Could a lightning strike that destroyed the base lodge at a small, independent ski area in Maine be the spark that will ignite grass-roots change in an industry increasingly dominated by corporatization?
Matt Hancock, the co-owner of Mt. Abram, is willing to risk finding out. At this point, he figures his off-the-beaten-path mountain 5 miles outside of Bethel has nothing left to lose.
"Am I just crazy, or does anyone else believe that skiing needs to be about skiing?" Hancock asked rhetorically. "We've put a lot of effort into a system we believe in that is 100 percent contrary to the way the industry operates. We're running as fast as we can in the other direction. I've never lost sight of my belief that this is the way for Mt. Abram."
Overshadowed by the sprawling Sunday River complex 12 miles north, Abram usually gets bypassed by anyone other than hard-core locals. But its quirky charms — a minimalist lift system, Maine's first boundary-to-boundary backcountry policy, and an award-winning green energy commitment — have attracted a back-to-basics following.
This year, Abram will be the first ski area in the country to team with Mountain Riders Alliance, a new organization whose long-term goal is to collectively market a network of member mountains where the focus is on quality skiing, affordability, and eco-friendly practices. Think of it as skiing's parallel to the food industry, which in recent years has blossomed with co-ops that highlight local farm stands as alternatives to chain supermarkets.
To understand where Mt. Abram is headed today, turn back the clock to 1990: Hancock, a Casco native, was a Colby College hoops guard fresh off being named NCAA Division 3 Player of the Year. When a tryout with the Celtics didn't pan out, he returned home to work in the family's timber and land development businesses.
"That was the time when the ski industry was rapidly changing," Hancock said. "There was this chase, and everybody jumped into it. You had to have high-end real estate. Sushi bars. Starbucks. Water slides. Hundred-dollar lift tickets and $20 burgers. As an industry, this is not economically sustainable."
In 2008, Mt. Abram came up for sale — for the fifth time in 20 years. Hancock said deterioration was the chief reason it "didn't become part of some corporate portfolio." He and a business partner, Rob Lally, both had homes near the mountain and recognized potential.
"Mt. Abram ended up in this time capsule," Hancock said. "This place has an incredible 1970s soulful vibe with an unpretentious attitude. Great lines and cost-effective tickets. A place where you can grab a cold beer with your buddies in the afternoon. A place where you know it's safe for your kids."
For three years Hancock and Lally plowed money into rehabbing Mt. Abram's neglected infrastructure. They encouraged community involvement by establishing Trimfest, now a summer ritual that allows locals to cut their own "secret stash" woods runs that are kept off the trail map. The Maine Telemark Festival, a free demo-and-lessons event, was lured to Mt. Abram.
Then on July 6, 2011, a lightning strike leveled the three-story base lodge. No one was inside or hurt, but the structure was a total loss, as was the ski patrol and snowmaking equipment stored inside.
"It imploded the building," Hancock said. "Everything was gone — I mean everything. We had to call the sawmill down the road for paper and pencils."
After the initial shock, Hancock became introspective. He long had railed against "big skiing." This was his chance to put up or shut up.
"People always say, 'If I had the opportunity to do it all over differently . . . ' " Hancock said, voice trailing off. "Then I thought, 'Well, here we go.' The fire actually jump-started many of the things we had always wanted to do."
A bare-bones base lodge was erected last season. The insurance settlement finally cleared eight weeks ago. Hancock's focus this year will be the partnership with MRA, a move he had been contemplating even before the fire. He understands there is risk involved in being the test case for an unproven business model.
The MRA "sustainable mountain playgrounds" vision, as outlined on www.mountainridersalliance.com, doesn't lack for ambition or an anti-corporate tone. But the organization is just beginning to take on projects that reflect those values: Aside from trying to attract member mountains, the only other initiative currently listed on the site involves restoring lift access to an abandoned ski area on the Kenai Peninsula of Alaska that last operated in 1960.
But in a show of commitment to the Mt. Abram project, an MRA founding partner has relocated to Maine for the season to help launch the program. Hancock said skiers will see no immediate changes, but by next year, he expects Abram will roll out a membership package that gives individuals discounts on lift tickets, concessions, and merchandise. In addition, those who sign up will elect an advisory board, so they can have a say in keeping the no-frills mountain true to its roots.
Hancock said the co-op model at Mad River Glen in Vermont could be a template, but with a twist: Privileges will extend to all MRA member areas — if and when they sign on.
"There's intended to be this accrued benefit beyond the borders of any one individual ski area," he said. Since announcing his alliance in August, Hancock said he has been contacted by two other New England ski areas about joining, but added it would be "imprudent" to mention which ones.
Magic Mountain in Vermont would be a plausible candidate. It closed from 1991-97 but since has been revitalized. In February, Magic Mountain raised $999,000 by selling 333 shares at $3,000 each.
"People who invested did it not for a dollar return, but to ensure Magic is here for the next generation of skiers," said Geoff Hatheway, Magic Mountain's vice president of marketing. "We're very conscious in every decision that we make that we're keeping that vibe and authenticity alive. We don't even call ourselves a 'resort.' We're a ski area."
Hatheway said he's been "intrigued by the MRA, and we're supportive of their message."