The Forgotten Feeder Hills: Taking a Look at the Lifeblood of Skiing // Ski Industry News
An Unlikely Home for a Prodigy
Mikaela Shiffrin is an 18 year old female ski racer who's poised to hold America's key to a first place finish at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Last year, at age 17, she won the world championship in Schladming, Austria, becoming the youngest female world champion since 1985. But what's even more interesting than Shiffrin's early success, is the mountain she calls home.
At age 8, Siffrin's parents took the unlikely step of moving their family from Colorado, to Lebanon, New Hampshire. The local mountain? A small hill called "Storrs Hill Ski Area." In fact, calling Storrs Hill a small ski hill is a bit of an understatement. Compared to the mountains back in Colorado, this place is tiny. But it's vertical elevation of only 300' and total of three trails became the unlikely home of Mikaela Shiffrin. With a seasons pass costing just $75 and ready access to night skiing, Shiffrin made the best of her situation by heading to the mountain after school nearly every day, and earning as many laps as possible. Finally, after spending years tuning her skills at Storrs Hill, she moved North to Burke Mountain in Vermont where her continued training has made her a candidate for this winter's Sochi Olympic Games.
The developing story of Mikaela is at least somewhat surprising to most people. As skiers, we're used to seeing articles that feature the biggest mountains, deepest powder, longest race courses, and largest terrain parks. This isn't surprising, as these are the locations where the most news worthy events happen. Whether it's a large competition or an epic film segment, the fact of the matter is that skiers naturally search out the best terrain that they can find.
The unfortunate side of this reality, is that a huge part of our sport goes without being mentioned or receiving any attention. I'm not necessarily referring to the tens of millions of skiers and boarders who take to the slopes every winter that don't get media attention; more directly, I'm talking about the hundreds of small, "feeder hills" that make up a vast majority of ski resorts in America. It might seem obvious that these small hills find themselves a bit neglected, but for this article, I want to change that. For once, I want to focus on smaller ski hills, and bring into perspective their importance to skiing and snowboarding.
A Snapshot of America's Ski Resorts
Using Wikipedia as a resource, I took it upon myself to list out all of the resorts in the United States, and then break them into two groups: small and large. In order to do this, I decided I needed to have a clear cut criteria regarding what qualified a resort to be classified as "large" or "small." With a number of different metrics available, I decided that the simplest way to classify ski resorts was to use three measurements. First, I looked at each mountain's skiable vertical. If a resort was taller than 1,500 feet, then it qualified as a large mountain. Second, large resorts had to have more than 50 trails. The reason for this qualifier was to keep out some resorts that might have the vertical, but are still relatively local ski areas, nestled in the mountains. Finally, the third criteria I used was created to close up a loophole I discovered. If a mountain was over 1,500 vertical feet, it could still be classified as a large mountain if it had over 700 acres of skiable terrain. This allowed me to classify a mountain like Silverton in Colorado (3,087' vertical) as a large mountain, even though it had less than 50 named trails due to its open terrain.
One of the most surprising facts that my research revealed, is the ratio of small ski resorts to large mountains. In total, I found that out of 415 ski areas, 304 of these qualified as "small," while only 111 areas were classified as "large." Or to put it another way, there are almost three times as many small ski areas, as there are large. For every Aspen, Colorado, there are three Powers Bluff Parks, Ski Bradfords, or Pats Peaks. To me, this is the clearest way to present the idea of a "Feeder Hill." Essentially if it weren't for these smaller mountains that are scattered across the United States, there would be far less active skiers looking to take those family vacations to larger mountains. There would be far less skiers visiting ski shops and buying new equipment. Ski magazines, ski movies, ski websites... all of these businesses and brands that rely on skiing would barely have an audience if it weren't for these small hills enlisting skiers to "feed" the industry.
A Look Behind the Facts
Let's dive a bit deeper though. Sure it's easy to see the ratio of small ski areas to large ski areas (3:1) and recognize that small ski ares have some importance, but there's more to the story than just sheer numbers. For instance, consider what this must mean in terms of accessibility. To put this in perspective, consider the numbers from New York state, where there are a total of 30 ski areas, and I've only classified 2 as "large" ski mountains. Or how about Pennsylvania, where there are 21 ski hills, yet none of them are large mountains. These two states aren't alone with numbers like this. In fact, most states in the South, Midwest, and East Coast have far more small ski areas than large.
