog's of inventory of Mount Bohemia's lift fleet)Bohemia has one of the most confusing trailmaps in America, so here's an overhead view by Mapsynergy. This displays the main mountain only, and does not include Little Boho, but you can clearly see where Haunted Valley sits in relation to the lifts:Here's an older version, from 2014, that does not include Little Boho or the newer Middle Earth section, but has the various zones clearly labelled:Why I interviewed himImagine: America's wild north. Hours past everything you've ever heard of. Then hours past that. A peninsula hanging off a peninsula in the middle of the largest lake on Earth. There, a bump on the topo map. Nine hundred feet straight up. The most vert in the 1,300-mile span between Bristol and Terry Peak. At the base a few buildings, a cluster of yurts, a green triple chair crawling up the incline.Here, at the end of everything, skiers find almost nothing. As though the voyage to road's end had cut backward through time. No snowguns. No groomers. No rental shop. No ski school. No Magic Carpet. No beginner runs. No beginners. A lift and a mountain, and nothing more.Nothing but raw and relentless terrain. All things tucked away at the flash-and-bling modern resort made obvious. Glades everywhere, top to bottom, labyrinthian and endless, hundreds of acres deep. Chutes. Cliffs. Bumps. Terrain technical and twisting. No ease in. No run out. All fall line.To the masses this is nightmare skiing, the sort of stacked-obstacle elevator shaft observed from the flat shelf of green-circle groomers. To the rest of us – the few of us – smiling wanly from the eighth seat of a gondola car as ya'lling tourists yuck about the black diamonds they just windshield-wipered back to Corpus Christi – arrival at Mount Bohemia is a sort of surrealist dream. It can't be real. This place. Everything grand about skiing multiplied. Everything extraneous removed. Like waking up and discovering all food except tacos and pizza had gone away. Delicious entrees for life.And the snow. The freeze-thaws, the rain, the surly guttings of New England winters barely touch Boho. The lake-effect snowtrain – two to eight inches, nearly every day from December to March – erases these wicked spells soon after their rare castings. And the snow piles up: 273 inches on average, and more than 300 inches in three of the past five seasons. In 2022, Boho skied into May for the third time in the past decade.There is no better ski area. For skiers whose lifequest is to roll as one with the mountain as the mountain was formed. Those weary of cat-tracks and Rangers coats splaying wobbly across the corduroy and bunched human bowling pins and the spectacular price of everything. Boho's season pass is $109. Ninety-nine dollars if you can do without Saturdays. It's loaded with reciprocal days at nearly two dozen partners. It's a spectacular bargain and a spectacular find. At once dramatic and understated, wide-open and closely kept, rowdy and sublime, Mount Bohemia is the ski area that skiers deserve. And it is the ski area that the Midwest – one of the world's great ski cultures – deserves. There is nothing else like Mount Bohemia in America, and there's really nothing else like it anywhere.What we talked aboutOctober snow in the UP; how much snow Boho needs to open; “we can get five feet in December in a matter of days”; why the great Sugar Loaf, Michigan ski area failed and why it's likely never coming back; a journey through the Canadian Football League; what running a football team and running a ski area have in common; “Narrow the focus, strengthen the brand”; wild rumors of a never-developed ski area in the Keweenaw Peninsula overheard on a Colorado chairlift; sleuthing pre-Google; the business case for a ski area with no beginner terrain; “it's not just the size, it's the pitch”; bringing Bohemia to improbable life; the most important element to Bohemia as a viable business; how to open a ski area when you've never worked at a ski area; community opposition materializes – “I still to this day don't know why they were mad”; winning the referendum to build the resort; how locals feel about Boho today; industry reaction to a ski area with no grooming, no snowmaking, and no beginner terrain; “you actually have created the stupidest ski resort of all time”; the long history of established companies missing revolutionary products; dead-boring 1990s Michigan skiing; the slow early days with empty lifts spinning all day long; learning from failure to push through to success; the business turning point; Bohemia's $99 season pass; the kingmaking power of the lost ski media; the state of Boho 22 years in; “nothing is ever as important as adding more and new terrain”; why Bohemia raised the price of its season pass by $10 for 2022-23; breaking down Boho's pass fees; the two-year and lifetime passes; why the one-day annual season pass sale is now a 10-day annual season pass sale; why the ski area no longer sells season passes outside of its $99 pass sales window; protecting the Saturday experience; could we see a future with no lift tickets?; the potential of a Bohemia single-day lift ticket costing more than a season pass; “reward your season ticket holders”; the mountain's massive reciprocal ticket network; the Indy Pass and why it wouldn't work for Bohemia; the return of Fast Pass lanes; “we have to be very careful that Bohemia is a place for all people that are advanced or expert skiers”; why Bohemia's frontside triple functions as a double; what could replace the triple and when it could happen; considering the carpet-load; what sort of lift we could see in Haunted Valley; whether we could ever see a lift in Outer Limits; a possible second frontside lift; where a lift would go on Little Boho and how it could connect to and from the parking lot; why surface lifts probably wouldn't work at Bohemia; what sort of lift could replace the double; whether the current lifts could be repurposed elsewhere on the mountain; what Bohemia could look like at full terrain build-out; the potential of Voodoo Mountain and what it would take to see a lift over there; whether Voodoo could become a Bluebird Backcountry-style uphill-only ski area; why it will likely remain a Cat-skiing hill for the foreseeable future; sizing up the terrain between Bohemia and Voodoo; where to find the new glades coming to Bohemia this season; the art of glading; breaking down the triple-black-diamond Extreme Backcountry; why serious injuries have been rare in Bohemia's rowdiest terrain; the extreme power of the Lake Superior snowbelt; Bohemia's magical snow patterns; why the Bohemia business model couldn't work in most places; whether Bohemia could ever install limited snowmaking and why it may never need it; how a mountain in Michigan without snowmaking can consistently push the season into May; “Bohemia is a community first and a ski area second”; why Bohemia is more like a 1960s European ski resort than anything in North America; and Bohemia's stint running the Porcupine Mountains ski area and why it ultimately pulled out of the arrangement.Why I thought that now was a good time for this interviewIt may be the most-repeated trope on The Storm Skiing Podcast: “skiing is a capital-intensive business.” It's true. Scope the battle corps of snow cannons lined hundreds deep along resort greens and blues, the miles of subsurface piping that feed them, the pump houses, the acres-big manmade ponds that anchor the whole system. The frantic rental centers with gear racked high and deep like a snowy Costco. The battalions of Snowcats, each costing more than a house. The snowmobiles. The cavernous day lodges. The shacks and Centers and chalets. And the chairlifts. How much does a chairlift cost? The price seems to increase daily. Operators generally guard these numbers, but Windham told me in March that their new 389-vertical-foot D-line detachable quad will cost $5 million. Again: more than a house. More than a neighborhood. And that's before you turn the thing on.But what if you get rid of the, um, capital? What if you build a ski resort like Old Man MacGregor did in 19-aught-7? Find a snowy hill and point to it and say, “there's my ski area, Sonny, go do yourself some ski'in. Just gimme a nickel and get the hell out of my face so's I can kill me a chicken for supper.”OK, so Boho stood up a pair of modern (used) chairlifts instead of MacGregor's ropetow slung through a Model-T engine, but its essential concept echoes that brash and freewheeling bygone America: A lift and a mountain. Go skiing.This isn't supposed to be good enough. You need Magic Carpets and vast lineups of matching-jacket ski instructors and “impeccably groomed” trails. A place where Grandpa Earl and Earl Jr. and Earl Jr. Jr. can bond over the amazing logistical hassles of family skiing and enjoy $150 cups of chili together in the baselodge.But over the past two decades, the minimalist ski area has emerged as one of skiing's best ideas. It can't work everywhere, of course, and it can't work for everyone. This is a complement to, and not a replacement for, the full-service ski resort. If you've never skied and you show up at Bohemia to go skiing, you're either going to end up disappointed or hospitalized, and perhaps both. This is a ski area for skiers, for the ones