By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 20, 2004
ROXBURY, N.H. -- It would be easy to drive past this pint-size ski hill along a windy, two-lane highway without even noticing it is there.
Granite Gorge doesn't look like much: two gently sloping trails carved from a stand of maples, a rope tow and a rickety moving sidewalk that drags customers -- some on skis, some sporting inner tubes -- to a summit barely visible on this tiny town's horizon.
But locals say you can't beat the five-minute drive from neighboring Keene or the price -- an all-day lift ticket costs $18.
"We're trying to fill a void for people in this area who don't want to spend all that money or drive all day," said Chip Woodbury, manager of Granite Gorge, which was known as Pinnacle Mountain until it was shuttered in the late 1970s along with hundreds of mom-and-pop ski operations that vanished from New England amid the development of large-scale resort communities such as Killington, Vt., and Sunday River, Maine.
"There are not a lot of frills, but it's the way things used to be around here," Woodbury said.
Recently bought by a local family, it attracted 5,000 paying customers last year in its first full season, joining a host of small ski areas making a comeback around this region and across the country. Many cater to local communities and fill a low-cost niche in an increasingly expensive sport. Others have been reopened for private use by wealthy individuals or to operate as exclusive alternatives to skiing among the masses.
At least 555 ski areas have disappeared in recent decades from Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont, according to the New England Lost Ski Areas Project, an organization dedicated to preserving their memories. The project was founded by meteorologist Jeremy Davis.
Ten small ski areas have reopened in Vermont and New Hampshire since 2001, according to a database on the group's Web site. Additionally, a group called the Maine Winter Sports Center, which says it aims to "re-establish skiing as a lifestyle" in that state, has opened three small ski areas in the past few years.
Woodbury, who met his wife while working as a ski instructor on the mountain in the late 1960s, last week supervised about a dozen workers who were feverishly making Granite Gorge ready for the expected Christmas rush. They put the finishing touches on a makeshift warming hut that will sell only hot chocolate and coffee, and blasted the first flakes of man-made snow onto the scraggly terrain from a pair of automated canons.
Nationwide, fewer than 500 alpine ski areas remain of about 900 that operated a few decades ago, said Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association. That decline has been halted, he is quick to add, by the growing popularity of smaller venues.
"What killed off all of those ski areas was snow-making," Berry said. "The bigger places made huge investments in technology that community areas or farmers running a lift in a cow pasture weren't able to match. Customers' expectations changed and that was the tipping point. But there is a real desire out there for convenience and affordability, and you are now seeing a lot of these small areas responding to that and doing quite well. Nobody is going to drive four hours to ski them, but if you live close by, it makes a lot of sense."
Tim Boyd, president of St. Louis-based Peak Resorts, which specializes in managing small ski resorts, said his company has expanded from three such properties in 1997 to seven, including holdings in Indiana, Missouri, New Hampshire and Ohio. The cost of making snow has declined, and the efficiency has gone up, he said, meaning that lower-altitude hills that don't get as much natural snow are not as dependent upon the weather as they once were.
"And we actually have an advantage over some of the bigger places," Boyd said. "When the economy goes bad, and people still want to ski, our business tends to improve."
The average price of a weekend, adult lift ticket at U.S. ski areas rose to $55.11 last season from $46.94 four years ago, according to the National Ski Areas Association. Small ski areas have largely kept costs low, while offering a range of services and gimmicks unavailable at their larger rivals.
Granite Gorge designates one of its two trails as an inner-tube park and rents the inflatable sleds for a few dollars a day.
Tenney Mountain in Plymouth, N.H., is the only mountain in the area with a newly developed snow-making system that allows operators to make snow even when the temperature is above freezing.
Crotched Mountain, which reopened last year in nearby Bennington, N.H., after being closed since 1989, offers night skiing under floodlights until 3 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
And last week, U.S. Olympic moguls skier Evan Dybvig purchased dormant Whaleback Mountain in Enfield, N.H., and said he plans to turn it into a training center for budding freestylers, complete with half-pipes, ramps and a 30,000-square-foot gym.
Not all of New England's small ski areas are open to the public. In Vermont, Plymouth's Bear Creek Mountain Club, which has 15 trails, is run like a private golf club. Members pay $9,000 to join, plus a $900 annual fee. To keep lift lines small, no more than 450 people are allowed on the slopes each day.
Chris Franco, who heads a Greenwich, Conn., investment firm, this year bought a 450-acre parcel outside Manchester, Vt., where the Snow Valley ski resort stood from 1938 until 1982. He plans to clear a dozen overgrown trails, restore a rusted chairlift and build a house with 360-degree views at the top of the property. Eventually, he said, he will sell eight to 10 lots of 25 acres each for people to build ski homes and will restrict skiing on the site to homeowners and their guests.
"Considering it can cost as much as a million and a half [dollars] for a condo at some of the big mountains around here, this seemed like a pretty good investment," said Franco, who paid less than $2 million for the land. "Bigger isn't necessarily better."