CAROGA LAKE — Jim Blaise is pushing 70 and hadn’t been on skis in 20 years, so he was rusty.
But his granddaughters, Sofia, 7, and Gabriella, 3, were going to be on the mountain — his mountain — last Sunday.
He hadn’t had any free time in 49 years, so he was ready.
As they took some runs down Royal Mountain, 10 miles northwest of Johnstown, underneath the little girls’ little skis was a deep, firm base of snow made by the ski area’s outstanding battalion of snow guns that had been working hard once the weather was suitable. Then there was also some new stuff, compliments of the storm that clobbered the Capital Region on Dec. 16.
The conditions mirrored administrative change on the mountain, as Blaise finalized ownership sale of Royal Mountain in October to Jake and Brooke Tennis, a young couple who live in Johnstown with their daughters Hadley, 2, and Kennedy, 11 months.
Change at Royal had already been afoot, like substantial refurbishment and improvement to the motorcycle racing courses this summer. Largely unchanged will be the experience there, as the Tennis family inherits a foundation built by decades of dedication from Blaise.
In the landscape of ski areas in the U.S., Royal Mountain is about as mom-and-pop as it gets, and the Tennises first and foremost are committed to maintaining that reputation, while adding their own touches to align with the times.
“I broke my arm snowboarding there,” said Jake Tennis, who has been working at Royal in a variety of capacities for the last 20 years. “That’s how it all started. I broke my arm, and I didn’t want to sit around. I think I might’ve started working in the rental shop a little bit, and parking cars. He said, ‘Well, you can do that with a broken arm if you want.’
“Definitely a giving guy and likes to see the kids smile. So everything he does there typically and obviously is for the patrons that ski there. Every year he’s ever been there, he just puts everything right back into the mountain. He just keeps dumping it back in, and that’s why we have one of the best snowmaking systems in the Northeast.”
“He’s wanted this forever,” Blaise said on Monday afternoon. “Jake is a P.E. [licensed Professional Engineer], a very smart guy. I used to kid him 10 years ago, ‘You’re the heir apparent,’ and we’d both smile.
“It was pretty cool that it all came together. A ski area of this size, winter and summer, the person that’s running it, the face of the place, they’ve got to be here. You can’t just take it over and send a bunch of jamokes in that nobody knows. They all know Jake.”
And they know Jim.
Royal Mountain opened in 1957, but after some rough business years in the late 1960s, it was available in a foreclosure auction in 1971, and Blaise, then a 19-year-old Scotia High graduate working at General Electric, scraped together the money to buy it for $30,000.
He’s been there since, but it’s been anything but a smooth run, starting with his first day of operation, when the lift broke, shutting down the hill before the clock had struck noon.
Blaise started out sleeping on a picnic table in the base lodge, then graduated to a bed in an apartment below the lodge before building a log cabin for himself in the late 1980s. It remains so small-scale that Blaise said he’s never had outside offers to sell, during a time when corporate ski area management corporations are scooping up independently-owned hills.
“Before we had snowmaking, ‘tough’ isn’t a word for it,” Blaise said. “It was barely making it. I’d get two or three summer jobs just to pay the power bill in the summertime. It was pretty destitute for 10, 15 years, until we finally got a few snow guns up here.
“Back then, we’d think it was real good when we had a foot and a half of natural snow, and the base is 0 on a scale of what we call 0-10 and there’s a lot of dirt and stuff … and people thought it was great. Now, two feet of manmade snow is a base. So, yeah, you look back on it and wonder, ‘How were we even able to ski?'”
These days, Royal Mountain has well over two dozen snowmaking guns.
Blaise estimated that he’s put $1 million into that venture alone over the years — “a gun here, a gun there” — no small expense for a small operation like Royal.
Besides ski instructors and patrol, the mountain employs nine or 10 people, with another 10 in the lodge, and there’s just about 100% turnover in the summer for the staff that handles the motocross and supercross events.
The motorcycle racing is sanctioned by the Central New York Motocross Racers Association, drawing thousands of people to Royal for Wednesday cards during a typical non-COVID year. Blaise credited motocross, which he has been running since 1982, for financing the snowmaking upgrades.
That, in turn, has boosted skiing season pass sales, since skiers are pretty much guaranteed a long season from early December to April at a mountain that can consistently offer good conditions no matter what Mother Nature contributes.
“People are coming from farther away to ski at smaller mountains, just because of the quality of our skiing surface,” Tennis said. “We have one or two people in a ‘cat’ [snowcat groomer], the same one or two people all year, so you’re getting the same quality each and every time, where a larger mountain will have shifts and shifts of different ‘cat’ operators. You won’t get that same quality. That’s one of the big perks of a small mountain, and I think that’s why our circle is getting bigger and bigger.”
“It is word-of-mouth; Jake’s a heck of a lot better at social media than I ever was,” Blaise said with a laugh. “The cellphone you’re talking to me on I just got two weeks ago, I’ve never even had a cellphone.
“We get a lot of people from the Cooperstown area, which we’ve always gotten, but that’s increased, and we’re down into Oneonta. They can go to Windham, and, granted, we’re a smaller ski area, but over the last probably 15 years, our snowmaking capability and snow-grooming, I’ve got to say, is second to none. And they know the conditions are going to be good.”
It helps that Royal has had continuity in the driver’s seat when it comes to snow grooming.
Joe Mulyca has been there for 20 years and is so good at his job that customers quickly nicknamed him “Corduroy Joy,” after the skiing term for the ideal narrow-grooved conditions a snowcat scratches into the surface.
In the meantime, Royal, like every other business, has had to adjust to the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s where Tennis, a civil engineer with C.T. Male Associates, has made his biggest impact recently.
Besides using an extra month of downtime because of the pandemic to rebuild the motocross courses, Tennis has been the driving force behind the adjustments Royal has made during the ski season.
They include designing the table layout in the lodge under 50% capacity restrictions, converting a maintenance garage into a secondary lodge, building a firepit near the loading area for the chairlifts and setting up a spot for ticket sales outside the lodge.
He’s also been ramping up his snow grooming skill, since Corduroy Joe is retiring next year and moving to Montana.
“We’ve taken this last two months and adjusted like crazy,” Tennis said. “With the inside restrictions and 50% capacity, I’m looking at this early, we knew that was coming, so we didn’t have to wait for the governor to release that. We’ve been following guidelines that other facilities have to use to run.
“We’re adapting. We’re doing everything we can. We realize that there’s going to be a lot of people out skiing, because there’s not too many other things to do, so we’ve taken these last two months to do that.”
Mountains are created by upheaval, then there’s a permanence to them, at least across the span of one person’s lifetime.
In Royal’s case, the face of the mountain is changing, while the bedrock features stay the same.
Tennis said with a laugh, “I’m primarily a snowboarder, but my 2-year-old daughter has been teaching me to ski.”
For his part, Blaise said skiing with his granddaughters was “everything I thought it would be.”
“Nothing has changed,” he said. “It’s better now than it was last year. Jake does small stuff to enhance it, but we’ve got a great snowmaking system, a couple of great groomers, so we had a good base to start from.
“This has got to be almost a family-run ski area to make it work. If you don’t love what you’re doing here, it’s not going to work. When somebody walks through the door, it’s nice when they know who they’re talking to.”