who spend all day at Boyne peaking off the groomers into the trees, looking for lines.There is a market for this. Look west, to Silverton, Colorado, where an antique Yan double – Mammoth's old Chair 15 – rises 1,900 vertical feet and drops skiers onto a 26,000-acre mecca of endless untracked pow. Or Bluebird Backcountry, also in Colorado, which has no chairlifts but marked runs rising off a minimalist base area, a launch point for Uphill Bro's bearded adventures. Neither pull the sorts of Holy Calamity mobs that increasingly define I-70 skiing, but both appear to be sustainable niche businesses.Of the three, Bohemia appeals the most to the traditional resort skier. Silverton is big and exposed and scary, a beacon-and-shovel-required-at-all-times kind of place. Bluebird is a zone in which to revel and to ponder, as much a shuffling hike as it is a day on skis. Boho skis a lot like the vast off-piste zones of Alta and Snowbird, with their infinite choose-your-own-adventure lines, entire acres-wide faces and twisting forests all ungroomed. Both offer a resort experience: high-speed lifts, (a few) groomed boulevards, snowguns blasting near the base. But that's not the point of Little Cottonwood Canyon. I skied Chip's Run once. It sucks. I can't imagine the person who shows up at Snowbird and laps this packed boulevard of milquetoast skiing. This is where you go for raw, unhinged skiing on bountiful and ever-refilling natural snow. For decades this was Utah-special, or Western-special, the sort of experience that was impossible to find in the Midwest. Then came Bohemia, with a different story to tell, a version of the Out West wild-nasty in the least likely place imaginable.What I got wrongIn discussing a possible skin/ski between Mount Bohemia and Voodoo Mountain – where Boho runs a small Cat-skiing operation – I compared the four-mile trek between them to the oft-skied route between Bolton Valley and Stowe, which sit five miles apart in the Vermont wilderness. The drive, I noted, was “about an hour.” In optimal conditions, it's actually right around 40 minutes. With wintertime traffic and weather, it can be double that or longer.I also accidentally said that the new name for the ski area formerly known as Big Snow, Michigan was “Snowbasin.” Which was kinda dumb of me. But then like 30 seconds later I said the actual name, “Snowriver,” so you're just gonna have to let that one go.Why you should ski Mount BohemiaMidwest skiing in the ‘90s was defined largely by what it wasn't. And what it wasn't was interesting in any way. I use this word a lot: “interesting” terrain. What I mean by that is anything other than wide-open groomed runs. And in mid-90s Michigan, that's all there was. Bumps were rare. Glades, nonexistent. Powder unceremoniously chewed up in the groom. The nascent terrain parks were branded as “snowboard parks,” no skiers allowed. A few ski areas actively ignored skiers poaching these early ramps and halfpipes – Nub's Nob was especially generous. But many more chased us away, leaving us to hunt the trail's edge in search of the tiniest knolls and drop-offs to carry us airborne.It didn't have to be this way. As often as I could, I would wake up at 4 and drive north across the border into Ontario. There lay Searchmont, a natural terrain park, a whole side of the mountain ungroomed and wild, dips and drops and mandatory 10-foot airs midtrial. Why had no one in Michigan hacked off even a portion of their Groomeramas for this sort of freeride skiing?In those years I visited friends at Michigan Tech, forty-five minutes south of where Bohemia now stands, each January. Snow always hip-high along the sidewalks, more falling every day. One afternoon we drove north out of Houghton, along US 41, into the hills rising along the Keweenaw Peninsula. Somewhere in the wilderness, we stopped. Climbed. Unimaginable quantities of snow devouring us like quicksand at every step. In descent, leaping off cliffs and rocks, sliding down small, steep chutes.We did not bring skis that day. But the terrain, I thought, would have been wildly appropriate for a certain sort of unhinged ski experience. Like a super-Searchmont. Wilder and bigger and rowdier. We could call it “The Realm of Stu's Extreme Ski Resort,” I joked with my friend on the long drive home.But I didn't think anyone would actually do it. The ski areas of Michigan seemed impossibly devoted to the lifeless version of skiing that catered to the intermediate masses. When Boho opened in 2000, I couldn't believe it was real. I still barely do. Live through a generation or two, and you begin to appreciate impermanence, and how names carry through time but what they mean evolves. The Michigan ski areas that once offered one and only one specific type of skiing have, as I noted in my podcast conversation with Nub's Nob General Manager Ben Doornbos a couple weeks ago, gotten much more adept at creating what I call a balanced mountain. Boyne, The Highlands, Caberfae – all deliver a far more satisfying product than they did 25 years ago.Boho drove at least some of this change. Suddenly, an expert skier had real options in the Midwest. Not that they new it at first – Glieberman recalls the dead, dark days of the ski area's first few seasons. But that's over. Bohemia is, on certain days, maxed out, in desperate need of more lifts and a touch fewer skiers – the famous $99 pass will increase to $109 this season for anyone who wants to ski Saturdays. The place works, as a concept, as a culture, as a magnet for expert skiers.Most ski areas, if you look closely enough, exist to serve some nearby population center. There are only a few that are good enough that they thrive in spite of their location, that skiers will drive past a dozen other ski areas to hit. Telluride. Taos. Jay Peak. Sugarloaf. Add Bohemia to this category. And add it to your list. No matter where you ski, this one is worth the pilgrimage.Podcast Notes* Glieberman references the book 22 Immutable Laws of Branding  - specifically its calls to “narrow your focus, strengthen your brand.” Here's the Amazon listing.* We don't get into this extensively, but Lonie mentions Mount Bohemia TV. This is an amazing series of shorts exploring Boho life and culture. Here's a sampling, but you can watch them all here.More Bohemia* A Vermonter visits Boho* A Ski magazine visit to Porcupine Mountains – a state-owned ski area – when Glieberman ran it in the mid-2000s.* A Powder Q&A with Glieberman.* I'm not the only one who's amazed with this place. Paddy O'Connell, writing in Powder seven years ago:Midwestern powder skiing is alive and real. The Upper Peninsula of Michigan is the home of the greatest grassroots ski resort in North America, Mount Bohemia. Storms swell over Lake Superior and slam their leeward winds on to the UP all winter long. Endless exploration is waiting up north through the treed ruggedness of Haunted Valley and the triple black Extreme Backcountry. The resort prides itself on being almost 100 percent unmarked and nearly devoid of ropes. The terrain is fun and adventurous and the bounty of snow is remarkable. Keweenaw County uses a 30-foot snow stake to measure season totals, and is currently measuring just under 25 feet. While my friends out West have been mountain biking and crack climbing, I have been slashing creek beds and frozen waterfalls, chomping on frosty Midwestern face shots. Yes, they exist here and in abundance in Michigan. The folklore is factual—all true skiers need to ski Mount Bohemia.* Boho was, amazingly, once part of the Freedom Pass reciprocal lift-ticket coalition, which grants season pass holders three days each at partner resorts. These days, Boho manages its own corps of reciprocals. This is an incredible list for a $99 ($133 with fees) season pass:Voodoo MountainPerhaps the most compelling piece of the Bohemia story is that the ski area is nowhere near built out. The mountain adds new terrain pretty much every year - Glieberman details the locations of three new glade runs in the podcast. But four miles due north through the wilderness - or 16 miles and 30 minutes by car - sits Voodoo Mountain, a three-mile-wide snowtrap that currently hosts Boho's catskiing operation. They even have a trailmap:Those cut runs occupy just 125 acres, but Voodoo encompasses 1,800 acres across four peaks on a 700-foot vertical drop. Glieberman tells me on the podcast that a 1970s concept scoped out a sprawling resort with 22 chairlifts (if anyone is in possession of this concept map, please email me a copy). The terrain, Glieberman says, is not as rowdy or as singular as Boho's, but Voodoo averages more annual snowfall - 300-plus inches - and its terrain faces north, meaning it holds snow deep into spring. Here's another map, currently posted at the resort, showing conceptual future build-outs at Voodoo:The Storm publishes year-round, and guarantees 100 articles per year. This is article 117/100 in 2022, and number 363 since launching on Oct. 13, 2019. Want to send feedback? Reply to this email and I will answer (unless you sound insane, or, more likely, I just get busy). You can also email Storm is exploring the world of lift-served skiing year-round. Join us. 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    Podcast #101: Sun Valley Vice President and GM Pete Sonntag