So what does access to skiing look like in real life? Well, let me tell you a little bit about my background. I grew up in a place called Tully, NY. It's a small town about a half hour south of Syracuse with no real attractions other than a place called, "Song Mountain." This "mountain" fits perfectly into the feeder hill category with 24 trails and 700 ft of vertical. The ski area was literally a 5 minute drive from both my house and my school. Plus, it featured night skiing 5 nights a week, giving me the chance to go skiing just about everyday. It also played a key role in our community, providing both winter jobs and activities for people in the area of all ages. For me, this is the feeder hill that allowed me to grow my passion for skiing. The accessibility of skiing at this part of my life lead to me getting hooked on the sport. Throughout high school I was the epitome of the kid who would spend his days in class day dreaming about the slopes. It also didn't help that you could see the mountain from my school's windows. And while staring at Song Mountain might not be the same as staring at Aspen, I can confidently say that it's the reason why I got involved in the ski industry. The bottom line is, if it weren't for the accessibility to skiing, I probably never would have been passionate enough to move to Vermont, and ultimately find work here with Skiessentials.com.
One of the coolest parts about working at Skiessentials.com, is that you get the opportunity to see where people are buying different skis. After seeing orders come in from all over the world, you end up having a decent "birds eye view" of regional ski scenes. Of course this isn't always an absolute indicator of the ski scenes in that area... sometimes we send powder skis to Texas. So to get a more "ground-level" understanding of the ski scene around small feeder hills, I reached out to someone who visits these areas every year: our Blizzard Skis Rep. Ivar Dahl.
Ivar is a good friend of ours at Skiessentials.com. He's our Blizzard sales rep, but also one of our favorite people to ski with. We usually get the opportunity to meet up with him a few times a year to take some laps, catch up, and talk about the ski industry. From the conversations I'd had with him, I knew Ivar was someone who'd traveled all over New England, and stopped by ski hills and shops of all sizes.
When I talked to Ivar, I wanted to figure out how he saw small ski hills fitting into the bigger picture of the ski industry. What I found out was pretty surprising, but made perfect sense. In Ivar's experience, the ski shops surrounding local feeder hills are almost always small Mom and Pop shops with one, or maybe two stores under their name. He then pointed out the significance of this to me. Out west, ski shops are, for the most part, large retailers that have multiple stores and immense buying power. The size of these shops means one thing. With a need to fill numerous positions, it's impossible for every employee of these ski shops to be devoted skiers with an encyclopedia of ski knowledge stored in their head.
Back East, at the ski shops located by these feeder hills, shop employees have to be passionate skiers. The fact of the matter is, these shops are often taking each year as it comes, and working their hardest to turn a profit. It's very rare that ski shops by feeder hills are exceptionally lucrative as they have a harder time matching the orders of their West Coast competitors, and therefore struggle to obtain the same discounts. The simple fact of the matter is, if these employees weren't passionate about the sport, then they'd either be out of business or simply choose another profession. Yet despite the odds against them, the East coast is dotted with both feeder hills and small Mom and Pop ski shops.
Speaking of passionate employees, let's talk about the ripple affect that some of these small feeder hills have on the whole ski industry. Stories like mine are far from rare- a fact that was made blatantly obvious when I worked at a ski shop in Salt Lake City, Utah. This particular ski shop had probably about 2 dozen employees, and it didn't take too long to realize that just about all of them had migrated there from the East Coast. In fact, out of the roughly 24 employees of this ski shop, I can think of only 4 who were actually from Utah. The rest were from other various states, including a couple of employees who grew up not far from myself in Central New York.
Why is it though, that there are so many more ski shop employees from the East Coast working in Western ski shops? I mean, it would be understandable to see a 50/50 split, but the numbers were much more skewed when I was out there. The only real reason that I can surmise, is the amount of passion that feeder hills inject into young skiers. The guys I worked with in Utah were the same guys who were working in local ski shops throughout high school. They were the same ones who would head to the ski hill after a day of school.
The Power of Passion
Mikaela Shiffrin's home ski hill in Lebanon, NH has a vertical elevation of only 300'. The rope tow there spans only 1,000 feet. Typically an Olympic giant slalom race will see ski racers exceed 80 MPH at certain points on the course. If Mikaela were to reach 80 MPH on Storr's Hill, she would reach the bottom of the 1,000 foot long hill in just 8.4 seconds. Now, clearly it would be impossible for Mikaela to go that fast on this hill. So what am I getting at?
