Skiing and snowboarding have become a big business over the years. I started skiing in 1969 and even though the sport was around long before then, I have seen great changes, many for the better and some not. There have been major improvements over the years in snowmaking, grooming and lifts. While these changes have led to a more pleasurable ski experience, they have also driven up the cost of skiing.
Many smaller ski areas had to shut down because they couldn't keep up with the big guys. Insurance costs were a big factor in that, too. Still, skiers moved on to the areas with more consistent snow, higher capacity and faster lifts.
Walt Schoenknecht at Mohawk Mountain in Connecticut is said to have been the first to develop machine-made snow. During the winter of 1949-1950, he set up a primitive version of a snowmaking operation that scattered around chips from blocks of ice. Hundreds of blocks were chipped up to cover the trail.
It was originally thought that snowmaking was only going to be necessary in southern locations. That changed with a couple of lean snow years up north, as well as increased traffic on the slopes. Killington, Vt. expanded its snowmaking coverage in 1974.
Snowmaking was increased as the number of skiers grew and ski equipment got better, causing a wearing down of the snow on high traffic areas on the trails. Also, Killington was able to open earlier and close later in the season. Now all ski areas depend on machine-made snow and only need cold weather to open.
Good grooming is one reason skiers will choose a certain mountain over another. In the 1960s, Tucker Sno Cats did their best to maintain the snow. The big orange machines with bulldozer-like tracks were originally used as military equipment and were also driven on polar expeditions. They dragged behind them tubular rollers or screens depending on whether they were packing down new snow or breaking up icy crust.
These machines evolved into what we have now. More high-tech but costly groomers like Pisten Bullies can lay down a track of corduroy on whatever was previously there, and they can do that on much steeper terrain. But they come at a cost. The price of each machine runs over $200,000 and some ski areas have a fleet of them.
The comfort and capacity of lifts has enhanced the ski experience as well. Ropeway lifts were introduced in this country in the 1930s, but mountain conveyances existed for some time before that. In an article for the New England Ski Museum, Jeff Leich notes, "Aerial tramways were built in great numbers during the First World War on the mountainous front between Austria and Italy, mostly to transport artillery, building materials and casualties. By one report, at the end of the war the Italian forces had 2,170 tramways, while the Austrians had 410."
The first motorized ski tow in the U.S. was put into use in Woodstock, Vt. in 1934. Then in 1938, a Skimobile opened in North Conway, N.H. It had little cars like an amusement park ride. This was installed instead of an overhead lift so Cranmore Mountain Resort could avoid paying royalties (a Swiss man had a patent on the overhead lifts).
The first detachable chairlift appeared in 1981 at Breckenridge, Colo., whisking skiers up the mountain at higher speed. The Doppelmayr lift company introduced the first six-passenger chairlift in 1992. I rode on an eight-pack chair in Kitzbuhel, Austria in 2004. You had to yell across six people if your buddy was on the outside seat.
Rustic to Ritzy
All these improvements ironed out the rough spots of skiing. Over the years, though, skiers requested even more amenities and the areas responded. Demanding customers accelerated the developments even further over the last 15 years with ski areas adding luxury condos, time-share hotels with parking garages and other slopeside projects to attract the wealthy clientele.
Some ski areas are charging for preferred parking or even valet parking. A few ski areas offer a valet ski service to take the skis from your car to the ski rack. Serfaus, Austria has a subway from an outside parking lot to keep cars out of the village. Many European resorts now have escalators and elevators to carry skiers to the lifts.
Not everyone these days appreciates the amenities offered by the resorts. An article in the December issue of Powder magazine tells how the recession gave die-hard skiers their sport back. There is a resurgence in skiers hiking with skins on their skis up closed ski areas and skiing down the old trails. Ski areas are opening up terrain that was formerly off limits to give passionate skiers and snowboarders access to parts of the mountain where the "Ritz-Carlton types" would fear to venture.
Smaller, less expensive ski areas are once again becoming popular. Their customers are willing to put up with slower lifts and a more rustic environment. The fun of skiing and the joy of winter brings out the kid in all of us.
Meanwhile an old restaurant in St. Christoph, Austria has stuck with its original system to get customers downstairs. There is a concrete trough painted glossy and when you sit in it and push off, you are whisked down next to the stairway as if you were on an adult slippery slide.