Jim Kenyon: Peaks and Valleys
At the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, moguls skier Evan Dybvig crashed to the snow and immediately grabbed his right knee — what remained of its shredded ligaments, anyway — in pain.
Emergency medical workers hurried onto the slope, but Dybvig declined their help. He struggled to his feet and skied to the finish line on one leg.
Dybvig, now 37, has approached his last eight years as a co-owner of Whaleback ski area in Enfield with the same never-quit attitude. He left everything he had on the mountain. By day, he taught kids the art of freestyle skiing. At night, he helped make snow and groom the slopes. Other times, after the lights for night skiing went off, he tended the bar in the lodge.
“One reason I was successful as a skier was that I had the ability to focus 100 percent on what I was doing at the time,” said Dybvig, a two-time Olympian who won two national freestyle championships during his eight years on the U.S. ski team. “Here, it was no different. I was always trying to do whatever I could to make this a successful business.”
Last Sunday afternoon, Dybvig, who grew up in Tunbridge, and business partners Dylan Goodspeed and Frank Sparrow saw their eight-year run come to an end.
Snow had turned to quicksand. And the harder you struggle in quicksand, well, you know that story.
Their company, Whaleback Mountain LLC, is more than $1 million in debt, Dybvig said. Creditors include Randolph National Bank, Whaleback’s former owners, Tim and Sally Herbert, and two dozen private investors. Whaleback owes $73,000 to the town of Enfield in property taxes dating back to May 2011. Taxes are also owed to the state and the IRS.
The ski area seems headed for foreclosure and could go on the auction block.
This isn’t the first time that the Whale has faced an uncertain future. The ski area, which has been around since the 1950s (it originally was called Snowcrest) was closed for three seasons in the early 2000s.
In 2005, Dybvig and his business partners bought the 155-acre ski area from the Herberts for $600,000 with the idea that they would need to spend money to make money. They envisioned Whaleback as a year-round action sports facility. Skiing in the winter. A training ground for freestyle skiers, skateboarders and on-line skaters the rest of the year.
The three owners were a team. Dybvig brought his skiing background to the venture while Sparrow handled the business side. Goodspeed was the operations manager who kept the mountain’s aging machinery running.
“They all had this great dream,” said Jeff Hastings, a former Olympic ski jumper who grew up in Norwich. “I thought having a year-round training facility was a really cool concept. And in Evan they had someone who understood what it takes to succeed at the top level of a sport.”
But to make the operation weather-proof would require building an indoor training facility. Dybvig and his partners applied for a $350,000 loan from the Small Business Administration. It fell through at the 11th hour. Some potential private investors began having second thoughts as well. Others stayed committed, though. Evan’s father, Dick Dybvig, a Tunbridge architect, put in the lion’s share. His mother, artist Joan Feierabend, also kicked in.
Sufficient capital to build an indoor facility, however, didn’t materialize. And there were several winters, last season in particular, when the weather didn’t cooperate. In August 2011, Tropical Storm Irene inflicted $400,000 in water damage to the slopes, lodge and parking lot.
But through it all, Dybvig and his partners remained committed to keeping skiing affordable to Upper Valley families. They offered season passes to third-graders for $30. High school students who made honor roll or could get someone at their school to vouch for their academic progress could ski for $99 a season. They held Thursday night races for adults.
“It’s sad to think that a place like Whaleback can’t survive, but there wasn’t enough of a market to sustain it,” said Hastings, who was among Whaleback’s biggest cheerleaders.
I wonder what’s in store for the Whale. There aren’t many ski areas left where kids — and adults, too, — can pick up a lifelong sport, and families can enjoy a day without emptying the ATM on their way to the slopes.
“When we closed (in 2002), we held out for an (ski) operator,” said Tim Herbert, of Plainfield. “We weren’t interested in selling to a developer. That’s why it took three years. But now anything could happen. It really depends on what the bank is going to do.”
Yesterday, I talked with Joe Boyd, a senior vice president at Randolph National who has worked with Dybvig and his partners from the beginning. “I feel for them, they’re great guys,” Boyd said. “We’re going to try to help them, and us, get out of this.”
An auction is a “viable option,” but the bank would prefer to look first for a buyer interested in keeping Whaleback as a ski area, he said.
In the darkness of the empty lodge on Monday, Dybvig talked about Whaleback’s future. “It’s too late for us, but if there aren’t little hills like Whaleback, the ski industry is going to ultimately sink,” he said.
The best outcome? If a nonprofit group with deep pockets and an interest in keeping alive an affordable, family-oriented recreation area came along.
After a half hour of sitting in one position, Dybvig propped his right knee, which still aches after all these years, in a chair. As if he needed another reminder of what can happen when you leave everything on the mountain.