A message to all those who have skied Pico in the past: If you liked it then, you’ll love it now! To those who haven’t been there yet: Ski it and find out why.
Located just east of Rutland, Vt., on Rt. 4, Pico is celebrating its 75th season this winter, and is one of just a handful of ski areas in our region that opened before World War II and is still operating today. For many years now, it has operated in the shadow of neighbor Killington, so it is easy to overlook as just some curious drive-by to put on the some-day list when you have had enough of “The Beast of the East.”
That’s just fine for those who know Pico already for its wide boulevard from the top of the Summit Lift; its classic narrow, windy trail options; its great tree skiing, especially the beauty of its intermediate Birch Glades; and the family-friendly overall layout of the hill where everything eventually funnels down into a common base at the Pico Lodge. And like most of us who find a favorite place, we can get greedy. If others don’t stop in, we get to keep what we have for ourselves.
Pico and Killington have been relatives for more than a decade. In 1997, when Pico, long a family-owned area, was close to going out of business, it was bought by the American Ski Company, which at one point owned Killington, as well as several other large areas in the eastern and the western U.S.
The idea at the time was an interconnect, via a trail and lift, from the top of the Pico Summit to the Ramshead area at Killington. It was — and still is — technically feasible. But it was not a universally popular idea, and by the time environmental permits were in place, the American Ski Company was in a financial shambles, and the appetite to connect the two ski areas was gone.
The Park City, Utah-based Powdr Corporation bought Killington and Pico in 2007 and has been in charge ever since. The mission of the two areas has changed.
“We have way bigger priorities now than to connect the two,” said Tracy Taylor, who worked for Killington in one role or another for more than 25 years, and the past three years has been chief operating officer at Pico.
Taylor, who as a teenager delivered The Daily Gazette in his hometown of Clifton Park, graduated from Siena College, then entered the ski business, is very clear and very enthusiastic about the role Pico now plays.
“We have an asset like no other in the East,” he said. “Killington, with its seven peaks and 3,000-foot vertical, is the big resort.
“At Pico, we are the driver of value, getting people into skiing, growing the sport. And we are still a mountain with 2,000 vertical.”
Value? Well, for instance, a no-planning, get-up on a mid-winter Saturday and go-to-the-mountain lift ticket at Killington is $88. The same ticket at Pico is $65.
With a little planning, you can do a lot better. For instance, if you are a member of a ski club in the Capital District Ski Council, show your card on any Friday, and a lift ticket costs $19.37 (not coincidently, the year Pico was founded). Is it any wonder that plenty of traffic headed north from our area to ski leaves the Northway at exit 20 and heads east?
Have a family and want a better deal? Any Vermont school-age student gets a no-exceptions season’s pass at Pico for $75. It is what Taylor calls “the wow factor.” Want to move?
In the years before it was bought by the American Ski Company, Pico had serious financial problems and those became obvious to all who went there to ski. The sale of the mountain kept it alive as a ski area, but it was clear from the chipped paint on the lift towers and the frayed carpet in the base lodge that when it came to claiming resourses in the annual budget meeting, Pico was at the back of the line.
Things are much better now, at least so it appears. Pico is its own brand. The clothing worn by employees feature the name of the area, and, according to Taylor, his hill has a seat at the table when it comes to allocating resources by the parent Powdr Corp.
That doesn’t mean glossy new lifts or a fancy new base lodge, at least anytime soon.
“The focus has to be on continued infrastructure improvement, snowmaking especially,” said Taylor. “We will eventually replace our Outpost Double Chair, but otherwise, what most will see in the years ahead is just more snow in more places on the hill.”
One reason for optimism at Pico is that the new chief operating officer of the Powdr Corp is Chris Nyberg, who, from 2007 through last fall, was the president of Killington. He was involved is the long-term planning for Pico and has worked closely Taylor for years.
In some ways, Pico’s role as a niche player in the contemporary eastern ski scene is ironic. Years ago, it was a prime player in the region, especially in training racers. Andrea Mead Lawrence, whose parents founded the area, won two Olympic gold medals at Oslo in 1952, and the Chaffee family from Rutland became well known in competition circles in the 1970s, especially Suzy, a fine freestyler but better known later as “Suzy Chapstick.”
The Pico racing program is still conducted by the longstanding Pico Ski Club on its famed race-ready “A slope” and “B Slope”
Pico is unique in the region in that it operates five days a week. The lifts don’t turn on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. The next time you are tempted to head east for some skiing Thursday through Monday, don’t just look at the big guys. Check out Pico and see why so many locals still find it their favorite place to ski.
The Christmas snowstorm saved the day for most ski areas in our region, as a good accumulation on the slopes — and in backyards — followed by moderate weather conditions seemed to unleash pent-up demand and sent people to the hills in droves. The January thaw melted away a lot of that cover, but cold nights and snow guns at full operation seem to have saved the Martin Luther King long weekend, too.
According to reports from several areas, the planning time for ski trips seems to be shrinking. More and more people are waiting until the last minute to make arrangements. Now that two of the big three holiday periods seem to have worked out fine for areas, all attention now turns to President’s Week in February.
If areas can offer a good product during all three of the major ski season holiday periods, there will be green on the balance sheets in most places this winter.
The best luge racers in the world will be back in Lake Placid for the Viessman FIL World Cup races next week at Mt VanHoevenberg. It is the first international race for these ice rockets since the World Championships in 2009. At that event, Erin Hamlin of Remsen, north of Utica, stunned the sliding world by winning the gold medal, breaking a 99-race winning streak by German women. Hamlin will be in the field for this event, along with Julia Clukey of Augusta, Maine, giving the U.S. two legitimate contenders for medal honors.
In the men’s field, Chris Mazezer of Saranac Lake has been the top American in the men’s events this winter, while the doubles team of Matt Mortensen of Huntington Station and Preston Griffall of Salt Lake City, racing on their home training track, could move up from a previous World Cup best of fifth earlier this winter.
There will also be a World Cup relay competition. This will be a new Olympic event at the Sochi Games a year from now. After Lake Placid, the team heads to Sochi for training and the final World Cup race of the season.
EMPIRE STATE GAMES
Opening ceremonies for the 31st Empire State Winter Games will be next Thursday in the Herb Brooks Arena in the Olympic Center in Lake Placid.
This is the third year that the games have been organized by a local committee in the North Country after the sponsorship was dropped by the state. The competitions in 19 events will run through Sunday, Feb. 10.