    Play Episode Listen Later Oct 20, 2022 64:45

    To support independent ski journalism, please consider becoming a free or paid subscriber. This podcast hit paid subscribers' inboxes on Oct. 20. It dropped for free subscribers on Oct. 23. To receive future pods as soon as they're live, please consider an upgrade to a paid subscription.WhoPete Sonntag, Vice President and General Manager of Sun Valley, Idaho.Recorded onOctober 10, 2022About Sun ValleyClick here for a mountain stats overviewOwned by: The R. Earl Holding familyPass affiliations: Ikon, Mountain CollectiveReciprocal pass partners: Challenger Platinum and Challenger season passes include unlimited access to Snowbasin, UtahLocated in: Ketchum, IdahoClosest neighboring ski areas: Soldier Mountain (1:10); Blizzard Mountain (1:20); Chipmunk Hill (2:10); Magic Mountain (2:30); Pomerelle (2:45); Pebble Creek (3:00); Bogus Basin (3:10); Kelly Canyon (3:10) - travel times likely to vary with wintertime weather and road closures.Base elevation | summit elevation | vertical drop:* Bald Mountain: 9,150 feet | 3,400 feet* Dollar Mountain: 6,638 feet | 628 feetSkiable Acres: 2,054 acres (mostly on Bald Mountain)Average annual snowfall: 200 inchesTrail count: 122 (100 on Bald Mountain; 22 on Dollar) – 2% double-black, 20% black, 42% intermediate, 36% beginnerLift fleet:* Bald Mountain: 12 lifts (8-passenger gondola, 8 high-speed quads, 2 triples, 1 carpet - view Lift Blog's of inventory of Bald Mountain's lift fleet)* Dollar Mountain: 6 lifts (2 high-speed quads, 1 triples, 1 double, 2 carpets - view Lift Blog's of inventory of Bald Mountain's lift fleet)Uphill capacity:* Bald Mountain: 23,680 skiers per hour* Dollar Mountain: 6,037 skiers per hourWhy I interviewed himIn certain #SkiTwitter circles and ski-oriented Facebook groups, Ski's annual reader resort rankings can be polarizing. I've critiqued them myself. Readers, en masse, can lack the context of how Their Very Favorite Mountain fits into the broader ski realm. So Wachusett (nice mountain, convenient access), ends up out-ranking Stowe (legendary mountain, but cold and far), on an annual basis.*So when Sun Valley wins this trophy for the third consecutive year, as it just did, this can puzzle the Radbrahs. They wander their homes, bumping into furniture, knocking over piles of torn-off sleeves. “How Sun Valley better than Jackson. No good as rad.” The Big Groom winning the continent does not compute.But most skiers ski groomers most of the time. It's what makes skiing viable as a mass-market product. And no one out-grooms The Big Groom. I asked Sonntag how many snowcats Sun Valley rolled out nightly. He wouldn't say. But I imagine it would be a sufficient number to launch an invasion of Vermont. Or they could just move the place there. It would fit right in. Sun Valley is the most Northeast-esque mountain in the West in the way it manages trails: all grooming, all the time. Fortunately for Sun Valley skiers, the place has the elevation to hold the snow and fend off the rain that bedevils New England's best. And that vert: 3,400 feet of straight down. It may be the most beautiful pure ski mountain on the continent. And most of the time, it's empty. You can find that beautiful corduroy all day.Not that you can't rad out a bit if you want to. The new Sunrise area delivers the sort of vast treed zones that so many of us seek from a western rise. There are glades everywhere, really. See map above. Most Sun Valley skiers ignore them. All the better for you. Brah. Enjoy.*There's an important bit of historical context missing from Ski's annual list-drop: this reader survey once complemented a similar resort-ranking list in sister magazine Skiing. Editors and writers chose that list. It was a bit like the AP (writers), and coaches' polls in college football. Skiing's list would drop in August, Ski's in September. Or vice-versa, depending upon the year. If Skiing were still around (it shuttered in 2017), their top-five for 2023 would probably be far more palatable to the Radbrahs. The 2004 top-10, to choose a random issue from my archives, was 1) Whistler, 2) Alta/Snowbird, 3) Vail, 4) Palisades Tahoe, 5) Jackson Hole. In Skiing's absence, Z Rankings probably does the best job lining up resorts to the expectations of RB HQ – their current top five: 1) Jackson, 2) Telluride, 3) Snowbird, 4) Alta, 5) Vail.What we talked aboutScoring the top spot in Ski magazine's reader poll for the third consecutive year; when Dad tells you to go be a ski bum; ski teaching at West Mountain, New York; back West and working at Beaver Creek, Copper Mountain, and Keystone; watching Vail Resorts grow from within; King Whistler; the challenges of integrating big bad Whistler into the Vail Resorts portfolio; cross-border cultural differences; how Sun Valley stands out in spite of its remoteness and relatively low snow totals, even among skiing's biggest, baddest, and raddest powder dumps; the chances of Sun Valley staying independent over the long term; how Sun Valley and Snowbasin work together; staffing up for the season; the resort's updated masterplan and how it will transform the resort; wave goodbye to the Yan high-speed quads; the massive Challenger lift upgrade; why the mountain is removing Greyhawk and not replacing it; bringing back and massively upgrading the Flying Squirrel lift; why Challenger will be a D-Line lift but Flying Squirrel will not be; why Mayday and Lookout upgrades aren't coming anytime soon; “there is something to the fixed-grip that is still really valuable”; which lift upgrades are next after Challenger and Flying Squirrel; whether a six- or eight-pack chair would make sense anywhere else on the mountain; Bald Mountain upgrades beyond chairlifts; why an Elkhorn upgrade at Dollar Mountain is unlikely; long-term snowmaking upgrades at Dollar; thoughts on the proposed gondola network that would connect both ski area base areas and the town; Sun Valley's unbelievable snowmaking firepower; assessing Sun Valley's water supply; creating a more balanced mountain with the Sunrise expansion; how the expansion helped mitigate fire risk; replacing the Cold Springs double with the Broadway high-speed quad and how that's worked out; expansion potential; Sun Valley's grooming army; solving the employee-housing puzzle and where the biggest gap is; why Sun Valley left the Epic Pass and whether the mountain could ever return; whether Vail's record Epic Pass sales contributed to Sun Valley's flight; and selling a $2,000-plus season pass in the era of the $841 Epic Pass.Why I thought that now was a good time for this interviewSun Valley has been making moves. In March, the resort ended its three-year run with Epic Pass and, along with sister resort Snowbasin, jumped over to Ikon. The same day, the mountain returned to the Mountain Collective, which it had originally joined in 2015. Then, in August, the resort announced a massive upgrade of one of North America's most iconic lifts: the Challenger high-speed quad, the tallest top-to-bottom chairlift on the continent. The detachable quad, built in 1988, would make way for a high-speed six-pack, one of Doppelmayr' s bomber D-lines. A midstation would let skiers off near the top of the adjacent Greyhawk high-speed quad, which will also come out next summer. And last week, completely unrelated to any of these developments, Ski magazine readers ranked Sun Valley their top ski area in North America for the third consecutive year.But there's something else. We've entered the era of overdoing it. The Epic and Ikon Passes are a little too good for their own good. I'm not sure how long Colorado and Utah and Tahoe can really handle them before they crack. I mean traffic-wise and I mean liftline-wise and I mean the-price-of-everything-but-the-pass-itself-wise. I don't think the passes will fail, but I think that the interconnected systems that they impact just may. There are only so many people you can jam into the same two dozen mountain towns before everything unravels. The passes, in their current form, are probably not sustainable indefinitely.Sun Valley is not immune to this fallout, of course, and the mountain has participated in big passes for years. But it has resisted the maximalist tendencies of its peers. The mountain's remoteness helps. But so do owners who have a skiing-first philosophy, a general undercurrent of “let's not ruin this.” Sun Valley could have All the People but instead it is content to just have some of them. We saw what happened when Ikon emptied the Higgins boats onto the shores of Jackson and Aspen. The indignant gasps echoed from the 12-bathroom slopeside mansions to Mr. Beards tucked into his oatmeal sleeping bag behind tower 17. No one's exactly getting the skier balance right, but Sun Valley has found a way to stand on a megapass masthead without drawing liftlines out to the parking lot. And that's something worth talking about.What I got wrongI entered the interview with an understanding that Sun Valley's masterplan had last been updated in 2005, and that the ski area had hired Ecosign in 2020 to update that plan. Sonntag corrected me in the interview, stating that the masterplan was in fact updated.I also stated that the current Challenger lift ride time is nine minutes. I'm not sure where I picked that up from – Sonntag pointed out that it's closer to 13, but will go significantly lower once the new lift – a D-line six-pack – comes online in 2023.Why you should ski Sun ValleyThis is what you're trying to get to. On any five-turn repurposed landfill with a double chair or good-for-five-minutes New England burner laced beneath a high-speed lift. When you hook into the morning cord raw and perfectly drawn into the incline and your ski accelerates along the curve slinging you like some kind of snowbound acrobat into the next turn and you think “yes ninjas are real and I know this because I am one,” and you want that sensation to repeat forever or at least for as long as you can handle it, like sex or food or winning, this is where you're ski compass is pointing. Because at Sun Valley you can expect to ride that sensation for-basically-ever. Thirty-four-hundred feet. Like Aspen it is all fall line. Unlike Aspen it is big, spread out, with more ways down than most skiers have the endurance to last.Some big mountains are all muscle, sparring contests from top to bottom, daring you to take one more turn. Sun Valley can give you that. But it's not the point of the place. This is not Snowbird. This is magic carpets unfurled for miles. Ride them. No rush. They won't get skied off. This isn't Okemo, where the cord is eaten alive by 10 a.m. This is Idaho. There's no one here. Hook-and-sink. Repeat hundreds of times. High-speed lift back to the top. Again.Skiers use social media to ask all sorts of questions, most of which would be better answered via Google search. “I'm looking for lodging recommendations for my family of 12 for Park City over Christmas break. We don't want to spend more than $5 per night. Slopeside preferred. Hottub a must. Also we don't want to wait in any liftlines so we're wondering if we can drive our family van up the mountain instead?”Here's another common question: what's the best ski area for an advanced skier who likes long groomers all day long? If that is what you seek, there is only one answer: Sun Valley.More Sun ValleyMost of the 2005 master plan has been rendered moot by the coming Challenger upgrade and the Broadway Express, but this slide, showing the potential line of a gondola connecting the two ski areas and resort village, could still happen:In 1988, Sun Valley installed a trio of high-speed quads: Greyhawk, Christmas, and the spectacular Challenger, a marvel even 34 years later with its full-mountain vertical rise. It's impossible to overstate how thoroughly these additions transformed the experience of skiing Idaho's most-famous ski resort. Observe the tangle of lifts puttering up the incline in 1986:And just for fun, here's the 1959 trailmap:And if you think that's a party, check this version from 1945:The Storm explores the world of lift-served skiing year-round. Join us.The Storm publishes year-round, and guarantees 100 articles per year. This is article 114/100 in 2022, and number 360 since launching on Oct. 13, 2019. Want to send feedback? Reply to this email and I will answer (unless you sound insane, or, more likely, I just get busy). You can also email Get full access to The Storm Skiing Journal and Podcast at

