By Karen D. Lorentz
Ski areas in central Vermont have long been at the forefront of ski industry innovation and technology, from pioneering ski lifts to making snow.
From building the nation’s first rope tow in Woodstock in 1934 to installing the first T-Bar at Pico in 1940, to the world’s first four-passenger gondola at Killington (1970) to North America’s first six-passenger bubble chairlift with heated seats at Okemo (2014), innovation has reigned in central Vermont.
As befitting areas that have utilized the latest technology, Killington and Okemo are the top two ranking resorts in the East as measured by annual skier visits.
This is due to a diversity of experiences —from ski schools to children’s programs, accommodations to dining — but most significantly to their commitments to providing reliable snow surfaces and expansive terrain.
However, this season — when warm weather delayed ski-area openings with just 12 percent of the state’s terrain open for Christmas and later some rain insulted the trails that were open due to snowmaking — the story is that good snow conditions, including powder and packed powder, are now available despite Mother Nature’s stinginess with snowstorms and cold temperatures early on.
Recent returns to cold temps meant snowmakers went to work overtime and more trails were opened so the most diverse skiing and riding on a total of 1,130 skiable acres was available at Killington, Pico, and Okemo by Feb. 13 for Presidents week. And anyone who purchases a three-or-more day lift ticket at Killington or Okemo can use it one day at one of the other areas. That makes for additional excitement in central Vermont — another reason that these areas boast a third or more of the annual visits to the state.
Tops in diversity of terrain
From ¾-mile long learning trails to the steepest mogul hill in the East, Killington offers the greatest diversity of terrain to be found and also the longest ski season in the East.
With 1,509 acres of skiable terrain and another 468 at Pico (skiable on a K ticket or pass), guests have access to 1,977 skiable acres when the snow falls to complement their guns of winter. Killington provides 73 miles of trails and another 19 miles at Pico adds up to 92 miles — like skiing from Rutland to Albany, NY.
There are 212 total trails — check the latest condition reports for what is actually open when you read this as Killington had 93 trails as of Feb. 13 and Pico had 18 trails for a total of 610 acres of skiable terrain. In addition, there were 89 features in the five terrain parks, including 25 in the Burton Stash.
With four distinct skiing areas — South Face, Main Mountain, Solitude, and Jackson Gore areas — Okemo also offers a wide variety of terrain. As of Feb. 13, Okemo had 89 trails (out of 116) and 524 acres (of 667) of terrain open. A total of 68 features in 7 terrain parks were available, providing elements for various ability levels from beginners to experts. Director of Public Relations Bonnie MacPherson noted that Okemo has the only superpipe — a 500-feet long halfpipe with 18-foot high walls — open in the East.
Technology rules in 2016
Simply put, technology is making the diversity of the ski and ride experience in central Vermont without equal this year — it’s happening despite what many are calling the craziest winter ever seen. (The 2011-12 season saw major dumps hold off until Valentine’s Day but the weather was colder earlier so not quite as challenging overall.)
In that regard, snowmaking technology is the 2016 name of the game. Killington and Okemo resorts have been ahead of the pack with snowmaking, having invested in snowmaking starting in the 1960s — long before most other areas did.
They remain ahead of the curve with both the size of their snowmaking systems and their use of technology — their arsenals have been upgraded to the tune of millions invested in high-efficiency snowguns, thus reducing energy usage and costs. They also utilize energy-efficient air compressors and high-tech groomers which comb the slopes nightly to refresh snow surfaces.
Killington boasts 1700 tower, fan, and ground guns and the largest and most diverse system in the East, capable of covering 600 acres and more miles of trails than other areas have total miles of trails. As of Feb. 13, 42 miles of trails were open at Killington.
Okemo has 1125 HKD tower guns plus an assortment of fan and ground guns. The area utilizes a 155-million gallon water storage pond with the pumping capacity of 7,000-9,000 gallons/minute. Over 300 million gallons of water had been used to Feb. 12 and snowmaking and resurfacing were expected to continue into March, noted MacPherson. She added that March is traditionally the snowiest month (for natural snowfall) and that Okemo plans to be open into April once again.
Technology, creature comfort, and sustainability
One of the ways in which these areas attract experienced and new skiers and riders is through the comfort provided by new lift technology, from higher-capacity, highspeed lifts which mean shorter lift waits to the enclosed cabins that keep guests warmer to carpet conveyor surface lifts that make learning easy.
Killington boasts two gondolas — the eight-passenger K-1 up Killington Peak, the highest point reached by a aerial lift in Vermont — and the two-stage eight-passenger Skyeship among its 22 lifts (another seven at Pico).
Okemo’s Sunburst Six with heated seats proves its worth in Artic cold snaps. New this year, the Quantum Four at Jackson Gore also features a bubble for wind and weather protection.
Commenting on the newest lifts, Diane Mueller, Okemo’s executive vice president, notes, “The focus has changed to creature comforts unknown when we were kids.”
Okemo introduced RFID lift ticketing this year, increasing customer convenience and comfort. Once a first ticket purchase is made (now a scannable RFID card which can reside in a pocket and be read without taking it out), it can be reloaded online for more days. It also can be loaded with cash, which can be used at the retail shops and restaurants and cafeterias, reducing the need for a wallet.
New technologies are also being used to power lifts and buildings as well as to save water and money.
“Killington has grown its purchase of Cow Power to power the K-1 Gondola to 1,000,000 kWh to power the K-1 and the Peak Lodge year-round. In Cow Power, Killington saw a chance to support local farmers and improve sustainability, and the resort has been very pleased with the result,” commented Communications Manager Michael Joseph.
The grey water system [treated/recycled waste water in restrooms] and Freeaire refrigeration [cold outside air used for refrigeration] are also about environmental efficiency, Joseph added.
“We also source sustainability ideas from our guests through a program called Protect Your Playground. The charging stations for electric vehicles at the Killington Grand Hotel were due to a guest suggestion,” he noted.
These are just some of the many ways that these resorts utilize technology and remain innovatively “ahead of the pack.” If history repeats with March being the snowiest month, we can look forward to their traditional great spring seasons thanks to those snowmaking bases and the utilization of advanced technology.