CONWAY — The mechanics of getting a ski area ready for skiing and riding are poetic.
Some local ski aficionados liken it to the opening curtain of a play, or the gesturing of a maestro’s baton to signal the orchestra to begin.
“There is always a little nervous energy before the curtain opens,” said Alexa Bernotavicz, assistant director of ski operations at Omni Mount Washington Resort in Bretton Woods.
John Fichera, general manager of Black Mountain Ski Area in Jackson, opined that “the manager is like a conductor, putting all the pieces together to produce a harmonic sound.
“If someone is not singing on key, it can be a horrific cacophony,” he said. “When guests arrive, they want to see a well-oiled machine, everything in harmony.”
Poetics aside, preparing for the upcoming season is an enormous amount of work.
“A lot of blood, sweat and tears goes into opening for the ski season,” said Jessyca Keeler, president, Ski NH, which is now based in Conway.
“Snowmaking, marketing, making certain the websites are up to date, implementing new ticketing systems, pricing, passholder offerings and other products — every department has something, everyone is on deck for the season,” Keeler said.
It’s still November, but the season has already begun. Here’s a snapshot and sampling of behind-the-scenes activity at Mt. Washington Valley ski areas.
“I would say we are actually at the front-of-the scenes,” said Chris Ellms, director of ski operations at Bretton Woods, which boasts 464 skiing and snowboarding acres, 63 trails and 35 glades.
“We start planning for the next season during the current season. We have a list of summer projects, big projects and are open all summer,” said Bernotavicz, the area’s assistant director of ski operations.
Some summer and fall work included working on drainage issues, mowing the mountain, preventative maintenance, hiring and staffing for the upcoming winter and getting the snowmaking system going around Labor Day.
Speaking of snowmaking, opening day was mid-November.
“We opened almost the same day as last year, a little bit earlier this year,” said Ellms.
Mother Nature helped again this year. “There was a cold snap right before Halloween. Then, a typical November, with ups and downs. We like the downs and the arctic air,” said Bernotavicz, adding they began making snow in October and plan to make snow until mid-January.
Mid-November, the crews were working on a bridge and the new 16,000-square-foot Summit restaurant and event venue. The new building is located at the junction of High Ridge and Outer Bounds trails.
“It really never ends. We close Columbus Day and are right back at it first week in November,” said Ellms.
“The new restaurant is a construction moving target. HVAC guys are working, guys are sheet-rocking, the building is heated, so we will be working all winter,” said Ellms.
Good thing Bretton Wood’s new eight-passenger gondola is in operation. It takes 4.9 minutes to reach the summit.
“We use the gondola to get workers to the summit,” Ellms said. “The larger equipment — like boilers, kitchen equipment and elevator — we will probably transport these using the grooming machines. We built all our lifts, so we are used to pushing and pulling.”
There are lots of moving parts to switch from summer to winter, which requires a versatile staff.
“At the resort, we are looking at the best of folks and talent,” said Craig Clemmer, director of marketing and sales at the Omni resort.
“They have the ability to transition from golf to ski,” he said. “It is a great economy to have low unemployment. We are always looking for new members and can offer ski passes, health insurance and the resort’s amenities.
“The team does a fantastic job maintaining New Hampshire’s largest ski area,” he continued. “Chris and Alexa make it look easy.”
Heading down Crawford Notch to Jackson, John Fichera was on hand to talk about Black Mountain, which was established in 1935 and now has 143 skiable acres and 45 trails.
Fichera, who took over the mountain in 1995, says they are performing maintenance all the time.
“There is a tremendous amount of work, beginning the day the mountain closes,” said Fichera.
“This summer, we performed scheduled maintenance, tested all systems, checked for leaks in the snowmaking system. Our lift inspection is next week, and then comes the insurance inspection,” he said this week.
During the summer, Black hosts weddings, offers horseback riding, puts on a food truck festival and is sometimes is pressed into service for other gatherings.
“Celebrations of life can be last minute. People want to have the event right away. We have a nice, big venue, a beautiful view, and you can see the horses prancing by,” Fichera said.
The Lostbo Cabin up the mountain was built a couple of years ago. This year, they added a new deck, which will be open for the upcoming ski season.
“We use this cabin all winter as a full-service pub with grilled and barbecue foods. It is also used for our Friday night uphill race series,” Fichera said.
“The series is put on by Andrew Drummond of Ski the Whites. Drummond’s backcountry shop is here at the base of Black Mountain,” he added.
Black is shooting for a Dec. 13 opening this year, Fichera said.
In the village of North Conway, Cranmore Mountain looked like a ski area in springtime, but it was Nov 21.
Snowmaking had begun, but the unexpectedly warm day made the grounds a little muddy.
However, Cranmore had its earliest opening ever this year.
“By Nov. 1, we are ready to go,” said Becca Deschenes, director of marketing, for the 170-acre Cranmore Mountain Resort.
“We close the first week in April until Memorial Day, and then open until Columbus Day,” she said.
Even with an earlier-than-usual opening, the mountain was ready for turns.
“We shoot to have the mountain operational on the 1st of November, most of the time waiting for the cold weather and a few more teammates to come in,” said John Mersereau, mountain operations manager for Cranmore.
This year, Cranmore opened Nov. 16, weekends, with “all systems go” after seasonal maintenance.
Mersereau explained that the more moving parts there are to snow guns, the more maintenance is needed.
