Old Hill, New Trick

Cold Front
Cold Front, April 2005

In recent years, skiers have gravitated to the amenity-rich mountains owned by the big three resort companies: Intrawest, Vail Resorts, and American Skiing Company. In doing so, they've been turning their backs on the mom-and-pops to such a degree that 200 small resorts have shut down in the last 20 years. So how's your local ski hill—with its modest acreage, minimal vert, and mediocre facilities—supposed to compete? Simple: It creates its own market instead.

Enter the terrain park. Yes, there's one at virtually every ski hill, all of which draw their share of groms and, ultimately, cash. But it's the small resorts that are exploiting terrain parks to their fullest. In fact, some are converting all their skiable acres into the snowsports equivalent of skateboard parks. "We realized that our identity was not as a destination resort for vacationing skiers, says John McColly, marketing director at Mountain High, California, outside of Los Angeles. "No one was going after the youth market, so we did.

Since 1997, Mountain High has added so many rails, fun boxes, and other obstacles that its park now covers a honking 100 acres—50 percent of its overall mountain. Likewise, southern California's Bear Mountain has covered its entire 196-acre resort with terrain park features. As a result, these otherwise forgettable hummocks (no offense) are showing up in ski films, hosting Olympic qualifiers, and luring southern Californians out of the strip malls and onto the snow. "These obstacles make runs fun all day—and our users demand them, says McColly. Mountain High has averaged nearly 500,000 annual skier days for the past three years. Meanwhile, on the East Coast, Intrawest—which owns Whistler Blackcomb, Copper, and Mammoth, to name a few—saw enough potential in tiny Mountain Creek, New Jersey, to purchase it in 1998. Once known more for its waterslide than its skiing, the 168-acre, 65-inches-of-snow-per-year mountain now boasts five terrain parks and the only superpipe in the tri-state area. The payoff? A tenfold increase in season-pass sales.

But converting tiny areas into big terrain parks isn't as easy as raiding the junkyard for old railings. Bear Mountain (and its sister hill, Snow Summit) pumped $5 million into snowmaking improvements alone before the 2004—05 season. If a resort already has decent snow (or snowmaking), however, it's a lot more practical to buy a $200,000 pipe cutter and hire a terrain-park crew than it is to purchase public land, install lifts, and build condos on spec. "You don't need 1,500 feet of vertical to have a terrain park, says Steve Rice, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Intrawest's eastern region. "Our parks at Mountain Creek don't have to take a backseat to any others in the company—or in the world, for that matter.

Former Olympic bump skier Evan Dybvig is a believer. He's under contract to purchase defunct Whaleback Mountain Resort, in Enfield, New Hampshire, with the intention of turning it into a freestyle training center. "These are legit sports that need support, says Dybvig. "Whaleback fits the profile for this market. It's small and close to major population centers (14.2 million people live in New England).

So, will every ma and pa hill with skimpy vert be overrun by rainbow rails and flying pubescents? Entirely likely, and entirely smart, says Intrawest's Rice. "Terrain parks allow regional day resorts to cash in, regardless of how much snow they have, he says. "When we bought Mountain Creek, people raised their eyebrows. Skiing in New Jersey? But now, people are proud to call themselves Jersey skiers.