Ski Lines: Skiing season comes to sudden end

Phil Johnson's final ski column of the season
Former Gazette ski columnist Bill Rice.
Former Gazette ski columnist Bill Rice.

Have we ever seen a ski season end like this? 

If anyone can answer that question, it is Bill Rice. He has just about seen it all.

The former Gazette ski columnist started skiing locally with his dad in the late 1930’s, was an area ski patroller and an accomplished ski club racer as a young man and, for 40 years, wrote Ski Tales for the Gazette. Balky knees have kept him off the slopes in recent years, but he still pays close attention to skiing and what is going on in snowsports. 

He has seen long ski seasons stretching into May and, in the pre-snowmaking years, short ones that didn’t start until after Christmas, and ones that ended with a February thaw.

But never has he seen a season like this that ended so abruptly. 

“This isn’t just a local phenomenon.” Rice said. “It is worldwide, and it has affected competitions, as well as most forms of outdoor recreation.”

He’s right. Unless you can find some back country snow stashes or an area that allows uphill skiing, the season that not long ago promised to last into April ended last week.

Before public health concerns suddenly caused facilities everywhere to close down, the ski season had been relatively good. The combination of a positive World Cup ski buzz from Killington in November and a major early-season snowstorm jump-started public interest in getting out on the slopes, and cold temperature gave areas to opportunity to showcase their snowmaking capabilities.

While there may not have been as much natural snow as some may have wished in December, there was plenty of trail coverage available for the holidays. There were storms in January and February that fueled interest and crowds for the Martin Luther King and Presidents Day holidays, always important dates for the ski business.

Then, suddenly, it was over. COVID-19 didn’t spare winter sports. 

Here are some final thoughts and observations before putting away the boards for the season. 

— Lake Placid celebrated the 40th anniversary of its 1980 Winter Olympics. Events were held throughout the 10 days in February and, while more low key than some might have hoped, the wide spread attention given to the U.S.A. Hockey “Miracle” Team, which celebrated in Las Vegas, gave the village its star turn in the spotlight once again. Let’s try to bring the hockey players back to the town where they belong for the 50th anniversary. 

— A lot of the construction for the World University Games in Lake Placid in January 2022 is already underway. The most visible effects of this will be at the Nordic and sliding facilities at Mt. VanHoevenberg. 

— Did it seem like there was a significant drop off in interest in ski racing after Mikaela Shiffrin left the World Cup tour following the death of her father? She is both an appealing personality and an extraordinary competitor. Her absence from racing was understandable, and she was missed. No U.S. alpine racer other than Shiffrin posted a top-three finish in 2020. The only male World Cup gold medal since 2017 went to Tommy Ford at Beaver Creek last November. 

— There were bright spots in Nordic. Jessie Diggins, a 2018 Olympic gold medalist, won five World Cup medals over the winter, and Vermont biathlete Susan Dunklee earned a silver medal at the World Championships.

— Competitors from our area with 2022 Olympic ambitions had a tough winter. U.S. Ski team Alpine racer Tommy Biesemeyer from Keene was sidelined once again by injuries, as was 2018 Olympic bobsled driver Codie Bascue from Whitehall. Two luge racers with area connections had disappointing seasons, as well. Former Union College student Tucker West finished 13th in the overall men’s singles World Cup standings, while Jonny Gustaffson, who has family in Charlton, was 20th.

— On the local race scene, the New York Capital District Ski Council had a difficult year. The annual competition between members of area ski clubs goes back more than 60 years and once drew more than 100 competitors to its weekend races in the region. This winter, there were just three competitions in two days and less than 25 raced. 

— Despite the abrupt end to the season, major capital projects at area resorts have been announced for next year: the Quantum lift at Okemo, a gondola upgrade as well as reconstruction of the mid-mountain lodge at Whiteface and the region’s first eight-passenger chairlift at Loon in New Hampshire. Some projects could be placed on hold. Vail Resorts, which owns Okemo, has recently indicated it is reconsidering its plans.

— The Hickory ski area outside Warrensburg seems to be dead, in spite of its continuing inclusion on the state ski area sign near Exit 17 of I-87. There has been no skiing there in five years. The future of another area in our region may depend on a possible transfer to the Olympic Authority. Big Tupper in Tupper Lake has not operated since the 2012 season, and local supporters are petitioning New York State for a take over. 

— Two long-time leaders in the regional winter sports community are leaving their positions.

Donna McGraw, from the Town of Day, is stepping down as the Eastern Division Administrator for the National Ski Patrol. With approximately 880 members from West Virginia to Maine, Eastern is the largest division in the country. She has been the administrator since 1990. 

Jon Lundin has been a fixture on the winter sports scene around Lake Placid for more than two decades, the last 10 years as the well-respected spokesperson for ORDA. A tip of the hat to both who have played important roles in our winter sport community. 

Finally, as we head into the months of bad sliding, there may be some relief in New Jersey, where Big Snow at the Meadowlands opened for business in December. This long-anticipated indoor facility near MetLife Stadium features a 1,000-foot long, 160-foot vertical slope with four lifts, including a four-passenger chair.

For $70, ($65 on-line) you get a two hour lift pass, rental skis,boots, and even a parka, if needed. Ski lessons will be available when public facilities re-open.

Stay healthy and look forward to meeting again in Ski Lines. 

Reach Phil Johnson at [email protected].

Categories: Sports

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