Sunday, October 24, 2010

Jay Peak: a marketing guy's dream, or nightmare?

Can the old and new coexist at Jay Peak?
On my recent trip to the Jay Peak area, I had the good fortune to sit down and chat with Steve Wright, the self-proclaimed "marketing guy" at Jay Peak. Steve's official title is Vice President of Sales and Marketing but when you sit sit down to talk with him, he definitely seems more like the marketing guy than a resort VP. Dressed in Carhartts and an open-necked shirt, Steve greeted me warmly in the waiting area of the Jay Peak admin office, clearly quite up for our meeting. Oh, and by the way, if you want to find the most old-school decor at Jay, head over to the administration offices. Dark brown panelling, that funky 3-D stucco, a collection of Jay posters and one lonely, uncomfortable sofa in the waiting area. I felt as if I had been tele-ported back to 1974. Let me assure you, the money is being spent outside the offices. Thankfully, we quickly headed into his lair, a very cozy office, complete with a vintage pair of Line skis, decaying orange Lange boots and random stuff everywhere. An office after my own heart.

So how does SBR, a humble independent ski blogger, get to sit down with the VP for an hour's worth of random discussion about our favorite mountain? It wasn't that hard, really, I sent him an email and asked. As others have commented, Steve completely "gets" social media, which includes bloggers, forums, mainstream magazines, on-line magazines, FaceBook, Twitter, etc., etc., and he is happy to reach out and talk. So talk we did, with a wide-ranging discussion that included Gordon Lightfoot (his dad is an old pal of Gord's), the Grateful Dead, the passion of Jay Peak skiers and the great conundrum of marketing (and developing) this hill: how do you keep the authenticity of the place, respect and preserve the passion of the avid Jay skier/rider and still have a ski resort that is relevant and profitable in the 21st century? Good question.

The big issues came up and here is the synopsis: the new hotel is scheduled to open in Dec. 2011, the waterpark in March 2012. What's the biggest improvement for the regular skier? Probably what they won't see, a massive investment in snowmaking, focused primarily on beginner and connector runs. The great lift realignment? Walter the consultant has been hired, wind testing starts now, construction starts in June, 2011 - we will be sitting on the rearranged and new lifts next season. Parking? Well, that might might be a bit tricky this winter (read between the lines: get to Stateside early). The future of Stateside Lodge: stay tuned. New lift ticket technology: pass in your pocket, no problem! For the full scoop, click here. Somewhere in the conversation, Steve commented that in a career spent in the ski industry, including 10 years at Killington, he has never experienced anything like the commitment and passion of Jay Peak skiers and riders. At this point, I thought, yeah, he does get it. There is hope.

Be prepared to join the Snowbaru and park here!
I got to the resort a little early for our appointment, so spent some time wandering around the construction site formerly known as Tramside. Pickup trucks were everywhere, construction trailers all over the place, temporary fencing blocking all the usual pathways, massive trenches dug in the ground between the lodge and the Flyer, and not a lot of obvious parking. And skiing starts in month, or less, I thought. These guys are effed. You would think this scenario would be the marketing guy's nightmare but apparently, not for Steve. He and his team seem to have turned this into an opportunity, engaging people on-line to comment on the "look and feel" of the new waterpark; making it clear to me that the EB5 funding, so critical to this development, ensures that all workers come within a 90 minute drive (as in, they are locals); theming the new Jay Peak magazine (I got an advance copy) to feature core skier values, Northeast Kingdom lifestyle, local economic benefits, the passing of Hotel Jay and some frank challenges to the haters, complainers and skeptics out there.

I would sum up their attitude like this: we are doing our damnedest to keep this mountain alive - if you don't like it, go somewhere else. And that somewhere else won't be Jay Peak. Get it?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A theoretically short hike on the Long Trail to the summit of Jay Peak

The real reason I drove all the way to Jay Peak in October was to do some hiking on the mountain using the Long Trail, off the 242. In the many years I have been visiting this area, I had never actually hiked up Jay Peak. Sure, we had hiked down, after a cushy ride up the tram on Canadian Thanksgiving, but that isn’t quite the same thing.