    Podcast #100: Nub's Nob General Manager Ben Doornbos

    Play Episode Listen Later Oct 15, 2022 98:01

    To support independent ski journalism, please consider becoming a free or paid subscriber. This podcast hit paid subscribers' inboxes on Oct. 15. It dropped for free subscribers on Oct. 18. To receive future pods as soon as they're live, please consider an upgrade to a paid subscription.WhoBen Doornbos, General Manager at Nub's Nob, MichiganRecorded onOctober 10, 2022About Nub's NobClick here for a mountain stats overviewOwned by: The Fisher familyPass affiliations: Indy PassReciprocal pass partners: NoneLocated in: Harbor Springs, MichiganClosest neighboring ski areas: The Highlands (4 minutes), Mt. McSauba (35 minutes), Boyne Mountain (37 minutes), Otsego (55 minutes), Treetops (1 hour), Shanty Creek (1 hour, 9 minutes), Hanson Hills (1 hour, 22 minutes), Mt. Holiday (1 hour, 26 minutes), Hickory Hills (1 hour, 41 minutes), Missaukee Mountain (1 hour, 41 minutes), Snow Snake (1 hour, 58 minutes), The Homestead (2 hours, 11 minutes), Crystal (2 hours, 14 minutes), Caberfae (2 hours, 14 minutes)Base elevation: 911 feetSummit elevation: 1,338 feetVertical drop: 427 feetSkiable Acres: 248Average annual snowfall: 123 inchesTrail count: 53 (24% double-black, 49% black, 20% intermediate, 7% beginner)Lift count: 10 (3 fixed-grip quads, 4 triples, 1 double, 1 carpet, 1 ropetow - view Lift Blog's inventory of Nub's Nob's lift fleet)Uphill capacity: 17,075 skiers per hourWhy I interviewed himWe all have those places that made us skiers, that wrecked us or rescued us, that in our private worlds are synonymous with skiing itself. For me those places are Mott Mountain, Apple Mountain, Snow Snake, Caberfae, Boyne Mountain, and Searchmont. Without those places I am not a skier, or at least I am not the particular version of a skier that's writing this newsletter. These are, in order, the first, second, third, and fourth places I skied; the place I learned to thread bumps; and the place I learned to navigate little drops and off-piste terrain. The first two are dead, the others survive in various states of modernized. In my head they all stand available at any moment for viewing, a tattered Stu-flix, a vault of skinny-ski adventures crashing through 1990s stop-animation reels.But there's a seventh ski area in my mental vault: Nub's Nob. It's a funny name, perhaps jarring if this is your first time seeing it. I happen to think it's the best ski area name in America. It's simple, memorable, intriguing, evocative of what it is: a 427-foot locals' bump with an Alta-grade following of devoted locals.That's not the same thing as having Alta-grade skiing (who does besides Snowbird)? But consider this: across the street lies The Highlands, the Boyne-owned runner formerly known as Boyne Highlands. The Highlands is larger than Nub's. It has one high-speed lift and is dropping in another next year – a six-pack so fancy that it makes the iPhone 14 look like a block of aged Roquefort. Highlands' season pass costs a bit more than Nub's, but it comes with days at Big Sky, which is like buying a microwave and getting a free car as a thank-you gift.None of it matters. Well, it probably matters to some people. But Nub's is the opposite of the endangered indie. It may be the best ski area under 500 vertical feet in the country: a big, sprawling trail layout; numerous and redundant lifts; grooming that makes an Olympic skating rink look like a Tough Mudder course; glades everywhere; and, like any Midwest ski area with a stocked trophy cabinet, an absolute flamethrower of a terrain park. Nub's is that lost treasure of Midwest skiing, rare as a 200-grade Boone-and-Crockett trophy buck: the balanced mountain. Grooming, yes, of all kinds, but bumps always on Twilight Zone, and maybe also on Chute (like many Michigan ski areas, the runs stack side by side on the trailmap, creating half a dozen that you could tuck into Park City's pumphouse). Several times per decade the ski area punches new glades into the forest. And since Nub's has one of the world's best snowmaking systems, supplemented with a reliable train of lake-effect and an ability to ninja-dodge freeze-thaw cycles, the whole mountain opens in the early season and often stays filled to the edges into April.Bad people can ruin a great ski area, of course. I can stay salty for decades over unprovoked attitude from a liftie. But I've been skiing Nub's Nob for as long as I've been skiing and I've never encountered anything other than an Extreme Welcome. The lifties chitter-chatter as you load and Patrol lets you ski where you please and the bartenders are tolerant of pitchers ordered in bulk at 11 a.m.My first day at Nub's was one of the weirdest ski days of my life. It was my sixth day ever on skis and I was geared up in sweatpants and a discount-superstore winter coat of the sort that rips when you yank the zipper open too sternly. We arrived in the snowslammed evening with tennis ball-sized flakes drifting in the wind. I did not have goggles of course and scoffed at the notion. At age 17 I had lived all my life in snowy climes and had never once needed such decorative nonsense. In a catastrophic freefall down Valley or perhaps it was Scarface I understood at last that storm-skiing sans goggles was like swimming without water: painful and really quite impossible. In the baselodge I purchased the least-expensive pair of goggles I could find, which I believe cost $25, an astonishing sum for a bagboy earning $4.50 an hour at the local Meijer superstore.Nub's excused the error. The upside of place-based defeat is the clear path to redemption. In all phases of my ski life I have returned to Nub's and it has always had something useful to say, something I couldn't exactly find anywhere else. I still can't, and I needed to poke around in the machine a bit to try and decode the trance.What we talked aboutWhen snowmaking starts at Nub's Nob; the mountain's earliest and latest openings ever; “bottom line, the ski industry in the Lower Peninsula of Michigan doesn't exist without snowmaking”; why freeze-thaw isn't really a thing for Nub's; “if you can open, you should open”; the path from $8.25-an-hour rental tech to general manager; Marquette Mountain; Nub's incredible seasonal employee retention rate; Jim Bartlett, the ski area's legendary general manager; not breaking a good thing; becoming the boss of the people who taught you everything you know; how Nub's Nob got its name; whether Nub's will stay independent over the long term; “where skiers go”; going deep on the Green lift upgrade: why it won't be a high-speed lift, when it's coming, and whether it will be green; whether the ski area considered wiping out the front-side lifts in favor of a six-pack; the tug-of-war between Fixed-Grip Bro and Detach Bro; why Orange won't be a high-speed lift either; comparing a modern fixed-grip Skytrac chair to a 1978 Riblet lift; why the new lift won't have a carpet load; why lifties need to talk to skiers; the installation and maintenance cost of a fixed-grip versus a high-speed lift; why the new lift will be the same length but occupy a smaller footprint; whether the new lift will load and unload at the same spots as the current Green lift; whether Nub's will sell the chairs; the Blue chair Killer; why the Blue lift isn't coming back; the power of the ropetow and where we could see more on Nub's; long-term plans for the Purple and Orange lifts; “there's something special about riding a double chairlift”; regional differences in safety-bar culture; “I'd like to have a super-modern lift fleet”; whether a lift from the bottom of Pintail Peak to the top of Nub's Nob South would make sense; how Nub's continues to develop new terrain on essentially the same footprint; how to access Nub's endless glade stash; why Arena and Tower glades don't continue farther skier's left along their respective ridges; the glades always open in Northern Michigan; Nub's last big expansion opportunity and what kind of terrain sits in there; keeping the parks rad Brah; the return of the halfpipe; why Nub's doesn't build earthwork features; the importance of night-skiing; considering lights on Pintail Peak; the history and secrets behind the Nub's Nob snowgun; “you can fix everything with a pipe wrench” and why the ski area is happy with a low-tech snowgun arsenal; long-live the metal wicket ticket; “we always think of technology as making our lives better, but sometimes, it's making our lives worse”; the competitive and cooperative dynamic between Nub's Nob and The Highlands, which sit across the street from one another; why Nub's finally joined the Indy Pass; the ski-industry problem that Indy Pass is solving; why Nub's is rolling with 32 Indy Base Pass blackouts; looking out for the little ski areas down the street; and how much it hurt to finally push Nub's peak-day lift-ticket prices over $100.    Why I thought that now was a good time for this interviewA lot of pretty obvious reasons: the new Green Chair, the resort's decision to at last join the Indy Pass, the obvious example of another thriving indie belying the whole Megapass-Killbot theory. But we booked this pod in May, weeks before the Indy announcement (which I knew was coming), and the chairlift upgrade (which I didn't). The simple fact is that I'd had Nub's Nob on my interview-the-GM list since Storm day one, and I finally reached out and we set everything up pretty quickly.This is a good time, however, to restate something that's core to this whole operation: this podcast is for everyone. And by “everyone,” I mean every ski area of any size. If it has a lift, I'm interested. For now, that means the United States, but I will fold Canada in soon enough. That will probably remain the focus over the long-term, but if you are running a ski area of any size anywhere on Planet Earth*, consider yourself relevant to The Storm Skiing Podcast.But from a practical, logistical point of view, I have tried very hard to balance the podcast across regions. This does not mean that I will guarantee an equal ratio of Western, Midwestern, and Northeast interviews (I haven't quite gotten to the Southeast yet; I will soon, but there are only a couple dozen ski areas down there, so pods focused in the southern states will likely always be infrequent). But I will promise a consistent flow of Midwest pods. It's where I came from, where I learned to ski, and it's one of the world's greatest and most vital ski regions.When the season's ski mags would drop each August in my early ski years, I would flip through slowly, hopefully, for any nugget of writing on Midwest ski areas. It was like searching for ice cream at a hardware store. No one cared. If a ski magazine was 200 pages, the West got 195, the East got five, and the Midwest got mentioned whenever a writer noted that Big Sky was owned by the same outfit that owned Boyne Mountain. It was a different, internet-less world, of course, but I am now in a position to create the sort of immersive ski area profiles that Teen Stu longed to see about my local bumps. These will keep landing in your inbox as long as The Storm does.You can view all past and future Storm Skiing Podcasts by clicking through below:*I will also consider ski areas on other planets.What I got wrongThe opening day of Michigan's deer-hunting season is a big deal. Like day-off-from-school big deal. And I don't mean parents pull their kids out while the non-hunters press on. I mean every Nov. 15 is a school holiday like Thanksgiving or Labor Day or Christmas. Our morning announcements each fall would warn us to watch out for sugarbeets – an enormous root crop stacked in clearings to bait deer – that had bounced off transport trucks on M-30. Deer hunting in Northern Michigan is a big deal.So, during a discussion about Nub's previous years' opening dates, I told Doornbos that it was pretty bold of him to open on the first day of deer-hunting season, after I thought he'd referenced a recent Nov. 15 opening. Doornbos rolled with it, but I realized while editing the pod that he had actually said Nov. 16. Oops.Why you should ski Nub's NobMichigan has 39 active ski areas, according to the National Ski Areas Association. This is the second-most of any state, behind New York, which sports 52. About two-thirds of Michigan's ski areas sit in the Lower Peninsula. This is a useful distinction: Lower Peninsula skiers rarely hit the Upper Peninsula (UP), and UP skiers rarely ski below the Mackinaw Bridge. Geography explains this disconnect: the UP's ski areas are mostly bunched in its western portion, far closer to Wisconsin than the population centers of Michigan. Marquette Mountain, the closest non-ropetow bump, is seven hours from Detroit airport, but fewer than five hours from Milwaukee. In that time, Southeast Michigan skiers can be at Keystone (with help from an airplane).That's all background. What I'm getting to is that the Lower Peninsula only has a half dozen or so well-equipped, substantially built-out ski areas with respectable vertical drops (relative to their neigboring hills): Nub's Nob, Caberfae, Crystal, Shanty Creek, Boyne Mountain, and The Highlands. Otsego Club, a longtime private joint, recently opened to the public, but its infrastructure is a bit creaky. So if you're planning a best-of-Michigan tour, these are the six to hit.But if you only have one day to ski Michigan before an asteroid crashes into the planet and wipes out life as we know it, pick Nub's. I'm not sure that it has the best terrain of those six – Highlands, I think, is equal in its sprawling videogame-ish dimensions. Nub's isn't the steepest – Boyne Mountain has the most consistent pitch along its extended main ridge. Nub's is probably also the least-resort-ish of the six, with little onsite lodging. But, like Caberfae, another family-owned bump that is on a constant crusade to enhance the skiing, Nub's is defined less by what I can easily point to and more by what's hard to describe. By that thing called atmosphere, a sort of sense of place that collectively descends upon all who ski there. It's not a thing you can order, like a lift, or something you can streamline, like parking. It's just something that is. You'll have to go and see for yourself.Podcast notes* I make the point several times that Nub's Nob is constantly upgrading. The ski area has collated an excellent timeline, starting with the ski area's 1957 founding. Skim this page and Nub's decades-long commitment to constant, mostly subtle but always impactful improvement is obvious. I wish all ski areas would create something like this.* A 2016 obituary for longtime owner Walter Fisher, who bought Nub's Nob from founder Dorie Sarnes in 1977 and owned it until he passed away (his family continues to own the ski area). An excerpt:Jim Bartlett — who joined Nub's that same year and now serves as its general manager — noted that the ski area has added significantly to its amenities since then, expanding from about a dozen runs to 53.“The business has grown almost continuously since Walter bought it in 1977,” said Bartlett, who described Fisher as “absolutely one of the most sincere, thoughtful, kind, classy men I've ever met.” …With neighboring Boyne Highlands Resort establishing itself as a ski area with extensive on-site lodging, Bartlett said Walter Fisher decided early in his Nub's involvement to pursue another niche — wanting the property to become "the best day ski area in the Midwest."Nub's would phase out its own limited lodging options so it could channel resources toward skiing amenities, grooming and snowmaking operations and food and beverage options. The ski area's offerings have since achieved regional and national recognition on numerous occasions.* Doornbos and I also talked extensively about Bartlett, who served as general manager from 1987 until handing the job off to Doornbos in 2017. An excerpt from this excellent profile by Kate Bassett:General Manager of Nub's Nob, Jim Bartlett, is a guy who has earned a nationwide reputation as a leader and champion of the old-school-cool Harbor Springs ski resort. But that's not the reason Jim Bartlett is a person whose story is worth telling.He's on top of the hill. He's at the bottom of the hill. He's in the maintenance garage. He's in the cafeteria. He's at a chairlift on-ramp. He's in the rental area. He's in the parking lot. He's everywhere. He's Nub's Nob's JB. …In his tenure at Nub's Nob, first as area manager and then as general manager, following the death of his mentor, legendary snow maker Jim Dilworth, Bartlett has turned 14 runs into 53, four chairlifts into nine, 15 patented snowmaking guns into 292, plus added a Pintail Peak Lodge, new locker room and so much more. The most impressive part? He's done it without sacrificing Nub's signature vibe, best described as a home away from home.Bartlett's an expert in snow making techniques. A public relations superstar. A guy who understands the importance of blending tradition with new technology. He's even learned how to make peace with the Midwest's occasionally uncooperative winter weather. In short, he's like a walking, talking master's class of how to run a resort that's focused 100 percent on skiing and riding.* We go deep on the Green lift upgrade, which Doornbos announced in an excellent video last month:* Nub's Nob is The Storm's fourth podcast focused explicitly on a Michigan ski area - I've also featured The Highlands, Boyne Mountain, and Caberfae:I should have another Michigan episode coming next week - and it's a good one. Listen to the end of the pod to find out who.The Storm explores the world of lift-served skiing year-round. Join us.The Storm publishes year-round, and guarantees 100 articles per year. This is article 112/100 in 2022, and number 358 since launching on Oct. 13, 2019. Want to send feedback? Reply to this email and I will answer (unless you sound insane, or, more likely, I just get busy). You can also email Get full access to The Storm Skiing Journal and Podcast at

