I think a lot of ‘ski’ people dream of replicating the atmosphere and winter culture of the Alps with the countless surface lifts scattered across the innumerable valleys and villages throughout central Europe. I know I think about it constantly, but I find those thoughts are often met with plenty of obstacles, some more concrete than others, including things like global warming, how prohibitively expensive it is to develop the infrastructure, the list goes on. It doesn’t take an overpriced education to understand that the ski industry in North America which rapidly matured in the 70’s and 80’s was ripe for consolidation with larger operators able to leverage economies of scale and scope. Now we’re left with that market dynamic, basically a fully consolidated industry with mostly oligopolistic characteristics, offering fewer options with which to access skiing and available to an increasingly affluent demographic. Don’t get me wrong, I like riding a six-person bubble lift as much as the next person, and I’m not writing here to bash Alterra or Vail. What I’m suggesting is that the onset of COVID and its ensuing restrictions likely mean even longer lines at the major resorts with limitations that will try the patience of just about everybody this coming winter. I think we all know the 2020/21 season will offer a much different experience vs. that which we’ve known for essentially our entire lives. That said, challenges also create opportunities. The opportunity is this: how hard and how much does it cost to re-create the ‘essence’ of skiing, which I would argue is sliding down a modest hill with family and friends, maybe creating a jump or two, or maybe setting some obstacles in which to turn around the fastest. I would be willing to wager a lot and that if we had a choice we’d be just as happy spending most Saturdays and Sundays (Monday through Friday too) doing just that on a 300’ hill vs. standing in 45 minute lines at Vail, Stratton or similar place with our some of favorite compatriots from great places like Manhattan, Orlando, or even Dallas. I’m not saying all Saturdays and Sundays, because powder/big mountain skiing is part of the ‘essence’ too, but for a large majority of us who don’t live at the base of a mountain and must work a lot of hours to provide the skiing ‘lifestyle’ to our families, the ‘micro’ ski area may be an idea whose time has come.
A small ski area is actually pretty simple – it just needs a lot of TLC…
Snowmaking is not a complex, nor a new technology, the building blocks are basically the same as the evolution of the first fan guns in the early 1980’s, air and cold water under pressure thrown into below freezing temperatures. I was reminded of this fact while driving this summer from northern Lake Michigan back to southern Vermont (forced to avoid the Canadian ‘shortcut’ through Ontario) when I passed a semi-trailer full of SMI ‘Polecats’ just south of Midland, MI (SMI’s headquarters). Those not familiar with this snowgun, it’s a 35-year old efficient fan gun design that makes excellent snow even in marginal temperatures and with freeze inducing bacteria as an additive, a gun can cover copious amounts of terrain even in an environment with relatively high humidity and temperatures. The reason I know this is because my father patented a similar design around the same time and he’s now built several hundred of these type of guns and they are used at multiple ski hills throughout the Midwest. The design works, is cheap, and durable. Perhaps that’s why the Polecats are still in demand.
A small ski area needs a water source, water pump, power, 4-6 snowguns with compressors, water piping brought up the side of the hill, a means of uphill transportation, and a grooming machine (which can take a number of different forms and not all are out of touch expensive). The costs aren’t zero, but could be managed by an individual family or small group with access to land with a suitable hill ~300’-600’ vertical feet in a suitable climate, i.e. near current ski areas and without prohibitive land use regulations (I’m thinking most of the western US and a lot of Vermont here). The point is that for costs in the thousands, not millions, you could have a pretty functional ski area. It’s not for everyone, and most would point out that you’re really talking about a ski ‘run’ not an area, and that’s true, I’m not talking about Yellowstone, Hermitage, or about a dozen other places that were supposed to be the next great ski destination public or private. But you also have to ask yourself if you’re getting anything more out of standing in line at [insert here the name of your favorite run and high speed lift] for 45 minutes per run this coming winter?
For snow sports it’s all about volume
If you want to become better in alpine gravity sports (skiing, snowboarding, freeski, etc.) volume is critical and obviously I’m not the first to point this out. There’s been plenty written within this forum by authors who understand the concept of volume and how training/access in the States compares to that of Europe. I think there are many who’d argue there’s not really a comparison at all. With plenty of evidence supporting the idea that the development of the best American skiers took on unique characteristics which tended to mimic the European experience of daily volume/better access (e.g. the Mahres, Bode, Mikaela, etc.) I’d say that all supports the idea of a micro ski-area. Of course development as a topic is ripe for debate and that’s fine, few of us are truly experts, but it’s tough to argue having a private training hill wouldn’t provide a distinct advantage (I seem to recall Shaun White having something similar in southwest Colorado). In my opinion more access, not less, will help all winter sports capture the attention and increased participation of the next generation and who knows, with a little luck (and winning the lottery) your backyard rope tow could maybe put in that fancy 6-person detachable Doppelmayr after a couple seasons.
— Todd Firestone
(formerly Goodrich, Mich.)
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