The temperatures are rising and the crowds are dwindling. That means spring skiing is here and the final few weeks of the season can mean the best conditions of the year.
Situations like this can be a big mountain bonanza when the combination of sophisticated early season snowmaking and average mid-winter snowfall leaves a solid base for sliding and overnight temperatures fall below freezing to set up the snow for mild weather days.
With that in mind, it was time for a road trip earlier this week and east we headed to Rutland Vermont, then east on Route 4. To Killington? No! The destination this time was Pico, that many know only as a drive-by en route to “The Beast of the East” 15 minutes further up the road.
OK, Killington is an excellent ski area, as most sliders in our neighborhood know. It is about the limit of what makes a reasonable day trip from our area, but there has been a lot there since the 1960s, so chances are you have made the drive at least once. And, as most do, you have an opinion of the place.
Pico is a few miles closer and generally less well-known. Recently I received a call from an old ski friend. He had a day on the slopes planned and he asked if I knew anything about the area. He had lived here all his life but had never skied there. We looked at drive time with another area he was considering. About the same. We looked at the cost of a day ticket online. Pico was 40% cheaper. Case closed. He loved it.
Pico is now a part of Killington, older and smaller, but with almost 2,000 feet of vertical, hardly small at all. Besides who cares in the spring when a chair lift ride comes without the shivers and "hero" snow conditions are common.
Pico has been a part of the regional ski map since the late 1930s, when the Mead family started an area that burst into prominence over the next decade as their daughter Andrea grew more successful in ski racing, culminating in two gold medals at the 1952 Winter Olympics in Oslo, Norway. An important part of that process was the role played by Schenectady ski legend Dot Hoyt Nebel, who stepped in during the World War II years to help develop young Andrea's race skills.
Over the years Pico built on its strong ski racing reputation, aided by the prominence of the local Chaffee family, whose son Rick was a US Ski Team member and daughter Suzy a freestyle ski Olympian who became even better known for her ski movie roles and as commercial spokesperson for ChapStick.
Pico lost some of that sheen as nearby Killington developed in the 1960s and 70s and ultimately it was purchased by its larger neighbor. There was an effort by the then-American Skiing Company to connect the two areas, but by the time a lengthy permitting process was complete, ASC was not in a financial position to take on the project and it has never been taken on since.
Pico has always had appealing terrain. There are wide and steep trails and ones that wind through the woods off the main chairlift. And there are plenty of blue square cruisers off the lift from the base area. The wide birch glades are a great introduction to tree skiing. In addition to its widely respected race program that features its own training area, Pico is also home to the Vermont Adaptive Ski Program.
During the ASC period, Pico was clearly the underappreciated sibling. Paint was peeling on lift towers, carpets were frayed in the base lodge and the area was always one of the last in the region to open and the first to close in a season.
That has changed now. Current owner, Utah-based Powdr Corporation — whose other area holdings include Snowbird in Utah, Copper Mountain in Colorado, and Silver Star in British Columbia — clearly see Pico as an appealing partner. Recently they have invested more than $2 million for a pipeline to bring water from Killington to boost snowmaking at Pico, new trails have been cut to make travel around the mountain easier, and little but noticeable cosmetic touches have made it clear there is attention being given to the mountain. Pico, like Killington, is part of the multi-area Ikon pass arrangement which makes the area even more appealing.
One unusual feature added recently is The Pico Peak Lodge Warming Hut, a nothing-fancy but much-appreciated facility at the top of the area that is open to all, including a growing number of uphill skiers who hike up the mountain and ski down. The hut is open 24 hours a day and this year has been visited some 2,000 times, according to Rich McCoy, Pico's Director of Operations.
McCoy is originally from the Capital District and graduated from Colonie Central High School. He wasn't a skier then, but had a friend who wanted company to attend a meeting of the high school ski club and McCoy went along. By the time that meeting ended, he had been elected president of the group. His introduction to skiing came through arranging club bus trips. McCoy came to Killington 21 years ago to work in retail and switched over to operations four years ago. He has been in change at Pico since 2016.
"We are the quintessential old Vermont ski area,” he said earlier this week. "This is a friendly, welcoming place. All trails lead back to the main base lodge where there are real fireplaces on all three floors."
No gas fires in this lodge. "We'll burn seven chords of wood this winter," he said.
The homey atmosphere of Pico is no surprise to its Rutland clientele which has been loyal to the hill since the beginning.
"This is a much-loved mountain by locals,” one said last week.
So, with spring skiing on the agenda in the weeks to come. keep Pico in mind. It is much more than just a drive-by ski hill.
TUPPER WANTS IN
Friends of the Big Tupper Ski Area in Tupper Lake have launched a campaign to be taken over and operated by the Olympic Regional Development Authority. Big Tupper was started as a local community project in the early 1960s and operated under various ownership until 2009, when a local volunteer organization took over operations. It has been closed for the past five years. ORDA currently operates the Whiteface, Gore and Belleayre ski areas.
WHITEFACE MID MOUNTAIN LODGE CONSTRUCTION UNDERWAY
Reconstruction of the Mid Mountain lodge at Whiteface has begun. The original lodge burned down in November. The $14 million project is expected to be in full operation for the 2021-22 ski season.
NO PROGRESS ON SKI MUSEUM AT NORTH CREEK
There is nothing new to report on the long discussed New York State Ski Museum and related Hall of Fame. A New York State grant to help underwrite the project has not produced progress so far and there is no related work underway at the proposed site by the Ski Bowl on Route 28 in North Creek.
Reach Phil Johnson at [email protected]