Sometimes smaller is better!

Have you guys read about Glen Plake’s ‘Down Home Tour’ ? Of course you remember Glen Plake, right? US National Hall of Fame skier from the 80’s? Huge colored Mohawk? Film star from ‘The Blizzard of Aahhhs’? ESPN has called him the pioneer of extreme skiing.

Well, for years Glen and his wife Kimberly have taken to the road every winter to visit small independent ski areas à la carte. They load up their custom diesel Freightliner camper and hop from area-to-area, unannounced, and just ski with the locals for no particular reason other than to say “I love this sport, I love small ski areas, and we need to keep it affordable”. Glen is an amazing advocate for the sport and understands the importance of ski areas that you probably never hear about. Do a little Googling and you’ll find some great articles on their adventures.

This past weekend I decided to make my own Down Home Tour and try out a small independent ski area in relative proximity to my new home, Madison Wisconsin. Instead of researching area resorts for amenities, size, vertical, etc., I decided the closest ski area was the only criteria for selection, so destination… Tyrol Basin. Tyrol is about 30 minutes west from Madison on what appears to be little more than a bump on the map. After setting our course I pulled up the Snosuite mobile app to peruse the hill’s stats and …. let’s just say what a shocking contrast to what I’ve been skiing. At only 32 acres in size with just a little over 300ft vertical, and 17 runs, it’s about 1/5th the size of my last destination. They serve guests with 3 fixed triples, a magic carpet and a rope tow…a really nice one! Average annual snowfall tops out in the mid-40’s (inches) with the summit at 1160 ft. Not exactly British Columbia, but let’s keep an open mind.

My son, Gabriel, and I pulled in around 10am and parked in their lower lot just about 50 ft from skiable terrain. The base lodges were small and cozy with a rustic aesthetic that brought me back to the small ski areas of my youth just outside my home town of Traverse City Mi. ; Hickory Hills and Mt. Holiday. Not much for amenities, but oh sooo inviting.

After loading up our wickets we headed to the closest triple and game-on. What a blast! With a short vertical we were able to decimate the entire area in about 3 hours…twice. What was impressive was the amount of snow they had left. They appear to have a fairly large snowmaking pond at the base and an abundance of big turbo guns spaced throughout. So even though this was essentially spring skiing, with near zero tree skiing available, the trails still had plenty of snow to push around. The conditions were about as expected, harder upon arrival and corn snow by late morning. I saw a couple Piston Bully’s, what appears to be an old Packmaster/Tucker, and a Pipe Dragon at the base used to keep the terrain in check.

What was truly impressive was the park features. We’re talking some pretty serious hits, rails and tops. Judging by the groups of young boarders gathering around the base, these features keep their target audience entertained. The staff was friendly and the patrollers…everywhere. Love to see that! Gives me a warm fuzzy to see so many dedicated folks keeping small town ski areas operating safely.

Needless to say we had a blast. We skied for probably 3 hours and the laughter never stopped. Run after run after run we just bounced from trail to trail. The only criticism I heard from Gabriel was “that is not a double black”! Yeah, he’s probably right, by West Coast standards, but by Midwest standards there was a little thrill off the top.

As we made our way through the base towards the car there was a much larger contingent in the village. Parents teaching their tots, packs of boarders, young families and teenage bombers were all present. I would have to say that given the resources that this small ski area had to work with they have done a great job. Kudos to the Tyrol team.

My only criticism would be to put some impulse food front and center. After a couple hours I was ready for some munchies. Chips, brownies, cookies, pizza…something. I went into the bar/dining lodge and couldn’t find anything out for a man on the run. Help me out.

This was by far the best way to spend a Sunday morning. See you again down the road.

Climate change and the ski industry – are we doing it wrong?

Well shit, now I’ve done it. I’ve gone ahead and brought up the one topic that could ultimately obliterate the industry we love…or did I?

First let me say “It’s real”! If there is anyone out there that is still on the fence about the effects of climate change…. well I guess they they’d be too busy basking in their own ignorance to read this, so we’ll just move on.

Yep, it’s happening. It’s going on every day and we’re all witness. Melting ice caps, horrendous and seemingly never-ending wildland fires, exhausting spells of extreme heat, and mother natures mood swings like we’ve never seen! Today we are going to reach 46°F in Madison when just 4 days ago we survived an active blast that brought us -50° windchills.

