A Snowball’s Chance

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ski-resorts

Winter Is Not Coming: Vermont’s Hogback Mountain is among the 600 U.S. ski areas that have disappeared over the past 60 years. (Photograph by Madison Kahn)

It’s perfect ski weather: sunny, blue skies, and just cold enough to see your breath. I’m standing in the parking lot of southern Vermont’s Hogback Mountain alongside Jeremy Davis, a meteorologist and connoisseur of old New England ski areas. As we strap on our snowshoes, he tells me that 50 years ago, Hogback—a two-hour drive from Boston—was a veritable hot spot, teeming with skiers.

Plodding across the mountain’s narrow trails, I imagine hordes of New Englanders—harried moms and dads with their stocking-capped kids—bustling onto the slopes from the small parking lot, like something out of a Rockwell painting. With 14 trails and T-bars that could tow 4,300 skiers per hour, Hogback Mountain was one of the region’s premier family ski destinations.

Then I trip on a tree root, falling hard on the dirt. Davis stops every few minutes to remove the rocks caught in his snowshoes. Under our feet, we realize, is not the powder you’d expect on a ski hill, but a shallow crust of ice and snow. We haven’t gone more than a mile before we decide to abandon our snowshoes completely. Hogback, it turns out, has been closed for decades, doomed by a lack of snow and the rising costs of running a ski resort. The trouble started in the 1970s, when scientists say that temperatures began to rise significantly (in truth, there was little climate research done before then). A series of spotty seasons, coupled with the sharp spike in gas prices brought on by the 1973 oil crisis, hit the mountain hard. It finally shuttered for good in 1986.

Now in boots, Davis and I continue exploring the mountainside. We look for the lift line, usually the clearest path to the summit, but Hogback’s forest has already swallowed much of the mountain’s infrastructure. A few remaining artifacts jut out eerily, serving as haunting signs of the mountain’s former life. The Ford engine that once powered its main rope tow sits tangled in brush next to a lopsided, aluminum-roofed red shack. The whole hut leans to the left; the slightest breath, it seems, could blow the entire thing over. We climb through overgrown weeds and fallen trees, following abandoned lift towers toward what we hope is the peak. Before long, we can see Mount Snow in the distance, its broad trails swarming with skiers.

Hogback and Mount Snow are not so different. Just 15 miles apart, both ski areas are located in the middle of what was not long ago part of the Northeast’s 120-inch Snowbelt. Why did one die and the other prosper? Simple economics: Mount Snow could afford the snowmaking technology needed to stay open when temperatures began to rise. Hogback couldn’t.

But making enough snow is becoming an increasingly difficult proposition. Due to accelerating climate change, Mount Snow faces the very real prospect of one day becoming another Hogback, ghostly and abandoned. Almost 600 U.S. ski areas have disappeared in the past 60 years, many of them victims of warmer winters. In fact, if warming trends continue at their current rates, within the next few decades, the multibillion-dollar New England ski industry could collapse entirely.

 

Since 1970, the average global temperature has increased 0.5 degrees per decade. By the end of the century, northeastern winter temperatures are expected to rise between four and 10 degrees, effectively cutting New England’s snow season in half. Scientists at the University of Waterloo, in Ontario, recently studied the effects of climate change on the northeastern ski industry and discovered alarming results: If global emissions continue to rise at current rates, in 30 years only about half of the 103 ski areas in the Northeast covered by the study will be able to maintain the 100-day season they need to be sustainable—and none of them is in Massachusetts.

Of the resorts able to stay open, at least 75 percent will require substantial artificial snowmaking to survive, which, in turn, will significantly increase operational costs and lift-ticket prices. To put it bluntly, within our lifetime, researchers say only 34 ski areas across the entire Northeast will be viable.

And even if those few ski areas can make enough snow to survive, they’ll suffer from the lack of flakes elsewhere. Researchers at the University of New Hampshire have found evidence of a psychological “backyard” effect: City dwellers are less inclined to drive somewhere to ski when there’s no snow in their own neighborhood. This could have serious implications for ski areas that rely on day-trip traffic from feeder cities like Boston and New York. It doesn’t help that, according to the University of Waterloo study, the few remaining mountains will be so far north that Bostonians may have to drive five hours to reach them—or they just won’t.

