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An Entirely Different Beast Altogether

Killington's changes this season are an investment in both infrastructure and customer relations.

The Snowdon Six Express is a game-changer for Killington's traffic patterns. Photo: John Giuffo

When’s the last time you visited a ski area and were so impressed by the operator’s changes you were like, “Damn, son - I like the way you execute your sweeping multi-million dollar capital improvement plans, kid!”?

In case you haven’t been paying attention, Killington is crushing it at ski area management right now, making a slew of improvements and decisions are geared toward cementing the resort’s reputation as the top dog in the Northeast. They’ve already brought World Cup racing back to the region, which came with a supercharged snowmaking infrastructure that improved on what was already the region’s most nimble and productive manufactured snow system. And with the addition of two new lifts, new gondola cabins, and an assortment of tunnels installed at high-traffic intersections, they’re also emphasizing how much they’ve paid attention to feedback from visitors and regulars.

Killington has its detractors in certain social media circles, but I could never get inside the twisted mind of a person who can’t see the appeal of a giant ski area with four different base lodges, which is always the first to open every October and the last to close every May (sometimes June!), hosts the biggest Northeast slopeside party Thanksgiving weekend, anchors a great ski town with quality bars and restaurants (twofer tapas happy hour at The Garlic is my aprés jam), and has some of the most fun and varied terrain this side of the Rockies. Some people just love to complain.

But there were a few gripes that I agreed with: the place can get packed – especially at the K-1 Gondola base on busy weekends and holidays; there are a few high-traffic intersections that force skiers and riders to slow down and merge; the gondola cabins were starting to look a little shopworn; and Snowdon Peak badly needed a high-speed lift. These were aspects of Killington that had irked me in the past, so it was gratifying to see that each of them have been improved or addressed by recent changes that cost a total of $25 million.

First, those new chairs (well, one new chair and one relocated old chair): The Snowdon Six Express is a fantastic blue Poma Leitner bubble chair that solves the problem of slow lifts up to the Snowdon Mountain peak, cutting the chair time in half and providing cover from the cold and elements. It’s a viable alternative to the K-1 Gondola for enclosed access to the peaks, and it’s become a popular way for even regulars to start their day.

“The idea is to try to change that traffic,” says Courtney DiFiore, Killington’s communications manager – and it seems to be working. “The K-1 line was significantly shorter than normal for a Saturday,” she says, referring to her observations on crowd patterns since the bubble chair began running.

In fact, it changes the flow of the entire mountain. Intermediate skiers, families, and skiers looking for a more mellow start to the day on the blue groomers that dominate that side of the resort can now funnel down Great Northern above the K-1 lot toward the bottom station and generally be on the hill by the time the first batch of gondola riders are still loading. For those skiers who prize enclosed lifts, it becomes a more lap-worthy chair, pulling off a healthy amount of capacity pressure on the gondola.

The new South Ridge Quad is the old Snowdon Quad, but repositioned to open up some of the mountain's best terrain to repeated laps. Photo: John Giuffo

The old Snowdon Quad (which quietly opened yesterday, February 7, without fanfare) was moved, renamed the South Ridge Quad, and installed up an old lift line that hadn’t been in use since 2011. Located all the way on the left side of the trail map, the four-seat fixed-grip chair increases the ease of access to a handful of trails that were previously only accessible from the gondola, which meant that one run down, say, The Jug, for instance (one of my favorite trails at Killington – an old school, skinny, double fall line run nestled above Bear Mountain) would drop you off at the bottom of Bear, requiring at least two lifts – and that long skate from Superstar over to the K-1 Gondola – in order to get back to the top.

Now, you can lap The Jug, Jug Handle, Breakaway, Pipe Dream, Roundabout and the small Roundabout Glades beside it, (or the way-out wilderness trails of Solitude and Sassafras, if that’s your bag) to your heart’s content. And since it’s located in a relatively quiet corner of the mountain, it’s a great way to get away from the crowds on a busy day or to hunt powder stashes after the rest of the mountain has been chopped up.

Okay, says the dyspeptic Killington doubter, they’ve improved lifts in two key areas, but those gondolas are looking pretty beat up. Ah, but oh contraire, contrarian, a big part of Killington’s capital improvement plan was the investment in a fleet of new gondola cabins – which replace the funky old cabins that looked like background props from a special winter episode of Saved By The Bell (although, fear not, retro-fans: many of the old cabins will stay in use as backups for the Skyeship Gondola, which gets lets traffic and isn’t opened for as long during the season).

The South Ridge is now lift-serviced for the first time since 2011. Photo: John Giuffo

And to ensure that both the high-speed Snowdon six and the K-1 Gondola run smoothly, there are now two brand-spanking new wooden barns that have been installed at the base of both lifts, so that the bubble chairs and new gondolas can get stored away every night, protected from the elements, and be more ready to get loaded onto the lift line on mornings where cold or icing can interfere with lift operations. New chairs, maintained and stored for more reliable operation.

Fine, says the salty Killington hateur, but some of those trail intersections can get pretty chaotic on busy days. I have to actually swivel my head around! Ah, but even something as seemingly trivial as a tunnel can make a huge impact on how a mountain skis.

Tunnels were added at three key busy intersections, improving the traffic flow at these pinch points, which makes these trails more enjoyable to ski while at the same time reducing the potential for collision. The three completed tunnels are located at the intersections of Skyeburst, where it meets the Snowshed Crossover traverse; at the spot where Bunny Buster and Great Northern meet; and, lower down, where Great Northern doubles back and intersects with Chute. One more is scheduled to be completed over the summer. They’re subtle but important changes which open up three of Killington’s best carve-and-rip blue cruisers to safer and more confident turns.

“With the addition of the tunnels, we hope to improve the flow of the traffic at those key intersections,” says DiFiore. “So when you’re skiing those trails, you’re not stopping for traffic coming across and it makes it a much more enjoyable experience.”

And while it’s common for ski areas to install tunnels in spots where trails intersect with roads (especially those resorts with lots of slopeside homes and lodging, which often are accompanied by winding access roads that can criss-cross over the resort footprint) it’s a relatively new development to install them at heavily-trafficked intersections in the middle of a ski area.

“It’s an innovation we hope other mountains will look at and adopt themselves,” says DiFiore. “It’s like, how have we not thought of this before?”

Plenty of ski areas have busy or even problematic intersections, but Killington is the only place that has made changes that address those concerns. In the grand scope of ski area infrastructure, a few tunnels are a small thing, but they can have an outsized influence on the experience a skier or rider has during a day out on the hill.

In order to get permission to install the South Ridge Quad, Killington had to trade land that is the habitat of a vulnerable bird species - the Bicknell's Thrush. So Juggernaut, the Northeast's longest, flattest, woodsiest trail, has been removed from the map. R.I.P., you awesome weirdo of a trail. Photo: John Giuffo

But more importantly, it shows that Killington’s management is listening to its customers and making the changes necessary to transform an already-great Northeast ski area into an even better place. It’s a management style that is completely antithetical to some other owners who shall go unnamed, and it shows what can happen in terms of improvement and customer relations when an operator pays attention to and cares about the skiers and riders that are at the core of its business.

Plus, that bubble chair is super sweet – warm on cold days, dry on wet days, and it has the ability to turn even the grayest of gray New England days into a bluebird day. What’s not to like?

© 2018 by ICE COAST MAGAZINE.

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