Editorial: Save the Whalebacks; Upper Valley Loses Another Ski Area
Well, there goes another comfortably sized ski area in the Upper Valley.
Just a few years after the closing of Mount Ascutney in West Windsor, the owners of Whaleback Mountain in Enfield announced Wednesday that this will be the last season for their operation. Evan Dybvig, the Olympic competitor who was the most visible of Whaleback’s three owners, attributed the business’ failure to a number of factors, including undercapitalization and uncooperative weather since it reopened eight years ago under their ownership. With 2012-13 proving to be another tough year, mounting debt and no sources of additional cash, the owners decided it was time to shut down the lifts for good.
The closing of a small, locally owned business is generally unwelcome news, but Whaleback’s failure seems particularly regrettable. Obviously, the chief reason to mourn its disappearance is the loss of a place to go skiing and riding. Upper Valley residents still have options — the Dartmouth Skiway, Suicide Six and Mount Sunapee for those who don’t wish to venture outside the immediate area, not to mention the handful of volunteer-operated ski hills — but those choices are dwindling, and each represents a unique combination of character and terrain. Whaleback’s closing will be felt not just by skiers and riders who were fond of its personality or its convenient location, but also by the half-dozen or so schools that had ski programs there.
We also had a rooting interest in the place as a business enterprise. Dybvig and his partners did not assume that merely getting the lifts running again and reopening the lodge would be enough to ensure continuing success; they seemed to have a particular vision for Whaleback as an operation that would appeal to a younger, less conventional clientele and offer more than just in-season skiing. As it turned out, Dybvig said, they were never able to fully test their model because some of their investors pulled out. Initial plans for offering a year-round skiing and snowboarding facility had to be ditched, for example. But based on the number and variety of events that took place at Whaleback — “Motor Mayhem,” a combined motor sports and skiing and snowboarding event is scheduled for March 23 — the owners brought an impressive amount of energy and creativity to their struggling enterprise. They kept trying.
Finally, although all varieties of ski operations seem to have faced a range of business challenges in recent years — disappointing winters, the recession, high energy prices — the smaller ones seem to be particularly hard-pressed. Ski businesses that can’t fall back on real estate development or wealthy weekenders seem to be an endangered species. Dybvig expressed concern that the disappearance of smaller operations like Whaleback might imperil the ski industry in general.
“I think it’s really potentially going to be the downfall of the industry, because the number of people that can afford to take thousand-dollar ski trips is going to shrink,” he told staff writer Ben Conarck. “If the Whalebacks close, you’re going to have fewer kids learning to ski.”
Yes, there’s something to be said for going to a Killington or Sugarbush for the variety of terrain, the reliability of the snowmaking and those fast, comfortable lifts that can zip you to the top of the mountain. But for many, there’s much more to be said for going to a place that’s convenient, affordable, unpretentious and just a little bit funky. It’s sad to lose another one.