Area ski clubs create community on the slopes

Members of the OC Ski Club gather for a photo on Jan. 22 atop Schweitzer Mountain in Idaho. (Greg Bockis)

Members of the OC Ski Club gather for a photo on Jan. 22 atop Schweitzer Mountain in Idaho. (Greg Bockis)

One of the best times of Don Streed’s life was about 25 years ago, during one of his first encounters with the Schenectady Wintersports Club. He went to the club’s Vermont house for a weekend, and it was packed with other skiers.

“We had a fabulous weekend of deep snow and powder,” Streed said.

The people that hosted the clubhouse that weekend were famous for the pies, and the question arose: who would get the first slice? So, after a long day of skiing at Jay Peak, Streed returned to the clubhouse, where he and his dinner table entered a singing battle against the other dinner goers to try to win that first slice of decadent pie.

And they won, of course.

Fast forward to now, local ski clubs like SWC have faced a harsh couple of years and gaze with uncertainty into the future. But it’s these memories and moments of companionship that Streed experienced that have not only helped the Capital District ski clubs to stay afloat but also shape them into lasting communities of their own.

One of the primary appeals of a ski and snowboarding club is its affordability. It is completely standard to purchase a lift ticket or season pass at a mountain to access the slopes, but just one adult one-day ticket often costs over $100 — a price that is exorbitant for many, especially families.

“Skiing has become very expensive, it’s always been expensive,” said Tim Jansen, the president of the Albany Ski Club. “If you’re taking four or six people or so, some of these areas are $200 a ticket. If you have a family of six times $200, that’s $1,200 for a day of tickets plus food and the Mercedes to get the skis in to get there.”

As a result, several of the local ski clubs have joined the New York Capital District Ski Council, a coalition of ski and snowboarding clubs from the Capital Region, Adirondacks and Central New York. With this membership, the clubs are able to enjoy Council Ski Days, which includes discounted tickets on specific days at various mountains and resorts in the Northeast, such as Maple Ski Ridge, Stratton Mountain Resort and Jiminy Peak Mountain Resort.

“The price can come down to $30 to $80 per lift ticket,” said NYCDSC treasurer Sally Vanderzee, also noting that season passes also help to bring costs down.

Additionally, many of the clubs offer discounted trips to both domestic and international ski areas. The Out of Control Ski Club in Albany, most notably, books week-long ski trips to destinations in the United States, Canada and even Europe, as well as extended weekend trips to Northeast mountains like Stowe, Jay Peak and Sunday River.

Couple of rough years

And then came a bump in the road: COVID-19.

During the pandemic, both the ski clubs and mountain resorts found themselves struggling. Several mountains, such as Okemo, Pico and Sugarbush, were forced to suspend operations indefinitely.

Consequently, the NYCDSC had difficulty offering their usual discounted prices.

“Mountains were closed for a while, and really weren’t willing to negotiate ‘deals’ with us because they were losing money at the time,” Vanderzee said.

To make matters even worse, the ski clubs found their memberships slipping. Prior to the pandemic, OC Ski Club had approximately 1,500 members, according to the vice president of organized skiing, Cynthia Ward. Now, the club is trying to make its way back up to 1,000 members.

“Obviously during COVID we lost some members — people did not renew and we didn’t get new members. We couldn’t really recruit new members, we didn’t have much to offer,” said Ward.

Similarly, ASC lost a good chunk of its membership.

“Probably a good 30% of our members did not renew after COVID,” said Jansen. “But we remain strong.”

A couple of clubs, such as SWC, did manage to pull through the worst of the pandemic with little injury, but not without plenty of effort and adaptation. The club abided by all state and federal restrictions with thorough cleaning, masking and vaccination requirements, and even allowed families to rent out the entire club’s entire property for a week at a time.

“We were able to offer to our membership 90% of the same opportunities they would have had pre-COVID,” said John Bidell, the president of SWC.

Opportunities to bond

Even with these struggles and shifts, one thing has remained constant in every ski club: camaraderie.

