By Karen D. Lorentz
When Killington Basin Ski Area opened for skiing on Dec. 13, 1958, it was a momentous occasion that went largely unnoticed.
Founder Pres Smith attended a sub-zero “Access Road” ribbon-cutting ceremony at 10 a.m. along with various dignitaries, including Governor elect Robert Stafford, who cut the ribbon. On that same Saturday, the Rutland Daily Herald ran a picture of Suzanne Smith standing on skis under the Killington Basin Ski Area sign.
At the mountain, no fanfare took place that anyone could remember. Area co-founder Joe Sargent sold lift tickets in the converted chicken coop that served as an outdoor ticket office on weekends. Sue Smith thought that Pres was probably working on installing the Glades area Poma (now North Ridge area).
“It was probably a low-key day because we were still working to get the other lifts installed,” Smith said, a reference to the “Glades” Pomalift that had just arrived from France and the Model C novice Poma.
Two Pomalifts on Snowdon Mountain operated that day with two to three feet of snow on the seven trails and slopes. Records show that four stockholders signed the season passbook to obtain their day passes and $25.50 worth of tickets were sold Saturday, $67.50 total on Sunday.
Business was light that first week with no entries for lift receipts from Monday to Friday but restaurant revenues indicate that season passholders probably skied.
December and January saw minimal ski business due to the newness of the area and the low-keyed, low budget advertising and public relations. By the end of January, however, the Glades Poma and beginner area Model C Poma were operating, although not always smoothly.
There were many kinks to be worked out in lift operations in those days, and Smith still remembers running up the novice slope by the base lodge, hot dog in one hand, soda in the other, to scamper up a lift tower to unjam a lift hanger. “The hard part was swinging hand-over- hand, monkey-bar style down 50 feet of cable before climbing up over the bull wheel to get to the hangar,” Smith said of being part gymnast in the early days.
Washington’s Birthday saw the area “discovered,” and February posted $10,000 in lift revenues and showed potential for profitability. The last day of operation was April 16. With gross receipts of $42,847.67, the area lost $21,045.22 for its first fiscal year ending July 31, 1959, the only season under Smith (38 years at the helm) to lose money.
Shoestring start to Superstar
Contrast that shoestring start – four Pomalifts, no gondola or chairlift – with today’s Killington Resort and this year’s $25 million in upgrades this year. The only similarity is that the 60th anniversary passed with skiing as usual – no big doings.
However, on Dec. 8, 2018, the resort did debut the new Snowdon Six Express bubble with champagne and bubbles for kids at a ribbon cutting. The popular K-1 Express Gondola was upgraded with new cabins and a new barn to store those cabins. The former Snowdon Quad was relocated to South Ridge to reinvigorate that area, which had been lift-less since 2011. Along with RFID ticketing, these were just some of the improvements for the new season.
So how did the fledgling area with its shoestring start become the East’s largest and most successful ski resort? At Killington there was a commitment to find “a better way.” An innovative “can-do” attitude came from Smith and can be seen in the addition of snowmaking in 1963.
“When I first started out, I used to say this is a great snow area, we’ll never run short. But I soon found there were periodic times that natural snow wasn’t enough and I called in a firm to design a snowmaking system. The idea was that if it didn’t snow, we could have skiing for people,” Smith explained of having listened to Fred Pabst at Bromley and the Slutzky brothers at Hunter Mt. (New York) extol the virtues of making snow.
But when Snowshed’s expensive Larchmont system was turned on, the miscalculated water pressure blew up the aluminum pipes. When the firm’s engineer arrived to get the system working, he froze all the pipes.
Smith dismissed him.
From that point on, Killington would hire its own engineers and design its own snowmaking systems. An R&D approach was necessitated by not wanting to have to fix the problems that others created and by a desire to be able to deal with snowmaking, lift, or other technical problems efficiently and quickly.
At the time, however, snowmaking was thought to be something for banana-belt areas, not for the high-altitude ski areas in the Green Mountains and many were skeptical.
Smith had many reasons though. “In order to maintain a large operation and continue to grow with confidence, we must replace flexibility with insurance.
“In other words, the question becomes who will pay our future payroll of perhaps 500 persons or who will patronize perhaps 100 commercial lodges and restaurants in the area if we have a poor snow year or a series of poor weekends?”
Proving the skeptics wrong, snowmaking enabled Killington to become the first Eastern ski area to bring November into the income account. Snowmaking helped the area recover from major thaws and helped extend the 1964-65 season to May 4 for a 160-day record in the Northeast! The installation of snowmaking in 1963 also enabled Killington to be the first area to commit to the longest ski season possible.
The R&D approach also fit in with a basic company objective to operate a financially successful company for the benefit of the employees and the stockholders. There was never any doubt that Smith was running a ski business, not just a ski area.
That meant operating efficiencies were just as important as creating delightful ski runs. An extensive R&D program was seen as an important tool to meet this objective.
Through the years this guiding principle proved to be a crucial element in the ski area’s growth and success. In turn, the profits generated by this approach were consistently poured back into the mountain to provide a better ski experience.
Smith’s entrepreneurial leadership, combined with an uncanny ability to predict where the ski business was going, allowed the area to be profitable when other operators were delighted just to make ends meet.
With all the stars aligned in the early 1960s, Killington was on a roll and continued to improve and expand, taking all ability levels and ages into consideration as plans were made, including finding a better way to teach never-evers to ski, which led Killington to participate in Ski magazine’s experimental program of using short skis to teach parallel skiing from Day One. This led to the pioneering development of GLM, the graduated length method, and its popularity and success spawned growth.
Snowmaking, ski reporting, ski instruction, lift engineering (the first gondola was a prototype made to Killington’s specifications), trail design, snow grooming, and even customer ticketing became important areas that contributed to the ski experience at Killington and to the entire ski industry.
Karen Lorentz is the author of “Killington, A Story of Mountains and Men.”