Sugarbush Starts a New Chapter
The latest resort to be swept up in the consolidation race resolves to keep its identity.
It’s five minutes into our hike to Castlerock, and I’m sweating balls. The hike from the top of the Heaven’s Gate Triple along the ridgeline takes 15 or 20 minutes even though most of it is downhill skiable – the periodic uphill portions make it enough of a workout that it dissuades the vast majority of Sugarbush skiers from attempting it. But that just means the snow will be that much more untouched in comparison to the rest of the resort, so for Adam and me it’s a no-brainer. We came to Sugarbush on this early January morning in search of good snow. It had been, and would continue to be for another month or so, a disappointing ski season for the vast majority of the Northeast, and we just wanted some soft turns to ring in the new year. The Mad River Valley had gotten about a foot of fresh snow four days earlier and we wanted the leftovers. Ski enough icy groomers during the early season, and busting a healthy sweat in search of natural snow becomes a double bonus – cardio and freshies. We spilled out of the hiking trail just above the not-yet-open-this-season Castlerock double chair, clicked into our skis, and charged down Castlerock Run. We dodged exposed rocks, glare ice patches, and the occasional stump but we found our soft snow, still fluffy and natural, not at all like the granular grit of the manmade variety. It was heavy and well-bumped up from a few days of Sugarbush regulars who had also hiked over and taken advantage of the resort’s laissez faire trail policies, but it fell from the sky and we were thankful to be skiing on it. So what if every other turn did audible damage to the edges of my new-ish Black Crowes? Who cared if every exposed rock I straightlined over carved out its own little sliver of base material? “Tools not jewels!” I hollered at Adam as we barreled down the hill, half out of devil-may-care braggadocio and half trying to convince myself that it was okay to be treating my new babies so rough. What better way to break in a new pair of skis than to sacrifice some P-Tex to Ullr on a run you’ve had to hike for? Gotta get rid of that new gear anxiety somehow. And Sugarbush had the right combination of terrain, conditions, and rope-dropping threshold to make it worthwhile.
“Sugarbush open” is its own category of trail condition. Different ski areas have different parameters for which ski patrol will consider opening terrain to the public, and Sugarbush is one of a small family of Northeast mountains that will open trails if just the slightest possibility of navigating down on snow exists. “Damn the rocks!” should be on the resort’s marketing materials. Management knows that a certain kind of skier prefers Sugarbush and it trusts its clientele to make adult decisions about where to ski without being condescended to by ropes and lowest-common-denominator skiability math. Like its Mad River neighbor or Jay Peak or Magic Mountain, patrol will open terrain if it’s somehow navigable, and it’s up to you to decide what your conditions tolerance level is. Not many ski areas will declare a pod filled in enough to open the trails, but also determine that there’s not enough snow to make it worth opening a chair to that section. It’s a fine operational distinction to make, but a smart one that recognizes what a significant portion of its customer base demands. Marginal yet open terrain is one of the most distinguishing characteristics of a day at Sugarbush, and Adam and I are happy to find that our exertions over to Castlerock have been completely worth it. We bounce down fresh moguls, scrape the occasional ice patch, and piston across traverses peppered with potentially knee-wrecking water bars, with smiles on our faces, and drenched from sweat. Back at the bottom, we meet up with John Bleh, Sugarbush’s Public Relations Manager. We take a few runs together, glad to have the guidance in these early-season conditions. Sugarbush has a very loyal, very opinionated customer base, and I’m curious to find out how they’re responding to last summer’s news that Alterra had bought out the Smith family and that the ski area would become one of the still-new company’s most important East Coast properties. Sugarbush is the sort of destination resort whose inclusion on a multi-mountain pass can be a deciding factor in purchasing the Ikon for a lot of skiers and riders who might otherwise opt for Epic, or for staying put at their home mountain. As such, it’s a key part of Alterra’s plans to compete with Vail Resorts in the Northeast – and for this Ikon passholder, it’s at the core of what makes the Ikon Pass more attractive to me than the other options.