With numerous ski trips, friendly competitions, and event nights, club members have countless opportunities to bond with their fellow skiers and snowboarders. And that is exactly what happens.

“We’re a group of friends that are like family,” Jansen said, also noting that the family-friendly element of the club helps to bond even those of wildly different ages. “What I’ve noticed is where the young kids and the old people — they mingle right together and you wouldn’t even know that they were 50 years apart.”

To build the community even further, some of the clubs are year-round, offering activities and events during the spring, summer and fall in addition to their usual winter operations. The OC Ski Club, for example, holds a yearly volleyball tournament that attracts teams from across the Northeast, according to Ward. SWC also enjoys golfing, kayaking and cycling.

“The clubs are not just skiing,” Matt Quackenbush, the vice president of NYCDSC, said in an email. “I have also partied with club members, played golf, volleyball, football (back in the day), hiked, biked, kayaked, canoed, camped and many other group events planned by the clubs I have belonged to.”

Ward also experienced this sense of community and friendship building 25 years ago when she moved to Albany.

“I had no friends and no family, and most of my friends and family now come from the ski club,” Ward said. “I’ve made very long-lasting friendships and most of my social activities, if they don’t involve the ski club, they certainly involve friends that I’ve met in the ski club. It’s definitely a wonderful place to make social connections.”

But this camaraderie is not limited to each individual club. With the NYCDSC, friendships often blossom between clubs as members from each unite for council-wide events and trips. Plus, since each club offers different activities, some people even hold memberships to multiple clubs in order to fulfill all of their interests and goals.

“It’s a very multifaceted menu you could choose from,” Bidell said. “If you’re interested in traveling out west, you join MetroLand or Albany Ski Club and look at what their offerings are. OC does international trips and trips out west.”

A new concern

However, as the issues of the pandemic shift to the sidelines, the local ski clubs face a new problem: succession.

In order to maintain business and continue building the camaraderie that has remained so prevalent through even the toughest of times, clubs are having to think about how to encourage younger generations to join.

“Succession planning is very important,” Bidell said. “We need to be relevant to families now — especially young families — we need to be relevant to millennials.”

Both the NYCDSC and SWC admit to struggling with the issue.

“Lately, we have fallen short in promoting younger racers to the sport/clubs,” said Vanderzee in an email.

“I try to engage in conversations with young people . . . and I say, ‘hey, does this thing make sense, does this club make sense, this whole format? And would you be interested in coming up there?’” Bidell said. “I get a lot of feedback that it’s, to some of the more adventurous of people — the hikers, the skiers, the more hardcore skiers — it’s a deal and a half and they love it, but we need to have more utilization of the property than that.”

Others, however, see hope when looking at the trends of younger generations on the slopes.

“If you look at the ski racing around Willard Mountain and West Mountain, over the years, it kind of dropped off with the young people, and now their programs are full… so the younger ones are getting more involved in different areas and hopefully it will continue in the clubs the same way,” said Jansen.

Not only would the participation of younger generations benefit the ski clubs, but it would also benefit the young people themselves as they delve into the outdoors and experience that trademark camaraderie.

“It’s an individual sport but it’s still a team sport and the socialization is so critical, especially for young kids to be able to participate,” said Jansen.

When Streed is out on the slopes now, he says that he sees “so many kids, so many people, so many adults, just buried on their cellphones,” a stark contrast to the togetherness he felt at the dinner table in Vermont decades ago.

“Especially when you’re riding a gondola at a resort where you’re enclosed in this little capsule, the first thing so many people do is pull out their cell phone — they don’t converse with the people they’re riding with,” said Streed. “I usually break that silence.”

Recently at Gore Mountain, Streed struck up a conversation with the two young men he sat next to on the ski lift. Turns out, those two men knew his niece’s family.

“It’s a small world,” said Streed.

A small world — a community — that can be found even during a pandemic, even during generational change, on a ski lift.

Categories: Life and Arts

Leave a Reply