Ski Lines: Season off to strong start

Phil Johnson's weekly column
A new generation of computer-regulated, tower-mounted guns produce three times more snow coverage than older equipment.
A new generation of computer-regulated, tower-mounted guns produce three times more snow coverage than older equipment.

Yes, I did ski Thanksgiving weekend.

The verdict? Certainly worth the trip.

I was at Gore Mountain. Conditions were very good. The trail count included runs from the top of the mountain. The surface was groomed smooth. The coverage was excellent.

And it is still November.

The holiday crowd at Gore was ample — make that remarkable, if comparing to the turnout in recent years on the same weekend. Match that up with an announced attendance of 35,000 at Killington for the Women’s World Cup Alpine races last weekend, and the sliding season in our region is off to a great start.

Now, sometimes, early-season conditions don’t align with skier enthusiasm. A few ribbons of snow bracketed by brown ground can be enough to get the legs loose, but the optics sure limit the excitement. Not this year. It is white wherever you look, and a foot or more of new snow earlier this week at higher elevations makes conditions even better heading into December.

Natural snowfall is important, of course, especially when it falls in in the backyards of skiers. But what makes it all work on the hills in our region is what comes from snow guns. That’s why when you read about the money being spent on ski area improvements each year, it is the boring stuff — snow guns, water pipes, pumping facilities — that consume so much of the resources. High-speed lifts and fancy lodges get most of the attention, but it is the infrastructure investment that is the basic blocking and tackling of ski area operations.

The “Bigs” have relied on this for years. Hunter Mountain in the Catskills was built on full snowmaking in the 1960s and areas like Okemo, Mount Snow and Killington in Vermont have burnished their reputations for decades with machine-made snow.

But this is not just a large-area-only phenomenon.

This is the sixth season for Spencer Montgomery at West Mountain, and there is a new novice and teaching area quad chair replacing the old Face Lift in front of the base lodge, a new and expanded cafeteria in the main base lodge, and progress on the revamped Northwest area base lodge. He is obviously pleased with what he sees.

But what kicks up the conversation with Montgomery is when the topic turns to snowmaking, and he conducts a mini geek tour of the base area pump house where new piping and more powerful generators push water uphill to new tower gun mounts. That means more snow produced for areas previously served and new coverage on terrain that relied on natural snow only in the past.

“We now have 200 guns on the hill set up to cover 100 percent of our terrain,” Montgomery said. “We can open five times faster than before. Our goal from now on is to have the entire area open by Christmas.”

You don’t have to convince Jim Blaise at Royal Mountain of the importance of snowmaking. He will open his Caroga Lake area this weekend with almost all terrain ready for skiing and riding. This is the earliest Royal has been at full operation since Blaise took over the area — and that was 47 seasons ago.

Royal now has 26 tower guns, more than double what there was five years ago. These guns with nozzles 15 feet above ground make more snow more efficiently than older ground level guns. And with snow cats pushing the product around the hill, skiable terrain builds fast. 

Important? Or just good to have?

“Without snowmaking, there would not be a Royal Mountain ski area today,” Blaise said.

Killington, in anticipation of its recent World Cup competition, opened in October while other large areas in the region have been operating for at least three weeks now. Windham in the Catskills with its new six-passenger, base-to-top chairlift is open, as is neighboring Hunter Mountain. Jiminy Peak in the Berkshires and Catamount, which straddles the New York-Massachusetts border, are also spinning the lifts this weekend. In addition, Gore and the other two areas operated by New York’s Olympic Regional Development Authority — Whiteface and Belleayre — are also open. West Mountain plans to open Dec. 15.

Cross-country skiing on groomed terrain is available at Lapland Lake, Garnet Hill Lodge, and the North Creek Ski Bowl.

Oak Mountain in Speculator expects to open next weekend, while smaller, teaching-oriented areas Maple Ski Ridge in Rotterdam and Willard Mountain in Greenwich are pointing to mid-December operations.


Slalom phenom Mikaela Shiffrin, fresh off her World Cup victory Sunday at Killington, shifts gears to the speed events this weekend with starts in the Downhill and Super G at Lake Louise in western Canada. The 23-year-old is known primarily as a gate skier, but she has scored in speed events previously. A victory in either event this weekend would be her 47th World Cup win, fourth most on the all-time women’s list.


“Lost Ski Areas of the Berkshires” is now available. This is the latest in the series of books about now-closed ski areas in New York and New England by Saratoga County-based author Jeremy Davis. Like the four that focused on The White Mountains, Southern Vermont, The Southern Adirondacks and The Northern Adirondacks, this one looks at  areas in Western Massachusetts and features profiles on old favorites like The Thunderbolt Trail and Brodie Mountain. Davis will discuss his new book on Wednesday, Dec. 12,  at The Alpine Sports Shop in Saratoga Springs.

KARL PLATTNER, 1927-2018

Much of the celebrity-generated glamour that created excitement for skiing from the 1960s through the 1980s funneled through the Karl Plattner Ski School at Hunter Mountain.

Entertainment and sports stars of the period were part of the everyday mix at the Catskills area where they were hosted by Karl Plattner and his core of red-suited special instructors. A ski racer in his native Austria, Plattner came to North America in 1954 and headed up the ski school at Hunter from 1962 to 1996. 

He lived at Hunter Mountain until the time of his death in late October.

Phil Johnson can be reached at [email protected].

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