    Podcast #99: Brundage Mountain General Manager Ken Rider

    Play Episode Listen Later Oct 10, 2022 96:54

    To support independent ski journalism, please consider becoming a free or paid subscriber. This podcast hit paid subscribers' inboxes on Oct. 10. Free subscribers got it on Oct. 13. To receive future pods as soon as they're live, please consider an upgrade to a paid subscription.WhoKen Rider, general manager of Brundage Mountain, IdahoRecorded onOct. 3, 2022About BrundageClick here for a mountain stats overviewOwned by: Brundage Mountain Holdings LLC, which Rider describes as a collection of “Idaho families.”Pass affiliations: Indy PassReciprocal pass partners – view full list here:* 5 days at Red Lodge* 4 days at Diamond Peak* 3 days each at Loveland, Monarch, Ski Cooper, Sunlight, Mt. Bohemia, Snow King, Mt. Hood Meadows, Beaver Mountain* 2 days at Homewood* Limited tickets available at Powder Mountain* Half off lift tickets at AltaLocated in: McCall, IdahoClosest neighboring ski areas: Little Ski Hill (10 minutes), Tamarack (47 minutes)Base elevation: 5,882 feetSummit elevation: 7,803 feet at SargentsVertical drop: 1,920 feetSkiable Acres: 1,920 acresAverage annual snowfall: 320 inchesTrail count: 70 (46% black, 33% intermediate, 21% beginner)Lift count: 6 (1 high-speed quad, 4 triples, 1 surface lift - view Lift Blog's of inventory of Brundage's lift fleet)Uphill capacity: 7,900 skiers per hourWhy I interviewed himIn April, I put together a list of 11 ski areas offering bomber reciprocal season pass benefits. Since the passes I chose are inexpensive and offer free days at up to 50 partners, they've become a bit of a cheat code for the adventure set ready to break from (or supplement) Epic or Ikon - even for skiers who live nowhere near the mountain. With that wink-wink in mind, I contacted each ski area to ask whether they mailed season passes. Brundage's answer led to an email exchange that led to this podcast.Some version of that story is how around half of Storm Skiing Podcasts are booked, but the timing was fortuitous. I'd been meaning to reach out anyway. What was this big mountain with big snow that was an Indy Pass favorite? How does a place that's larger than Aspen Mountain and Aspen Highlands combined, that's roughly the size of Beaver Creek or Deer Valley, that gets as much snow as Winter Park, stand so unassuming on the national scene? Yes, the place only has one high-speed lift and no on-slope lodging. It's far off any interstate and not particularly close to any large cities. But it's up the road from a great resort town (McCall), and close enough to supernova-ing Boise to catch some of the ambient heat.Who are you, Brundage? And why are you so shy about it? It was time to talk.What we talked aboutDetermining this year's opening date; snowmaking at Eldora; going from grad school to $10-an-hour peddling Copper Mountain lift tickets; working at heyday Intrawest; Tamarack in its Wild West 2004 grand opening; Tamarack's decline and current renaissance; Grand Targhee; McCall 101; the Little Ski Hill; how mountain-town pricing pressures are hitting Idaho; wage bumps and creative employee housing at Brundage; modernizing Brundage; the ski area's ownership history and the group that purchased it two years ago; Brundage's aggressive, expansive master plan; the Temptation Knob beginner/intermediate pod and what sort of lifts we could see there; Brundage's 320 average annual inches of snow falls at its base; potential lifts up Hidden Valley and Sargents; whether the Centennial triple could make its way to another part of the mountain; potential expansion off the East Side/backside of Brundage; how large Brundage could become if the master plan is fully built out; whether Brundage could be or wants to be a national destination; whether Bluebird Express could ever be upgraded to a six-pack; the evolution of BEARTOPIA!!!; Brundage's snowmaking capabilities, potential, and water source; the incoming new lodge; fixing the flow from parking lot to lodge to rentals to ski school; finally slopeside housing; the tension between the keep-it-wild crowd and people who want to sleep on the mountain; season passes; why Brundage was an inaugural Indy Pass member; the percentage of Brundage skier visits that are Indy and whether the pass is causing peak-period crowding; why the ski area introduced Indy Pass blackouts last year; and why Brundage continues to offer reciprocal lift ticket partnerships (for now).                Why I thought that now was a good time for this interviewBrundage is one of many indie resorts across the West that are leveling up. Under an Idaho-strong group that took ownership a few years ago, the ski area is reworking its master plan. The scale of this thing is pretty incredible. Observe:Compare that to the trailmap above. The new plan would add:* A new beginner/intermediate pod on Temptation Knob, adjacent to the existing Beartopia pod. Rider told me that he foresees a high-speed quad rising up the knob's 650-ish vertical feet and a surface lift off the backside.* A fixed-grip quad serving Hidden Valley from the base area.* A pair of lifts serving Sargents, which is currently on the trailmap as unpatrolled terrain. Rider said that he imagines both Sargents and Wayback as fixed-grip doubles or quads.* Two large intermediate/beginner pods off the backside, both likely served by fixed-grip quads – labelled “Lift G” and “Eastside” on the map.If completed, these expansions would vault Brundage into Bogus Basin/Sun Valley territory size-wise, but there's a lot more happening here: a new lodge that isn't 700 steps above the parking lot, on-site residences, extensive (and creative) employee housing, serious snowmaking investments, and much more.Brundage is also a bit of a barnstormer, among the top two Indy Pass resorts in the West every year since launch. New England, of course, is Indy ground zero, but this year Brundage finished 10th in redemptions out of 82 Indy Pass partners. The only Western resort to top out higher was Utah A-bomb Powder Mountain.That really surprised me. My guess would have been Indy's big Washington ski areas – Mission Ridge, White Pass, 49 Degrees North – and Silver Mountain plopped dead off Interstate 90 an hour east of Spokane. Yes, the Tamarack/Brundage combo – the mountains sit less than an hour apart – is one of Indy's best, but the McCall Miracle was a top draw even before Tamarack joined in 2020.Brundage is telling a good story, and it's getting better. Now was a great time for a check-in.Questions I wish I'd askedI meant to ask about the Rainbow Fire, which hit Brundage last month but ended up leaving minimal damage. An article on the resort's website summarizes the whole ordeal pretty well anyway:Just five days after lightning sparked a fire at the top of Brundage Mountain, the Forest Service has declared the Rainbow Fire to be officially under control.The Rainbow Fire was sparked by lightning during a thunderstorm event on the evening of Wednesday, September 7 and was immediately visible from both McCall and New Meadows. Initial attack efforts kept the fire from spreading beyond the upper Hidden Valley area, which is located to the north of Brundage Mountain's main front side runs.Smokejumpers and engine crews engaged with the fire the first night, and an aerial assault from helicopters and scoopers doused the flames with water and applied fire retardant at the top of Brundage Mountain the following day.Ground crews circled the fire zone with hoses and worked through the weekend to monitor the perimeter and put out hot spots. The fire was contained to an area of less than five acres.“The Brundage Mountain team would, once again, like to thank the smokejumpers, firefighters and fire managers who sprung into action to quickly control this fire,” says Brundage Mountain General Manager, Ken Rider. “Wednesday night's lightning event resulted in a number of new fire starts on the Payette National Forest. The efforts to contain and control those new fires, while continuing to make progress on larger, existing fires in the area, speaks to the skill, dedication and hard work of our friends at the Payette National Forest and partner organizations like SITPA, the BLM and Lone Peak Fire Department from Utah.”Brundage Mountain crews will be assessing the Rainbow Fire scar but the impacts on skiers and riders are expected to be minimal.“The torching and visible flames the first night of this fire were alarming,” added Rider. “We are beyond grateful that it will have such a minor impact on our overall operations and on the skiing and riding public.”What I got wrongI say in the intro that Rider began his ski career at Intrawest. As we discuss in the conversation, his first ski job was actually at Eldora. I also asked Rider about going to the “new ski state” of Idaho when he went to work at Tamarack – I meant to say “new-to-you ski state,” since Rider was moving there from Colorado. I also have it stuck in my head that Beaver Creek, opened in 1980, was the last major ski resort developed in the U.S. prior to Tamarack in 2004, but Rider correctly reminded me that it was Deer Valley, in 1981. One could also argue for Yellowstone Club (1997), Mount Bohemia (2000), Silverton (2001), or even Whitetail (1991). But those all have some sort of asterisk: too oligarchy, too minimalist, too borderline-backcountryish, too Pennsylvania. The NSAA keeps a list here, though it's missing quite a few ski areas (Wolf Creek), and has a bunch that haven't operated in a while (Gateway, New Hampshire; Elk Ridge, Arizona).Why you should ski BrundageIf you're reading this far down the page then you don't need much of a nudge to pencil “ski 2,000-acre, 2,000-foot-vertical-drop ski area with 300-plus inches of snow” into your winter calendar. The skiing, like most Idaho skiing, is pretty great. But I always feel a sense of urgency when describing ski areas that are poised to unfold like a pop-up book into something far larger. It's only going to take a few more seasons of Epic and Ikon mountains disgorging the Epkonotron onto their slopes to turbocharge the Skipass Hack-O-Matic 5000. Savvy vacationers are going to figure out the McCall + a growing Brundage + a growing Tamarack = a-good-ski-vacation-without-feeling-as-though-you're-re-enacting-the-invasion-of-Normandy equation at some point.Brundage will never be Park City or Palisades Tahoe. But it will get bigger and better and busier than it is today. So go now, while their longest lift is still a fixed-grip triple crawling 1,653 vertical feet up the incline, over hillocks and pine forests and with the lakes placid in the distance. Enjoy the motion in the midst of stillness, the big mountain with the little-mountain vibe and prices and energy. And look around and imagine what it will one day be.Podcast notesRider and I discussed the Beartopia map briefly. It's a pretty brilliant rework of Brundage's beginner corner. If you don't have kids, perhaps you don't agree. But I recently sat beside my 5-year-old for a flight across the Atlantic, during which time he became obsessed with the route map displayed on the seatback monitor. The touchscreen offered two options: the regular map or the “kids' map.” The kids' map was nothing more than the regular map with some skunks and deer and bears superimposed over the atlas. And yet so extreme was his delight that you would have thought I had just invented cookie burgers. Yes Son it's just like a hamburger but instead of meat there's a giant cookie in there and yes of course you can have seven of them.Anyway, here's the map:Rider at one point compares the Brundage baselodge to “a steamship on the Mississippi Delta.” It was not meant to be a compliment. The lodge, like those antique riverboats, is staggered, boxy, imposing. An anachronism in our architecture-at-peace-with-the-earth moment. Still, as an avid reader of Twain, I found the comparison interesting, a literary-historic reference in a podcast about an Idaho ski area. Those sorts of thinkers, fecund and surprising, are the sorts of folks I want running my local.I also mentioned in the intro that Brundage is my third Idaho podcast this year. In January, I went deep on the Tamarack story with the resort's president, Scott Turlington:Then, this summer, I chatted with Bogus Basin General Manager Brad Wilson:The Storm publishes year-round, and guarantees 100 articles per year. This is article 109/100 in 2022, and number 355 since launching on Oct. 13, 2019. Want to send feedback? Reply to this email and I will answer (unless you sound insane). You can also email Storm is exploring the world of lift-served skiing all year long. Join us.Like The Storm? Invite the rest of your organization in via a per-subscriber discount that can be managed through a single administrator: Get full access to The Storm Skiing Journal and Podcast at

