Whenever you drive around ski country, no matter what the state, you can’t help but encounter a defunct ski area or two. This is no surprise. Since the 1980’s, roughly 33% of ski areas in the US have gone out of business, and few have any hope of ever coming back.
Sad, I know. Many of these were smaller, more affordable places that were great for families and beginners. They also provided something larger resorts generally lack: a measure of character and community involvement that goes to the heart of what skiing is all about.
Today I’d like to focus on a ski area that’s had a much happier ending. After opening and closing multiple times, Mount Ascutney, Vermont, has almost literally risen from the ashes (the base lodge burned in 2015) .
In its heyday, Ascutney boasted 1,800 vertical, 57 runs, 5 chairs, and 1 surface lift. But after riding a financial roller coaster for many years, the mountain closed for good in 2010. Its lifts were sold, and it looked like the end for a mountain that had operated, albeit intermittently, for six decades.
In 2015, the mountain was purchased by the local community of West Windsor, VT, and re-opened for skiing in December that same year. Laura Farrell, Executive Director of Mount Ascutney Outdoors, the non-profit charged with operating the mountain, would be the first to tell you that this was the result of efforts by many, many people. And she’s right. But as Executive Director, Laura is responsible for overseeing the entire operation. I talked to her recently at the base of the resurrected ski area.
SD: So Laura, tell me a bit about yourself. When did you start skiing?
LF: I’m 64, and I’ve been skiing since I was two. Honestly, I’ve been in the ski industry almost my entire life. When I was a young adult I became a ski instructor, and then I founded Vermont Adaptive Ski & Sport, a non-profit dedicated to providing recreational opportunities to athletes of any age and any disability. It was incorporated in 1987; back then there was nothing like it anywhere in the Northeast. I was involved in everything from teaching skiing to examining instructors, running clinics, and overseeing a race program. Then I moved on to coaching able-bodied kids, which I did for a number of years.
SD: Things didn’t look promising when Ascutney closed in 2010. What is Mount Ascutney Outdoors, and how’d it come about?
LF: Mount Ascutney Outdoors is a non-profit that’s responsible not only for the future of the mountain, but for creating and developing year round recreational opportunities that are accessible and affordable to everybody — skiing, mountain biking, hiking, cross country skiing, snow shoeing, fat-tire biking. It was formed in 2010, when the chairman of the West Windsor select board brought up the idea of purchasing the mountain after it closed. This is a small community, and we were all hit hard when it went under, so the idea was to revitalize both the mountain and the town. The proposal received almost unanimous approval. Fortunately, we were able to get some help from a national non-profit, the Trust for Public Land. The Trust raised the money for the purchase and then handed the mountain over to us.
SD: So how’d you get involved?
LF: Even though the town bought the mountain, it didn’t want to develop, manage, or finance its recreational opportunities or events. And they didn’t want to increase the town’s tax burden, either. So I was asked to help start the non-profit that would develop, manage, and finance all the activities that go on here.
SD: What’s your role as Executive Director?
LF: Essentially, I’m something of a jack of all trades. Obviously, right now I have my fingers in everything from fundraising to installing the rope tow, to managing the volunteers, projects, and events, but in reality it’s not just me. There’s an amazing group of people that believe in this project, and we all work together. We have nine board members, and they all have different responsibilities.
SD: So what’s at Ascutney now?
LF: Let me say first that we’re a complete volunteer organization, so everything we have has been donated or built by volunteers. For example, six of us installed a thousand-foot rope tow. We had some help from an engineer, and of course, it had to be inspected by the state. But we did it all ourselves, and it’s a thing of beauty. I can now put rope tow installer on my resume.
So right now, we have 32 miles of trails that are used for mountain biking, hiking, snowshoeing, and cross country skiing. We have the rope tow, which serves three trails that we mow like lawns, so we only need six inches of snow to ski — we don’t have snowmaking because we wanted this to be a sustainable area. You can also skin up the rest of the mountain for backcountry skiing, and that’s a huge portion of the winter activities here. It’s great terrain. We’ve been clearing the old trails up there that haven’t been taken care of for 5 or 6 years. And we have a new warming hut at the base — again, donated and built by volunteers — that can be used year round for all our recreational activities and events and camps.
Once we get enough snow, we’ll be open Wednesdays from noon to 6, Thursdays 4 to 8, Friday 2 to 8, Saturdays 10 to 8, and Sundays 10 to 4. During holidays and vacation weeks, it’s 10 to 4 and on Fridays and Saturdays, 10 to 8. On Thursday nights we’ll have a locals race series under the lights. We’ll also have an informal race program on Friday nights, as well as on Saturday and Sunday. We’ll have courses set up and there’ll be coaches for anyone who wants to come and train. We have lights this year, which is exciting, so people can come out after work. There’s even a grill on the deck of the warming hut so they can cook their dinner.
As I said before, we really want to keep this affordable for anyone who wants to come. This is important. A lot of families can’t afford to get out and ski at the larger, corporate mountains. But we think it’s important to get everyone on the hill. So our rope tow is free to anyone who wants to ride it during our day hours — though we also accept donations — and ten dollars at night.
SD: What are the future plans for the mountain?
LF: The old lodge burned a few years ago but much of it is still standing. But it doesn’t belong to us; it belongs to another property owner. We hope to purchase it so we can tear it down, clean it up, and eventually build a really nice base camp. We’ve been donated a timber frame for just that purpose. We’re also hoping to install a chair lift up to the old mid-station – the conservation easements only allow us to go up so far. We could also use the lift for mountain biking in the summer, or fat-tire biking in the winter. Needless to say, we’re very excited about the things we have going on here. It’s great to have it back.
Editor’s Note: I was totally charmed by Mount Ascutney and impressed by the hard work, mission, and spirit of Ascutney Outdoors. The non-profit is funded entirely by donations. and I encourage you to contribute to keep this great community resource going. Click here.