The lost resorts

New England's small ski areas are a breath of fresh air after the busy western slopes, says Stephen Wood

Seven miles north of the small town of Brattleboro, in south-western Vermont, lies the Maple Valley ski area. It announces itself first with a roadside notice reading "South chair lift 4,000ft long"; then there is a big wooden sign - with three maple leaves - which heralds "Sugar Mt Maple Valley Ski Resort".

Seven miles north of the small town of Brattleboro, in south-western Vermont, lies the Maple Valley ski area. It announces itself first with a roadside notice reading "South chair lift 4,000ft long"; then there is a big wooden sign - with three maple leaves - which heralds "Sugar Mt Maple Valley Ski Resort".

Anyone driving through would be puzzled by the next message: "Hair lift long". Unfortunately, half the noticeboard has disappeared, taking with it the vital statistic of the north chair lift...

That is not the only thing that has disappeared from Maple Valley. The two, two-seater chairs remain, in a line running up towards the trees of Sugar Mountain; but they hang limply from the cables above a rough pasture on which the brush stands several feet tall in some places. There are no skiers, not much snow - even at the very end of December - and little evidence that Maple Valley is, or ever was, a "resort".

Chair number 48 of the north lift seems poised to commence its ascent of the slopes. But it has been frozen in that position for almost five years. After several seasons of sporadic operation, Maple Valley closed in 2000. When the ignition was cut on the big combustion engine that provided power to the north lift, the silence must have been deafening.

According to the USA's National Ski Areas Association something of a sea change is taking place in the US ski business. The country currently has 494 ski areas, it says; 20 years ago there were 727. But the decline of the country's small ski areas - which, unsurprisingly, accounted for the great bulk of the closures - is now being arrested because of their "lower prices, family-friendliness and convenient locations", the association reports. Its president, Michael Berry, told The New York Times last month that "a lot of young people are taking up the sport so places closer to towns are doing better than they have in years".

If the new trend is indeed towards small-resort skiing then I can claim to be in its vanguard. I read Berry's comment on my return from a trip to New England's small ski areas, in particular those of Vermont.

For most British skiers, New England skiing seems slightly pointless. Why fly all the way to the USA and then get off on the East Coast, when a couple more hours travelling will take you to the Rockies? The choice between big, western resorts with soft snow and small, eastern ski areas where conditions are unpredictable and challenging is, for most Britons, no choice at all.

Once, I shared that view. Not now. Apart from the geographically marginal Steamboat, Telluride and Crested Butte, Colorado's ski resorts are mostly over-developed, crowded and highly commercialised, and their skiing - on wide, heavily groomed trails - tends towards the bland.

There's no denying that the western climate is gentler than back east, and that the skiing is bigger in every respect. But the high-speed lifts, "fine dining" and shopping, and the sheer intensity of the experience turn skiing into a near-industrial activity. The Vermont alternative is less saturated: you take rough snow with the smooth, ski among a few friendly people rather than in a hostile-seeming crowd, and explore several "hills" rather than just falling into the comfortable embrace of a resort.

WHERE TO START?

Not at Killington, Vermont's largest ski area (31 lifts and over 1,000 acres of trails), but the rather patrician village of Stowe, whose old-school skiing - the original trails were cut in the 1930s - is five miles up the road. Stowe (12 lifts, 480 acres) lies on one side of the state's highest mountain, Mount Mansfield; on the other is Smugglers' Notch, whose specialism is offering everything family skiers could want but whose skiing (eight lifts, 1,000 acres) is pure, picturesque Vermont-style, with narrow trails winding through the trees.

WHERE NEXT?

Mad River Glen, a co-operatively owned ski area whose many oddities - very limited grooming and snow-making, a ban on snowboarding, a single-seat chair-lift - all reflect its founding principle "to maintain the unique character of the area for present and future generations". A small ski hill (four lifts, 115 acres - but an average snowfall of 350 inches) with few facilities, Mad River Glen revels in its maverick status; but the maintenance of a sense of humour also seems to be a guiding principle. Its slogan is the challenging (and misleading) "Ski it if you can"; a sign in the ski-rental shop replies, "If you can't ski it, take a lesson".

WHERE TO END UP?

