Local News

Pico Mountain: One of Vermont’s best-kept secrets enjoys renaissance as updated classic

By Karen D. Lorentz updated Wed, Jan 25, 2012 03:07 PM

Vermont’s third oldest ski area and one of the first thirty in North America, Pico is a mountain where a sense of community and the joy of snow sports prevail. Since its Nov. 27, 1937 debut, skiers of all ages have found Pico to be a fun and challenging mountain, one imbued with a sense of family commitment to skiing “as a way of life.”

Pico’s founders and owners led the mountain in this direction with the result that throughout Pico’s long history, volunteers got together and enjoyed pursuing their common passion as they patrolled the slopes, assisted injured skiers, taught kids to ski and race, and cheered them on every step of the way.

It was that participatory spirit that led to the founding of the Otter Ski Patrol, the nation’s oldest and longest continuing volunteer ski patrol still at Pico today!

The Ski Club and Ski Patrol engendered a mountain rapport and camaraderie that filtered through to all Pico programs, from ski school to special events, earning the area the moniker of “the friendly mountain” as well as a large, loyal following of locals and visitors alike.

Over the years, Pico grew, adding higher capacity triple and quad chairlifts, snowmaking, and a resort village. What differentiated the area is that as it grew, Pico retained its special character by remaining mid-sized and keeping many of its classic mountain traits like New England styled trails, including the Outpost area. Most importantly, its owners and loyal skiers remained committed to the mountain so while the U.S. saw its 1,000 plus ski areas decline to around 400 today, Pico is stands strong now in its 75th season!

Unique updated classic

So what does this mid-sized mountain have that keeps locals fervent and out-of-states coming back, and more people discovering it every year?

If you said big mountain skiing with a diversity of terrain, 1,967 feet of vertical, a base lodge with a working fireplace, and a truly friendly ambiance, you’re on the right track.

Pico is calm, cool and collected. It has a cozy charm to it and a relaxed feel. It’s conveniently located along a highway, yet offers out-of-this-world views from the trails and summit. Bottom line, it is a comfortable place that offers “something for everyone.”

That includes first timers – people who somehow missed its long existence or are just getting into skiing/riding. A New Hampshire mom I met on the chair enthused over her family’s having just “discovered this wonderful mountain! We never knew about it.” But word of the instructional programs had reached them and after checking out rates online, they decided “to give Pico a try. We are so glad we did,” she added.

Many say they have Pico season passes because “they’re such a deal” and come with their ski club on the weekends. Lucky skiers are able to ski midweek, too.

The community-oriented resort hosts many events like Scout Weekends and fundraisers like Hope on the Slopes, and sponsors an Academic Excellence Program. The latter offers complimentary season passes [$39 processing fee] to all Vermont students who earn good grades. An 8-week Sunday Junior Recreational Program teaches 500-700 students a year, said Tracy Taylor, director of operations at Pico Mountain Resort.

With its full range of services, affordable prices, and five-day operating schedule (Thursdays through Mondays), Taylor sees Pico as a mountain that can be “one of the best value resorts in New England” and one that appeals to learners as well as racers.

The season pass prices ($319 for an adult early-bird purchased 2011-12 pass) make Pico affordable for most people, and sales have quintupled, Taylor noted.

While extolling Pico’s diverse terrain, vertical, lift system, dedicated Bonanza Beginner area, and amenities like the Sports Center and Last Run Lounge, Taylor notes that “Pico’s bones are very good” but more enhancements are planned.

That includes adding more beginner level terrain parks for those who would like to try park elements as well as offering a Digital Media Center where kids could take their GoPro cameras, download them onto Macs, and edit their own videos.

Also this year, three new glades opened (Exhibition Woods, Sunset Woods, and Poma Woods); a nicely refurbished Sunshine Room (for brown baggers) plus a new room for bus groups on the first floor of the base lodge.

Perhaps most exciting for hungry athletes is the new Summit Dogs hut on skis that debuts Jan. 28 at the base of the Summit Express Quad. The snack bar offers hot dogs, chili, chips, and beverages with Adirondack chairs for enjoying a convenient break.

Next year Pico plans to operate its own daycare program with ski lesson optional. The former operator withdrew in December, and there wasn’t time to get daycare services in place for this season.

Racing programs garner increased support

A competitive spirit has been alive at Pico since the beginning when the Mountain led early support for Alpine competitions, promoting racing in Vermont and nationally.

The Otter Ski Club (now the Pico Ski Club) was founded in 1938 as “a working club” to foster fun and fellowship and to promote skiing. The Club held races for members and facilitated a large Junior Program. The Pico race program was a true success, sending several skiers to the Olympics, including Andrea Mead Lawrence, the first American to win two Gold Medals in one winter Olympics.

Taylor noted Pico’s history as a mountain that attracted top racers and said Pico is renewing efforts to reach that segment of the market once again.

One of the steps in that direction was to hire a person to work with the Ski Club, which runs races for Pico as well as its own races. The purchase of another timing system makes it possible to host more races at the same time, Taylor said.

Plans are to make Forty Niner available for speed training on low volume days and to generally attract more racers and racing events to the area, Taylor added.

Ski clubs and councils are being actively courted and as of mid-January, 12 colleges had trained and/or held races at Pico. It helps the mountain to sell more lift tickets and helps the PSC at the same time as they earn a fee for running races, Taylor explained.

“Our core focus is ‘big mountain skiing and riding, small mountain charm;’ however, I feel strongly that we need to keep the racing heritage, that has been aligned with Pico since its inception, inculcated in its branding and strongly associated with our continued growth,” Taylor said of Pico’s collaborative efforts with the Ski Club.

To further support racing program, Pico donated land (between the administration/ski shop building and the Ski Club’s building) for a new Peak Lodge. The Pico Ski Education Foundation (PSEF), the fundraising arm for the Ski Club, and Vermont Adaptive Ski and Sports (VASS), which makes it possible for people with disabilities to ski or ride, will share the two-story building. VASS will occupy the first floor and PSEF the second. (Construction depends on fundraising, Taylor noted.)

By extending the mountain’s welcome to those with disabilities, the Vermont Adaptive program provides “a wonderful service and is a huge asset to Pico,” noted Taylor.

Symbiotic partnerships

Taylor will mark 25 years in the ski industry this April, having spent 23 years at Killington and two at Pico. He is excited about efforts to enhance the racing program and enjoys adding the touches that make Pico “an updated classic.” Additionally, he noted that having Killington in the family, rather than as a competitor, means there is considerable expertise to draw on, grooming and snowmaking, for example. Shared amenities are also an asset to both mountains, thing like daycare, the tubing park, the Junior Recreational and AEP programs benefit guest to both mountains.

The symbiotic relationship contributes to Pico’s success, as does the partnership with the Ski Club and VASS, Taylor noted. All this, plus the guest loyalty and the mountain’s good value make Pico Mountain Resort a success story for the ages.

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