Ski resorts cut back on offseason investments

Wachusett is celebrating its 50th anniversary by putting in a 40-foot-by-50-foot airbag for extreme landings.
Wachusett is celebrating its 50th anniversary by putting in a 40-foot-by-50-foot airbag for extreme landings.
photo courtesy wachusett mountain ski area

No one — not skiers, riders, nor those in the business of snowsports — has to dig too deep in the memory bank to recall last season as one of the worst in two decades.

Though most areas had stockpiles of snow produced by guns and grooming machines, the unseasonable warmth and lack of natural snowfall in large population centers, such as the Boston area, kept skiers and riders home in droves.

One consequence is that resorts across the country have cut back significantly on offseason investments, according to the National Ski Areas Association. Over the last season and offseason, resorts have spent well under $200 million in capital improvements, down from $300 million the season before, and the modern record of $474 million in 2006-07, according to the NSAA.

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And yet, at New England ski areas, development continues. If snowmaking investment is down somewhat, many areas are evolving with features such as canopy zipline tours to waterparks, tubing expansion, and other attractions aimed at diversifying the snowsports vacation choice.

Close to home, Wachusett ski area in Princeton is celebrating its 50th anniversary with a new giant airbag, according to spokesman Tom Meyers. It allows skiers and riders to catch big air before landing on the 40-foot-by-50-foot airbag.

“There are some things we may not have invested in this offseason, such as a new lift or rebuilding the ski school,” said Meyers. “But we have invested in the airbag and added 125 new HDK tower snow guns.”

One of the largest developments in the East was the acquisition of Burke Mountain by Jay Peak. This marriage in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont will create a number of combination passes, according to Steve Wright, Jay’s vice president of sales, marketing, and hospitality. Aligning the two areas’ ticket programs, according to Wright, “is a great way to get skiers and riders who have never visited one of the resorts to experience a different mountain.”

It was just last season that Jay launched its massive indoor waterpark — The Pump House — as a way to both extend and amplify the traditional ski vacation, and literally save that vacation in periods of poor skiing weather.

Also in Vermont, Mt. Snow has partnered with the Burton Snowboard Company in forming the Burton Learn To Ride Center, which will offer snowboarders as young as 3 instruction.

At Stowe, most of the offseason investment of $4.7 million went to new snowmaking equipment, including 325 tower guns, 150 land guns, and 7 miles of snowmaking pipe.

In New Hampshire, the biggest has gotten bigger. Bretton Woods this season will open the second of its three-phase development project at Stickney Mountain. This will add about 30 acres of skiing in the glades, along with a 2,000-foot T-bar lift to the new summit hut.

The new Stickney area also changes the Bretton Woods formula a bit, or at least enlarges it, according to Chris Ellms, Bretton Woods’ director of ski operations. In a previous decade, the Mount Washington resort with the iconic 18th century hotel at its center advertised its Alpine product as “no stress skiing.” Read, geezer skiing.

In more recent years, the area has added glade skiing and a few steep chutes to try to boost its offerings to more advanced skiers and riders. Though there will be some easy and intermediate runs on Stickney, according to Ellms, many more challenging runs are now in the Bretton Woods mix.

Previously, the only access to the Stickney terrain was by traversing, but now the lift services the summit with its outdoor stone fireplace and a new sundeck. On Dec. 12, the new area will be launched with a ribbon-cutting ceremony and $12 lift tickets.

In the Mount Washington Valley, Cranmore Mountain Resort in North Conway will celebrate its 75th anniversary with several celebrations leading up to the Meister Cup in March, honoring Hannes Schneider, the Austrian ski instructor often called “the father of American skiing.” Cranmore has replaced the venerable East Double chair with a new high-speed triple that will increase uphill capacity and add about 300 feet of vertical. The Soaring Eagle zipline, a canopy tour in summer, will stay in use through the ski season.

At Attitash in Bartlett, N.H., the focus is on bringing new skiers and riders into the sport. This season on Bear Peak, two new lower-mountain beginner trails and a renovated handle lift are designed for beginners and will be free of charge for those who want to give sliding on snow a try.

In Maine, Sugarloaf invested its offseason capital, $1 million, to guns that can produce snow at high temperatures. The results of the new low-energy guys already are clear, said to spokesman Ethan Austin.

“This year we already have five trails open top to bottom (including the nearly 3-mile Tote Road),” said Austin. Before now, at this time we’d have maybe one run open. It’s a huge difference.”

When Les Otten developed Sunday River in the 1980s and ’90s, his focus was on the quality of snowmaking and grooming. Though under new management, the powerful system allowed the resort to stay open throughout last season’s warm spells.

This offseason, Sunday River boosted the system even more with an extra $1 million investment in snowmaking guns, similar to those at Sugarloaf. This is part of a five-year plan to double its water and pump capacity.

Also coming this winter is the Kid’s Adventure Trail, where young skiers and riders can explore several stops along a route from the mid-mountain Peak Lodge on North Peak to the South Ridge base area.