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Ski Lines: Progress continues at West Mountain

Ski Lines: Progress continues at West Mountain

Phil Johnson's latest ski column
Ski Lines: Progress continues at West Mountain
Photographer: Phil Johnson

It is pretty clear these days that the progress seen at West Mountain in recent years continues.

The new-look cafeteria in the main lodge, and the revitalized base lodge and a new chairlift at Northwest are signs for all to see that the future of the area, in doubt just a few years ago, is no longer a winter-to-winter proposition. Today, the snow making is better, the trail layout and lighting is better and even the parking lots have been improved. 

What is less apparent, but significant nevertheless, is improvement of the The West Mountain Race Program, almost hidden in plain sight in the A Frame building in front of the base lodge. 

A skeleton operation with just six participants just a few years ago, it has 76 racers enrolled this winter, with large groups in the 10-and-under and 12-and-under age groups. These are not just drop-ins. Full-program participation can involve up to five days a week, including evenings and weekends. 

Not much time for video games with a schedule like that.

Sara Montgomery is the driving force behind the program. With husband Spencer and partners, the Montgomerys acquired the area in 2013. Since 2015, she has been the general manager of West and director of the racing program. She is also the mother of four children, all accomplished racers.

So what is an Iowa native who didn’t learn to ski until she was an adult doing running a race program? 

“I look at it like raising a family,” she said. “At home, I had to deal with organization, with schedules and with time management. When my youngest started school, shifting over to management of a racing program seemed like a natural move.”

Making that shift more appealing was the arrival last year of former U.S. Ski Team racer and longtime ski coach Steve Lathrop, who had spent the past five years at the well-known Stratton Mountain School and Ski Academy in Vermont.

Lathrop is a pro. A World Cup international competitor in the early 1970s and a pro racer after that, he’s been around competitive skiing long enough to swap Jean-Claude Killy stories without skipping a beat. 

Lathrop is thrilled with joining West after participating for so many years in big mountain programs.

“West is an excellent venue for training.” Lathrop said. “We have 1,000-foot vertical, which is just about what all other mountains use for their training. And the terrain is excellent; a great combination of pitch, flats and rolls. And we have lights. Unlike most big areas, we can schedule training the late afternoon and evening. We can also train on weekends.

“The Montgomerys are great supporters of racing. They are willing to dedicate space to the program.”

The arrangement seems to be working well.

“Steve and I are a great fit,” Sara Montgomery said. “I do the organization and the detail work. He is the Alpine race director in charge of the on-hill training with the kids and the coaches.”

Success by Easterners on the International ski scene dates more than 80 years. Pico Mountain’s Andrea Mead won an Olympic gold medal in 1952, and Billy Kidd from Stowe refocused attention on eastern skiing with his Olympic silver medal in 1964.

Fast forward 50 years, and West Mountain is running with some pretty elite company. The first ski academy was at Burke Mountain in the early 1970s, and there are now several more now in Vermont. New York started its Ski Education Foundation in 1973, and today there are well-established training programs at Whiteface, Gore, and Belleayre. NYSEF currently has some 500 juniors in Alpine, Nordic, freestyle and ski jumping programs. If that wasn’t enough, most ski areas offer local race training, including well-established programs at Willard Mountain in Greenwich and at Pico in Vermont.

And there may be a ski academy in the future for West.

“We have lodging already, and we plan to have talks with the Queensbury school district about the academic part of such a program,” Sara Montgomery said. 

So why would West, at a time it is rebounding from near-closure a decade ago, choose to embrace a race program that will never involve most people who ski just for day of outdoor fun?

“The race program is a positive for us.” Sara Montgomery said. “It is a lot of work. But it legitimizes the ski area and give us exposure we wouldn’t get otherwise.” 

West regularly hosts high school racers and the sectional championships. It also hosts USSS regional age-group competitions and, this winter, the U-14 Eastern finals will be there.

West will host an FIS sanctioned slalom and giant slalom Saturday-Tuesday that will attract racers from throughout the world looking to establish point scores needed to qualify for higher-level international competitions like the World Cup. These are sanctioned events held throughout the world, and West has terrain that meets international race standards. 

The races will be held on The Cure and Gnar-Wall trails on the West Mountain face directly uphill from the base lodge. The ski area will be open for regular skiing that day but there is no cost for those who wish to watch from the base area. 

Tempted to dismiss the importance of smaller areas to ski racing success? Keep in mind that Lindsey Vonn got her start at Buck Hill, a slope outside of Minneapolis; Olympic champion Diann Roffe grew up at Brantling outside Rochester where the vertical is 250 feet; and Heidi Voelker started her Olympic medal winning career racing at Bosquet in Pittsfield which at 750 vertical is 260 less than West. 

West is clearly serious about its race training program. And who knows where the next Mikaela, or Bode will come from? 

SKI COUNCIL RACES

The New York Capital District Ski Council will open its 2020 racing schedule Jan. 12 with the Albany Ski Club challenge at Oak Mountain in Speculator. There are just two more races on the Council schedule, back-to-back competitions Feb. 1, at West. Check nycdsc.org for further details. 

WYLIE NAMED SPORTS DIRECTOR

Paul Wylie, the Harvard graduate who came from Who’s He to Who’s Who in figure skating at the 1992 Winter Olympics has been named Director of Sports for the Olympic Regional Development Authority.

A surprise choice to make the U.S. team for the Albertville Games, Wylie won a silver medal in the men’ s competition and went on to be a featured performer in the Stars on Ice program in the 1990s. He has been a frequent presence in Lake Placid over the years, coaching in the summer skating program.

In the new position, the 55-year-old Wylie will be a lead ORDA official interacting with area, national and international sports organizations.

SKI BOWL TO THE RESCUE

The recent warm and wet weather has raised havoc with cross country ski conditions in the area, but the snowmaking and grooming investments made at the North Creek Ski Bowl in recent years bailed out Section II racers again last week.

The Queensbury Relays were set for the track at the school, but at the last moment, had to be moved. The change didn’t bother Mayfield standout Madison Relyea. She won the girls’ event by an impressive 25 seconds to lead her team to a second-place finish behind Saranac Lake. Nick Logan won the boys’ competition, leading host Queensbury to the team title.

Reach Phil Johnson at [email protected].

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