Photo By Tom Vannah
Winter break on the slopes
February 6, 2013: It’s a sunny day with a temperature in the upper 20s. Berkshire East Ski Resort in Charlemont feels extra busy for a weekday (although there are no lines at the lifts), thanks mainly to the hustle and bustle of afternoon school programs and high school racing. Today there’s a prep league race of some kind. The racers, resplendent in their gear, bring a festive vibe to the mountain. Despite the activity at the base, out on the shoulder slopes of the hill a bunch of regulars and some fortunate new recruits enjoy conditions that just don’t get any better—different, maybe, but never better. Loose, bottomless packed powder—hero’s snow.
Outside the race house at the base of Berkshire East, Jon Schaefer looks up to the summit. Slowly his eyes descend the mountain, pausing to inspect the terrain, taking note of the flow of skier traffic above the start, working his way down through each slalom gate, through each twist and turn, to the finish.
“I’m not happy with the way I laid it out,” Schaefer says. Then he shrugs. The conditions are perfect. The slightly imperfect course will still ski beautifully.
In addition to his role as general manager at Berkshire East, Schaefer, 32, is heavily involved in the mountain’s various race programs, coaching the Berkshire East teams with race program director Tyler Conrad and helping run races like today’s. His feel for the mountain where he grew up to become a top collegiate ski racer is unquestionable. Jon’s feel—that direct sense of the mountain you only get by skiing it for years, in all seasons, at all times of day and in every kind of condition—also allows him, on this particular day, almost to relax, to stop and breathe a big, happy sigh of relief.
At this stage of the winter, heading into the all-important school vacation week that can sometimes make or break a ski resort operator’s year, Berkshire East is 100 percent open and in tiptop shape. The Schaefer family’s big investments in upgraded snowmaking and grooming, among a range of other off-season investments, have allowed Berkshire East to overcome this ski season’s mediocre winter weather, not only surviving but, if snow quantity and quality be the issue, thriving.
For Jon Schaefer and his family, the last few years have involved a lot of change, a lot of risk-taking, a lot of hard work. On days like this, with the mountain in great shape and filled with young people of all ages enjoying a beautiful and timeless late winter day, Schaefer can breathe easy.
“Particularly with a snow storm on the way,” he says, grinning like a kid.
The forecast, indeed, promises a major dump, just a week before the beginning of school vacation. The ski operator side of him is happy to accept all the natural snow Mother Nature can supply. It is, thankfully, just icing on the cake, adding volume to the mountain’s already considerable stockpiles. The B’east would be fine without it, but still, what skier doesn’t want it to snow?
December 12, 2012: It’s a steel-gray day with temperatures hovering slightly above freezing. Though the weather has been completely uncooperative in the Valley, most of Berkshire East’s bigger rivals have at least a few skimpy trails open. In Charlemont, the snowmaking opportunities have been poor to nonexistent. Despite a ton of new infrastructure that nearly triples the resort’s snowmaking capacity, it simply isn’t cold enough to make a lot of snow. There are piles in a few key areas, but the resort needs at least one more cold night before even a perfunctory opening is possible.
Jon Schaefer tries to hide it, but he seems beat up and gloomy. He’s worried mainly about his crew and their morale. The spring/summer/fall Canopy Tour business has only been over for a month or so, but there’s been no break between the seasons. Seven-day weeks are the norm in the buildup to the ski season. With men like Daryl Cutter, who’s run the snowmaking at Berkshire East for many years, and veteran crew member Sonam Dhakpa, Schaefer’s team has been working long hours in the dark and cold repairing and maintaining equipment, checking new systems, preparing for the chance to turn the mountain white. And now, after all that work, the resort is ready to open. But without temperatures cold enough to make snow, the crew is getting restless.
“If we get the weather, we can do amazing things in a couple of days. We can have the whole mountain open in less than a week if it stays cold,” Schaefer tells me as we walk down Outback, a winding trail off the backside of Berkshire East, and into the woods. Soon we come to the new retention pond and one of its new pump stations—part of the summer’s investment that will give the iconic mountain the same or better snowmaking capabilities as its better-heeled competitors.
As we walk, we talk about Berkshire East’s continuing investment in its future—an investment that might appear quixotic in light of the continuing news about global climate change. Schaefer, who studied environmental science at Middlebury College, believes in his family’s plan to diversify and modernize the resort without killing all that makes Berkshire East unique.
“We knew we needed to deal with the energy issue first,” Schaefer says, pointing to recent investments in renewable energy on the mountain, including a windmill and solar field. The production of energy on the mountain offsets the cost of snowmaking and running the lifts, while burning wood harvested at the resort reduces the cost of heating buildings. With the energy projects completed over the last few seasons, this year’s plan focuses on snowmaking.
“We know we have unique terrain, that we provide a unique experience,” he says. Indeed, Berkshire East, though a small resort, has serious cred among skiing’s cognoscenti. “We want to keep that ‘secret stash’ vibe alive, but deliver as good or better snow as the bigger resorts,” Schaefer says.
As we step through mud puddles a week before Christmas, I ask Schaefer if he’s getting worried about the weather interfering with the plans. Jon shoves his hands into his pockets and shrugs.
“I grew up on this mountain,” he says. “Am I frustrated? Yes! But in perspective, we’ve survived worse things than a little bad weather in December.”
F ebruary 8, 2013: Today, the media is buzzing with news of a major storm hitting the region. Schaefer has been up since long before dawn reading weather reports, hoping for lots of fresh snow but growing incredulous at the media reporting that soon has even diehard skiers calling him to see if the resort will stay open in the storm. With the governor urging motorists to stay off the roads, ski resort operators scratch their heads. In addition to global warming, ski areas face the threat of the public’s growing weather phobia, instilled by sensational media reports and resulting as a counter-intuitive decline in skier visits on, of all things, powder days.
Still, more snow will only help the buildup to vacation week.
“School vacation is a very important week,” Schaefer says. “Not only is it one long uninterrupted vacation for kids, but usually the mountain is skiing as well as it will all season. The days are longer, the colds of January are past and the skiing is great.”
He’s right. The teeth of winter don’t seem as sharp as they did a month ago. The light is filled with the hope of long afternoons spent outdoors; the snow underfoot offers the daring full freedom to fall, to float, to fly downhill in no more than knife-edge contact with the earth.
Beyond the joy of great skiing, however, lies the business practicality that Schaefer and his family have faced year after year since Jon’s dad, Roy Schaefer, bought the mountain in the mid-‘70s. “It’s important to have a very busy winter so that we can keep investing in the summer,” Jon says.
And that means providing the best possible conditions for the school vacation crowd, a family market that can mean as much to the future of a ski resort as it does to this year’s gate. Competing against bigger resorts in Vermont for the youth market—tomorrow’s adult skiers—requires Berkshire East to offer much more than good snow. For example, recent investments in terrain park features, says Christopher Loftus, who runs the mountain’s ski school, have helped broaden the resort’s appeal. And while teaching kids to ski has always been a big part of Berkshire East’s mission, Loftus says, the multi-day learn-to-ski programs available during the February vacation week are priced to give families an affordable, effective way to enter the sport.
Today Schaefer will get a late start to his family’s mountain, but he expects to have a long day on the slopes. The ski resort operator is, heart, still a skier first. And his sense of passion for his sport shows up in big and small ways around the mountain.
“I just love snow,” he says, laughing because it’s so obvious. “And it’s nice to lay down fresh tracks. But, really, I’m happy to share it with other people. All you have to do is just come get some!”•