Ski Lines: Here come the crowds

A cross country skier on the trails at Lapland Lake. (Photo provided)

A cross country skier on the trails at Lapland Lake. (Photo provided)

In case you missed it, consider this: Vail Resorts has just reported it sold 2.1 million Epic passes for the 2021-22 ski season. That is a 76% increase in pass sales in just the past two years, or 900,000 more passes sold than in 2019-20.

There are several reasons for the increase. Skiing was one of the things you could do during this era of COVID, and remote work schedules gave people more opportunity to ski — notably midweek. 

If you had a pass, capacity limits were not an issue. You were guaranteed a place on the hill. The participating areas are appealing: Stowe, Okemo, Mt. Snow and Hunter in our area, plus Vail and lots of others in the western U.S. for those planning a ski trip .

Then there’s pricing. Vail reduced the cost of its pass options by 20% this winter. If you ski regularly at one of the Epic areas, the savings are substantial. While figures have yet to be reported, much of the same can be expected from Altera areas that offer the Ikon pass — which in our neighborhood includes Stratton, Killington, Sugarbush and Windham, plus a host of popular destinations in the west.  

It isn’t just the big guys. The small areas whether independent or in other programs like the INDY pass are sharing in the growth. The popularity of alpine skiing is across the board. Last winter there were some 60 million skier visits, a substantial jump over recent years where the number seemed stuck at about 50 million.

It will be interesting to see how this all plays out over the next two weeks: More skiers with guaranteed access to what likely in our region will be limited terrain, on what traditionally has been among the busiest ski weeks of the season. Be sure to check online before heading out to your favorite area. .

THE CROSS COUNTRY ALTERNATIVE

Cross country ski participation is up sharply too, for most of the same reasons. That is good news for dedicated cross country ski centers like Garnet Hill in North River and Lapland Lake in Benson. But these areas, and most places where these skiers go, are almost fully weather dependent. A spell of warm weather like last week and the places shut down. 

There are exceptions, notably the New York Olympic Regional Development Authority areas, where substantial sums have been invested in recent years invested in snowmaking and grooming at the Ski Bowl in North Creek and the spectacular new recreation and competition venues at Mt. VanHoevenberg in Lake Placid. But most Nordic activities, including back country and snowshoeing, rely solely on natural snowfall.      

While the number of people who cross country ski is much smaller than those who participate in Alpine, the increase in popularity is substantial, “about 20 to 30% over two years ago at Lapland Lake,” area principal Paul Zahary said last weekend. “And we’ve held onto that growth this winter” Zaharay said, pointing to what he hopes is “the new normal.”

“Two years ago you could call a few days in advance and book one of our rooms. Now, if you call for a room over the  February school break, we can put you on a wait list.”

Cross country operators are optimists at heart. But, the situation can turn around. Take a look back 40 years.

Buoyed by the first ever Olympic medal  by an American in cross country competition — a silver by Vermont’s Bill Koch at Innsbruck in 1976 — and the introduction of waxless skis that made participation for recreational skiers easier, cross country skiing took a great leap forward, doubling in participation from the 1970s to the 1980s. 

The growth was also fueled by the population spurt of the baby boom generation who were behind the growth of fitness and outdoor activity. The reported figure for cross country skiers reached a high of  5.8 million in 1987. 

“The backpack crowd wanted something to do in winters,” said North Creek’s Dick Carlson, President of the Cross Country Ski Areas of New York.

But, by the 1990s, the boomers had grown a little older and were raising families.  The weather often made the activity unappealing and what was the beauty of cross country skiing to many was just hard work for others. Participation fell  to just 2.2  million in 1999 and cross country skis became wall art in many homes.

Now, participation is back. While estimating numbers of cross country skiing can be difficult since much of it is done at local parks and on golf courses where people just park then head out without the need for tickets, the industry estimates that there were 5 million who skied last season. 

Roger Lohr, the New Hampshire-based manager of XCSkiResorts.com and a long time writer about the industry, is wary of the reported numbers. 

“Clearly there are more skiers but most are infrequent, or occasional,” Lohr said. “The regulars, people who cross country ski 10 times a year or more, I believe, represent just 15-20 percent of the overall number”.

If only the supply of cross country equipment was up, too. 

“Everyone is sold out,” said Jack Hay of the Alpine Sports Shop in Saratoga Springs last week. “And there is no product available for re-order this winter.” 

Supply chain issues explain part of the shortage and there are still residual effects from a fire at a major manufacturing plant in Europe last year meaning fewer skis for an increased number of people wanting to buy. It looks like next summer before retail racks will be replenished.   

The good news is that cross country sliding does not rely on large amounts of snow to operate. If there is a foot of snow, trail coverage is usually good everywhere. Half of that amount and it is manageable. The gear today is better too — clothing, skis, and most important, good fitting boots. Participation in Nordic alternatives like back country skiing and snowshoeing, while still just a sliver of the market, is also growingtoo.

Without question the numbers of those sliding this winter looks eye popping. And the outdoor recreation industry is strong. That’s a good sign for skiers in our area who have easy access to alpine and Nordic activity.

HALL OF FAME

The National Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame will hold induction ceremonies for 17 new members in March at ceremonies to be held at Bretton Woods and the Mount Washington Hotel in New Hampshire and in Sun Valley, Idaho.

The new class represents those elected this fall and those elected the previous year when the annual event was canceled due to the pandemic. One member of the new group is very familiar to skiers from our area. Brian Fairbank has long been the key figure in the development and growth of Jiminy Peak in Hancock, Massachusetts, just over the New York border. For more information on the multi-day program and induction ceremony, check www.skihall.com.        

LOCAL SCHOOL KIDS SKI FREE AT WINDHAM

Kudos to Windham Mountain for its new program that offers a free ski pass to all K-12 students in the surrounding Windham-Ashland-Jewett school district. It is part of an effort by the resort to involve the local community and it includes the Ski Tuesday program which provides free rental ski and snowboard gear along with coaching from the Windham Ski and Ride School to local students in grades K-6. 

“All they have to do is get here and they’ll be skiing and riding,” said Windham’s Dan Hogan. 

LEGACY LODGE 

Good news for Whiteface skiers. The new mid-mountain lodge is up and running. The rebuilt Legacy Lodge replaces the old lodge that burned down two years ago. The new facility is built on the footprint of the old building and for now includes a surrounding outdoor deck plus indoor seating and a cafeteria. Work expected to be completed next summer includes a lower level restaurant. 

Best holiday wishes to all.

Phil Johnson can be reached at [email protected].

Categories: Sports

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