The drive up the Mountain Road did not fill me with confidence in the sanity of my planned activity. The air was cold, the wind a little biting, and once I got a view of the summit, I thought: hmmmm, is this a good idea?

The Jay Cloud still exists in the off-season! Or, maybe it’s winter up there.
Following my little diversion to see the construction site, I parked at the Long Trail parking lot at the top of Jay Pass on the 242. There were two other cars in the lot but no sign of hikers until two young men from Long Beach, New York, appeared out the woods. They asked me if I knew where the Long Trail was. I pointed at the (what I thought was) rather obvious break in the forest, complete with white blazes and rock steps heading up the mountain, and said: “I think it’s over there.” They looked suitably sheepish and confessed that they had been wandering about in the vicinity of The Dip, thinking the trail was in there. We chatted a bit and determined that we were all Jay Peak regulars, there for the same reason, to see what the mountain looked like at this time of year. Realizing that my inner geezer would not be pleased if they passed me on the trial, I muttered something about getting organized and let them steam off ahead.
Yeah, hiking, that’s what we came here to do!
Once I figured out which layers to wear and which to keep in the pack, corralled the dog and got him suited up in his safety orange vest (it is bow season after all), we headed off. Cheered by the simple trail marker indicating a short walk of 1.7 miles to the summit, I thought “no problem!” 

It sure seemed like longer than 1.7 miles. Must have been something to do with the elevation gain, yes, that’s it. The route was easy to follow, with shiny white blazes and a well-defined path. As we gained height, the trail steepened and patches of snow appeared. I adjusted layers and stopped to rest more than once or twice. A side trail led out to the lower Vermonter, which came in handy on the descent. Utah was overjoyed to find snow and expressed his exuberance as only a dog can.

Dog rule: when you encounter the first snow of the season, roll in it
Utah enjoys the view on the Vermonter
Approaching the top, the trail gets a little rugged
Up and up and up we went. We did encounter a few other folks making their way down. One couple, dressed for a more casual hike, said that it was a bit windy at the top. I noticed that the man was wearing Bean Boots and the farther up I went, the more I marveled that he made the trek in that footwear. Comfy, yes. Grippy, no. The next pair coming down the trail consisted of a young man and his dog, each bearing a hefty pack. Turns out he had starting hiking from the border four days ago and had camped out during the storm that brought all the recent heavy, wet snow to the Green Mountains and Adirondacks. He seemed cheerful enough but his dog was a bit grumpy and had few words with Utah. He apologized but personally, I didn’t blame her for being in a bad mood. I checked out his footwear too: very techy-looking lightweight hiking shoes. I’m guessing his feet were wet and cold.

Yes, the trail goes over the water pipe on the Vermonter
Once we emerged out of the woods onto the Vermonter, the going got easier but colder. The snow was hard enough to walk on and it was obvious that a few hardy souls had trekked up a few days before to enjoy the fresh snow on skis, snowboards and even a toboggan.

I am standing on unbreakable crust, on top of a snowboard track
Good thing Sky Haus was open, the weather was not the best for a summit picnic
Looking towards Mt. Washington from the top of Jay Peak
Big Jay with Mt. Mansfield in the distance
 I joined the guys from New York in the comfort of the Sky Haus. Plastic chairs and formica tables were quite cozy compared to the alternative of sitting on a cold rock. Ellen the Tram Driver was there as well, waiting for the construction workers who were up fixing the roof. We chatted about dogs, shared Jay Peak stories and simply enjoyed the camaraderie easily found by like-minded individuals, randomly meeting in an unusual place. I admired the new windows all round the Sky Haus and wonder if these are a sign of further renos to come...

