Rumford's Black Mountain has a number of good things going this winter. They made big news last fall when the Maine Winter Sports Center announced a $15-day ticket for both of its alpine ski areas, Black Mountain and Bigrock Mountain in Mars Hill. The idea was to make skiing more available to potential skiers and skiers who might have dropped out of the sport due to expense.
I had talked with Andy Shepard, President and CEO of Maine Winter Sports Center, when the new pricing was first announced and decided it was time to see if it was working as intended. He pointed out that the mission of MWSC was to expand winter sports by making quality facilities available and affordable, and the $15-lift ticket was part of that concept, along with the $150 season pass. He also noted that with all the various discounts the yield on alpine lift tickets was only $15 anyway, so why not set that as the price for all.
Black Mountain also added trails and snowmaking to make the package even more attractive, and as March got underway, I reconnected with Andy to see what the results were. I learned that Black had seen a dramatic increase in skier visits and revenue from day tickets was also up dramatically. Shepard said: "Revenue was certainly a goal, but we also wanted to meet the objectives of our mission to make skiing accessible to everyone in Maine. With that in mind, I'm most excited about the significant increase in rentals and lessons. Those are both clear indicators that we are bringing new people into the sport, or at least back into the sport."
I also asked one skier who skis Black about the impact of the pricing, and Julie Parisien told me, "When I go to Black on weekends, it's packed, skiers having a great time, learning to ski and having fun."
It's obvious that this aggressive pricing is having the desired effect to get more skiers and new skiers out on the mountain. Fifteen dollars a day is probably not feasible for any ski areas except for a non-profit such as MWSC, but if they get more people into skiing it will ultimately help all ski areas.
Another area where Black is having an impact is alpine racing. Mark Thibodeau and Tim LaVallee have teamed up to offer a program to train and mentor new ski coaches. It's all part an ongoing alpine racing program that has been busy ever since the area became part of MWSC and was expanded with a top-to-bottom triple chair, new trail and more snowmaking. I learned from program director Mark Thibodeau that they operate on three levels, developing, ages 8-12, intermediate, ages 12-14, and high school. This season there are 30 kids in the program and Thibodeau noted that the race trail was widened by mountain manager Jeff Knights allowing both racers and recreational skiers to utilize the run.
This year a new element has been added which expands the coaching staff and creates tomorrow's coaches. The idea hatched between Thibodeau an LaVallee was to bring in some outstanding former high school ski racers who wanted to remain in ski racing through coaching. Four have been recruited and are now working along side the two veterans, Nate Nicols, Rumford, Lauren McHatten and Reilly Fitzgerald, Winthrop, and Marisa Hanning Oxford Hills. Under the supervision of their mentors, these new coaches are getting on the job training, setting courses, developing training plans and on hill coaching. The experience of Thibodeau and LaVallee is passed along giving these young coaches the benefit of years on the job at the highest levels.
The alpine racing program is an outgrowth of MWSC and the Chisholm Educational Foundation, long known for its excellence in cross country training programs and quality race events all the way up to national and international championships. The old lodge is being fixed up as a race center for cross country.
Allie Conant, who is still racing cross country for Winthrop, has also joined the group of aspiring coaches working with young alpine skiers in her free time. Nick Treadwell, after completing his final year racing for Leavitt, is now employed at Black and learning the ropes in the competition and event services program. There is plenty to do in that regard as the race series Thibodeau started for high school racers when he first arrived at Black has developed into the Maine High School Super Series. Teams and individuals accumulate points through the season culminating with team and individual championships at the end of the series. The series races draw up to 180 skiers at each race.
Things are working two ways at Black Mountain. The $15 day ticket is bringing out the skiers and the participants in the alpine racing program are benefiting from the extra attention while coaches of the future are benefiting from the vast experience of two of Maine's top coaches.
Finally, a comment on the lost skier at Sugarloaf. Without knowing if he left the trail deliberately, I can't comment on his responsibility. We know he did the right things after he realized he was lost. But what we need to take away is how careful we have to be when visibility drops in an above timberline environment. In a heavy snow year such as this, trail borders near the summit of Sugarloaf can be indistinguishable. In near zero visibility, we need to use extreme caution to make sure we are staying on the trail until far enough below the timberline to make the trail easier to follow. Choice of trails is also important. Rather than selecting a run along the outer boundary, ski one well inside the boundary, making leaving the area inadvertently unlikely. Mostly, it's a matter of taking extra precautions when visibility is limited as it often is at the top of Sugarloaf. See you on the slopes.
Dave Irons is a freelance writer who lives in Westbrook.