The long-term outlook for the ski industry is not great. I suspect that yes, some ski areas will not survive. Certainly the ski areas that evolve to be more sustainable and include summer activities will have the best odds for survival. However many smaller mom & pop ski areas that don’t diversify will likely perish.

So what is the ski industry doing about it? Plenty, and not much. Yes, there is an advocacy group out of Boulder called Protect our Winters (POW) that has taken the cause to Washington, which is admirable, but I suspect Washington most likely equates the ski industry to that flea on the elephants ass. A big white elitist flea. Skiing, like sailing, is a lifestyle activity that can truly only be appreciated by the enthusiast. You need to have it in your blood. When non-mountain folk think about skiing they see a sport where you have to buy expensive gear, drive a big expensive SUV several hours to pay for an expensive lift ticket, while staying in an expensive lodge room, in order to fulfill a vision of deep powder and lavish Après ski activities. Which includes what? Maybe 20% of the ski areas in this country?

So what’s my point? Grass roots. We need to focus more within. Yes, we should all join the fight for climate change, but there are already exists plenty of international groups where support would be appreciated. Checkout 350.org. Creating a climate change group just for the ski industry takes man-hours away from efforts within. I hate to say it, but skiing has always been viewed as a sport for the wealthy, so asking for support from the outside, when were viewed as having soooo much money on the inside, just makes us sound whiny and entitled. And let’s face it, we’re an exclusive club. A club of passionate and free spirited snow riders that are really concerned about the longevity of their playground. A club that enjoys copious amounts of snow. A club that needs to focus more on the industry as a whole and less on (you fill in the blank). An exclusive club that quite frankly needs more members!

We need to lead the way. We need the world to see us adopting universal strategies to be more sustainable and environmentally conscious. We need to implement tools that help all ski areas, big and small, to become more accessible to all.

Don’t get me wrong, I get it. Climate change advocacy is super important, but first-things-first. Our parking lots are too full. Our energy it too dirty. Our processes are too antiquated. Our footprint is too big! How is battling climate change gonna help that?

“A snowflake is one of God’s most fragile creations, but look what they can do when they stick together!”

Author unknown

Two stories. Two days.

Story 1

Last week my buddy Clint gives me a call at 8am in the morning. Now I’m an early riser so for me this is when my brain is firing on all cylinders, so no big deal. Clint however is in the pacific time zone, and I’m in central which makes it 6am his time…which makes the call a bit unusual. Apparently he had just come in from doing control work (that’s patrol geek speak for setting off those avalanche explosives) at Schweitzer. Anyway he was milling around at the patrol shack recanting with his fellow superhero’s about the previous days adventures and a story came up how a patroller had skied past an incident not once, but twice. Not this is not terribly unusual at Schweitzer. That mountain has abundant tree skiing and some pretty remote pockets for adventure, and don’t even get me started on the fog, legendary! Now can you imagine how long it can take for a patroller responding to incident to ski down, take the lift, ski down, take the lift, ski down…”oh there he is!”. Woof!

Story 2

Next day my wife conveys a story she heard from our friend Kathleen about how Chris (her husband) was skiing down…some run…, and “POP” goes his ankle. Said he actually heard it, and you know it’s bad when you can actually hear your bones talk. Chris is a super “free the heel” proud telemark skier that can make continuous turns look effortless. I made the call to check in a few days later. Apparently the conditions were decent but he said he definitely hit, what he called “cruft”, just under the surface. Must’ve thrown his balance off just enough to put him in an “unrecoverable spin”, sorry Goose.

Of course the next segment of the conversation pertained to the response time from patrol “did you go down in the toboggan….how was the care…how long did it take for patrol to reach you?”. Yes. Excellent. Less that 3 minutes! Yowza! Now that’s impressive! How did he get patrol assistance so quickly? It hit me that he the patrol direct phone number on speed dial. Oh, did I forget to mention, Chris is a well-seasoned volunteer Mountain Ambassador for Schweitzer…. yep that’s why he has there direct line. Obviously this is extremely rare. I’ve personally spoken with hundreds of folks and no one has patrols direct number. Sometimes patrol doesn’t even have a direct number.

Well the verdict is still out as to whether Chris needs surgery or not, but his ski days are definitely done for the season; sorry Chris. Big thanks to the patrollers that brought my pal down, you guys rock!

