There is an annoyingly capricious component of running a ski area. It’s called snow. And despite decades of technological improvements in snowmaking equipment, resort operators admit that each season’s success is still undeniably determined by the whims of Mother Nature. So what if you removed the unpredictability of snow from the resort equation?
Buck Hill aims to find out this season. This mighty mite of a ski area, tucked in a few miles south of the Twin Cities, has installed an all-year skiing surface on three of its slopes, including a terrain park. “We think this is going to be a big deal around here,” says Dave Solner, Buck Hill’s CEO and new co-owner. “Our vision is to transform Buck Hill from a four-month ski area to a 12-month entertainment destination.”
Solner, together with his wife and a partner, purchased Buck Hill in late 2015, and he got right to work with his grand plans. But they started a year before that, when he attended a trade show in Florida and discovered an Italian product called Neveplast. “It was being sold primarily as a surface for summer tubing. Then I had a conversation with a guy at the show and discovered it was invented for ski racing and training.” The next step was simple, Solner recalls. “I put two plus two together.”
It’s not accurate to call Neveplast artificial snow. Calling it a carpet is closer, but it doesn’t have a solid backing. It’s more of an open-cell, all-weather industrial mat, with holes the same diameter as racing gates (making training courses easy to set up). Think of the surface as thousands of hairbrushes, with soft, silicone-based bristles sticking up “like golf tees,” according to Solner.
So what’s it like ripping down a huge mat? “It feels like you’re skiing freshly groomed cord,” he says. “You can go edge to edge. You can hold consistent speed. There are no ruts. No ice. No changing conditions.” And the mat is designed so real snow doesn’t need to be removed. You ski on top of both.
Buck Hill boasts 11 lifts, about 50 acres, and a vertical of 309 feet. But it also has a proud racing legacy, having produced nearly a dozen U.S. Ski Team members, including arguably the world’s best skier, Lindsey Vonn. So the new 365-day ski schedule is a boon for coaches, if maybe not for racers’ quads. “From a training standpoint, you know how it goes: Repetition. Repetition. Repetition. This will be great for training,” Solner says.
The area racks up about 200,000 skier visits annually. With the new all-year calendar, “I’m hoping to double that,” Solner says, as he looks to tap the Twin Cities (population 3.2 million) for new skiers. “For first-timers, no cold fingers or cold toes. We hope they discover a new lifelong sport.”
Solner wants his resort to be a recreational and entertainment hub for the region, a natural meeting spot for people doing fun stuff, or for folks who just want to hang out with friends. Solner isn’t looking to conquer the world, just a chunk of Minnesota and, if things keep rolling, maybe a few of the neighboring states. He says he simply wants five words on people’s minds in the Land of 10,000 Lakes: “There’s something happening at Buck.” ●