Where the Beautiful People Ski - Ski Mag

Where the Beautiful People Ski

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have this thing about...let's call them "Bus Trip Skiers." You know the ones-poles flying in every direction, skis crossing and wobbling as their wearers attempt to ski the steepest trail on the mountain on the first run. Their friends stand uphill from them, howling with laughter. I hate them. To me, they represent everything that skiers shouldn't be: unprepared, uneducated, uncouth and ridiculously risky.

Interesting, then, that I found myself searching them out on a spring weekend at Stratton Mountain, Vt. It was sunny, and in this, one of the worst winters in years, Stratton was still viable: 71 trails open, covered in excellent spring corn. Not quite epic, but a prime weekend, to be sure. Yet the Bus Trip Skiers were nowhere to be seen. I was thrilled. And astounded. Then I learned the truth: It's not that Stratton doesn't want them; it's just that the resort makes no attempt to lure them.

Stratton was envisioned from the start (1961) as a winter haven-a place where skiing would be exactly as it should be: refined, elegant and yet (in a rich man's buffalo-plaid kind of way) rustic. To be a Stratton skier (and later, rider), you had to respect the sport-and be willing to pay a higher price for it.

Snobbery? Some might say so, but on this March Sunday, as I cut turns into a relatively empty and well-groomed double-fall-line slope, I think the place has got it quite right. And always has. So when you wonder how Stratton has managed to pull off what every resort in the nation is attempting-stock a nice, skiable mountain with a top ski school, quaint village, abundant lodging, fast lifts, charismatic trails, one of the largest snowmaking reservoirs in the world and the snowmaking to back it all up-think way, way back to the beginning. Because this is no recent reposturing. This is Stratton as it has always been.

They couldn't have been any more different, the two men who created Stratton 40 years ago. Frank Snyder was the tall, buff, brazen New York City barrister with a soft spot for all things Austrian. Tink Smith was the squat, potbellied local, resourceful enough to have made a good living in a depressed Vermont economy and not afraid of hard work. They were both selfish in their goals. Snyder wanted a first-class winter playground where his family and those of his well-to-do friends could get away from their high-powered lives and enjoy skiing away from the masses. Smith wanted jobs, and plenty of them, for the 55 adult residents of his impoverished town. In the end, they were both interested in the same thing: community. And what they created-a profitable mountain that gave the wealthy a well-appointed escape and the locals a product to be proud of and profit by-has provided just that.

When Stratton was born, Vermont was absolutely aching. More than 40 percent of its towns were below the poverty line, having failed as farm towns or tapped out their forests. Many had tax bases lower than theannual pay for their state representatives. Down on Long Island and in tony Connecticut, however, the affluent were cleaning up-and looking to spend. And so the two came together and made it work. Rather than create a basic ski area (Bromley and newly cut Killington already existed nearby), Stratton's founders envisioned a high-class ski area that, with the building of the new Interstate 91, would be within easy access of New York and Boston. They paid big, buying the best lifts available at the time (Heron) and staffing the ski school with imported Austrians (who also happened to be entertaining musicians). They insisted on a stand-alone, full-day children's program with staff who made it fun while turning the kids into great skiers. They created social events that became instant classics. In essence, they created back then what demanding skiers of today want: a comprehensively first-rate experience built on high-end service.

Snyder and Smith knew how to make a splash, too. When lift construction lagg, they hired a helicopter to speed it up-a first that made the Today show that week. No expense was spared, and the place opened in December 1961 with 3,000 skiers. Families poured in from Snyder's social circle to purchase trailside Austrian-themed chalets. The locals worked hard and pulled out of their economic slump. And the foundation of the Stratton community-which thrives even today-was laid.

Kimet Hand personifies all that Stratton has been and is: She's got a sense of style that pairs mud-kicker boots and hand-designed art-deco earrings-and pulls it off, beautifully. She was born a Stratton weekender-one of the well-to-do who cruised up from Connecticut each weekend to take part in her "alter-life." Her family's social life swirled around Stratton events. The annual Ski Ball was a must-do; the kids' race team was a given; every weekend was spent among those who, as she says today, "when they did something, they totally did it. They'd err on the side of, you know, having too many shrimp."

But behind that, Hand says, was the Vermont feel-the rustic life. She and the rest of those early Strattonites were hooked. She married a local boy (and later another one), raised her kids here, and works now to preserve Stratton's history. She never tires of it, and loves that she now bumps into third-generation members of the founding families.

That is was what Snyder wanted. And yet it's remarkable that this "family familiar" ideal remained, despite decades that brought new owners (four in as many decades), 10 resort presidents, more than a few changes that regulars didn't like, and even a lull time when Stratton struggled. It wasn't always a smooth ride, says instructor and longtime Strattonite Marcel Gisquet. But it always turned out fine.

