By Duncan W. Campbell
Editor’s Note: This article is part of a partnership in which Castleton University student journalists are teaming up with University of Vermont students to provide news stories for local papers. The program is funded by a grant through UVM.
They are 20-to 40-year-olds who live and breathe the winter sport that is synonymous with Killington and Vermont. The Alpine and cross-country enthusiasts, whether traveling 12 or 1,200 miles, only see them standing behind the counters when dropping off their expensive equipment.
Behind the scene, however, these apron-clad, flat-brimmed-hat wearing technicians work around the clock. They coat the damaged skis with charcoal plastic, scrape and grind the surface to a plane, sharpen and wax the edges and store each finished pair in freestanding wooden racks until the customers return to pick them up and carve down the frosted runs.
But this is not your ordinary customer service. The technicians groove to the laid back atmosphere of the Gen-Xers’ repair shops. They throw friendly banter to the customers over a mutual passion, helping make the long haul worthwhile. Their shops vary in ambience; one features a sticker-laden countertop and a sign that reads, “Days Since Holiday in Cambodia Played,” with a zero etched in red sharpie; another shop is plainer.
Some utilize a Wintersteiger, a lime-green automated machine that resembles a massive 3-D printer, which grinds several different patterns at the push of the button. Others prefer to be more hands on, turning their practice into an art form. Some workers are hidden in corners intermingled with the white and gray walls of Snowshed Lodge, vibrating from the marching of polyurethane boots on the food court floor above. Others are based in shops on Killington Road or just beyond. All provide a valuable service to the tens of thousands of people who trek to central Vermont.
The ski tuners at Killington offer a friendly and relaxed yet efficient service for a growing number of patrons. Their service and attitude makes maintaining equipment interpersonal in a fast-paced, often faceless atmosphere.
Potter Brothers, located in Showshed, is the epitome of this service. Tattooed tuners and boot fitters label your equipment, start friendly conversations, and have skiers back on the mountain in no time.
“We’re right on snow, kind of like the NASCAR of skis,” Chris Montag, one of the tuners, said. “You can be here for a few minutes and right back out on the snow.”
Potter Brothers, a 75-year-old family operation, has been on the mountain for about six years. They have other shops at Bromley Mountain, Jiminy Peak and the Catskills.
The shop isn’t affiliated with Killington but leases the space. A lot of the employees came from the former tenant, Great Outdoors.
“We bring our own employees in, and don’t have some of the resources, rolling through H.R. and having hundreds of people to choose from. But we certainly have a tight crew with everybody being fairly local,” said Manager John Hobbes.
The tuners revolve around the sport and the season. Matt Sonntag, a ski mechanic at Basin Sports, grew up ski racing and wanted to stay involved in the sport after school. Because of his passion for skiing, he said the mundane concept of work doesn’t enter his mind when he’s on the job.
“It’s a lifestyle,” Sonntag said.
Peter Butler, another ski mechanic at Basin Sports, has the lifestyle in his blood as well. Butler grew up in nearby Bridgewater, started skiing at Killington in the ‘80s and got his first job at First Stop Ski Shop. He has been fixing skis for Basin Sports for 14 years.
“The ski mechanic life chose me, I didn’t choose it,” Butler said.
Butler considered the psychology of his position as a way to provide the skiers safe equipment and to guide them to the enjoyment of the mountain.
“People come to us the same way a sheep comes to his shepherd, looking for security. Looking to be led to the green grass up on the meadows of the mountain,” Butler said.
Some tuners, like Shawn Phelps, owner of Skiology, cater their craft to custom precision tuning. He explained he tries to talk to the customers before he takes their skis, and analyzes each ski to see what it needs. This focus has helped him gain a following, especially with the racers.
“You have to know your customer and what they like,” Phelps said.
A lot of the tuners are native Vermonters, while others have lived in the Green Mountain State long enough to be considered locals. Montag is originally from the D.C. area, but has been a local for 12 years. Hobbes said he’s originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, but has lived in the area for over 30 years.
“We’re concierge through this whole deal, you know,” Montag said. “Even though I wasn’t born and raised here, I’ve been here long enough to be a local. I navigate the area.”
The tuners at Potter Brothers are there for a full day, from before the lifts open to after the rush of skiers passes. The Basin Sports guys have day and evening shifts. Being on the mountain, the tuners usually use their off days to hit the slopes, as they receive steep discounts on passes.
“If I’m not skiing, I’m not really doing my job as a ski mechanic,” Sonntag said.
Montag added that the access to the mountain is one of the great perks of his job, as it allows him to better guide customers about the ins and outs of Killington.
“I just experience them every day. Hey, what are conditions like? Well, I’m gonna tell you ‘cause I know them,” Montag said.
Their work gives the tuners another advantage: the ability to put their practice into action when they have a broken piece of equipment on the side of the mountain. This comes in handy for both Sonntag and Butler when they go backcountry skiing.
“You fix it, or you’re looking at $5 to $1,000,” Sonntag said.
As with other establishments on the route heading up to Killington, Potter Brothers has a lot of mutual support with area businesses, especially the ski shops. Hobbes explained that when Potter Brothers doesn’t have a particular part, they direct customers to another shop down the road. Despite the notion that they’re helping competition, the practice is universal.
“It helps foster those relationships, and similarly, when they are in scenarios like that, they send people to us,” Hobbes said.
Sonntag and Butler relayed this connection. They said fellow ski mechanics get together and discuss their lives and experiences.
The guys will tune equipment until the beginning of May. When winter and spring give way to summer, the space that Potter Brothers occupies converts into a bike shop for Killington’s summer activities.
The tuners pack their stuff up and work other jobs. Hobbes works as a plumber, Butler an arborist, and Sonntag dabbles in farming and logging.
“In Vermont, you generally have to wear a lot of different professional hats for the seasonal nature of employment in this state,” Butler said.