Someone had to climb up there in the Jay wind to put in a new window!
 After lunch, Utah and I hiked up the icy stairs to the summit ridge. I didn’t realize it until later but the Long Trail crosses the Vermonter and heads right up to the true summit. I peered over the edge at The Saddle, a very steep chute I skied once, a long time ago. Gazing at it today, I’m not sure I have a big need to ski it again. Jay skiers may have a different name for this chute now, but back in the day, we called it The Saddle for reasons that are obvious when you look at the summit ridge from a distance.

Utah ponders the wisdom of dropping into The Saddle
Nice view of Owl’s Head, Mt. Elephantus and Lake Memphremagog

It was tricky walking along the summit ridge
Continuing farther down the ridge, we left the trail and headed over to Pumphouse, another run that is not on the trail map, named for the derelict pump building at the top. The pump house itself looks like a bomb hit it and the Pumphouse run looks like beavers have attacked it over the last few years. It is certainly much more visible from below, assuming you know where to look. When a run is this obvious, it can hardly be much a secret anymore. After deciding not to thrash through the spruce thickets below, Utah and I headed back uphill, over to the Vermonter and down to one of my favorite runs, The Green Beret. By this time, the snow had softened up a bit so walking downhill was pretty easy. Skiing on the semi-breakable crust would have been unpleasant. Since the walking was so good on the run, I decided to continue down the Vermonter to the cut-off back to the Long Trail I had found earlier. This way, I avoided coming down the icy, wet and steepest sections of the hiking trail. Must protect the knee!

The real pump house has seen better days
Gnarly, for certain, but Pumphouse sure looks like an official run
The Green Beret, closed as usual
Looking down the twiggy face of the Green Beret towards Northway

Utah decides that Valhalla is a no-go situation
Back on the Long Trail, the downhill walking was very pleasant, although a bit wet from run-off resulting from the snow and rain of a few days earlier. On the drive from the border to the Clubhouse, I had observed that river levels were very high and seen several flooded fields. While we hiked through the sunny forest I kept a close watch on Utah, as Ellen the Tram Driver had reported seeing a Catamount (aka: eastern cougar or panther) cross the highway on her way home from work a week or so ago. I can’t help but think that little Cutah would be a nice snack for a hungry big cat! Back at the 242 parking area, we checked out the trails on the south side of the road, planning for the next day’s hike (edit: just completed hiking up to Mt. Gilpin but took no worthy pictures).

This hike is well worth doing if you find yourself at Jay Peak in the non-snow season. Going up took me a little more than two hours, going at a steady but relaxed pace, with several rest and picture-taking stops. The trail is easy to follow with some tricky steep sections just below the top exit on the Vermonter. If you had more people and two vehicles, a nice variation would be to park  one car at the base lodge, then drive back to the 242 and hike up and over the mountain, coming down the ski trails. Finish off with refreshment at the Tower Bar or Alice’s Table and you would have the makings of a pretty fine day.

Utah scans the horizon for catamounts

For the optimists, there is a good base up there

Jay Peak: construction junction?

Waiting for the morning to warm up a little bit before starting my hike to the summit, I toured over to the resort side of Jay to see what was going on. I thought I might take a few mountain photos from the Stateside parking lot, but a sternly worded sign and a lot of big machinery convinced me to stay outside the gate.

There’s a lot of gravel going in here

Here’s the bird’s eye view from the summit ridge, taken a few hours (and calories) later
Following that surprise, I headed over to tramside to check out the action there. I was shocked at the level of activity and the number of cars. Surely, these people can’t all be here for the morning curling? No, at the moment it is all about construction and without even leaving the safety of my car, I could feel the “get ‘er done” energy in the air. The snow on the upper mountain must be a not-so-gentle reminder to the construction crews that winter’s deadline is approaching quickly.

The Ice Haus is ready for the Jonny Jay Invitational Curling Bonspiel
The shuttle busses are all shined up and ready for, well, shuttling, I guess
The level of the Hotel Jay and waterpark is rising rapidly
I’m assuming this is a new parking lot!