Taxpayers help create the slopes’ snow, but don’t get all they could from it
By Phil Brown
Thinking life eventually will return to normal, I recently bought a Whiteface Mountain ski pass for next winter. It would have been good for the rest of this season too, but the mountain shut down in mid-March because of the coronavirus.
Although the ski center is closed, its snow has not disappeared. So last week I decided to climb up the mountain on my skis and make a run down. It’d be good exercise and good fun while maintaining my social distance. After pulling into the ski center Wednesday morning, I asked the first worker I saw whether it was OK to skin up the mountain.
“I think so,” he said. “It’s a public park, right?”
Exactly what I was thinking! Despite its buildings, lifts and parking lots, the ski center is part of the forever-wild forest preserve.
So I attached nylon climbing skins to the bottoms of my skis, walked to the slopes, stepped into my bindings, and started uphill. I got about a hundred yards before a ski patroller accosted me. He was soon joined by another. They told me the mountain was closed and I had to turn back.
But what’s the harm? I asked.
They replied that workers were on the mountain doing whatever they need to do to close the facility for the season. Others were doing site work preparatory to rebuilding the mid-station lodge, which burned down in late November.
OK, no sense in arguing. I switched my bindings to downhill mode and skied to the bottom of the slope, making easy turns in nice corn. Such a shame that all this beautiful snow—much of it made with taxpayer funds—might go to waste.
I’ve been told that the mountain will be less busy soon. If so, I hope the Olympic Regional Development Authority, which runs Whiteface, will allow people to ski on the remaining snow.
More important, however, I hope Whiteface revises its uphill-skiing policy before next season. The current policy is overly restrictive.
Once the ski season begins, Whiteface allows those who purchase an uphill pass to skin up the mountain between 6 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. As the Explorer recently reported, the uphill program has attracted a coterie of dedicated skiers who love the workout even if it entails climbing in freezing darkness. But what if you don’t live nearby? Or what if you would prefer to skin up the mountain later in the day? What if you want to make more than one run?
Backcountry skiers have been earning their turns for decades. Uphilling at resorts is a newer phenomenon that has been growing in popularity across the country, thanks in part to the advent of alpine-touring bindings, which can free the heel for climbing and lock it for skiing downhill.
“Skinning and ski touring is the fastest-growing segment in the industry,” Nick Sargent, president of SnowSports Industries America, told the New York Times last fall. “The numbers are small, but they’re growing exponentially.”
Uphill policies vary from resort to resort. Some ban it outright. Some allow it throughout the day. Others, like Whiteface, allow it only for a few hours each day.
In 2018, Backcountry magazine published an online list of uphill policies at resorts throughout the United States. Of the 37 New England resorts on the list, 28 allowed uphill travel during open hours. That’s three-quarters of them.
The main concern with uphilling during operational hours is safety. Of course, managers should be concerned about this, but many resorts have figured out how to allow uphilling without putting others at risk. Generally, skiers traveling uphill must stick to dedicated routes. It’s not as if there are hordes of people skinning up the middle of the ski slopes.
As other resorts, Whiteface should be able to develop a sensible policy that allows skiers to skin uphill throughout the day without putting downhill skiers in jeopardy. Such a policy would open the mountain to more skiers—including those who cannot afford a lift ticket.
At least Whiteface is more enlightened than Gore Mountain, which is also run by the state. Gore does not allow uphill skiing at any time.
Uphill skiers no doubt pay taxes that help support Gore and Whiteface. They deserve a little love in return. Let’s get with the times.