With summer quickly fading into fall, many skiers are already starting to feel that familiar excitement of the impending season. For skiers in southern New England, this means wondering if there will be a season at all.
The past two years have been impossibly frustrating for the small mountains of northwest Connecticut, the mid-Hudson Valley in New York, and the Berkshire region of Massachusetts. Unseasonably warm weather and record-low snowfall has left the mountains bare in mid-February and closed by Saint Patrick’s Day.
These conditions have chased even the most devout locals up to the larger mountains of Vermont and New Hampshire, where they sacrifice number of days for better quality skiing.
Unfortunately, with climate change flexing its muscles across the country, these trends appear to only be getting worse. In the coming decades, our lifetime, mountains on the east coast will progressively suffer under shorter seasons with less snow. A 2017 study by Global Environment Change estimates that downhill skiing season lengths will decrease by 50% across North America by 2050 and 80% by 2090. The regions that will be hit the soonest and the hardest will be the southeast, the northeast, and the midwest.
East coast mountains are facing extinction and while small ski mountains grapple with that reality, another dynamic comes into play: the rise of the freeskiers.
Freeskiing is a creature wholly removed from its parent sport. Riders are focused on progression to a manic degree and may concentrate on a single feature for hours or days until a trick is perfected and muscle memory is born. The amount of tricks that can be done on a single feature are near innumerable and even when the mountain is bare, the true crusaders will hike the last patch of snow, just to get that perfect shot for the end-of-season edit.
Freeskiers are adaptable, monitoring snow conditions and adjusting from feature to feature as the temperature and snow changes. Though the season may shorten and the lifts may stop, freeskiers, like holy pilgrims, will return to the mountains.
The East Coast Slum Parks:
The east coast terrain park is a different beast than its cousin out west. Clean transitions into features, ice-free landings, and professional quality setups are nonexistent south of Mount Snow, Vermont (on a good day).
“There’s just a lot more metal than jumps,” says Chad Snyder, the former terrain park manager at Catamount Ski Area in Hillsdale, NY. “Rails are easier to put in and no matter how well you maintain them, the booters are going to be smaller and harder than anything you see out west.”
Despite the challenges, terrain parks remain inundated with new local riders, looking to progress on what is available to them. These riders don’t wait for the bluebird days to learn new tricks; they don’t have that luxury. Southern New England native Jeff Harvey, who rides for Tribe Snowboards and VESP gloves explains:
“You’ll get rain, you’ll get a flash-freeze, two inches of kitty litter on top of old ass corduroy. But it’s about exploration. You do what you can with it. It’s not going to be peachy and gentle, but on those shitty days you go out with the boys and really find out what kind of rider you truly are.”
No matter the conditions, the terrain park at its core is the place where riders come to congregate and push their limits. It’s a safe zone, where as long as one brings a positive attitude and a mindset of progression, it doesn’t matter what kind of equipment or skills anyone has.
“These aren’t your million dollar babies,” explains Harvey. “This next generation will be one of fun-loving, at-heart shredders. Any weather, any conditions, any features, they’re ready to go.”
The southern New England terrain park education is one of bruises, broken edges, and gouged bases. From the very beginning, riders learn that falling is part of the game and pain is a stepping stool to the next level.
“The best riders have always come out of the east,” explains Morgan Rudd, former terrain park manager at Sunday River in Maine, which underwent a $1 million terrain park renovation under his leadership. “They land their tricks, they use their edges, they’re always struggling with the conditions but getting it.”
The end result is a burgeoning of creativity and a style of gritty determination. Excuses are for others; for those that take a day off when the snow melts to ice, or drive the five hours to a bigger hill. These skiers stick it out, and will continue to do so, to the bitter, bloody end.
The Future of Southern New England Skiing:
The fanaticism of their young patrons has inspired mountains to become more terrain park oriented; funding features, snowmaking, and freestyle instructors to stay viable.
“Terrain parks will be the future of the east coast mountains because of popular demand and when it comes down to it: cost,” explains Snyder, who recently took a position at Powder Ridge ski area in Middlefield, Connecticut. “It’s a lot less expensive to make snow on a 1,000 ft terrain park than a 5,000 ft trail.”
Powder Ridge is one of the mountains preparing for the possibility of a snowless winter. In 2017 they opened a 365 Synthetic Snow Park. The 100’ wide, 500’ long trail already has two small rail features for freestyle enthusiasts and Snyder says they are looking to expand.
“Right now, the mountain is looking into going full synthetic in the next few years,” he explains. “This would make it the largest synthetic hill in the world.”
In the coming years, other mountains in southern New England will also have to consider the possibility of installing synthetic surfaces. Failure to do so could result in the loss of more mountains and the shrinking of skiing as a sport. Until then, the importance of the terrain park will be paramount to a mountain’s viability, and keep the local skiers from leaving for the bigger hills of the north.
Even with a renewed commitment to terrain park funding and freestyle skiing, the east coast will still be the training wheels for the mountains. That is inevitable. It’s unrealistic to suggest that east coast terrain will ever compete with the likes of Tahoe, Breck, and Hood; but the east coast freestyle revolution is coming. The rider’s born out of it won’t be your elegant big air artists. These will be the ice freaks and the street nuts. The type of rider that will come in with all the pent-up aggression only a New Englander can have and scare the hell out of anyone who hasn’t had to build a summer setup using Home Depot PVC pipes and stolen carpet scraps watered down with the garden hose.
Back east, in southern New England, the big-city crowds will continue to chase the shrinking amount of shreddable snow northwards, leaving the small hills to wallow in slush. With luck, they’ll have a park crew creative enough to keep the locals happy. They won’t need much, just enough features to keep people together and dreaming of the infinite possibilities in a world of their own.