Lack of snow, labor, management are hitting region’s ski areas hard this season

When Vail Resorts revealed a few days ago that Greg Gavrilets, the young general manager of Attitash Mountain Resort, was leaving the job Jan. 17 in the midst of sharp discontent over severely limited terrain, it came at a really bad time for the giant Colorado-based ski area ownership chain.

It’s been the most snowless early season in memory in the North Conway, New Hampshire area, and everywhere else in New England ski country for that matter with most big resorts at 50 percent capacity at most, and some passholders at Attitash and Wildcat have complained loudly and publicly and alleged mismanagement by Vail.

Ski area pain

Attitash and Wildcat, Vail’s two holdings in the Mount Washington Valley, have suffered more than most ski areas, due largely to outdated snowmaking systems and lifts and a labor shortage that is worse than at most places partly because of North Conway’s somewhat remote location.

While the local Vail critics, mainly retirees quoted in the Conway Daily Sun newspaper, have alleged that remote corporate ownership is to blame, independent ski areas across New England — including Berkshire East in Charlemont and Magic Mountain and Bolton Valley in Vermont — also have been hit badly by the terrible weather and forced to cut back hours, days and terrain.

Under their former owner, Peak Resorts, which Vail acquired in July 2019, Attitash and Wildcat languished with little capital improvement while Peak invested in Mount Snow, the southern Vermont resort, the jewel of the Peak chain. Similarly, the former owners of Okemo and Stowe, now also owned by Vail, saw a steady stream of investment by their former owners.

Meanwhile, it turns out that Gavrilets, at 33 already an experienced mountain manager, is leaving for a better job.

He starts on March 1 at Mount Rose, the Lake Tahoe area gem near Reno, Nevada, and will work with the retiring current GM, Paul Senft, through the end of the season and take over as GM on April 18.

“While the timing of my departure is a bit unique, the decision is strictly around family and the amazing opportunity to lead Mount Rose,” he said. “Attitash is a special place, and I still firmly believe that it has the most potential of any of the Vail Properties on the East Coast.”

Anyone in the ski business would seize the Mount Rose opportunity if they could.

Family-owned Mount Rose, at 8,260 feet, has the highest base elevation of any ski area in the famed Tahoe region of California and Nevada, and averages 350 inches of snow a year, more than double that of Attitash.

With a vertical drop of 1,800 feet, equivalent to Attitash, it boasts more than 1,200 acres of skiable terrain, compared to Attitash’s 311, and Mount Rose’s 9,700-foot summit dwarfs the 2,350-foot summit at Attitash.

Vail volleys criticism

In any event, Vail, which sold more than 2.1 million Epic mega-passes this season after dropping prices by 20 percent from last year and is the country’s biggest ski area owner, has tried to respond to the criticism.

Vail is a prominent target for unhappy skiers and snowboarders, but it is unlikely to assuage its foes until the snow gods bestow real snowfall upon New England.

As part of the ski area giant’s public relations offensive and attempt to attract and retain scarce staff, it is giving all hourly workers a $2-an-hour end-of-season bonus for all hours worked between Jan. 1 and April 15.

“Every year finding staff members is a challenge,” said Adam White, a spokesman for Vail Resort’s Northeast ski areas. “It’s adverse conditions working outside in New England in the winter, and a lot of these jobs involve some pretty specific skill sets.

“It’s hard work, and it’s a competitive market. There are a lot of ski areas in the Northeast that are vying for the same talent,” he added.

Deferred maintenance

In essence, by picking up Attitash, Wildcat and Crotched Mountain in Bennington, New Hampshire — which decided to close Mondays and Tuesdays, sparking a bit of an uproar — from Peak along with better performing properties like Mount Snow and Hunter in New York, Vail inherited some distressed assets.

“The reality is, by acquiring these resorts, Vail also acquired some of these problems associated with older systems,” White said.

The way to improve Attitash, Wildcat and Crotched is by investing in them more. Vail has started to do this with stepped-up snowmaking and lift maintenance and a new lift slated for Attitash next season, but perhaps not as fast as it could and certainly not as much its passholders expect.

In addition to some of its other moves, the ski area giant might consider giving passholders at some of its most hard-hit areas some kind of partial rebate if the low snow, sparse open terrain situation persists.

Sugarloaf remains a skier's jewel in northern Maine.