"I think each owner, each president, brought something new to the place that, in the end, worked," Gisquet says. As another former teen weekender who married a mountain girl and eventually made Stratton his home, Gisquet has also watched it all come full-circle, from children skiing together for fun to those same kids as adults, back with their own children. "I cannot tell you how many times I ski with adults here now who were in Little Cubs and Big Cubs," he says.

Ski School Director Alois Lechner, an Austrian immigrant who came to Stratton not long after it opened, agrees. "Stratton has had a lot of different owners, and at first you don't know what to make of it," he says. "But in the end, each has done something to make it better."

Those improvements include the village constructed in 1987-a Bavarian-themed hamlet centered around a clock-tower square, with a winding, shop-lined street. It was recently updated in a more tasteful New England motif, with colorful clapboard siding and heated pavement. Other improvements include six high-speed lifts and a gondola, whichtogether are capable of whisking an impressive 23,000 skiers per hour up the mountain.

But the improvements brought in more skiers, and in the early '90s, things started to waver. Stratton got a little crowded, its popularity soaring with the New York set as well as day skiers.

In 1994, the resort was sold to Intrawest Corp., the same company that transformed Whistler/Blackcomb, B.C., and Tremblant, Que.,into bustling resorts with vibrant pedestrian-friendly villages. The new owners took a step back and rethought Stratton from the ground up. In the end, they went back to the philosophy those two very different men, Smith and Snyder, had in 1961. It's all about quality.

Lift tickets are pricey now-at $64 on a peak day, among the highest in the East. Sure, you can find discounts, but still, the place isn't cheap. That's by design. Intrawest believes, as Snyder did, that a more exclusive mountain will be a better mountain.

"We don't want to set records for the number of skiers on the mountain," says Michael Cobb, Stratton's VP of marketing. "We want to set records for how fast you get your tickets, how fast you get up the mountain, how uncrowded the trails are. Those are the records we're after." Because, he says, the Stratton weekend and holiday clientele is not, quite frankly, the bus group.

"We have powerful people wandering around here who just want to be you and me," he says. "They want to get their kids out of Westchester, out of the city and into the country. Yet they don't want to give up some of their comforts." And when you consider the fact that on any given weekend day more than 60 percent of those on the mountain are either season-pass holders or their friends, you have to admit, they know their market. Going forward, Intrawest will build on Stratton's exclusivity. A new lodging village, called The Commons, is in the early phases, directly across the road from the existing village. A horseshoe shape of varied architecture, all indigenous to Vermont (one looks like a barn, another like a town hall, another like a Victorian farmhouse) will be centered by a sort of town square, with skating rink, town green and gazebo. The now-opened Long Trail House is the first to be completed; others are coming over the next five years.

Intrawest is focusing on the upscale in a direct way beginning this season as well.

This year, the Stratton Mountain Club debuts. A kind of country-club base lodge with upscale dZcor, it will offer its members such amenities as a private kids dining room, a family eating area, a posh dining room and meeting places. It'll become a social center for the Stratton regulars, and its membership, never advertised, nearly sold out before ground was broken, despite the $29,000 initiation fee and annual dues of $2,000 and up. Clearly, the theory that people will pay more for a finer ski experience was on target.

On the spring Sunday of my visit, Stratton is hopping. The U.S. Snowboarding Open is in its last day. (Don't forget, snowboarding was born here: Jake Burton Carpenter tested his prototype model here at night, and Stratton was among the first to offer snowboarding lessons). The sunshine and spring corn have lured skiers out in droves, though there are no lines. Everyone seems to know everyone else, and yet I don't feel like an outsider. The two high-speed six-packs zip me to the top so many times that when I sit down at the Mid-Mountain Lodge, spent after about 18,000 vertical feet, I guess it to be lunchtime.

It's actually 10:35 a.m. So I soak in the sun and chat with a couple of Boston boys sucking down their first St. Patty's Day beers. (See? They do let regular Joes in!) I turn and chat with a woman who's made a few runs and is waiting for her grandchildren. Then I head back out.

While the terrain lacks any heart-stopping steeps, the trails do have character, with rolls and unusual fall lines and curves. (Stratton did host World Cups in the '70s.) They're narrower than most newer New England trails. On Liftline, a long, rolling cruiser with a nice pitch and a babbling stream beside it, I'm almost giddy. This is fun. This is worth it. And still, as I ski the day out, I don't see a pole-waver anywhere.

I ask a local on the lift about it. "Oh, they come," he tells me, "but only on Wednesdays" (when lift tickets are $36). "We know to stay away and let them have it."