While the giant slalom is not Mikaela’s preferred event, it is one that she has finished on the podium at in multiple World Cup races. In her previous two Giant Slalom races, Mikaela has finished second and third respectively. In order to reach the podium of World Cup races, an athlete must be able to compete at the very highest level of competition, and therefore she must be able to hit speeds of 80 MPH or more. Yet her home mountain isn't nearly big enough to give Mikaela this kind of experience. What it can, and presumably did do though, is instill in Mikaela something that not everyone gets from growing up at large mountains. What Mikaela was able to get from Storr's Hill was the passion for skiing that can ultimately be even more beneficial than training on huge mountains and at World Class resorts.
I guess all I'm really getting at here is to not forget about the little guy. As skiing continues to become a more expensive sport, lots of small ski resorts are struggling to make ends meet. As large mountains continue to renovate and grow, the demand for high end equipment also increases. One effect of this is that it costs more for small mountains to upgrade their equipment as there are less low end options available. Another effect of the increasing cost of skiing is that people are beginning to reserve their time on snow for ski vacations, and spending less time at their local hills. It's factors like this that continue to threaten small ski resorts, with more closing for good after each season.
So this Winter, let's keep the little guys in mind. When you're down in Massachusetts heading up to New Hampshire, Maine, or Vermont for a weekend, try stopping at a small ski slope for a day. If you're planning a trip out to Colorado this winter, don't overlook a place like Monarch Mountain. It may not be as big as Aspen, but you're guaranteed to enjoy smaller crowds with tons of new terrain to explore. Plus, days spent at feeder hills will give you that warm feeling inside- knowing that you're supporting the life blood of the ski industry. So that's my suggestion for this season, take it or leave it. I know that I personally am excited to check out some smaller hills this season and to discover what makes each one unique. With the weather's cooperation, it should be a great winter. Hope to see you out there!
Sources and Thank Yous:
Mikaela Shiffrin Article from the Wall Street Journal:
Futterman, Matthew. "The Skier You Need to Know: Why 18-Year-Old Mikaela Shiffrin Is Set to Become America's Next Olympic Sensation." Wsj.com. Wall Street Journal, 23 Dec. 2013. Web. 15 Dec. 2013.
List of Ski Resorts in the United States:
"List of Ski Areas and Resorts in the United States." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 28 Dec. 2013. Web. 30 Dec. 2013.
Mikaela Shiffrin Giant Slalom Results from USA Today:
Associated Press. "American Teenager Mikaela Shiffrin Finishes Third in Giant Slalom." USA Today. Gannett, 28 Dec. 2013. Web. 03 Jan. 2014.
Ivar Dahl from Blizzard USA:
Thanks to Ivar for giving us his time for an interview and for turning us on to Mikaela Shiffrin's amazing story.
More Ski Resort Research:
Before I really dove into writing this story, I knew I was faced with one daunting task: compiling a list of ski resorts along with their stats. After pulling up Wikipedia's list of ski resorts in the United States, I definitely had second thoughts about diving into the task, but also knew that in order to write an article on the subject, I had to really understand the landscape that I was talking about. So, somewhat reluctantly, I rolled up my sleeves and got started.
First things first, I created a spreadsheet that laid out all of the resorts, grouped by what state they were located in. Starting with a blank slate, I knew that I needed to start gathering a handful of metrics without knowing which stats would end up being the most useful. As a result, my spreadsheet had 6 columns that I filled with data: State, Ski Area, Vertical Feet, Number of Lifts, Skiable Acres, and trails. Beyond these columns, I had two columns that I used to tally the small ski areas and large ski areas, as well as another column for any extra notes.
At first, I was thorough with my research, making sure to fill out every column that I could find information for. Of course, I quickly found that a number of small ski areas don't have all of the information available, so there are gaps in my data. Eventually, I was able to see the factors that separated the large hills from the small hills, and was able to streamline my research by not gathering data about chairlifts for every mountain, as well as not collecting all of the data that immediately qualified as large or small. As you can imagine, the copy and paste functions saw heavy use for a few days as I gathered numbers. While this side of things was extremely boring, it was awesome to see the different types of resorts out there. Without doing this research, I never would've known about Challenge Mountain in Michigan, which is a special ski area that's only open to skier with disabilities. Or, on the other end of the spectrum, The Balsams Grand Resort in New Hampshire which appears to be an awesome resort hidden in the mountains of New Hampshire.
And on that note, I invite you to take a look at the spreadsheet I put together for this article. I've uploaded it as a spreadsheet to Google Drive, and you can check it out by clicking right here! I'd also like to mention that this research was compiled to the best of my ability, using the resources I could find online. If you happen to see an error or would like to add information to any of these resorts, shoot me an E-mail and let me know! I'd love to keep this spreadsheet updated and have it available as a resource for the ski community!