Already we’ve seen evidence of a warmer climate’s effect on the industry. Today, about 95 percent of resorts worldwide use snowmaking to supplement natural snow. Half of U.S. ski areas are opening late and closing early—and in the past 50 years, the average season length has decreased by seven days. As a result, the national $12.2 billion winter tourism industry has lost more than a billion dollars in revenue and eliminated as many as 27,000 jobs over the past decade, according to a report issued in December 2012 by the Natural Resources Defense Council and a group called Protect Our Winters. In the West, the increased volume of water required for snowmaking is creating conflicts over water use, and in due time, the same could happen in the Northeast.

Here in New England, the loss of the ski industry would be acutely felt: Northeastern ski resorts record more than 13 million skier visits per season—the highest of any region in the country—and help prop up many related businesses, including apparel, boot, and gear companies (to say nothing of mountainside restaurants, shops, and hotels). Snow sports contribute billions every year to the region’s economy and employ as many as 46,000 people. Even just tacking on a few more inches of snow to a regular season—and perhaps extending it by a couple of weeks—can translate into an additional $13 million in revenue. But those days seem to be waning. With snowy winters no longer the norm, the University of Waterloo’s scientific models suggest that northeastern ski areas will lose $3.2 billion in annual revenue over the next 40 years.

 

The National Ski Association, now known as the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, was founded in 1905. But the sport didn’t catch on until the ’40s, when European instructors began offering ski lessons through the Appalachian Mountain Club and at northeastern universities like Dartmouth. In the wake of the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, California, eager baby boomers built rope tows in towns and at private schools across New England. A decade later, as many as 60 ski areas existed within an hour’s drive of Boston. Today, there are three.

When it opened in 1947, at the peak of New England’s ski boom, Hogback Mountain was a prime destination for city skiers. The mountain’s last owner, 91-year-old Dick Hamilton, is almost as old as the sport itself. On the day I met him in his quaint white Marlboro farmhouse, he was sporting his old Hogback Mountain Ski Area beanie. “I’ve been wearing this hat to Stratton ever since Hogback died,” Hamilton said. “And every day, people come up to me and say, ‘Hey, I learned to ski there.’”

Hamilton’s first experience on the slopes was on a pair of maple skis—he put them to use in 1947, when his sweetheart’s father opened Hogback. “Snow was pretty much always here during those times,” he said. Every weekend, Hamilton told me, both sides of Route 9 were lined with license plates from Canada and all over the northeastern United States. The parked cars left barely enough room for the squadrons of Greyhound buses, carting eager New Yorkers and Bostonians. It cost as little as $5 a day to ride the rope tow, which could serve 900 skiers per hour, the highest-capacity T-bar in the East at that time. Only 14 trails were open for Hogback’s 1,200 daily visitors (most larger ski areas today have more than 100), but that was enough to serve the mountain’s prime customers: families, who paid $260 for a season pass. After Hamilton bought Hogback at its peak in the early ’70s, it quickly grew into what Vermont Life magazine described as the “biggest little area in New England.”

Within a decade, however, the mountain’s annual snow-packed winters had grown few and far between. “I remember one year we didn’t open until February,” Hamilton said. “And by then, people had made their commitment to other areas.” Those “other areas” were hills with the snowmaking technology that Hogback lacked. To make matters worse, the cost of liability insurance was skyrocketing. For a small family ski area with reasonable prices, Hogback couldn’t afford to stay open amid sparse winters.

Many other mountains in the vicinity followed a similar trajectory—29 ski areas in southern Vermont closed over the decades. Today, there are roughly 115 ghost mountains in the state. Massachusetts has even more: 173.

Now, it’s the remaining midsize mom-and-pop mountains that are most in danger. Blandford Ski Area, in western Massachusetts, is one such high-risk spot. Opened in 1936, Blandford is the oldest continually operating, club-owned ski area in North America. Every member is a partial owner, and therefore has an obligation to contribute some of their time during the winter months, helping with upkeep, ticket sales, rentals, and running the lift. Most of the people who ski Blandford live within an hour’s drive and bring their entire family each time they go, which can be as often as five times a week. But just because kids learn the sport at Blandford doesn’t mean they continue skiing there as adults. “We joke that all the big ski areas owe us a buck for every lift ticket they sell, because we ship them our kids,” said Jay Pagluica, a former president and board member at Blandford who still hangs around as the hill’s unofficial grandfather figure.