Sugarloaf remains a skier’s jewel in northern Maine.

Western-style skiing in Maine

I hadn’t been to Sugarloaf in seven or eight years until I skied it last weekend in considerably less than ideal weather conditions, and nonetheless remembered that this northern Maine outpost might be the best ski area in New England.

“It just feels big,” said my old skiing friend and former pro freestyler Rich Schreuer of Gloucester, turning around just before we plunged down Narrow Gauge, the legendary race trail, on a frigid single-digit but brilliantly sunny day last Saturday.” “Some places are big, but this is big, and it feels big.”

With our Sugarloaf regular friend Bill Leete of Falmouth, Maine, Schreuer and I cruised all over the considerable expanse of open terrain at this iconic ski area that is the longest drive in New England for great skiing from Central Massachusetts. But at about four hours, it’s worth it.

Steeps

The wide, unrelenting steeps of Narrow Gauge, Spillway, Sluice and Skidder and others were open with extended fall lines on mostly hardpack, as opposed to the actual ice that has been the norm nearly everywhere in this bleak season.

I skied here in when I was in college in Maine too long ago, and not all that much has changed, but change is in the works.

To be sure, a few years ago Sugarloaf pulled off a unique terrain expansion with 650 acres of new sidecountry (lift- and snow cat-accessed backcountry terrain) with Brackett Basin and Burnt Mountain, where Sugarloaf runs one of the few snow cat operations in the East.

And, of course, “the Loaf” is still home to the only lift-accessed above tree-line skiing in the East in the snowfields, the sugar on top of the loaf.

Biggest in the East

Sugarloaf, with 2,820 vertical feet and 1,240 developed acres, bills itself as the biggest ski area east of the Rocky Mountains. I think that’s accurate. While Whiteface in New York boasts 3,430 vertical feet — the most in the East, it offers only 288 ski-able acres.

But Sugarloaf, with a not inconsiderable 300,000 or so annual skier visits as a destination resort, needs some new lifts and housing.

Ethan Austin, director of marketing, acknowledged as much, and pointed to the Sugarloaf 2030 plan, highlighted by a projected high-speed quad chairlift and extensive housing development.

“The real estate market has gone nuts in the last year or two, and there’s very little inventory to buy and not as many people are renting places as might have in the past,” Austin said. “We’re a destination resorts, so we need places for people to stay. So for us to kind of build that our volume excuse, we need more bed base. West Mountain is addressing a lot of that.”

Meanwhile, though, sister area Sunday River is an hour south and draws more visitors. As a result, corporate owner Boyne Resorts, which also owns Loon in New Hampshire, has steered a lot of high-speed lift infrastructure to Sunday River and Loon, with the new Kancamagus 8, eight-passenger covered chair.

The future

Austin, however, maintained that Boyne’s development strategy suits each of the three resorts’ characters. I agree that Brackett Basin and Burnt Mountain jibe mesh with Sugarloaf’s rough-hewn, hardcore skier vibe, and that the mountain has adequate, if not optimal, uphill capacity, especially when the upper Skyline and Timberline lifts aren’t on wind hold.

On Sunday, we skied in freezing rain that felt like sharp needles on exposed flesh, but the snow skied well.

With about 275 acres open when I was there, Sugarloaf has benefited by fewer freeze-thaw cycles than most other big resorts, though the Loaf is suffering from the same acute staffing shortage as most everywhere else and was hit by a round of COVID and other health problems that has thinned the workforce.

Steady snowmaking and a great ski bar

“We’ve been pretty, pretty fortunate. Even though we haven’t had much natural snow, we’re further north, and our elevation is pretty high,” Austin said. “So we’ve been lucky with temperatures where we’ve been able to really pretty consistently make snow since we opened.”

Oh, and by the way, I’m retroactively adding the Rack aprés-ski bar to my recent list of top New England ski bars.

While this great bar and barbecue joint has been staggered by COVID and forced to open with strict distancing numbers with only a fraction of its normal space, it remains one of the funkiest spots in ski country.

For the record, by popular demand, I’m also adding Tom’s Loft, at Okemo, and the Whaleback Pub at the nonprofit Whaleback ski area in Enfield, New Hampshire.

—Contact Shaun Sutner by e-mail at s_sutner@yahoo.com.

This article originally appeared on Telegram & Gazette: Lack of snow, labor are hitting region’s ski areas hard this season

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