Ski Lines: Holidays better than expected — now, what comes next?

A recent scene of snowmaking at Gore Mountain. (Photo courtesy Julia Johnson/Gore Mountain)

A recent scene of snowmaking at Gore Mountain. (Photo courtesy Julia Johnson/Gore Mountain)

You don’t have to listen too closely to make out the sound.

That’s a sigh of relief coming from all corners of the ski industry in our region that the holidays are over and the results were much better than some feared.

Despite the iffy weather and a COVID resurgence, people did turn out to ski and ride during the Christmas-to-New-Year period, which is always a crucial time for the business of snowsports.  It was a nail biter, for sure. We like to think that the increase in the amount of snowmaking in the Northeast has made the sport almost independent of the weather, but that isn’t so. Snowmaking is an essential element of our season, but unseasonably mild temperatures, the almost total absence of natural snowfall after Thanksgiving and a warm rain in mid-December can diminish even the most sophisticated system of machine-made coverage.

But people did come out to ski, and while all areas had just a portion of their terrains open, what was there was surprisingly good — especially in the mornings before the overnight groomed cover wore down. The potential disaster of too many people on too little terrain didn’t prove to be a widespread  issue. Sure, there was crowding and lift lines — but they were manageable and generally no worse than during a typical holiday season.

Now comes a two-week breather before the next big weekend  for the ski industry, the three-day, Martin Luther King Jr. mid-month holiday. Hopefully this will provide enough time for some help from nature in the form of natural snowfall and overnight temperatures cold enough — 28 degrees or fewer — to support aggressive snowmaking.

WHAT ARE WE LOOKING FOR IN 2022?

People who have booked, or are planning a trip to the U.S. West this winter should be more relaxed now with the enormous amounts of snow that have fallen there in the past few days.

After suffering through a drought for most of 2021, what is often a year’s worth of snow fell in just a few days. The Lake Tahoe areas received more than 200 inches in December, and just south of there at Mammoth Mountain was hit by more than 10 feet.

The issue for them in recent days has been getting people to the areas, both skiers and those who work there.

No matter what the weather, filling jobs this winter has been a problem for the ski industry.

“I don’t know where all the workers have gone,” said one long-time local ski area executive recently, noting that the shortage of employees is more acute this year than any in recent memory.

At Gore, for instance, general manager Jim “Bone” Bayse indicated that the area headed into the New Year with “openings in all departments.”

Destination areas are especially hard hit as they also struggle with a lack of nearby affordable housing available for workers. While this is an acute concern in the western United States, it is a problem in our region too. Lake Placid, for instance, has workers coming in from as far as Tupper Lake and Malone for day jobs.

One thing that is not suffering from a lack of people is the racing programs at nearby areas. The largest is the New York Ski Education Foundation at Belleayre, Gore and Whiteface.

The NYSEF group at Gore alone has 181 participants this winter.  More dramatic has been the growth in the race program at West Mountain; managing partners Sara and Spencer Montgomery have raised four ski racer children and, since substantially upgrading the competition facilities at the hill — and bringing in long-time ski coach Steve Lathrop — have seen their program grow to almost 100 participants, up from fewer than 10 just a few years ago.

What will definitely create excitement for the young racers and certainly the rest of us will be the 2022 Winter Olympics that begin less than a month from now in Beijing.

THE WINTER GAMES BUZZ

Unfortunately, those Olympic games have already been marked by controversy before the first medal has been awarded.

Human rights issues with China have drawn sharp criticism and the traditional ceremonial profile of the games has already been diminished.

Then, there is the COVID matter. The regulations and restrictions on all involved — athletes, officials, press and spectators — are very strict. There will be very little interaction between those involved. One example of the rules: spectators will not be allowed to cheer vocally through chanting or singing, as only hand-clapping will be permitted.

But the competitions will go on and the United States has some appealing, as well as accomplished, athletes.

Mikaela Shiffrin again leads the list. She is a defending Olympic champion and now, at 26, is closing in on the most international ski competition victores of all time. But perhaps even more important for U.S. audiences, she is articulate and gracious — and a person who is easy to cheer for.

This year there are a host of other U.S. team members who could medal including women’s downhill racer Breezy Johnson who has the best name for a top ski competitor since Picabo Street.

Jesse Diggins, who trains at Stratton Mountain in Vermont, will be looking to earn an individual gold medal in cross country to go with the relay gold she won in 2018.

The snowboarders also have a couple of marque competitors in 2018 gold medalists Chloe Kim and Red Gerard who, while now 21, still looks too young for admission to an R-rated movie.

And, of course, there is Shaun White looking to medal in his fourth Olympics. The face of the sport for more than a decade, this will almost certainly be his final Games.

An athlete I will be cheering for is luge contender Emily Sweeney who now lives in Lake Placid. The 28-year-old just was edged out by her sister for a spot on the 2014 U.S. team, then made the team in 2018 only to be sidelined by a serious crash before the competition began, and has come back to compete as part of the U.S. Army’s World Class Athlete program.

The German women are formidable in luge, but Sweeney has medaled in past World Cup competition and has a legitimate shot at a medal in China.

The Olympics should whet the appetite for the World University Winter Games, now just a year away in Lake Placid. This is the largest international event outside of the Olympic Games and this 31st edition of the competition is being held for only the second time in the United States, and for the first time since 1972, a competition also in Lake Placid. To host the games,  New York State has made major upgrades to competition sites in the Lake Placid area, particularly at the skating venues in the village, the ski jumping facilities at the Intervale site, and the spectacular Nordic and Sliding Sports Center at Mount Van Hoevenberg, arguably the best facility of its kind in the world today.

WHITEFACE HONORS WEIBRECHT

Lake Placid native and now local businessman Andrew Weibrecht was honored last weekend with the naming of the new base area lift at his home mountain Whiteface of “Warhorse,” his nickname as a competitor on the U.S. Ski Team.

Weibrecht won two Olympic medals in the Super G competition, a silver at Sochi in 2014 and a bronze  at Vancouver in 2010.

Also at the same ceremony was the unveiling of signage celebrating his achievements on the scoreboard at the base of the Olympic Downhill course.

Weibrecht retired from competition after the 2018 Games and now works in the family’s Mirror Lake Inn in Lake Placid. He was elected to the US Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame in 2019.

COUNCIL RACES SET FOR WEST MOUNTAIN

The New York Capital District Ski Council will hold its first race of the season Jan. 15 at West Mountain.

This area inter-club competition has been held annually since the 1950s.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, HAROLD!

Long-time West Mountain skier Harold McAfee will celebrate his 99th birthday this week.

McAfee, a Detroit native, served as a member of the 10th Mountain Division in combat in Italy in World War II. He worked for the postal service after the war and moved to Queensbury when he retired 30 years ago.

Happy Birthday, Harold.

Happy New Year. Contact Phil Johnson at [email protected]

Categories: Sports

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