DOWNHILL FROM HERE: Optimism fuels the ski season
Squirrels gathering an inordinate number of acorns. Spiders spinning larger webs. The early departure of geese and ducks overhead migrating south.
They may or may not be harbingers of a snowy season to please skiers and snowboarders.
Ski New Hampshire’s marketing director Karl Stone shared an anecdote.
“If you get through the month of October without substantial snowfall, it tends to bode better for snow throughout the winter,” he said. “When we have those snowstorms in October, we tend to have a dry winter.”
But ski area operators are looking for signals from another one of nature’s creations – people.
And they’re optimistic pent-up demand has been unleashed after last season’s disappointing snowfall.
The numbers from early-season pass sales and advance bookings across Vermont and New Hampshire have ski area operators on both sides of the Connecticut River in a hopeful mood.
Last year’s lackluster natural snow and largely snowmaking-induced season is a memory. Some 2 million skiers, snowboarders and tubing enthusiasts made it to New Hampshire’s ski areas, but overall the Northeast was down 20.2 percent from the previous season, according to Ski New Hampshire. In Vermont, the number of skier visits for 2011-2012 dropped about 11 percent.
Snowmaking is always an integral part of the season, and beefing up infrastructure is key. Not only are the two states adding new lifts, terrain and non-skiing activities, but snowmaking, too. Though not all that glamorous, it’s all about the snow.
“Vermont is now up to 80-percent snowmaking coverage,” Vermont Ski Areas Association President Parker Riehle said. “That’s a pretty amazing number for our calibre and firepower.”
Also, some new multi-resort season passes are offering up more terrain. Mad River Valley areas Mad River Glen and Sugarbush have entered a “detente in the valley” with their dual mountain pass, while northern Vermont’s Jay Peak and Burke are now under the same ownership and have a joint deal.
“For Burke, that’s the best news they can ever have,” Riehle said. “The strength, the financial firepower and marketing power of Jay Peak are able to push Burke to the front of the line. Burke has been known as the best kept secret in Vermont. What they lack is accommodations. The ski and stay situation is not where they want it to be and Jay Peak will help them with their investments to get their on-mountain lodging to be a true destination area.”
In New Hampshire, there are some milestone anniversaries with 50 years of Pats Peak in Henniker and 75 years at North Conway’s Cranmore. Cranmore has finally replaced the slow red East Double chair with a triple, while Bretton Woods has gone old school with a new t-bar for the woods of Mount Stickney. Pats Peak has renovated its arrival area and serves up a stuntmen-style air bag for the high-flying crowd.
Waterville Valley’s added the Adventure Trail for youngsters off Valley Run while building a new learning park off Revelation. Keene’s Granite Gorge chimes in with a new lodge, while Mount Sunapee offers a new air bag and will have its canopy zip-line tours operating in winter. Loon’s adding a couple of new family-oriented terrain parks. Attitash had added a free learning area with handle tow, while at Bear Peak cut a couple of new novice trails. Wildcat has a new conveyor belt lift for learners. Bennington’s Crotched unveils The Rocket, southern New Hampshire’s only high-speed detachable quad.
Northern Vermont’s Burke Mountain has five new glades (and look for snow biking on Kingdom Trails), while Jay Peak is investing some $170 million over three years to get West Bowl open with new trails, lifts and a hotel while condos and a hotel are planned for State Side. Southern Vermont’s Magic Mountain has a year-round challenge called TimberQuest that takes adventurers through ropes and zips. Mad River Glen’s been added to the National Register of Historic Places, the first ski area in the country deemed so.
Okemo’s got a trio of new glades, while Smuggs has a new natural terrain park in the Knight’s Revenge glade on Madonna Mountain. Pico Mountain turns 75. Stratton has a new trail called Sunbeam, but the U.S. Open is moving from there to Vail for the popular March event.
Now let it snow.
(Marty Basch can be reached throughonetankaway.com.)