Work being done at Mt. Ascutney to cater to an up-and-coming generation of skiers. Local hill to offer free skiing, become “feeder” area
By Karen D. Lorentz
In 2010 the former Mount Ascutney Resort shut its doors feeling the effects of the economic downturn and the less than stellar snow seasons.
But thanks to people who believe in the importance of outdoor recreation and the hard work of an entire community, Mount Ascutney will once again hear the sounds of schussing and schussers as it returns to life this winter.
However, there will be a major difference — the area will serve mainly as a recreational resource and not aspire to the “resort” status of its former owners.
This return to its roots is good news for the ski industry, which is undergoing the major demographic challenge of baby boomers, who fueled the sport, dropping out. As a “feeder” area, Ascutney will play an important role in spawning lifelong snow aficionados by catering to youngsters and families who can catch the snow bug on the area’s slopes.
Currently, with its Act 250 permit received this November, plans are to reopen for Alpine snow sports as soon as conditions permit — hopefully for the December holiday week.
Those plans depend upon the raising the remaining $30,000 (as of Nov. 20) that is needed in order for the Trust for Public Land (TPL), a national nonprofit with a mission to provide public recreation centers in U.S. communities, to acquire the land. If successful, TPL will purchase 469 acres for $640,000 from MFW Associates, the current landowner. That includes 29 acres of former ski trails.
TPL will then transfer the land to the town of West Windsor with conservation easements in place as the acreage would be part of the West Windsor Town Forest, upping its total acreage to over 1,500 acres.
Community process working well
Last June the West Windsor Select Board gave its approval to a committee wanting to reopen the former Mt. Ascutney Mountain Ski Resort as a nonprofit ski hill. The eight-member committee formed a nonprofit called Mt. Ascutney Outdoors (MAO) with the mission “to manage and protect the recreational, educational, and environmental assets of the West Windsor Town Forest,” explained Laura Farrell, a member of the MAO group.
Glenn Seward originally proposed and got the project started for affordable recreation of different types.
“He got the ball rolling, but it’s been a true community-effort since,” Farrell noted. “It’s very organized with committees, and we had 70 people turn out for a work day,” she said, saying there are too many involved in the project to hazard a guess at the numbers of volunteers doing different things.
Part of the group’s goal was to acquire the adjacent aforementioned ski trail acreage on Mt. Ascutney so that Alpine skiing could be part of the outdoor mix of mountain biking, hiking, cross-country, and horseback riding trails along with backcountry skiing, snowshoeing, and fat tire winter biking, Farrell said.
Fundraising to acquire the land has netted financial help from the Upper Valley Land Trust, private donations, and TPL.
“Now we are starting to ask for donations to support MAO, which will be responsible for the development, management, and financing of the recreational opportunities offered,” Farrell noted.
Free! Winter 2015-16
The local ski hill and rope tow, which is now under construction, will be available at no charge to anyone who wants to enjoy the slopes.
“Volunteers are building the rope tow, and local businesses have donated a tremendous amount for this project. They donated the towers (telephone poles) and the trucking of the poles, and there’s all kinds of other donations like a compressor to drill into the ledge. A groomer was donated, too, along with its transportation,” she added.
“We are not making snow this year due to the expense, but we hope to eventually have a few trails with snowmaking on them.
“The rope tow will give access to three trails. People will also be allowed to hike to the existing other trails due to the conservation easements,” Farrrell said, explaining that this “backcountry” use is specifically permitted for ungroomed trail skiing. Volunteers have also done some brush cutting of those trails, she noted.
There are no plans for a formal instructional program this year, but Farrell expects there will be folks helping kids and families learn to ski or ride this season.
“We have a tent with benches and cubbies at the base of the rope tow with a patio heater outside where folks can get warm. There’s also an existing little building which we fixed up for a warming hut with an inside heater,” Farrell said.
A ski shop down the street will have rentals for those needing equipment. The rope tow will always be free, but there will be a charge for using the chairlift, which the group hopes to install for 2016-17.
Interestingly, the former resort got its beginnings from locals who wished to take advantage of the then new “ski craze” where people tramped around fields and pastures on skis and hiked to earn their turns on hills in the late 1930s.
Four tows and a lodge were added in 1947. Robert Ely and John Howland took over the operation in 1953 after poor snow years caused the area to go under. Eugene Ely, grandson of (the late) Robert Ely, is working on the revival project along with his sister Charlotte Macleay, who has also been very involved and helpful, Farrell noted.
A 1960s era dance/fundraiser will be held Dec. 12 at the West Windsor Town Hall from 7-9:30 p.m. It’s for all ages — retro ski attire requested — with local musicians Rick and Davey Davis playing, raffles, and refreshments provided by the local elementary school.
An Opening Celebration is planned for Feb. 6 at the ski area with a ceremony handing off the land to the future as well as a dedication and celebration for the Ely and Howland families who helped build the area Events will include fat tire mountain biking, snowshoeing, ski and boarding activities, capped off by an end-of-day campfire with s’mores, Farrell said.
Anyone wishing to assist in Mt. Ascutney’s revival (a trend recently seen in New Hampshire and Maine) and an addition to the roster of popular Vermont community areas like Northeast Slopes (two rope tows and T-Bar in East Corinth) and Hard’ack (a St. Albans rope tow area funded by donations), can donate to: Mt. Ascutney Outdoors, PO Box 101, Brownsville, VT 05037.