So there you have it. Stratton does price itself up, and for good reason. It has stuck by what was created 40 years ago: a community of ski purists who expect great snow, great service and uncrowded trails. Skiers who can carve and know the rules and a staff that caters to them. More than 50 percent of the ski-school staff has been here for at least a decade-how's that for satisfaction in an industry where turnover can be a weekly event? In being what may look to be snobby or elitist, Stratton is actually doing skiers a favor. Because to skiers, it's quality that matters.

As if looking for a sign from the heavens that their mission is pure, the Stratton management made a brave decision just days before the resort's 40th b up the mountain, how uncrowded the trails are. Those are the records we're after." Because, he says, the Stratton weekend and holiday clientele is not, quite frankly, the bus group.

"We have powerful people wandering around here who just want to be you and me," he says. "They want to get their kids out of Westchester, out of the city and into the country. Yet they don't want to give up some of their comforts." And when you consider the fact that on any given weekend day more than 60 percent of those on the mountain are either season-pass holders or their friends, you have to admit, they know their market. Going forward, Intrawest will build on Stratton's exclusivity. A new lodging village, called The Commons, is in the early phases, directly across the road from the existing village. A horseshoe shape of varied architecture, all indigenous to Vermont (one looks like a barn, another like a town hall, another like a Victorian farmhouse) will be centered by a sort of town square, with skating rink, town green and gazebo. The now-opened Long Trail House is the first to be completed; others are coming over the next five years.

Intrawest is focusing on the upscale in a direct way beginning this season as well.

This year, the Stratton Mountain Club debuts. A kind of country-club base lodge with upscale dZcor, it will offer its members such amenities as a private kids dining room, a family eating area, a posh dining room and meeting places. It'll become a social center for the Stratton regulars, and its membership, never advertised, nearly sold out before ground was broken, despite the $29,000 initiation fee and annual dues of $2,000 and up. Clearly, the theory that people will pay more for a finer ski experience was on target.

On the spring Sunday of my visit, Stratton is hopping. The U.S. Snowboarding Open is in its last day. (Don't forget, snowboarding was born here: Jake Burton Carpenter tested his prototype model here at night, and Stratton was among the first to offer snowboarding lessons). The sunshine and spring corn have lured skiers out in droves, though there are no lines. Everyone seems to know everyone else, and yet I don't feel like an outsider. The two high-speed six-packs zip me to the top so many times that when I sit down at the Mid-Mountain Lodge, spent after about 18,000 vertical feet, I guess it to be lunchtime.

It's actually 10:35 a.m. So I soak in the sun and chat with a couple of Boston boys sucking down their first St. Patty's Day beers. (See? They do let regular Joes in!) I turn and chat with a woman who's made a few runs and is waiting for her grandchildren. Then I head back out.

While the terrain lacks any heart-stopping steeps, the trails do have character, with rolls and unusual fall lines and curves. (Stratton did host World Cups in the '70s.) They're narrower than most newer New England trails. On Liftline, a long, rolling cruiser with a nice pitch and a babbling stream beside it, I'm almost giddy. This is fun. This is worth it. And still, as I ski the day out, I don't see a pole-waver anywhere.

I ask a local on the lift about it. "Oh, they come," he tells me, "but only on Wednesdays" (when lift tickets are $36). "We know to stay away and let them have it."

So there you have it. Stratton does price itself up, and for good reason. It has stuck by what was created 40 years ago: a community of ski purists who expect great snow, great service and uncrowded trails. Skiers who can carve and know the rules and a staff that caters to them. More than 50 percent of the ski-school staff has been here for at least a decade-how's that for satisfaction in an industry where turnover can be a weekly event? In being what may look to be snobby or elitist, Stratton is actually doing skiers a favor. Because to skiers, it's quality that matters.

As if looking for a sign from the heavens that their mission is pure, the Stratton management made a brave decision just days before the resort's 40th birthday party last March: They would not make any more snow. While other Eastern resorts had maxed out water supplies, Stratton had plenty. But management decided to hold off, though they knew full well that all the old faithful would be arriving in the next week. Just nights before the big event, in a season of so little snowfall, the heavens opened, dumping 17 inches of fluff. A sign? To be sure. And the message was this: You can never have too much shrimp. th birthday party last March: They would not make any more snow. While other Eastern resorts had maxed out water supplies, Stratton had plenty. But management decided to hold off, though they knew full well that all the old faithful would be arriving in the next week. Just nights before the big event, in a season of so little snowfall, the heavens opened, dumping 17 inches of fluff. A sign? To be sure. And the message was this: You can never have too much shrimp.

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