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Glen Plake, the famous mohawked skier and sage of all things snow, once said that most skiing takes places at the end of a dirt road. He may have had Nevada’s Elko Snobowl in mind. The sign for this taxpayer-supported ski area is a rock on the ground painted with white paint and surrounded by spent shotgun shells. It has one chairlift, with chairs sponsored by local residents and businesses, and just a few hundred vertical feet. It’s not easy to find, tucked several miles off the wrong side of the lonely stretch of highway connecting two of America’s great ski centers: Lake Tahoe and Salt Lake City.
For the past few decades there has been a stigma attached to small, community ski hills like Snobowl. They’re chastised by core skiers as “not very good,” and presented as places to be avoided if you value your time on snow. But to the communities they serve, they are indispensable. “This area is mostly miners, and they want something for their families to do,” Roche Bush (pronounced Rocky, and yes, that’s his real name), manager of the Elko Snobowl, told me during my visit in 2013. “Skiing is good, clean, outdoor fun.”
For the ski and snowboard industry as a whole, community ski hills are even more important—if only the industry would just realize it. “With the weekend average window ticket now over $93, and with baby boomers exiting faster than Gen X and Gen Y are entering skiing, the industry is cannibalizing itself,” says Jamie Schectman, chief executive of the Mountain Riders Alliance, an organization that aims to benefit small, independent ski areas. “Now more than ever, these smaller, feeder-breeder ski areas are important to the ecosystem.”
In a recent survey by the Mountain Riders Alliance, 25 percent of skiers and snowboarders said they learned to ski at a small, local ski area—places defined by the survey as being smaller than 600 vertical feet with three lifts or less. Seventy percent said they learned at places smaller than 1,600 vertical feet and six lifts or less. Yet as real-estate-driven resort homogenization has taken over in the ski industry, these small areas that have been the gateway to snow sports for so many have struggled to survive.
That trend, however, may be turning.
Intrigued by my visit to Snobowl, and encouraged by news that two small ski areas that had recently closed back East—Big Tupper, New York and Whaleback, New Hampshire—were reopening thanks to community support, I decided to look into the fate of community ski areas last winter for a feature in Powder magazine. That story is now out, in the October 2014 issue.
I focused my search on New England, largely due to the New England Lost Ski Areas Project website, which lists more that 600 dead ski areas in New England alone (by contrast, there are currently 478 ski areas operating in the entire U.S.). Most of these are local, community-focused areas. According NELSAP founder Jeremy Davis, the worst damage was done in the ’70s, a decade that also marks the last time skiing (including snowboarding) experienced any real growth in participation.
Though it was the return of Big Tupper and Whaleback that inspired my search, being uncertain of their fate, I sought out success stories that were a little more stable. Magic Mountain was once a major player in the Southern Vermont resort scene before being closed in 1990. It has been enjoying a renaissance since reopening in 1997. Famous for having some of the steepest, most technical terrain in the Northeast, Magic, I figured, would carry the story. Then, through basic web searches, I found Titcomb in Maine and Abenaki in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, both of which have been either club or city-owned since the ’30s and ’40s. I decided to visit Abenaki.
I was blown away by what I found. Abenaki became the anchor of my story. Tucked behind the town’s hockey arena is a small and unassuming hill and a tiny lodge built in 1940, when the rope tow was first installed. That small, 200-vertical-foot hill (once a farmer’s field) is equipped with a $300,000 snowmaking system and a refurbished Bombadier groomer. There were jumps and rails all over the hill. Two local kids, I learned, are now perennial contenders for national championships for their age groups in big air and aerials. The local prep school uses the hill for race training.
The snowmaking and the groomer were bought by the Friends of Abenaki, a nonprofit that materialized almost a decade ago, when the town was considering cutting the funding to the ski area’s liability insurance. The town still covers the basic operational costs, which most of the town’s residents happily support. In return, it’s $5 a day to ski here if you live in Wolfeboro or two neighboring towns who also pay into Wolfeboro’s Parks and Rec budget; it is still only $17 if you’re from out of town. A burger in the lodge is $3. Since the snowmaking was installed, skier visits have grown from 1,000 to 7,000 per year. It is a true community asset, not much different from a beach or a sports complex.
“It really becomes the heart of the community in the wintertime,” says Ethan Hipple, Parks and Recreation director for Wolfeboro, and de facto G.M. for Abenaki. “[Kids] are here at Abenaki instead of playing Xbox or spraying graffiti on the town boat docks. This is a positive place for them.”
Abenaki is a shining example of how a small, local ski area can still flourish in the shadow of industry giants. But it isn’t the only one. Crotchet Mountain, New Hampshire; Powder Ridge, Connecticut; and Mount Prospect, New Hampshire, are others that have risen from the dead—either through community support or private investment—in the last decade and a half. Cochran’s, Vermont, and Titcomb, Maine, continue to thrive. Skiing, it seems, is returning to its roots, on the side of country road in small town America.
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