    Podcast #98: 'Colorado Sun' Reporter Jason Blevins

    Play Episode Listen Later Oct 2, 2022 88:11

    To support independent ski journalism, please consider becoming a free or paid subscriber. This podcast hit paid subscribers' inboxes on Oct. 2. Free subscribers got it on Oct. 5. To receive future pods as soon as they're live, please consider an upgrade to a paid subscription.WhoJason Blevins, ski country (and more) reporter at The Colorado SunRecorded onSeptember 13, 2022Why I interviewed himOver two decades starting in 1997, Jason Blevins built the best local ski beat in America at The Denver Post. That he was anchored in Colorado - one of the fastest-growing states in America and home to expansion monster Vail Resorts, the atrocious I-70, America's greatest ski towns, and the largest number of annual skier visits in the country - also made his coverage the most consequential and relevant to a national audience. By his own account, he loved the Post and his colleagues, and was proud of what he had built there.“I created this beat at The Denver Post,” Blevins told Powder in 2018. “It was something that I carved out myself, just looking at mountain communities. I found that the best stories were in these small towns with small-town characters. Some of the brightest minds.”But in 2010, the paper started a slow decline following its acquisition by New York-based Alden Global Capital. The newsroom shrank from a high of 250 reporters to approximately 70. This still wasn't enough for Alden, as The Washington Post's Margaret Sullivan documented in March 2018:Jesse Aaron Paul could hardly believe his good fortune when he started his internship at the Denver Post in 2014 not long after he graduated from Colorado College.“I felt like I had reached the end of the yellow brick road,” Paul, now 25, said, describing his first day at the paper with its history of Pulitzer Prizes, its beautiful downtown building (“like a beacon”), and its nationally regarded top editor, Greg Moore, who hired him at summer's end and who dubbed him “Super Jesse.”That all came crashing down on Wednesday when newsroom employees were summoned to an all-staff meeting at the paper's headquarters, no longer downtown but at the printing plant in an outlying county.After round after round of cutbacks in recent years at the hands of its hedge-fund owners, the staff thought there might be a small number of buyouts offered. There wasn't much left to cut, after all.Top editor Lee Ann Colacioppo, who has been at the paper for almost 20 years, gave it to them straight — and the news was far worse than expected.The Post, already a shadow of its once-robust self, would be making deep layoffs: another 30 jobs.“Sobs, gasps, expletives,” was how Paul, who covers politics, described the stunned reaction.“The room went silent — we were blindsided by the numbers” said Aaron Ontiveroz, a 33-year-old photographer who has been on that award-winning staff for seven years, watching its ranks drop from 16 photographers to six.Blevins, fed up, resigned shortly, as The Ringer documented:In March [2018], Blevins got back from [the Olympics in] South Korea and settled into his routine. (He also wrote about business and other subjects.) The next few weeks turned out one of the grimmest stretches in The Post's history. On April 6, The Post adorned its “ultimate visitors guide” to Coors Field with a photo of Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia—a mistake so egregious that one Denver radio host joked it was a strapped staff calling for help. The same night, The Post ran an editorial denouncing the paper's owner, Alden Global Capital, the hedge fund that's decimating the Post's newsroom.But what got Blevins was Alden president Heath Freeman's order that The Post lay off 30 more employees. “I couldn't really reconcile the fact that I was working so hard for such a shithead,” Blevins said.Asked whether he'd ever seen Freeman, Blevins said, “No one's ever seen him. There's like one photo of him out there. He's more like a mystery serial killer, just hiding in the shadows and slowly murdering newspapers.”Blevins decided to add himself to the 30-man headcount voluntarily. He sent an email to his editor and a resignation letter to the HR department. He kissed off the paper's “black-souled” owners in a tweet. And with that, The Post lost a good sportswriter, a newsroom character, and 21 years' worth of institutional memory.Here's the tweet:Blevins wasn't the only Post reporter to bounce. Over the spring and summer of 2018, the paper continued to lose talent. Instead of scattering, they formed into a sort of Rocky Mountain Voltron called The Colorado Sun. Per Corey Hutchins,* writing in Columbia Journalism Review:The politics desk at The Denver Post has imploded. Starting in April with voluntary exits that included Brian Eason, a Statehouse reporter, and climaxing this month with a new round of departures, four of the political writers and an editor have gone. John Frank and Jesse Paul, who also covered the Statehouse, resigned in recent weeks, along with other colleagues, in defiance of Alden Global Capital, the New York-based hedge fund that owns the Post and other newsrooms—and has set about shrinking their ranks dramatically. But there is some hope for readers who still want to see the work of these journalists in Colorado: Frank and Paul are headed to The Colorado Sun—a Civil-backed platform staffed entirely, so far, by 10 former Post employees, who will be ready to cover the midterm elections in November. (Eason will also contribute to it.)Larry Ryckman, an editor of the Sun, who left the Post as a senior editor in May, says he's not in a position to recruit anyone, but receives calls “practically every other day from people at the Post who want to come work for me.” The Sun—which raised more than $160,000 in a Kickstarter campaign, doubling its goal—will be ad-free with no paywall, and reader-supported, and will focus on investigative, narrative, and explanatory journalism. Founding staff members own the company, an LLC, which also received enough startup funding from Civil to last at least the next two years.Now the Sun, which hopes to start publishing around Labor Day, is poised to be a kind of post-Post supergroup. Four years in, The Colorado Sun is thriving. Blevins tells me in the podcast that the publication is approaching 20,000 paid subscribers and has 27 reporters. Morale and output are high. Profitability is close. They feed content to every paper in Colorado – for free. How, in this age of media apocalypse, did this bat-team of super-journalists conjure a sustainable and growing newsroom from the ether? Will it work long-term? Is The Sun's template repeatable?Let's hope so. Hurricane Alden's damage is not localized – the fund owns approximately 200 American newspapers and is trying to devour more. The company repeats its cut-and-gut strategy everywhere it lands. It works because locals' decades-old brand allegiance often persists even as the quality of the product declines. This was especially true in Denver, a city that had lost its other daily newspaper – The Rocky Mountain News – in 2009. Where 600 reporters once competed across two daily papers to deliver the most urgent local news to the residents of Greater Denver, somewhere between 10 and 15 percent of that number do the job today.Fortunately for skiing and the high country, one of that number is Blevins. His work has always been important in a hyper-specific way, exploring skiing's impact beyond its traditional branches of stoke-brah Red Bull flippy-doozers and ogling mansion-porn materialism. But in our current mass media extinction event, a Texas kid who spent his formative years living in a Vail laundry room has become an unlikely general in the battle for journalism's soul. His platoon is small and outgunned, but they have more spirit and better ideas. Frankly, they could win this thing.*I highly recommend Hutchins' Substack newsletter, Inside The News in Colorado:What we talked aboutSkiing as a Texas kid; the ‘90s ski bum; Vail 30 years ago; living in a laundry room; getting a chance at The Denver Post with no reporting experience; inventing the Colorado business ski beat; the great Charlie Meyers; the ‘90s heyday and slow implosion of mainstream American newsrooms; the nefarious impact of Alden Global Capital's gutting of local newspapers across America; leaving The Post to found The Colorado Sun; the Sun's journalist-led business model and whether it can be replicated elsewhere; why The Sun doesn't cover sports; the I-70 tipping point; pandemic relocators; Back-in-'92 Bro coming strong; Vail locals as the great liftline generators; the midweek business resort communities always wanted has arrived and no one was ready; the trap of basing long-term policy decisions on the anomaly of Covid; Colorado as short-term-rental laboratory; how ski towns created their own housing crisis; the new Mountain West, “where the locals live in hotels and the visitors stay in houses”; the housing scuffle between Vail Resorts and its namesake town; does an old Telluride lawsuit tell us how this ends?; the sheep defenders; the centuries-old problem of the company town; why developers give up and would rather build mansions than affordable housing; density is not the enemy; the elusive NIMBY; whether Vail's employee pay bump and lift ticket limits will be enough to prevent a repeat of the complaint-laden 2021-22 ski season; why the Epic Pass keeps losing independent partners; the most well-kept secret in skiing; why comparing Vail and Alterra's business models is so difficult; the inevitability of Alterra going public on the stock markets; perhaps the best reaction I've ever heard to Vail and Beaver Creek charging $275 for a one-day lift ticket; and why independent ski areas are thriving in the megapass era.                 Why I thought that now was a good time for this interviewAny time is a good time to talk to Blevins. He is wired on virtually any story impacting Colorado's ski industry: Vail's financial performance, leadership tumult at the National Ski Patrol, patroller unionization, Keystone's expansion oopsie. Incredibly, skiing is just part of his beat. His Sun author page is an eclectic menu of stories ranging from the drama upending crunchy thinktanks to novel collaborations between ranchers and the Bureau of land management to crises in Colorado trailer parks. But we didn't talk, explicitly, about any of these things. We focused, instead, on adding context to stories I've been covering in The Storm: multi-mountain passes, mountain-town housing, traffic, the evolution of media. We could have had a different conversation the next day, and an entirely different one the day after that. Blevins is the best kind of journalist: observant, curious, prolific, devoted, and unapologetically honest. And also extremely busy. I took more of his time than I deserved, but his candor and insight will be enormously valuable to my listeners.Questions I wish I'd askedYou could ask Blevins about any issue of consequence to hit the Colorado ski scene in the past 20 years and he would have a ready answer, so we could have gone just about anywhere with this interview. Our focus was the evolution of media in the digital age, I-70, housing, the megapass wars, Vail Resorts' operating adjustments ahead of next ski season, and the resilience of independent ski areas in this consolidation era. But I had backup questions prepared on the tumult roiling the National Ski Patrol, the proposed mega-development at tiny Kendall Mountain, the comeback of Cuchara, resort employee unionization, and much more. Next time.Why you should read The Colorado SunThere is a whole subset of journalists who write about journalism. This beat is surprisingly robust. If you want to keep up, I suggest subscribing to Nieman Lab's near-daily newsletter, which aggregates the day's best media coverage of itself.But even if you're not paying attention, you understand that journalism, like everything else, has gotten its ass kicked by the internet over the past 25 years or so. The world I grew up in is not the world we live in now. Newspapers, dropped daily on a doorstep and acting as a subscriber's primary source of information about the local community and outside world, no longer exist principally in that form or serve that function. They are one source of information in a universe of infinite information, most of it bad.Many people, it seems, have a hard time telling the good information from the bad. “The media” is a four-letter word in many circles, cast as an agenda-driven force puppet-mastered by diabolical unseen elites. Besides, why bother reading the work of trained journalists when you can find online groups who validate any kookball idea you have, from the notion that the planet is flat (surely these knuckleheads are trolling us), to the conviction that the government is pumping toxic chemicals into the atmosphere.Certainly there are ideologically driven news organizations. But “the media,” for the most part, is individual journalists – educated middle-class workers – seeking the truth through a methodical process of fact-finding. Unfortunately, as the world migrated online and the information gatekeepers lost power, traditional media business models collapsed, opening an enormous void that was quickly filled by every moron with a keyboard.Big, legacy media was slow to adapt. But it is adapting now. Journalists are finding a way. The Colorado Sun, like the Texas Tribune before it, has established a sustainable template for high-quality, community-supported journalism. They have no central office, no printing costs, minimal advertising. Every dollar they earn goes into reporting. Most of those dollars come from citizens grateful for the truth, who pay a monthly subscription even though The Sun has no paywall.It's an appealing alternative to the minimalist business model of Alden Global Capital and The Denver Post. And I think it will predominate long-term, as journalists migrate from low-morale dens of aggressive cost-cutting run by opaque hedgemasters to spirited corps of locals engaged with and invested in their communities. In 50 years, we may be looking back at The Colorado Sun as a pioneer of digital-age journalism, one that established a new template for what a local news organization could be.Podcast notes* Alden Global Capital's hilariously useless website.  * The Texas Tribune is considered the OG of modern public-service journalism, and it comes up throughout the podcast.* In our discussion on the current housing-development dispute between the town of Vail and Vail Resorts, Blevins referred to a recent column he had written comparing this situation to a similar situation in Telluride:When a deep-pocketed investor proposed luxury homes and a village on Telluride's pastoral valley floor in the late 1990s, the town moved to block development, citing damage to the region's rural character. Town voters approved a decision to condemn the 572 acres on the valley floor in 2002. The case eventually landed in the Colorado Supreme Court, which ruled that Telluride had the power to condemn that acreage outside its boundary.The valuation proved spicy. The town offered the developer $26 million. The developer wanted $51 million. He forced a jury trial to move to nearby Delta County where the jury in 2007 ordered Telluride to pay $50 million, which was twice what the town had set aside to protect the parcel. A massive fundraising effort followed and the valley floor remains a bucolic stretch of open space on the edge of downtown Telluride.In Telluride, the value boiled down to the developer arguing the “highest and best use” of the 572 acres, where he envisioned multimillion-dollar homes, shops and restaurants. At Vail, that could come down to whether the parcel could ever be used for high-end homes.“The Vail corporation will argue that the land should be valued for its higher and best use,” said Collins, who penned a legal paper analyzing the Telluride valley floor case. “Assuming the ski corporation wants to fight this, that will absolutely be their argument. Highest and best use. That's just good lawyering.”This, Blevins thinks, is where the Vail dispute is headed. Tens of millions in public money spent and no new housing built. For more insight like this, sign up for The Sun:The Storm publishes year-round, and guarantees 100 articles per year. This is article 104/100 in 2022, and number 350 since launching on Oct. 13, 2019. Want to send feedback? Reply to this email and I will answer (unless you sound insane, or, more likely, I just get busy). You can also email Storm explores the world of lift-served skiing all year round. Join us. 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    Podcast #97: Pats Peak General Manager Kris Blomback