This really depends on how long you've got: there are a couple of dozen places to ski in Vermont, varying from the venerable Suicide Six (established 1934) to the high-powered Okemo, with just a few really local hills in between. There used to be many more, including four at Brattleboro alone. The noted upswing in small ski-area business has come too late to save most of the 99 defunct Vermont ski areas listed at the New England Lost Ski Areas Project website, www.nelsap.org. But one or two, it seems, will be resuscitated. Possibly even Maple Valley.

The website is the work of Jeremy Davis, an engaging and enthusiastic 27-year-old from Massachusetts. His site "celebrates" 555 lost ski areas in New England: "It preserves these areas as reality erases them," Davis explains. He suggested the heritage trail across south-west Vermont which I took last month on my way to ski at Magic and Stratton mountains. After Maple Valley - still essentially intact - I headed west to the former Hogback area (which existed from 1946 to 1986), which has a great location, one rusted-up lift and a sign describing it as "Lot 35" (presumably it didn't sell). Further along route 9 is Prospect Mountain, which remains in good shape although the lifts closed a decade ago: "I think all the trails are still being mowed," reports a former ski instructor there to Davis's website, which contains a wealth of such anecdotal material.

I asked Davis about the factors which cause a ski area to fail. He listed variable weather, economic factors (primarily, the cost of snowmaking, grooming and high-speed lifts) and location. Poor snow in the 1950s and the late 1970s were fatal to many areas, he says; now, snowmaking and grooming provide lines of defence, but the technology is excessively expensive for small areas. (In the early 1990s, when the recent cull began, snowmaking cost $25,000 per acre to install.) A location near a big resort can be crippling; close to a city is the place to be.

On a clear day, the three ski areas north-west of the city of Manchester - Magic and Stratton mountains and Bromley - are close enough to be visible to one another. But the first two provide a dramatic, and rather troubling, contrast. (I drove past Bromley, but didn't ski it.) Magic Mountain became a lost ski area in 1989, and only reopened in 1997, having been bought by a real-estate broker. It has some very enjoyable skiing, on challengingly narrow and steep trails; but only one of the two chairlifts was operating, and only half the 108 acres of trails were skiable (not including the bulk of the tough stuff). Staff and resources seemed stretched, and skiers were very thin on the ground, even though this was 29 December. At midday there were only 79 cars in the car park.

"You're going to Stratton? Good luck: you'll need it if you're going to find somewhere to park ," said Gary Aichholz, general manager of Magic Mountain, and he wasn't kidding: all the parking areas at Stratton were full.

Stratton (14 lifts, 583 acres) is owned by Canada's amply funded Intrawest corporation; and with its members' club (signing-on fee: $49,000), VIP instructor programme ($8,900 per season) and dedicated, 162-page glossy magazine (free and full of advertisements for $1m homes), it is the showy antithesis of Vermont skiing. The resort was doing stellar business. There wasn't much room to ski on them, but the slopes were as wide as a freeway and beautifully groomed.

Between Magic, Stratton and Bromley was another ski area, Snow Valley, which opened in 1938. It closed in 1984 according to its new owner, Chris Franco. A former corporate lawyer who grew up skiing at Bromley and Stratton, Franco bought the 450-acre site last summer for "several million dollars" with the intention of building a home for his family there and developing a number of other houses. But he saw Jeremy Davis's website and was inspired: "The site played an important part in making us want to rehabilitate the ski area," he says. Now Franco plans to open an upmarket inn and restaurant at the base; and the skiing - with a single chair-lift and a T-bar - will re-open for the benefit of homeowners on the site and guests at the inn.

For Davis, the notion that his site might reduce the number of New England's lost ski areas is heady stuff. But with the rise of the small ski area, Snow Valley may not be the only one making a comeback. Got $2m to spare? That's the asking price for Maple Valley. You'll get the particulars from Granger Real Estate, of Newfane, Vermont, at www.vermont-home.com/ski.htm.

Stowe: 00 1 802 253 3000; www.stowe.com. Smugglers' Notch: 0800 169 8219; www.smuggs.com. Mad River Glenn: 00 1 802 496 3551; www.madriverglen.com. Magic Mountain: 00 1 802 824 5645; www.magicmtn.com. Stratton Mountain: 00 1 802 297 4000; www.stratton.com

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