Wildcat Mountain opens for 54th season
December 16, 2010
Call it a limited opening. Only the summit quad chair was running and only one route from the top was open: Upper Catapult to Middle Wildcat to Cheetah (Competition Slope). But a few hundred of us enjoyed the Cat's full 2,112 feet of vertical, the machine-made snow cover was excellent, and the view across the notch into Mount Washington's great ravines was mesmerizing as always.
The sun shone for much of the day and many of the Wildcat faithful flocked to their home hill to get out on skis for the first day of the new season. The Wildcat Ski School -- sporting snappy blue uniform parkas -- was out in force with three instructor-training clinics on the mountain.
The base lodge was abuzz as ski clubs regrouped for the new season, ski team members met with their coaches and ski buddies reconnected for the first time since spring.
There were many earnest -- that's being polite! -- conversations about the Cat's new ownership and the controversial policy changes that have negatively affected the lifetime pass holders and some of the Mount Washington Valley ski clubs that have been purchasing tickets at wholesale discounts for decades.
I listened with sympathy, of course. But while riding the lift and skiing the mountain, I mostly mused about what the new company represents and what it's likely to do with the Cat in the future.
Peak Resorts' acquisition of Wildcat boosts the holding company's portfolio of ski areas to an even dozen. Half are located in the Midwest: Missouri, Indiana and Ohio. Eastern holdings include two ski mountains in Pennsylvania plus Attitash and Crotched Mountain in New Hampshire and Vermont's Mount Snow.
Peak Resorts' four New England properties represent a cross-section of the eastern ski business, with Wildcat boasting the highest elevation, most vertical drop and most remote location. It also has an intangible spirit that's loved by the legions of Wildcat aficionados. Wildcat exudes the aura of a somewhat minimalist, laid-back culture -- a clientele that cares much more about first-rate skiing experiences than making fashion statements.
Will Peak Resorts transform Wildcat into another Mount Snow or Attitash, replete with their profusion of slopeside condos, hotels, housing, shops and associated amenities? No chance. Simply not possible.
That's because Peak Resorts doesn't own one square inch of Wildcat. The mountain is 100 percent owned by the U.S. Forest Service, with the ski area operating under a 40-year (indefinitely renewable) Special Use Permit. What Peak Resorts owns is a corporation whose principal asset is that Special Use Permit -- and zero land. The corporation's revenues are principally lift ticket sales.
The Forest Service won't sell any acreage to real estate developers and it won't allow this property to be used for any purpose other than a ski area, plain and simple. That means that a day-use base lodge is permitted, but a hotel is not. Pricey slopeside condos and trendy boutiques would be unthinkable.
Both Attitash and Mount Snow use National Forest Service property for lifts and trails, but they own their base areas and have sufficient acreage there to develop condos, hotels, housing, shops and a host of other amenities. These accouterments generate big revenues and this posh, up-market style of ski resort is evolving into the industry's dominant business model.
Long term, that's a profoundly troubling trend for a business like Wildcat, which relies on attracting day visitors for all its revenues.
And that's where I'm hopeful that Peak Resorts can preserve the Wildcat experience for future generations. By using its national marketing power plus Attitash's bed base and amenities, I believe that Peak Resorts can attract enough customers to keep Wildcat thriving into the New Millennium.
Plus there's the product angle. The company has owned Attitash since 2007, and it has already demonstrated its commitment to snowmaking and grooming there. Snowmaking and grooming have long been Wildcat weaknesses, so Peak Resorts can be expected to make big improvements in those key products.
I've been enjoying the Wildcat skiing experience since 1984 and I cherish the mountain's uniquely rewarding qualities. If that experience can be properly packaged and marketed to New England and beyond, I think Wildcat will flourish far into the future.
Scott Andrews is a snowsports journalist from Portland who frequently skis in the Mount Washington Valley. He earned an M.B.A. from the University of Chicago and writes about the ski industry for Ski Area Management magazine.