    Play Episode Listen Later Sep 26, 2022 85:04

    To support independent ski journalism, please consider becoming a free or paid subscriber. This podcast hit paid subscribers' inboxes on Sept. 26. Free subscribers got it on Sept. 29. To receive future pods as soon as they're live, please consider an upgrade to a paid subscription.WhoKris Blomback, General Manager of The Mighty Pats Peak, New HampshireRecorded onSeptember 19, 2022About Pats PeakClick here for a mountain stats overviewOwned by: The Patenaude familyPass affiliations: Indy PassReciprocal pass partners: NoneLocated in: Henniker, New HampshireClosest neighboring ski areas: Crotched (30 minutes), Mount Sunapee (30 minutes), McIntyre (30 minutes), Veterans Memorial (50 minutes), Ragged Mountain (50 minutes), Granite Gorge (50 minutes – scheduled to return this season), Whaleback (50 minutes), Gunstock (1 hour), Storrs Hill (1 hour),Base elevation: 690 feetSummit elevation: 1,460 feetVertical drop: 770 feetSkiable Acres: 115 acres      Average annual snowfall: 100 inchesTrail count: 28 trails, 9 glades (17% double-black, 12% black, 21% intermediate, 50% beginner)Lift count: 11 (4 triples, 2 doubles, 2 carpets, 1 J-bar tow, 2 handle tows - view Lift Blog's of inventory of Pats Peak's lift fleet)Why I interviewed himLiving next door to Vermont is probably a little like being Hoboken. Nice town, great location, all the advantages of city life, but invisible in the orbit of Earth's most famous island. Did you know that the population density of Hoboken is about double that of New York City? Probably not. It's fine. Most people don't. Nobody cares about Hoboken.That's how it seems the ski intelligentsia sometimes views New York, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire, the three ski states bordering Vermont. By whatever accident of geology and meteorology, the Pretentious Beer State possesses most of the region's biggest ski areas and its most reliable snowzone: the Green Mountain Spine. Along this rim sit your headliners: Killington, Sugarbush, Mad River Glen, Stowe, Smugglers' Notch, Jay Peak. If you tried to tell me these were the six best ski areas between the Atlantic and the Mississippi, I'd probably be like, “OK” and go eat my Pop-Tarts.But if The Storm was just a documentary tool for places where New Yorkers vacation, then I would have wrapped this project up two years ago. This is a big New Hampshire house, and always has been: the heads of Loon, Cannon, Gunstock, Waterville Valley, Whaleback, and Ragged have all made podcast appearances. Still, the Vermont interview tally is 15, even though I ski New Hampshire as often as I do Vermont. Clearly I have work to do.So here we are. A New Hampshire ski area with the best attributes of New Hampshire ski areas: service- and snowmaking-oriented; steep and varied; busy because it's close to everything; lots of lifts; lots of community and tradition. If you don't think all that fits into 115 acres, you haven't skied New England. The Mighty Pats Peak jams it all in just fine.What we talked aboutReaction to the Jay Peak sale;Ragged Mountain; Pats Peak in the early ‘90s; a brief history of Pats Peak; Blomback's 100-point list to modernize Pats Peak; “when you operate a ski area 60 miles from the Atlantic Ocean, she's got something to say about that”; how Pats Peak survived when so many Southern New Hampshire ski areas died; the overcorrection that nearly wiped out Pats Peak's competition; the problem with debt; thoughts on the pending comebacks of Granite Gorge and Tenney; why the ski area has dubbed itself “the mighty Pats Peak”; knowing who you are; cheapskate expert skiers; who owns Pats Peak; the value of autonomy; what's kept Blomback at Pats Peak for 31 years; Magic Mountain in the ‘80s; why Pats buys used lifts; where Pats' current lifts came from; which lifts are next in line for an upgrade and what may replace them; the poor-man's detachable; a history of (non-mechanical) high-speed lift fails in New England; the “magic length” of a detach; ski areas are littered with dead halfpipes; some unique attributes of Mueller lifts; whether it's a pain in the butt to have chairlifts made from a half-dozen different manufacturers; why Vortex rarely has liftlines even when the bottom triples have 20-minute waits; how Pats Peak crushes its larger competitors in snowmaking on a regular basis; the ski area's audacious goal to go from nothing open to every trail open in 48 hours; the history, purpose, and experience of Cascade Basin; additional trail and glade expansion opportunities; snowmaking in the glades; why Pats Peak was an early Indy Pass adopter; Pats Peak is the third-most redeemed Indy resort and I mean damn; why Indy draws so many first-time visitors to Pats Peak; a new reason to hate Liftopia; Indy Pass D-day at Pats Peak; reaction to Vail entering New Hampshire; competing with the Northeast Value Epic Pass; “skiing is an experience”; the logic of over-staffing; “service and experience is what sets Pats Peak apart”; and competing against Vail's $20-an-hour minimum wage.Why I thought that now was a good time for this interviewAs the Indy Pass settled in over the past three years, an interesting pattern has emerged: New England absolutely crushes the rest of the country in total redemptions. During the 2020-21 ski season, six of the top 10 resorts by number of Indy skiers were in New England. Last season, that number rose to seven of 10. With long, cold winters; generation-spanning ski traditions; and incredible population density, these results weren't surprising so much as affirming of what anyone who has skied out here already knows: the Northeast loves to ski.But there's data within the data, and surprises abound. Those seven New England ski areas do not stack up according to vertical drop or skiable acreage or average annual snowfall. Sometimes, as in the case of perennial Indy number one Jay Peak, mountain stats – especially 349 inches of average annual snowfall – do trump distance. By the statistical standard, no one is really surprised to see 2,020-vertical-foot Waterville Valley sitting in the two-spot. But statistical assumptions break down after that, because instead of 2,000-plus-footers Cannon or Saddleback claiming the third spot, you have the Mighty Pats Peak, with a third of the rise and a bunch less snow.There are a few obvious contributing factors to the ski area's Indy rank: Pats Peak is the easiest mid-sized ski area to reach from Boston; the mountain had zero Indy Base Pass blackouts until this coming season; Crotched, its closest competitor, was constrained in operating hours and open terrain last year; it's open all the time – nearly 90 hours on peak weeks. But those attributes alone aren't enough to explain how a 770-vertical-foot mountain finished number three out of 82 – 82! – Indy Pass partners for total redemptions last season.A succession of bigfoots were expected to stomp Pats Peak flat over the past three decades, Blomback tells us in the podcast. SKI, Peak Resorts, Vail. But business has never been stronger. The product on the snow doesn't just matter a lot, it turns out – it matters more than anything.Questions I wish I'd askedI already have a bad habit of keeping my guests way too long, but, believe it or not, there are almost always un-asked questions remaining at interview's end: why are all Pats Peak's trails named after winds? How important is it to retain some New England indies as Jay Peak joins a conglomerate? How can Vail make sure Crotched is as good as Pats Peak from a snowmaking and open-terrain point of view? How are season pass sales going? And on and on. Somehow I usually have the sense to keep these under two hours, but that rises more from guilt over time theft than any sense of personal decency.What I got wrongI think I mispronounced “Patenaude” – the last name of the ski area's owners – about every way that it could be mispronounced over the course of an hour-long interview.Why you should ski Pats PeakAs you can imagine, I possess a lot of ski passes. And despite the lack of an in-town bump, I can reach around 150 of them within a five-hour drive. So my options on any given day are fairly vast. While my travels – well documented on Twitter, Instagram, and the “this week in skiing” section of the weekly-ish news update – may seem random, I am almost always chasing snow and conditions. Who, within that vast radius fanning off New York City, is firing? Eerie? Ontario? The Green Mountain Spine? The Whites? And what's the path of least resistance? If the Catskills get hammered, I'm unlikely to plow through to the Adirondacks. If the Poconos get their once-every-five-year dump, I'm going. Almost any ski area can deliver a riotous day with the right conditions. The secret trees pop open. The jumps and drops are more forgiving. The ice evaporates and for one afternoon you can close your eyes* and pretend you're in Utah.But sometimes it doesn't snow anywhere. And I still have to ski every week because you know why. Last December-to-January we hit just such a hellstreak in the Northeast. The kind that makes you wonder how long an industry reliant upon temperatures below freezing can stitch together sustainable seasons. The fats were all in various states of open but many of the littles sat brown-hilled and empty over Christmas week. No one was offering anything resembling their trailmaps.Except Pats Peak. One hundred percent open by the first day of 2022. And why? It was weird. Its base elevation is 690 feet. The mountain sits in Southern New Hampshire, outside of the major snowbelts. Unlike similarly sized Crotched, right down the road, it's not owned by a CorpCo that can helicopter in snow from the Wasatch. It's just a 770-foot local bump owned and operated by locals.And yet there it is, routinely the first ski area in New England to pop its full menu open for the season. How? “We often joke we're a snowmaking system with a ski area attached,” Blomback tells me. Go there and you'll see it. That's what I did in January. And there: Unimaginable snowmaking firepower. Gunning anytime temperatures allow. Day or night, chairlifts spinning or idle. A plume of white powder erupting from the stubborn brown hills around it.And guess what? The skiing is pretty good too. From the parking lot the ski area erupts, fall lines apparent. Lifts everywhere. In the backyard a hidden pod, Cascade Basin, like a second miniature ski area of its own. Glades tucked all around. Weekdays it's all yours. Until school lets out. Then it belongs to the kids. Busloads of them, learning, racing, messing around. To the baselodge, and one of the great bars in New England skiing.Just remember to make your Indy Pass reservation first. The information era has been good for the mighty Pats Peak. Real-time weather and trail reports have made it obvious who's mastered the snowmaking game. Pats Peak isn't the only snowmaking killer in New Hampshire. But I'd argue that there's no one better. I'm not the only one. The place parked out for the first time last season. Blomback and team quickly adjusted, limiting Indy Pass slots and bringing back the Covid-season reservation system. This year, Pats Peak will have Indy Base blackouts for the first time. But these won't matter in mid-December when the big bombers are five percent open and Pats Peak is breaking out new terrain out daily.*Actually maybe don't do this.Podcast NotesBlomback notes that, “at one time, in southern New Hampshire, we lost King Ridge, Ragged, Whaleback, Crotched, Temple, Highlands, and Pinnacle.” Ragged, Whaleback, and Crotched are obviously back, and Pinnacle is orchestrating its second comeback as Granite Gorge. But here's a quick look at the others:King RidgeVertical drop: 775 feet; Lifts: 2 triples, 1 double, several surface liftsThis was a terrific little ski area that made the mistake that just about every terrific little ski area made in the ‘80s: it decided that snowmaking was a fad. Then it dropped dead. Really the important thing about King Ridge though is that it has the single greatest trailmap ever printed (circa 1994):TempleVertical drop: 600 feet; Lifts: 1 quad, 1 doubleThis little spot, just down the road from Crotched, ran for 63 seasons before shutting down in 2001. The quad now stands at Nashoba Valley, according to New England Ski History. The state purchased what was left of the ski area in 2007 and let it fade back into nature.HighlandsVertical drop: 700 feet; skiable acres: ; Lifts: 1 triple, 2 T-bars, 1 pony, 1 ropetowHighlands stood as a ski area from the late ‘60s to the mid-90s. Today, it's the only lift-served mountain-bike-only area in New England (the rest all offer wintertime skiing). This one, seated just a few minutes off I-93, seems like a good candidate to re-open for skiing at some point, perhaps with a parks focus.Crotched EastWhile Peak Resorts famously resuscitated the then-long-dead Crotched in 2003, they did not revive all of it. The ski area was once a two-sided operation, consisting of Crotched East and West (also known as Onset or Bobcat). West is present-day Crotched. East sits right next door, liftless, fading away. I doubt Vail has any ambitions to revive it, though they could certainly use the extra capacity. Crotched circa 1988:And this is what survives today:Similarly, Magic Mountain, Vermont has an abandoned ski area on the backside (which you are still allowed to ski, though the lifts are long gone). Here's what the place looked like in its 1980s ultimate form, when Blomback worked there:Magic today:Blomback and I discussed the phenomenon of the Vortex double chair, which terminates just alongside the Hurricane and Turbulence triples, but rarely has a line, even when the other two are backed up for 20 minutes. This, Blomback says, is because the double loads above the lodge, rather than continuing the 50 vertical feet to the true base at the Peak chair. The same phenomenon happens all over, but the similar instance we discussed was Sunday River's Locke and Barker chairs. Locke, a triple, rarely has a line, while Barker – a high-speed quad – often has lines longer than the gestational cycle of several species of mammal. Why? I don't know. There is a lot of terrain crossover between the two lifts. The main difference is that one is faster (and racers often commandeer large chunks of Locke). I've always wondered what would happen if Sunday River were to bring the Locke loading station down beside Barker? Unless they upgrade it to a high-speed lift, I can't imagine it would matter much – which is fine with me, as I'll lap the slow lift with no line all day long:The Storm explores the world of lift-served skiing all year round. Join us.The Storm publishes year-round, and guarantees 100 articles per year. This is article 102/100 in 2022, and number 348 since launching on Oct. 13, 2019. Want to send feedback? Reply to this email and I will answer (unless you sound insane, or, more likely, I just get busy). You can also email Get full access to The Storm Skiing Journal and Podcast at