In the ’60s, there was a waitlist for Blandford’s 5,000 ski-club spots—the rope tows could only handle so much traffic. Now membership is half that. Costs went up when Blandford installed snowmaking technology in the ’80s, and ever since it’s been a struggle to pay for the mountain’s regular maintenance while keeping tickets low enough for locals to afford. “We’ve got to have snow on the mountain to get open,” Pagluica said. “And the windows to make snow are getting smaller and smaller.” When I asked Pagluica if the resort had a five-year plan, he grew silent: “We just want to open next year.”

 

As smaller ski areas went out of business, the mountains that had money to invest in snowmaking ramped up operations. And if their costs were being driven up by churning out all that powder, they initially found more than enough ways to make it back: Mountains were rapidly turning themselves into luxury resorts. Beginning in the late ’70s, Maine’s Sunday River, run by industry mogul Les Otten, led the charge, shelling out for high-speed chairlifts, wider trails, a base lodge, restaurants, and hotels. Other resorts quickly followed suit. Within a few years, New England’s sleepy ski hills had grown into five-star resorts, effectively turning the sport into the multibillion-dollar winter tourism industry we recognize today.

Now, as temperatures rise, the industry is experiencing another shift, and doing its best to adapt. Many mountains are going green—not so much to save the environment, but to save money. Snowmaking, after all, is very expensive, and the need for it is only growing. Sunday River’s snowmaking system, for instance, covers 92 percent of the resort’s 616 acres. The mountain’s owners already pour $500,000 to $1 million every year into new energy-efficient snow guns, which they hope will offset the high costs of snow production. “It’s incredibly important to us to keep our system as fresh and efficient as possible,” says Darcy Morse, the mountain’s communications director. “Snowmaking is so much of what Sunday River is known for and does.”

The mountain is cutting costs and energy in other ways too: It installed low-flow showers and toilets to save water, a wastewater treatment center to reduce runoff, and introduced hornpout fish into their lagoons to decrease sludge.

Medium-size ski areas like Massachusetts’ Jiminy Peak Mountain Resort and Wachusett Mountain Ski Area are also coming up with environmentally sustainable, energy-efficient solutions to adapt to warming temperatures. In 2007, Jiminy installed a massive wind turbine, which now provides one-third of the resort’s power. “Not everyone needs a wind turbine,” says Jim Van Dyke, the mountain’s vice president of environmental sustainability. But they do need, he continued, the money and will to invest in expensive, but cost-saving, measures.

Wachusett, located just over an hour west of Boston, has also taken the green route to save money. Over the past several years, the resort has installed two 1.5-megawatt wind turbines to cover 40 percent of the resort town’s energy needs. The mountain converts 100 percent of its cooking oil into biodiesel to fuel its five snowcat grooming vehicles. Wachusett’s most unique and innovative “greening” mechanism is capturing the heat thrown off by their snowmakers and using it to help warm the base lodge. Operators also market the mountain as a multi-seasonal resort. By offering festivals, weddings, races, and concerts in the summer and fall, Wachusett makes about 10 percent of its revenue in the off-season.

In season, though, the ski industry has essentially developed into an arms race to see who can develop the most efficient snow making technology. Wachusett’s president, Jeff Crowley, calls himself a snow farmer: “We have to make hay when the sun shines,” he says. Wachusett has spent half a million dollars per year on snowmaking over the past decade. But with the sun shining brighter and warmer than ever before, at what point does the whole proposition simply become too expensive?

It’s a prospect that some mountain loyalists simply cannot bring themselves to confront—even as the industry evaporates around them. Crowley admits that he’s preparing for change, and is working hard to stay optimistic, even if it means indulging in some wishful thinking. “We have our fingers crossed, hoping that maybe we’re all wrong about this stuff,” he says. “Sure, the climate is changing, but I don’t think it’s going to be drastic enough that we’re going to be without snow all winter. I find myself listening more to the guys who are saying all of this climate-change stuff is not necessarily true.” For Crowley, optimism has become a coping mechanism. “We kind of have to put our blinders on,” he says. “Otherwise we would just want to sell our resort.”

Source URL: https://www.bostonmagazine.com/news/2013/12/31/new-england-ski-resorts/