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…

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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
Winhall, Vt.
(formerly Goodrich, Mich.)

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7 COMMENTS

  1. I love it! Honestly, that’s what I’ve been enjoying the past few years here in CO anyway! There’s a ton of older, vacated ski operations that are fantastic off-piste opportunities now. I frequently daydream of them operating again. Shoot, many are viable areas without snow-making.

  2. Just like Sweden which also has many smaller ski resorts, we can develop great technical ski racers with so many small to mid-size ski resorts dotted across the United States. Last winter I was coaching at Song Mountain a 700′ vertical mountain in the snow-belt of Central New York. The weekend race was run very efficiently, completed by 1 pm, and we spent the afternoon free skiing run after run with excellent conditions and no lift lines. I would much rather spend my day skiing at a smaller un-crowded ski area than a mega resort with $25 for a hamburger & coke with no place to sit and long lift lines.

  3. Todd Firestone, cool for sticking your neck out there. Once upon a time there were approximately over 300 ski areas in New York (some were classified due to semantics, but you get the point). When you look at an average training session they are usually on a small portion of hill space. GS and Speed of course need more terrain, but even aspects of that can be dealt with on a smaller piece of snow. Point is, there is a lot to say about the smaller “mom & pop” ski areas that had surface lifts. Over the years as I have traveled from race to race, seeing a surface lift is inspiring. Laps, freedom, creativity. The concept of less is more could be the shift in culture needed to get more with less.

  4. Yes, yes, yes. … Our club in Sun Valley did just that, resurrecting the 400-ft. Rotorun just outside of Hailey. Even offers free skiing for folks in town a couple days a week on the socially-distanted, antique-quality poma and rope tow. Makes me want to yodel every time I’m out there. … So I do.

  5. Hopefully! Big corporations have taken over the industry to where a normal family or individual are no longer able to enjoy the sport. What is sad is that 90 percent of this is done on federal land that we all own. The forest service and citizens benefit little from the takeover by these big corporations that charge $200 dollars per ticket, $50 dollars to park a car, as well as $ 6.00 for a coke that benefit them primarily. It is criminal how little the government is paid for use of our land. It is pure greed and does little to serve the citizens who love the sport. It is truly absurd that we citizens as well as our forest services are getting screwed on our own public lands.

  6. I’ve said for a long time that advanced skiers cannot neglect small ski areas. I used to ski a lot at Jackson Hole since I lived in Wyoming. However, anyone that has skied Jackson on a powder day knows, that the whole town is on the hill and every powder stash is skied out by 11 am.

    The big ski areas are mostly for people that have too much money or are trying to impress their girlfriends (note women don’t try impressing guys, as they rightfully have penis pity). The skiers true to the sport are in the backcountry where they earn their turns, have gone to smaller ski areas or unfortunately have given up the sport.

    Over the years I have had many more powder days at small areas than mega areas such as Vail. I now live in Washington state and ski at a local ski area. We will have bag lunches and go for a beer at the end of the day with fellow skiers we have established a long-time relationship with.

    From a ski racing aspect, we cannot afford to only allow the wealthy kids to dominate the sport. Real talent has hardly been enabled in America; whereas in Europe most everyone can afford to ski or is subsidized. I have skied Colorado at Idelwild, Berthoud Pass, Meadow Mountain, Dutch Henry Hill, Hidden Valley, Saint Mary’s Glacier, Hesperus, Geneva Basin, Squaw Pass (which is now Front Range Ski Club), Stagecoach, and a few other very small ski areas which are now defunct.

    During these COVID-19 times please go to small ski areas as they are barely hanging on by a thread and need your support more than ever.

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