It’s always hard to believe that February is already here.

It always seems as if the season has hardly started and the holidays have just ended. Now it’s Groundhog Day and we hear the national TV folks telling us that winter could be over. No one who has lived in Maine for even one winter would believe that winter could end Feb. 2, or that we won’t have six more weeks of winter. And if we think about the normal ski season it has 10 more weeks to go.

Dave Irons, Ski Columnist

So forget about the Groundhog. One may come out in Pennsylvania, but don’t look for any around here. Our two biggest snow months are still ahead of us, and at those ski areas that have the longest ski seasons we can ski for three more months. We’ll have a thaw or two but overall we have half a season left.

Following up on last week’s column on independent ski areas, I skied at Shawnee Peak this past week, a ski area owned by one individual. Chet Homer has owned the area since 1994 and has continuously upgraded lifts, snowmaking, grooming and base facilities.

I’m sure many skiers are unaware that Shawnee Peak is the largest night skiing operation in New England and it is a key to the area’s success. Its location in Southern Maine, the closest skiing to the state’s biggest population center, makes it easy for skiers to head there for a day or an evening. which is why it is the state’s third busiest ski area.

HIGH-TECH TICKETING

One reason I skied there was to check out their new ticketing system. We’re all familiar with the various attachments used to display lift tickets from wires to plastic and chains for season passes. Typically, the season pass contains a picture and at many areas there is a bar code which a ticket checker scans at the lift. I prefer an armband for a season pass and have often used one to display a day or multi day ticket.

I have used almost every type of ticket but this is the first one that I simply put it in the left hand pocket of my parka. Entering the lift line there is a gate with a scanner that reads the ticket and opens the gate. The plastic tickets contain the information identifying the user as a day skier or season pass holder. The tickets are reusable so someone buying a day ticket simply takes it to the ticket counter where it is reloaded with a new date.

Another advantage of the system is that a skier can buy a ticket online and it is updated at the area. GM Ralph Lewis told me there can be a lapse time so it’s a good idea to buy the ticket a day or two ahead. With the updated ticket a skier can simply go directly to the lift with stopping at the ticket counter.

Ski areas that use a system such as this get all kinds of useful information. When skiers go through the gate the information is transmitted to a central computer. The ski area then knows which lifts are getting the most traffic and where skiers are skiing on the mountain. This can inform groomers which trails should be a priority after the lifts close.

The system also takes a picture of each skier that passes through a gate. This could be used in several ways. For example a skier might report that his season pass has been lost. If someone shows up and tries to use it the system will know and the gate won’t open. It should be noted here that Maine and most ski states have a “theft of services” law, making it illegal to use a ski lift without having a valid lift ticket.

While most ski areas won’t call the police if someone tries to ski without buying a lift ticket, they do take it very seriously, and skiers caught trying to ski free can count on being interviewed by someone in management. I know of instances where such skiers have been required to purchase a ticket after which they were asked to leave the area without the ticket.

These systems make stealing ski lift privileges very difficult. There are a number of systems out there. I remember one out at Mount Bachelor in Oregon where the lift ticket, either day or season, had to be inserted into a slot to gain entry to the lift line. A manager I was skiing with told me how some employees would call in sick on a powder day, but when they used their season pass the area knew immediately. I don’t know if such activity resulted in termination but I’m sure a few incidents terminated such activity.

Another benefit of the data gathered by these systems is future planning. Knowing which lifts are getting the most use indicates where skiers are skiing on the mountain. This is critical knowledge when planning new lifts, trails, snowmaking and grooming. It’s one more way that technology gives us better skiing.

As always February is a busy month with a lot of activities, special events and, of course, vacation. For high school skiers its championship time. First up are the Class A alpines at Shawnee Peak February 13-14. All three Nordic classes, A, B, and C, will gather at Titcomb the 17th and 18th. Class B alpines are scheduled for Black Mountain February 19-20.

A sampling of special events includes the Vertical Challenge at Lost Valley Feb. 22, featuring races for various age groups with a chance to qualify for finals later in the season. One of my favorites is the annual Sandy Fitch/Dave Gilpatrick race at Mount Abram, also on the 22nd. Sandy and Dave were long-time ski patrollers who died much too young and the race and an auction raise money for the Mt. Abram Ski Club’s scholarship fund. See you there and on the slopes.

Dave Irons is a freelance writer and columnist who hails from Westbrook. He has been contributing to the Sun Journal for many years and is among the most respected ski writers in the Northeast. He also is a member of the Maine Ski Hall of Fame. Write to him at [email protected] 

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