After two straight years of winter drought, last season’s abundant stockpile of snow left skiers rejoicing and New England resorts reaping the benefits of outstanding conditions through all the important vacation periods and deep into spring. Complaints, if any, likely came from diehards who couldn’t bear to see some ski hills sticking to scheduled closing dates even though ample cover remained into April.
“It’s always a good sign when our ski areas close with snow still on their slopes and trails due to guests moving on to other activities and not a lack of snow,” said Alice Pearce, president of the New Hampshire snow sports marketing association Ski NH.
The fortuitous coincidence of Mother Nature cooperating at a time when the economy was rebounding in 2012-13 was not limited to New England. The National Ski Areas Association reported 56.6 million skier and snowboarder visits across the country last season, an 11 percent increase over the previous season and the largest year-over-year gain for the industry in 30 years.
Within New England, skier/boarder visits spiked 20 percent in New Hampshire, the state’s fifth-best season on record, according to Ski NH. Vermont mountains benefited from a 16 percent boost, the second-best year since the Vermont Ski Areas Association started tracking data in 1992.
So how do New England resorts build upon the momentum of a banner year? If the press releases touting capital improvements are a guide, profits are being plowed back into businesses to keep customers satisfied in terms of snow quality and trail variety.
“I think what you’re seeing is money being infused back into the industry not just as a way to recover from those lean years but as infrastructure investments that will pay off for years to come,” said Sarah Wojcik, director of public affairs for VSAA.
After a period in the 2000s when corporate mergers dominated offseason skiing news in New England, the focus the last several summers has shifted to massive snowmaking expansions. Part of this is a reactionary response to the snow drought that spanned 2010-12. But even for resorts that were already well-covered, snowmaking technology now evolves so fast that even state-of-the-art systems soon fall behind in terms of efficiency.
“One of the biggest resolves in the industry is investing money into efficient snowmaking,” Wojcik said. “By upgrading now, resorts know in the long run they’ll be saving money on water and electricity.”
In this era of betting big on snowmaking, resorts have to budget seven figures just to get noticed. Within that price range, two Vermont mountains stand out for 2013-14: Stowe is shelling out $3.4 million for 120 new tower guns and miles of new pipe (on top of $4.7 million the resort spent on snowmaking in 2012), and Okemo is in the midst of its $1 million “Operation Snowburst” (225 tower guns and water-pumping upgrades) to ensure multiple summit-to-base trails are open every November.
New England resorts will unveil plenty of terrain this season, although by design, the most intriguing new slopes and glades won’t be covered by the battalion of new snowmaking firepower. That’s because the trend in recent years has been to expand “side country” skiing, with the goal of providing a backcountry experience with the convenience of lift service.
In Maine, both Sugarloaf and Sunday River — once rivals but now corporate partners — continue to roll out new territory in accordance with ambitious, decade-long master plans.
Sunday River is adding 75 acres this season, highlighted by three new double black diamond glades (North Woods, Super Nova, and Poppy Fields) and extensions of two others (Hardball and Chutzpah). A 15-acre terrain park named T72 will include a jump line, rail features, superpipe, and two lifts.
Sugarloaf completed a land deal with a timber company that will open terrain on the Backside Snowfields that previously were outside the resort’s boundary. Although comparatively small, Sugarloaf proclaims this 7-acre slice “represents some of the most challenging and extreme terrain found at any Eastern ski area.”
Made up of steep, exposed chutes with mandatory cliff drops, this previously off-limits cache has been unofficially known for years by names like “Ball and Chain” and “Hell’s Gate.” When conditions permit, it will be opened via backcountry access gates similar to those found out West.
“Skiers and snowboarders have been asking us to allow them access to these areas for years,” Rich Wilkinson, Sugarloaf vice president of mountain operations, told the Original Irregular, a weekly paper in Kingfield, Maine. “But we never owned the land, so it simply wasn’t possible.
“This land deal allows us to offer controlled access to this area, and ensure that anyone who ventures out there knows just what they’re getting into.”
In New Hampshire, the US Forest Service granted Waterville Valley a long-term special use permit that will allow the resort’s first major expansion in more than 30 years. Green Peak (southeast of existing trails on Mt. Tecumseh) will be developed to include 44 acres of trails and glades, serviced by a high-speed detachable quad. Tree flagging is complete, and trail cutting and construction are scheduled for 2014.
Although improvements at smaller properties sometimes get overshadowed by big-bucks projects at better-capitalized resorts, upgrades at feeder hills and learning-based areas are equally important to the continued health of New England skiing.
Black Mountain in New Hampshire, for example, has cut a new trail to accommodate giant slalom racing with up to 40 gates. Its lone triple chairlift (not previously known for reliability) received new computer controls, hopefully eliminating the need for repeated shutdowns of the mountain’s main lift.
Pats Peak, which draws a steady stream of night-skiing locals from the Manchester, N.H., area, opens this season with a new triple chairlift as part of its four-trail Cascade Basin expansion.
“For us, this is exciting,” said Lori Rowell, director of marketing. “One thing we try to do at Pats Peak is not overextend ourselves.
“We’ve been owned by one family for over 50 years. As we make money, we reinvest it back into the mountain. We’d rather have good plans than big plans.”