Adirondack Ski Areas Revived
Two areas with deep roots in Adirondack skiing—Big Tupper and Hickory—entered their second season of revival last January. As large ski resorts installed high-speed lifts and extensive networks of snowmaking, attrition hit the small areas first, then spread to mid-sized areas. Big Tupper and Hickory held out for much longer than most but finally closed.
The two areas have much in common: a substantial vertical drop (1151 ft. at Big Tupper, 1230 ft. at Hickory; a strong base of enthusiastic volunteers; a history of support from their community and region, and low prices reminiscent of the 1960s. An adult day ticket at Big Tupper costs $15, at Hickory $45. Both opened after the holidays this season because they are dependent on natural snow. But beyond these parallels, each has a very different story to tell.
Nostalgia filled the lodge as Big Tupper opened in 2010 —after 10 years in the dark. The volunteers who man it are eager to see who will walk through the door next. Local people donate their time and money. One woman walked in, thrilled to see it open, and gave $100 to help sustain it.
Ginny Frenette was there when Big Tupper first opened in 1961. “It was perfect—we had loads of snow and everybody was having a good time,” she remembers.” Frenette was director of the ski school then and also on the ski patrol. She still skis there, as do her 8 children and 7 of her 8 grandchildren (one lives in Hawaii.)
Back then the area was operated by the Town of Altamount and now by Tupper Lake. Its focus remains on family skiing for the community, although its terrain attracts skiers from throughout the Adirondacks. But if you are old enough to remember what ski areas were like in the 1960s, you’ll feel right at home. As one of us was standing near a group of local people at the top of a run, they began introducing themselves. Outsiders are welcome indeed.
Volunteers run Big Tupper, organized by Kate Bencze. Kitty Villeneuve was on the ski patrol in the 1960s and now heads up the ski school. Bill Mozdzier, called “blade man” when he directed grooming at Sugarbush for more than two decades, is in charge of Mountain Operations. He has three groomers this year and two snow cats, refurbished by Zack White, the General Manager. Cliff Levers is in charge of Lift Operations. With tons of local incentive and a network of friends, volunteerism works. Bill commented, “Every day here is a happy day.”
Doug Dew, the Administrator, is one who remembers the emotional side of being at Big Tupper. He was interviewed by Brian Mann on North Country Public Radio who asked “Why do you do this?” Doug replied with tears in his eyes, “To ski with my five-year-old nephew and my 74 year-old father.”
The massive task of reviving an area closed for a decade would not have happened without leadership. Jim LaValley, chairman of ARISE (Adirondack Residents Intent on Saving Their Economy), provided the impetus to open Big Tupper last season. If the proposed major resort and second home development is approved, the adjacent ski area will be a winter keystone. Whether or not that happens, the core group wants to keep Big Tupper affordable for local residents, and at $15 a day that works.
Big Tupper is very much a work in progress, bringing more of the original trails and lifts into action. When it opened last year it had one chairlift running, 700 feet of vertical drop, and 13 trails open. This year it has the full vertical drop of 1151 vertical feet, two chairlifts running, and 20 trails open, many of them for intermediates and some for beginners and experts. Jim Richards, a retired electrical engineer, supervised the electrical work, taking parts from some of the lifts to make others operable. Now Chair #3 and Chair #2 area both running, with Chair #1 yet to be restored.
Because natural snow was late, January 16, 2011 was the first skiing day this year. At 8:00 a.m. the call went out by radio, word of mouth and the internet. You can visit bigtupper.org to get the latest on skiing for the next day. The area is open Friday, Saturday and Sunday and holiday weeks.
Hickory Ski Center
Hickory also has a family following, but in a very different context. Nostalgia flourishes here too, among people who had chosen this very steep mountain as their ski home. After a lapse of five years, Hickory reopened last season to the delight of families who had grown up learning to ski and enjoy the steeps at the summit.
In the lodge we overheard “He’s over 80 and still skiing the top of Hickory.” One of Allan Dean’s daughters was admiring her father’s ability and courage. The four Dean daughters have been skiing at Hickory since the 1960s. They love the family oriented atmosphere and now all of the grandchildren ski there. They enjoy gathering by the round fireplace to meet people they have known forever.
Sherm and Dot Dawson have skied there since the 1970s with their growing children and also claimed Hickory as a great family area. People watch each others kids anywhere on the mountain. Dot told us that the area offers any level of skiing in the lower slopes but can be challenging farther up, especially toward the steep summit–which the grandkids took in stride. They like the wild natural moguls on the black diamond trails.
However, you can ski down from the summit on one more moderate blue trail that has smaller moguls and great views, the Ridge—if you can survive a long, fast and bumpy ride up the pomalift. But intermediate skiers accustomed to soft rides up chairlifts should be wary: “It’s no accident that the top is for experts only. Riding the pomalift up the steeps requires experience, strength, balance and agility.”
The brochure proclaims, “When mother nature dumps white gold, you can always find ungroomed new powder. There is lots of room for freeheelers to go glade skiing and find undisturbed back country challenges.” And an ad entitled “Ski the Legend” reinforces the image of a very tough mountain, with a young man praying “OMG please make me good enough to ski it from the top.”
Clearly, Hickory courts its legend as having “some of the most extreme terrain in the East, 5-7 foot outcroppings, steeps, headwalls, boulders, more steeps, bumps, stumps, logs, rocks—just about any obstacle mother nature can dish out, all situated on narrow and intimidating steeps (there’s that word again) and covered by natural powder. . .”
That’s not surprising since the founders, trained at Camp Hale, were ski troopers. In 1943 two couples, Fran and Hans Winbauer and Ken and Flo Bates eagerly make plans to open a ski area. After World War II ended they searched and found the perfect place: the Three Sisters overlooking the Schroon and Hudson Rivers in Warrensburg. They bought the property in 1946 and worked hard to get the area ready, using a team of horses.
The first run was in front of the old farmhouse, the “Honeyrun.” The rope tow was where Poma 1 runs now. The lift was powered by a Packard that was started and ran all day. Lift tickets were $2 for the day, snow fell, skiers came again and again—Hickory was a success! A second tow was added, powered by a Cadillac.
Shawn Dempsey learned to ski at Hickory when he was three years old. His father was president of the ski area in the 1940s and now he is the manager. A former groomer at Deer Valley, he now has a Bombradier 350 winch cat to deal with the tough terrain at Hickory. A bumper sticker on his truck claims, “Mad River Glen, Ski it if you can’t ski Hickory!”
But Dempsey points out that Hickory provides more than steeps, with a comprehensive ski school, a new terrain park established last season, and yet another powerful niche in the ski world: telemarking. It has become a center for this classic Norwegian style of skiing, with lessons and special events. Telefest 2011 on Saturday, February 12 includes a”tour de trees,” clinics, gear demos, a skin challenge, Tele party and dinner.
A day pass at Hickory coats $45 for adults, $30-35 for juniors depending on age. Although other areas are charging for seniors Hickory still entices 70 plus skiers with free skiing. And those in the 65-70 range pay the same reduced rate as children 7-12.
A newly refurbished lodge retains the classic circular fireplace for conversation with friends. When you’re ready for lunch or a snack, head for Chris Lambeth’s cafeteria. You may know Chris as the owner and chef of the Grist Mill on River Road in Warrensburg.