    Podcast #96: Jay Peak President and General Manager Steve Wright

    Play Episode Listen Later Sep 16, 2022 44:25

    To support independent ski journalism, please consider becoming a free or paid subscriber. This podcast hit paid subscribers' inboxes on Sept. 16. Free subscribers got it on Sept. 19. To receive future pods as soon as they're live, please consider an upgrade to a paid subscription.WhoSteve Wright, President and General Manager of Jay Peak, VermontRecorded onSeptember 16, 2022About Jay PeakClick here for a mountain stats overviewOwned by: Pacific Group Resorts (pending court and regulatory approval)Pass affiliations: Indy PassLocated in: Jay, VermontClosest neighboring ski areas: Owl's Head (1/2 hour), Burke (1 hour), Smugglers' Notch (1 hour), Stowe (1 hour) - travel times approximate and will vary by season and, in the case of Owl's Head, be heavily dependent upon international border traffic.Base elevation: 1,815 feetSummit elevation: 3,968 feetVertical drop: 2,153 feetSkiable Acres: 385Average annual snowfall: 359 inchesTrail count: 81 (20% novice, 40% intermediate, 40% advanced)Lift count: 9 lifts (1 tram, 1 high-speed quad, 3 fixed-grip quads, 1 triple, 1 double, 2 carpets – view Lift Blog's inventory of Jay Peak's lift fleet)Why I interviewed himI'm not even sure what else to say here. I've probably written more about Jay Peak than any other ski area in the country since launching The Storm in 2019. Most of it goes something like this bit I wrote last month:If you're unfamiliar with Jay Peak, think of it as Vermont's Wolf Creek or Mt. Baker: big, rowdy, snowy, and affordable. And, for most of us, far away – the resort sits just four miles from the Canadian border. Jay averages more snow than any other ski area east of the Rockies: 359 inches per year. That's a lot of inches. More than Telluride or Vail or Aspen or A-Basin or Park City. Of course, none of those mountains' base areas sits at 1,800 feet, as Jay's does, meaning the whole New England menu of rain, freeze-thaws, and New Yorkers. But it's enough snow that the place is legendary for glades, typically pushes the season into May, and is one of the only places in New England where you can rack shots like this without the assistance of Photoshop:From a pure skiing point of view, Jay is, more days than not, the best ski area in the eastern United States. Getting a good powder day in New England is like finding a good banana: it happens a lot less often than you would think, but damn is it satisfying when you do. Jay delivers more bananas than anywhere else in Vermont, a state rippling with snowy legends like Sugarbush and Mad River Glen and Stowe and Smugglers' Notch. It's special.That's not hyperbole. Jay Peak has led Indy Pass redemptions for the past two seasons not simply because it sits at the top of the nation's most densely populated region, but because it's a kick-ass mountain.But there are a lot of kick-ass mountains in New England that don't get the love that Jay does. At some point in the skier-snowfall-terrain-cost-stoke algorithm, that maximally boring category called management supersedes the actual skiing in determining public perception of a mountain. For the past six years, Jay Peak has somehow done everything right while everything has gone wrong. In short: the former owners scammed foreign investors out of hundreds of millions in one of the largest immigrant visa scams in U.S. history, the resort tussled with the town over valuation, Vail came to town, Alterra followed, Covid hit, the Canadian border closed, and the whole sales process drug on and on and on. And yet, I'm not sure if the resort's reputation has ever been stronger, its general more respected, its status as the king of New England skiing more secure.And while he will be the last one to admit it, that's almost entirely due to the leadership of Steve Wright, who found himself suddenly thrust into the general manager role as former resort president Bill Stenger was escorted out the door by federal authorities.What we talked aboutRelief; community reaction to Pacific Group Resorts' (PGRI) winning bid to purchase Jay Peak; how much it helps that PGRI already owns Ragged, a New England ski area; reflecting back on this long slow road; why that road was so long; what finally pushed the sales process to its conclusion; how the pool of potential buyers reacted when PGRI made their initial $58 million bid public; the frantic period between PGRI's bid on Aug. 1 and the Sept. 7 auction; auction day; what we know about the two bidders who lost out to PGRI; the final legal formalities that PGRI needs to clear to take final ownership of Jay; what Wright means when he says that PGRI shares Jay's “values”; “You look at an outfit like Pacific, and they've lived it”; whether “Jay will stay Jay,” and what that means; how much autonomy PGRI grants its resort managers; turning the resort around with everything working against them; a realm in which modesty rules; Jay's immediate capital needs; an interesting potential chairlift switcheroo; whether Bonaventure could get an upgrade to a detachable lift, and whether that would be a quad or a six-pack; thoughts on the future of the Indy Pass at Jay Peak; whether Jay Peak will continue to offer affordable lift tickets; will Jay continue to stay open into May?; the West Bowl expansion is dead.Why I thought that now was a good time for this interviewWell. I wasn't exactly in need of more work to do. The fall podcast lineup is stacked, with the general managers of Pats Peak, Sun Valley, Brundage, Nub's Nob, Winter Park, Bromley, Monarch, Sundance, and Vail Mountain scheduled through November. I already have an episode recorded with the Colorado Sun's Jason Blevins, the best ski reporter in the country. But last week, Jay's six-year run on the front page of skiing's tabloids appeared near its end, as mini-conglomerate Pacific Group Resorts submitted the winning, $76 million bid in an auction for the ski area.We're not quite done here. PGRI's bid is subject to approval by a U.S. District Court in Florida. But after years of uncertainty, we are clear to start envisioning Jay Peak not as that resort stuck in a crazy limbo, but as a place with a promising future under a proven multi-resort operator. Will Jay stick with Indy? Will Jet continue spinning into May? What will happen with Canada back in the mix? Will Jay continue to offer affordable lift tickets as Stowe nears $200 a day and Killington, Sugarbush, Stratton, Okemo, and Mount Snow sink deeper into the triple digits? I don't think anyone really knows. But the person who's best positioned to shape the answers to these question is Steve Wright, who just guided Jay Peak through one of the most tumultuous periods in modern lift-served skiing.Questions I wish I'd askedWe had a quick window to make this happen, so this podcast episode is much shorter than the typical Storm Skiing Podcast. I wanted to talk about the Canadian border re-opening and what that meant for Jay and for skiers. I also wanted to get Wright's reaction to the fact that Jay is no longer an independent ski area, but part of a larger family of resorts. There are so many ways to go with this story, and I am working on a follow-up to get a better sense of how PRGI will approach Jay and the challenges they face as they evolve the ski area.What I got wrongI incorrectly stated that Jay Peak's top 2021-22 lift ticket price was $86 – it was $96, as Wright notes in the interview. I also said PGRI put their “chips” on the table. Should be “cards” I suppose. But I am not Gambling Bro so I'm vulnerable to malapropisms in that realm.Why you should ski Jay PeakThe Storm was founded in and continues to be anchored in the Northeast. For those readers, I have nothing to say that they don't already know. You ski Jay because it's Jay, because doing so gives you the best odds of pretending like you're in Colorado and not freezing-below-human-understanding New England.For the rest of you: should you deign to ski the East, set your GPS for Northern Vermont. Run up the whole Green Mountain Spine. Start at Sugarbush, maybe Killington if you want to experience true New England zeal and madness, then work your way north: Mad River Glen, Bolton Valley, Stowe, Smugglers' Notch, Jay. That's the best skiing we have. The terrain is varied and wild, stuffed with must-ski lines and pods: Paradise at MRG, the Front Four at Stowe, Castle Rock at Sugarbush, Madonna at Smuggs. All have expansive backcountry options for Uphill Bro. The vertical drops are legit: Killington stands at 3,000 feet; Pico, right next door, at 1,967; Sugarbush is 2,600; MRG, 2,000; Bolton Valley, 1,701; Stowe, 2,360; Smuggs, 2,610; Jay, 2,153. Here, in this zone of snow and cold – each of these resorts averages at least 250 annual inches – is your best chance of open glades and fresh snow, and the lowest chance of rain and surface-killing refreeze.Be quiet Shoosh Emoji Bro. Anyone who's skied any of these mountains knows the secret broke out of jail a long time ago. Besides, my encomiums are unlikely to start a mass eastward migration from SLC. But the Eastern reputation, among much of the ski world, is that of an icy realm of unskiable concrete. That happens. But New England skiing – especially Northern Vermont skiing – is good more often than it's bad. And if you want to bust your own stereotypes wide open, there are worse places to start than this snowy kingdom at the top of America.More Jay PeakAs I said above, I've written a lot about Jay Peak. One of my favorites was this article last November examining why Jay and soul sister Whitefish, Montana keep their lift tickets affordable in an era in which big-mountain peak-day tickets can cost more than a space shuttle launch:Last month, I wrote a long piece examining Pacific Group Resorts and what Jay could look like as part of their portfolio. One interesting question: PGRI offers a “Mission: Affordable” season pass at four of its five existing mountains. It started at $379 for the 2022-23 season (they are currently $529). Will Jay follow its new sister resorts, or will it, like PGRI's Mount Washington Alpine out on Vancouver Island, continue to offer passes in its traditional price range (Jay's early-bird 2022-23 price was $749; the current price is $895 through Oct. 10). I'm working on a follow-up story, but here was my first analysis:This is Wright's second time on The Storm Skiing Podcast. His first appearance also coincided with big news – the resort's signing with the Indy Pass in 2020:Oddly, I had scheduled that interview months in advance – the Indy Pass announcement was a complete, and fortunate, coincidence. Here's the story I wrote around that announcement:And here was my flash reaction to PGRI's winning bid last Thursday, which I wrote in a Pennsylvania Burger King on a roadtrip lunch break:The Storm explores the world of lift-served skiing all year long. Join us.The Storm publishes year-round, and guarantees 100 articles per year. This is article 98*/100 in 2022, and number 344 since launching on Oct. 13, 2019. Want to send feedback? Reply to this email and I will answer (unless you sound insane). You can also email*Don't worry Team, we are not stopping at 100. That is a minimum. We have 16 more podcasts alone scheduled through the end of the year. We're likely to land around 130 articles for 2022. And by the way, this is the 28th podcast of 2022, even with the long break these past two months or so, and we should end with more than 40 for the year. Get full access to The Storm Skiing Journal and Podcast at