By Karen D. Lorentz
When Killington turned 63 on Dec. 13, it was eerily reminiscent of its opening day in 1958, a day without much fanfare. It had been a three-year struggle to get the ski area open — mostly because the state had to build the access road for skiers to get to the slopes and that effort had met with two years of delays.
But one thing wasn’t affected: the determination to build the ski area. And the desire to provide a great experience for all levels of skiers.
In fact, after a brief dedication of the access road at the corner of U.S. Route 4 with various dignitaries, founder Preston Leete Smith had retreated to the mountain to work on installing what was then known as the Glades Pomalift.
Setting the stage
Beginning in the early 1950s, Smith had been scouting for a small ski area to buy and found one when the commissioner of Dept. of Forests, Parks and Recreation, Perry H. Merrill, suggested that the 24-year-old take a look at an undeveloped mountain on state forestland “with good potential.”
Comparing snowfalls at Stowe and Mount Snow with snow at Killington that winter, and looking at the “practical considerations of lodging, elevation, weather, and transportation,” Smith began to realize just how good that potential was.
Smith returned to see Merrill and exclaimed, “Killington is fantastic, but how can I work out a deal with the state?”
“We’ll lease it to you,” Merrill had replied.
Excited that he had found a mountain with the “right stuff” — there were four mountain peaks alone in Killington Basin and five others nearby — Smith began to think about how he could create “a better ski area.” Having encountered long lift waits at Stowe, he envisioned having more uphill transportation and more skiing. As he got into a methodical review of all the potential at Killington, he became inspired by the challenge and a little daunted.
“I realized this was huge potential, and it all began to seem a little ambitious to me. Skiing would be 600 feet higher than the lift on Mansfield. Before I started, I realized that Killington would be bigger than Stowe if I made it. It was beginning to seem a bit awesome. But I had nothing to lose and everything to gain,” he told this writer in 1988.
Inspired by the mountain’s potential and believing in the intrinsic value of skiing, Smith set out to create a better ski experience. He combined his own passion for the sport with a business opportunity and embraced technology and innovation as ways to achieve the dream. He was able to attract a supportive group of investors and hire good workers, who, inspired by his vision and motivated by his work ethic, joined him in forming the Sherburne Corporation and building the East’s largest and (according to many) most successful ski resort.
Utilizing sound business practices, Smith, the board of directors, the management team, and Killington staff met the ongoing challenges of operating and expanding the ski area. This included facing the vagaries of weather, economy, and market trends — challenges which all too often put other ski areas out of business.
But due to the tools and technologies Killington employed — aggressive marketing, innovative research and development, astute management information systems, and keen financial controls among others — the ski area was successful and profitable. Most importantly, profits were poured back into the mountain, creating a better experience that snowballed into a bigger mountain as it expanded into both a winter and summer resort.
Passion, pioneering and perseverance
Although money was a challenge and Smith had to give up opening the area with a gondola to the summit, it did offer four surface lifts its first season and the Killington double chair reached the summit the second season.
With skiing still in its infancy, Smith saw the importance of providing gentle terrain for beginners. When he ordered Killington’s first -mile-long double chairlift for Snowshed in 1961, Smith received an incredulous call from the French manufacturer Jean Pomagalski. He had never before received an order for a chairlift to be built on such a flat hill. (It was a time when beginners learned on meadows or slopes using rope tows, Pomalifts, T-bars and J-bars.) The lift company naturally thought there had been a mistake with the slope specifications in Killington’s order.
“No,” Smith told him, there was no error, he just wanted to make it easier for people to learn the sport.
Creating a better experience by trying something new or different was not hindered by the fear of failure. Nor was any expenditure spared because something might not work. Instead, a bold research and development approach became a Killington trademark and helped to advance the sport of skiing. Many years later, Hank Lunde, an engineer who had been hired to complete the construction of the original four-passenger, 3- mile Killington Gondola, said that Killington tried things that other areas were either unable to do financially or could afford to do but chose not to participate due to the expense and risk of experimenting.
What was particularly significant is that Killington shared its advances to the benefit of the ski industry.