I obviously don’t need to draw you a line here but this is exactly what SnoSuite is going to do, give everyone a direct line to patrol…no phone number required.

Sorry for your loss

If you’ve been following current events you may have seen that Taos Ski Valley had an inbounds avalanche on Thursday which took the lives of two skiers. The skiers were on the K3 chute near the top of Kachina Peak; the mountains highest point at 12,481 ft., when the avalanche occurred. This was the first in-bounds avalanche in Taos 64 year history.

As you follow the story you will find countless references to team work, heroism, and organization as more than two hundred volunteers worked with ski patrol to form a probe line to locate and extricate the trapped skiers as quickly as possible….I Love you! One witness said it couldn’t have been more than 5 minutes before efforts were underway to locate the fallen and the first was extricated in <15 minutes. Yes, this is a long time to be trapped, no doubt about it, but that fluffy powder at the top turns into concrete in an avalanche, and the patient was 6 feet down. My heart goes out to the families of those lost, but my joy rises up when I read the stories about the teamwork involved….cheers to you all, my alpine family.

After reading through an article from the SantaFeNewMexican I was browsing the comments section and came across a post from a guy named Ben Shroeter that read “I hate to say this but this is 100% the fault of Taos Ski Valley.” My first thought was what an ass! Hey Ben, how could you have possibly come to such a deduction so quickly? The investigation just got started! And furthermore this is not a time for judgement, it’s a time for grievance. Ok I’ll say it aloud…What an ass!  Now theoretically it could be the fault of Taos, I guess. Maybe the patrol team leader came in that morning with a major hangover from the previous nights binger, took one look at the hill and said “looks good to me, open ‘er up.” Sure, it’s possible, but, in my best english accent, “not bloody likely”.

This tool continues his rampage with “The Taos Ski Patrol obviously was not adequately trained” and “The staff should have known better”. Look folks, this is a wilderness sport and must be treated as such. If you play in the outdoors you have to accept the reality that occasionally the unexpected can, and will, occur. I personally have multiple friends that are ski patrollers and they take the job very serious! Training is a continuous effort and these guys put in tons of hours to bring us the safest conditions possible… they make in-bounds skiing possible! But that said they are not in charge, mother is…mother nature.

Now go out there and make you next run a tribute to those that have died doing what they love…and wear your helmet!

The Aging Population Dilemma

Yep, we have an aging population of skiers and the ski industry is not quite sure what to do about it.

On one side of the coin you have an industry forged by Baby Boomers (The youngest of which is 54). These Boomers are the populous that grew the sport through the 70’s and 80’s, and drove some of the biggest and most exciting innovation in the sport; think Jake Burton, shape skis and detachable quads. Now however if we look back at the past 30 years what’s changed? I realize that gear innovations have changed quite a bit over that time, but who can tell? Are these innovations doing much to attract new skiers and riders? Doubt it.

The industry is having a real dilemma trying to attract the younger generation of skier and they appear to be drawing from much of the same toolbox from previous generations. In fact the only real movement we’ve seen over the past decade is mergers, acquisitions and the conglomerate season pass. Now the savings received by locking yourself in to one these passes can be big! If you are one of those boomers that has the time and bank account to ski and travel frequently this is a big win for you! The Alterra and Epic passes (and the like) can bring great savings over the ticket window price if you’re a frequent flyer. But how many new skiers that you know need, or want, a season pass?

Now lets say for a moment that you have never skied and I came over and handed you a FREE lift ticket to the local ski area….would you go? I suspect maybe 4 out of 10 would actually use their pass. The others would probably hand it off to a friend, pawn it on Craigslist, or leave it on the dresser until tossing it in the spring. Why? Why would you not want a FREE lift ticket. The local hill is usually @$70/day! Well I can think of many reasons that may deter any noob from taking advantage but I suspect a primary reason is fear. Fear of getting hurt, fear or trying something new by myself, fear of hidden fees (like rental gear and food), fear of putting those boots on the first time and trying to walk across the parking lot, just fear.

The other side of the coin is the Millennial generation (Gen Y) which is more safety and security conscious than any other previous generation. Millennials travel in packs, need to feel safe, are highly connected and tech savvy. (You can see where I’m going here right?)

SnoSuite is bridging the gap by bringing “Fear Elimination” to a new generation of skiers and riders.