By Tom Woodman
For many of us memories of growing up in the Adirondacks are filled with time spent at the local ski hill. Unlike the mega-mountains that dominate the industry today, these community ski areas were scaled for homey, family-style outings. Kids would troop onto buses at the end of the school day for a short drive and an hour on the slope. Modest lodges were social centers as well as warming huts where neighbors could catch up with each other and families could celebrate birthdays.
Ski tows were likely to be of the tricky, old-fashioned sort: T-bars, rope tows, or Poma Lifts. (The last consisting of a springed, metal shaft with a plastic disk that went through your legs and used your rear end for purchase as it yanked you up a rutted lift line.) There were few chairlifts, much less anything “high speed” or “detachable.”
Recent years have not been kind to the community ski hill trying to co-exist with the likes of Whiteface and Gore mountains, whose sprawling terrain and expensive snowmaking make them destination resorts. Some, like Scotts Cobble and Fawn Ridge in the Lake Placid area, exist only in memory now. Others, like Big Tupper and Hickory, outside Warrensburg, operate sporadically.
Still, in this environment of Goliath competitors and fickle winter weather, some community ski areas live on, sustained by loyal families and fueled by the operators’ passion and deep optimism.
In Speculator a young couple has purchased and is running Oak Mountain, a ski area that opened in 1948 and enjoyed decades of bustling prosperity but fell on hard times that led to foreclosure and a season in which it didn’t operate. With family ties to the area and a background in the ski industry, Laura and Matt O’Brien are throwing themselves into their mission of bringing the ski area back to life.
On Election Day in the midst of the period between the falling of leaves and the falling of snowflakes (“stick season” in Laura’s words) the ski area was busy. Workers were setting tables for a community dinner, a new chef was prepping in the kitchen, Matt was clearing brush on the ski hill, and Laura was dividing time between organizing the business and tending to her two-year-old daughter, Madison.
This is key to Laura and Matt’s business plan. To keep the mountain viable they are working to make Oak Mountain a draw for most of the year. Mountain biking, a bar and restaurant business, mountaintop weddings in summer: all are ways to keep the area productive outside of ski season.
“These are different things that can help offset those times in winter when it rained and you lost a couple of weekends,” says Matt. “You can offset it and survive. That’s why you see these mountains operating summer activities where it’s more reliable.”
But the heart of a ski center is, of course, skiing, and the soul of the community hill is found in the families that gather there for generations. Matt and Laura have experience working at such big-time areas as Stowe in Vermont, Sunday River in Maine, and Park City Utah, but they have no second thoughts about committing to a small village in the central Adirondacks.
“It’s nicer this way,” says Matt. “We don’t miss that.”
“Well, we do miss the powder in Park City,” jokes Laura.
They have firsthand experience with both the joys and the losses of small ski areas.
“I grew up skiing at King Ridge in New Hampshire,” says Laura. “It’s no more.”
“I grew up on Shu-Maker near Liverpool, New York,” says Matt. “It’s no more.”
For some, a small area’s size is a disadvantage, lacking really long runs and variety of terrain. For fans, smallness is the selling point.
With about fifty acres of skiable terrain and 650 vertical feet, Oak Hill has a four-person chairlift and two T-bars. A little less than half the mountain is skiable by beginners, but there are some stretches that challenge advanced skiers.
This is a family-scaled experience.
“Everybody can ride the chairlift, everybody goes a different way, and in ten minutes you’re all down in the same spot, safe,” says Matt.
“Parents definitely get that sense that the ski operators and ski patrol know my kid and they’ve seen him go down that trail,” Laura adds.
Perhaps the biggest advantage the large areas have is the ability to invest in the snowmaking equipment that helps keep their seasons long and reliable.
“You’ve got the Olympic Regional Development Authority, which has Gore and Whiteface and Belleayre, and they just crank out the snow because the budget is so much bigger,” Laura says.
Oak Mountain has snowmaking capacity on about half its terrain, and Mark points out a portable piping system that he can drag to hydrants around the mountain and attach to snowmaking guns.
“It’s very expensive,” he says of snowmaking. “Utility costs, manpower, equipment. There’s a lot of things in there that the bigger mountains can afford. Automation. Nowadays you can use your iPhone to start a gun. That’s something we can’t do and probably will never do. There’s guns that have got weather stations on them and they’ll start themselves right up. You’re looking at a $40,000 gun.”
“[The big areas] are spending millions every summer, and we’re spending maybe $200,000 total so far on different things.”
And so the uncertainty and stress that comes with any weather-dependent business is compounded for the small ski hills, where a midseason thaw is that much harder to recover from.
“It’s tough sometimes because you’ve done all this snowmaking, you’ve done all this stuff, and all of a sudden you’re watching it wash down the hill, and you realize you’ve got to put it all back up,” Mark says. “You have to just do it. And when you see people back on the mountain and enjoying it, that’s why you did it.”