And not every innovation turned out quite the way it was expected. The South Ridge Triple with the hard corner in it was supposed to provide late season high elevation skiing for all levels of ability, with the turn enabling loading and unloading. The flaw turned out to allow no way for beginners to get back to the base of the area. (The chair was replaced by a quad several years ago, without the turn.) The purchase of land in Parker’s Gore for expansion of intermediate terrain didn’t work out as it met with stiff resistance from environmentalists, and the village envisioned in 1969 never got built.
One innovation that was outstanding for the area was the installation of snowmaking at a time when snow regularly blanketed Vermont. Killington had hired a company to install its first system on Snowshed, but when the water was turned on the pressure was so great that the system literally blew up, sending shards of aluminum flying. Smith fired the engineer and from that moment on, hired his own engineers who proceeded to develop snowguns and install snowmaking as they also worked with various manufacturers.
But snowmaking wasn’t relegated to the lower elevation Snowshed slopes and soon Snowdon and Killington mountain areas sported snowmaking, too. In 1980 after a disastrous no-snow season, Killington declared it would no long assume it would snow and would depend on snowmaking. That commitment has continued and has led to Killington having the greatest mileage of snowmaking trails in Vermont and the formation of a subsidiary that developed snowmaking systems for areas throughout the country.
Some of the advances Killington was able to make were in partnership with companies developing new technologies, and others were Killington developments, like business and marketing departments and the practice of closing the books on a weekly basis as well as weekly manager meetings. The pioneering Killington brochure, There is a World Only Skiers Know, was soon shared with the National Ski Areas Association, which adapted it for its members.
Following are a few more examples of other Killington innovations that have contributed to the enjoyment of skiing:
Expanding Snowshed with beginner trails and snowmaking installed on it in 1963.
Creating a longer ski season by opening earlier and skiing later, often from October to May or June.
Pioneering graduated length method (GLM). Ski Magazine asked several areas to try its new idea of teaching on graduated length skis. Only Killington took them up on the offer and developed skiing on three lengths of skis in the 1960s. This eventually led to the development of the area’s Accelerated Ski Method.
Grooming. Killington experimented with employing the new Power Tiller grooming implement in the late 1970s and was among the first to use it to improve snow surfaces. The development of the winch-cat snow-grooming machine was pioneered at Killington. It can groom steep slopes by being anchored.
Pushing others to create better technologies like the prototype Killington Gondola and later the Skyeship gondola.
Creating a better experience by offering more diverse terrain and spreading out its skiers. Rather than clustering trails on one mountain, slopes and trails were developed on four, and later six, contiguous peaks. With differing climates due to varying elevations and exposures, the ski area continues to offer one of the most diverse mountain experiences in the nation.
Adding trails like Outer Limits, which prior to its debut in 1980 was thought too steep to develop. The advances in grooming and snowmaking technologies that Killington participated in made it possible.
With the sale of Killington’s parent company to Les Ottens’ LBO/American Skiing company, Killington continued to improve, replacing the double Killington chair with the eight-passenger K-1 Gondola and continuing with other upgrades like the Ramshead Quad, more snowmaking, construction of the slopeside Grand Summit Hotel, and Perfect Turn ski lessons along with purchasing (and saving) nearby Pico Mountain.
With the 2008 sale to Powdr the improvements in lifts (the Bear Express Quad, Snowdon Six Express bubble chair, and South Ridge Quad) and snowmaking (more efficient and environmentally sound systems) continued at Killington and Pico along with refinements in instruction programs and base lodge facilities and the new Killington Peak Lodge.
Among the exciting changes was the addition of the Women’s Slalom and Giant Slalom World Cup events that began in 2016. The construction of the new K-1 Lodge will be yet another example of a visionary approach to what Killington offers: enhancing an already great mountain experience of snowmaking, lots of lifts, good grooming and diverse terrain with the excitement of witnessing world-class racing and the comfort and sybaritic pleasures of a modern base lodge.
At 63, Killington continues to be the Beast it’s always been, ever pushing to make improvements and provide creature comforts, while it offers the “better experience” its founders envisioned, making it truly the “Beast of the East.”