By TOM WOODMAN
A morning of cold drizzle and thick fog may sound like a time to curl up by the fire and mourn the passing of Indian summer. But for Jeff Allott and some friends this November Saturday the weather is a sign of winter coming and just right for preparing Otis Mountain for another ski season.
Never mind that they weren’t able to operate at all during last year’s snow drought. A new year brings fresh hope, and it’s time to get ready. The volunteers splice rope to extend a rope tow by two hundred feet, clear debris, and rebuild a lift shack.
This recharging of spirit at a time that others would find dreary is a fitting symbol of their cause. After all, they’re working to breathe life into one of the last of its kind: the small community ski hill. Non-believers would declare it’s time has passed.
Almost in the shadow of giant Whiteface Mountain, Otis Mountain has two slopes more or less reclaimed from fast-growing forest. They reach eight hundred feet long with a vertical drop of 250 feet. The 230-acre property also includes mountain-biking and cross-country-ski trails and a ninety-foot-tall cliff where ice climbers practice on natural ice that’s augmented by a man-made sprinkler system.
Otis is not a commercial ski area and it’s not open to the public, at least until Jeff can work out the best way of doing that. But he wants skiers (and for that matter boarders, ice climbers, mountain bikers, trail runners, and hikers) to enjoy the mountain and his trails. So he has developed a network of like-minded folks, lets them know about ski days by email, and sees who shows up. These “members” ski for free.
Jeff is the maintenance guy, the lift attendant, the trail groomer, and sometime babysitter.
Why take on all the work and subject himself to the heartaches of depending on contrary weather—all without a payday?
“It makes me happy. I like to help. I’m a major advocate for both skiing and mountain biking. Either for economic development or healthy living. I’ve been doing it for a long time.”
For Jeff, who is fifty-seven, Otis is where he grew up. Life seemed to center on the ski hill.
“This was the scene, and it was hugely social. There was night skiing every Wednesday. There were three or four school buses full of kids.”
And as the young skiers grew older, the hill was the setting for classic rites of passage.
“You’d sneak your first beer or first kiss or whatever. A lot of it happened up on this hill.”
Instead of a gondola or high-speed quad, Otis offers its skiers the mostly forgotten experience of a rope tow. It punishes arm muscles, twists in the hands, and gives young skiers the chance to learn balance and control on the way up the hill.
Instead of parting with nearly one hundred dollars a person and being surrounded by crowds of strangers, Otis skiers bring food to share as the price of admission. They know the two dozen or so others on the hill.
“It’s really friendly,” says C.G. Stephens who sits at the loading area of the tow splicing lengths of rope by braiding strands of the polypropylene fiber. “It’s fun. Sometimes when you ski the bigger areas you lose some of the community.”
Allott and the crew have installed jumps and structures that create a “terrain park” for ski and snowboard acrobatics. The lack of trail variety isn’t a problem for the loyalists. C.G.’s three kids (two teens and a nine-year-old) learned to ski here and haven’t grown bored.
“It wears them out,” he says. “They do lap after lap after lap. Give them about five minutes in the car on the way home and they’re out.”
About two miles south of Elizabethtown off Route 9, the Otis Mountain ski area came into being in 1949, the creation of the Elizabethtown Ski Club. Jane and Herb Hildebrandt bought the mountain in the late 1960s, installed a T-bar, and ran the area until 1979.
It remained closed for more than a decade. When Jeff bought the property in 1994, the ski slopes had ten-inch-diameter pines growing on them. Logging skidders had gouged trenches as deep as eight feet on parts of the slopes, and the T-Bar had been chopped up, with the wooden tees going to another ski area and sections of cable left behind.
As he’s improved the hill year by year Jeff has been excited by the interest his son’s college friends have taken in the area. They became avid regulars, spread the word among friends in the Vermont snowboarding community, and turned a summer music festival here into a major event.
They’ve begun to move from the area, though, and Jeff is worried that he’ll see fewer young kids growing up on his slopes. But he’s not ready to think this is coming to an end.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he says. “My kids grew up on this hill and their friends and my friends’ kids. It’s a big chunk of their existence.”
(Anyone interested in joining the Otis Mountain network can email Jeff at JeffreyAllott@gmail.com.)