“The airless fan guns require the most work and are done every season — such as oil changes, safety checks and a laundry list of parts to be inspected and replaced if necessary. The tower and ground guns require a lot less, a visual inspection for safety,” he said. “Some require a little grease and nozzle replacements. These inspections and repairs are done every season.”
Cranmore has over 500 snow guns and a movable fleet of over 100 guns.
So how do the guns get moved around the mountain?
“We move the larger pieces of equipment with a SnowCat,” Mersereau said.
“Some of the smaller sleds and guns can be moved with our side-by-side with tracks or a snowmobile.
“These guns are limited to the less steep and rocky terrain, unless extra work is done to maintain a safe and secure platform to operate from,” he said.
“We have 10 more energy-efficient snow guns. They use less energy and for a shorter period of time. Cranmore has increased snow guns by 500 percent since 2009,” said Deschenes, adding that the snow gun technology they use was founded by the Fairbanks Group, which owns Cranmore Mountain.
Pre-season, all equipment is evaluated and inspected to maintain safe and efficient operational standards in-house, as well as having a few vendors do pre-season checks on mechanical and electrical equipment, added Mersereau.
Summer hours benefit staffing needs, Deschenes said.
“Being open in the summer makes it a little easier in terms of staffing — we can keep people year-round. We cross-share. The winter staff helps with the Ghoulog (the ski area’s Halloween haunted house attraction). The crew waits until fall to mow the mountain,” she noted.
New additions are in the works for the 2019-20 season at Cranmore.
“Buildings and grounds is constructing a new path to the rental center. New this year, we are taking advanced reservations for rental equipment.
Rentals will be guaranteed by 10 a.m. Guests will go to the information booth at the base and then proceed to the rental shop,” said Deschenes, adding, “This system is quite popular out west and is catching on here.”
Food service is getting a new taste, too. “We are rebranding the Red Sled Burritos, on the other side of Legends, with the new Red Sled Chicken Waffle. Food options are available at the summit Meister Hut, Zip’s Pub, Sliders cafe and bar, and Legends,” said Deschenes.
Of course, many options at Cranmore will soon change. Ground has been broken for Phase ll of the Kearsarge Brook Condominiums, located at the base of the mountain. Completion of the second building is expected this winter. And a hotel is in the works to replace the recently closed fitness center at Artist Falls Lodge.
Moving down to Madison, at Purity Spring Resort, home of King Pine Ski area, General Manager Andrew Mahoney and Shawn Taylor, operations manager, had a lot to say.
King Pine, which was open for 105 days last year, is projected to begin its new season Dec. 13.
“We started snowmaking for two nights about two weeks ago, around Nov. 12. Financially, it doesn’t make sense for us to open much sooner,” said Mahoney.
“The day we close the ski area, the works begins,” said Taylor. “We start early with testing oil samples, maintaining gear boxes, testing the viscosity. Things are good until they break down, so we do preventative maintenance,” he said.
During the summer, King Pine is host to mountaintop weddings, usually six in total for the year.
The chairlift runs to the summit. The guests can take the chair to the top to secret trails, which overlook Foss Mountain. You can ride up, but not down. There is a road which leads guests down the mountain.
“The experience is going up anyway,” said Taylor.
The Madison ski area’s big investment is snowmaking. Taylor and Mahoney said they make better snow nowadays.
“We use less water. The snow guns are more efficient. We use less hours, too. It used to be around 400 hours for snowmaking, now it is more like 260 hours and we can make snow at warmer temperatures,” said Taylor, adding they use Snow Max which is added to the water line and helps crystallize.
“Snow Max product is inert, not harmful and helps snow quality, creates more snow than ice and more like natural snow,” he said.
King Pine has nine snowmakers, three shifts and three crews.
“When I was just out of college, I was making snow, we only had a two-person crew,” said Mahoney.
“It takes a lot of fire power per acre, we use mostly snow towers rather than sleds and just refurbished the old nozzles,” Taylor said.
King Pine staff is versatile, transitioning from winter to summer.
“The majority of snowmakers are year-round and do general maintenance in summer or bartending at the resort, which is open year-round,” said Taylor.
This year, King Pine is replacing their rental equipment and one third of the tubing fleet. They invest big in snowmaking and training.
“Every year we learn about the latest lift techniques at Lift Maintenance Seminars (LMS). It is a three-day event with two-hour blocks, learning about gear boxes, record-keeping, lift evacuations and snow making operations,” said Taylor.
LMS was started by Dave Kenney in 1978 at Ski Butternut in Great Barrington, Mass. Kenney passed away in 2018, but the seminars continue at Jiminy Peak. Generally, there 300 in attendance from over 80 ski areas.
“This is a great investment for us,” said Mahoney.
So is the new sonar technique of measuring snow depths. “We invested in tech mounts on the groomers,” Mahoney said.
“These are sonar detectors which measure the snow depth. It is not a cheap product, but it could save for extra snowmaking. We saw these at the recent ski show in Boston. In some areas, we find 6 inches, some 6 feet. It beats the old way of drilling holes to find out the snow depth,” said Mahoney, adding the end date for making snow for the season is based on their judgment.
According to Ski NH, skiers visits, which include alpine, cross-country and tubing, for the 2018-19 season reached 2.3 million or 100,000 more than last year. This represents a 5 percent increase for the 32 ski-area members of Ski NH.
And the consensus is that mountains are using as much of their real estate and for as many seasons as they can.
“There doesn’t seem to be much of a down time, just like in life,” said Deschenes, with a twinkle in her eye.