So I ask Bleh later how their inclusion on Ikon has affected their clientele. “Visitation is definitely up,” he tells me. “We first noticed it last year when we partnered with Ikon. I’d say to some extent it’s a different type of skier. They might be a little more intermediate than our typical passholder.” As with any change in an industry where parents bring their kids to share the same experiences they’ve shared with their own parents, there has been a certain amount of apprehension among regulars about the sale of one of Vermont’s most beloved independently-owned mountain resorts. When I first visited Sugarbush in 2015, I had a conversation with a local Sugarbush die-hard who swore that the resort would never sell to another conglomerate. “The customers here are too loyal and too vocal, and the Smith family understands their customers,” he told me. Well, he was right about the customer loyalty and the kismet between the owners and the customers at Sugarbush, but the realities of an industry in the midst of a flurry of acquisitions have forced the hand of a lot of owners who prided themselves on their go-it-alone approach. The Mueller family, who owned Okemo, Sunapee, and Crested Butte, also loved what they did and would have preferred not to sell, but an industry in upheaval, the inarguable realities of climate change, and the paradigm shift represented by the advent of large multi-mountain passes were enough to change their minds. The same is true for Win Smith and his family. “Eighteen years ago, my family and three others purchased Sugarbush from the American Skiing Company with the intention of restoring Sugarbush to what it was when founded by the Gadd, Murphy, and Estin families in 1958,” wrote Smith last year in an open letter to the Sugarbush community. “We have turned an unprofitable and deteriorating resort into one that is profitable and respected throughout the industry,” said Smith, who will continue to operate the resort under the new ownership for as long as the family deems necessary.
“Over the years of our ownership, we have turned down several offers to sell Sugarbush and have prided ourselves on being independently owned and operated,” Smith added. “However, recent events in the ski industry and the challenge of rising costs posed both by climate change and by doing business in Vermont have convinced me that a new owner is needed to ensure a sustainable future for Sugarbush.”
It’s always a big step into uncertainty when a proudly independent resort loses its independence, but Alterra has made not fixing what’s not broken a central part of their business model. Whereas Vail often reorganizes the staffs at the mountains they’ve acquired, which all too often has a palpable impact on the character and vibe of a place, Alterra has taken a more hands-off approach to its portfolio, choosing instead to keep in place many of the people who have made a ski area an attractive candidate for purchase in the first place. The real test, though, is how regulars have reacted. “So far it’s been quite positive,” says Bleh. “Because of the way we rolled out the announcement, it was very personal from Win, and we reached out to partners and had a deliberate rollout plan with partners and media.” That included a local town hall-style gathering, with Alterra CEO Rusty Gregory who flew from Colorado to meet with community members at the Sugarbush base lodge, and opening the announcement up for questions and concerns from locals. “It’s been very well received. People may consider it bittersweet but overall they understand the reasoning and are very supportive.” All of the conversations I’ve had with regulars on chair lifts and at the bar have been similar – a guarded optimism that things won’t change too much. That’s not to say there won’t be any changes. Some are in the works and will be announced soon, probably as early as this upcoming spring, and others have already been touted. In addition to upgrades to the snowmaking system, there are plans to renovate and add to the hotel at the base, including a new conference center. There’s talk of a new mid-mountain lodge at the top of the Gate House lift, according to Bleh. And best of all, he expects that Sugarbush access will be unlimited on the full Ikon Pass next year, providing a second Vermont resort for passholders to ski as much as they want.
I ask him about what sets Sugarbush apart from other resorts, and how Sugarbush skiers and riders differ from those elsewhere. “Generally speaking, and this definitely generally, I’d say the typical Sugarbush skier is a better skier than average,” says Bleh. “They’ve chosen to pass other ski areas on their way up here because they’ve fallen in love with the terrain, community, and vibe. It’s a very friendly and inclusive group.” What draws them? “There’s an adventure side to us with the terrain yet we have the amenities and terrain for families to enjoy themselves as well,” says Bleh. “It’s hard to emulate the Castlerock terrain anywhere else in the east outside of Mad River Glen. Great narrow steep bump runs. It’s such a cool feeling hiking over there or taking the lift. It’s just…quiet. You feel like you’re in your own world.”
And like I suspected, there is such a thing as “Sugarbush open.” Bleh confirms that their rope-dropping policy is directly related to their estimation of the skill level of the typical Sugarbush skier. “Knowing that our skiers tend to be on the more advanced side, we feel comfortable opening terrain as long as ski patrol deems it safe,” he says. “And yes, it’s typically earlier than a lot of other resorts. Our guests appreciate it.” We certainly do. Having a section of mountain that is set aside for skilled skiers and riders is as important as having a section for beginners. A place to get away from the crowds, test one’s skills, and find snow that hasn’t been chewed down to the icy bone is a huge plus, especially during a season that’s been as feast or famine as this one has. Castlerock is a unique place up near the top of a unique resort. And that’s not even including the bounty of sidecountry and backcountry options that are available to those who know where to go and – more importantly – how to get back. Knowing that Alterra has committed to keeping those elements in place that make Sugarbush special is reassuring, and it’s heartening to know that not much will change in the short term – other than the amount of time I’ll be able to ski the resort next season. Hike-to Castlerock laps are great, but repeated lift-accessed laps on a powder day are even better, and I can’t wait to return.