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A New King Of the Hill: Riess in Charge at Whaleback

Monday, June 01, 2015
Enfield — The Upper Valley Snow Sports Foundation has introduced Gerd Riess as its newest mountain manager, and that’s only part of the reason Whaleback Mountain’s nonprofit ownership group is excited for the next ski season.

The organization has also recently announced it has the opportunity for a two-for-one donation match, receiving $100,000 if it can raise $50,000 by June 30. That would get the group closer to its overall capital investment goal of approximately $2.4 million, set when it purchased 145 acres from Randolph National Bank in spring 2013 in order to revive the ski area. Whaleback had closed following the 2012-13 winter due to the financial troubles of the previous ownership group.

With Riess on board, UVSSF is enthusiastic about entering phase two of its redevelopment goals. After putting more than $200,000 into the purchase of the property, replacing its septic and well systems and installing a new kitchen, food court and rear deck, it now has sights set on projects such as the replacement of 40-year-old snowmaking equipment and improving the breadth and scope of its programs.

Riess, 63, grew up in Hanover and raced at the mountain as a child in the 1960s when it was known as Snow Crest. Now a Thetford resident, he’s stayed involved at Whaleback as a coach both for the Whaleback Ski Club in the 1980s and as well as for Ford Sayre Athletic Council’s youth alpine teams the last 23 years. Those teams practice both at Whaleback and at Lyme Center’s Dartmouth Skiway.

A previous owner of two businesses, Riess immediately considered himself a candidate to replace former mountain manager Dick Harris, who stepped down following last season for health-related reasons.

“I’ve seen the ski area transition through a lot of ownership groups; I’ve seen some of the things that have worked in the past and what hasn’t,” Riess said Friday at Whaleback, utterly devoid of snow in the late May sun. “I feel like I’m aware of who and what the area serves. The kids, the parents, all of the clientele the area serves and how much work is put into it.”

That clientele last year included more than 450 children from nine elementary and middle school groups, as well as competitive alpine teams from nearby Kimball Union Academy and Cardigan Mountain School. Adult ski outfits holding events there included the Thursday Night Race League and a USSA Masters alpine race group, according to a UVSSF news release.

Riess is hoping to take steps to enhance the experience of all of those groups, as well as for families and day-pass skiers seeking alternatives to expensive resorts.

“As I’ve told the board of directors, what I’d like to do is focus on the three groups that we serve,” said Riess. “The first one are the beginners, the kids between second and eighth grade who come here to learn to ski. The second are the racing and training groups, whether it’s alpine or freestyle. For the freestylers, you need to have features and jumps that suit their needs; for the racers, you need to have a nice, firm surface to ski on. The third groups are our families that come out to have an outing that’s close to where they live and that’s affordable.”

Lift tickets last year ranged from $15 (last two hours of the day) to $40 for a full-day adult. Those figures will increase this season, board chair John Schiffman said, but a scholarship program allows UVSSF to admit all families.

“We’ve gotten letters from moms in those applications that would make you want to cry,” said Schiffman, who indeed is prone to becoming emotional when speaking about Whaleback and the value he feels it holds for many Upper Valley families. “A lot of people rely on this place for recreation.”

Riess hopes to increase the quality of instructors for the various learning groups on the mountain, and to ensure that it remains open on a consistent schedule.

“Last year, it was a little bit here and there, where people would come expecting to be able to ski until 9, but we’d be closing at 8, things like that,” he said. “We want to have a uniform schedule, be open at the same times every week so that people can rely on it.”

Replacing inefficient snow making equipment is another goal of the UVSSF, addressing an issue it said contributed to its failing to open until mid-January last season.

“We had eight rain events between Dec. 20 (and) Jan. 10, which didn’t help things, but part of it was the equipment we had to work with,” said Schiffman. “It’s all about maximizing your pounds per square inch. We’re at 750 now; we need to be at about 1,200 to be where we want to be.”

The ski area is more than six months from opening day, but grounds crewman Tom Davis and a host of volunteers were busy last week performing general maintenance such as clearing brush from the sides of trails. Another group was on site tidying up wooded trails they hope will eventually become part of a mountain biking network, part of UVSSF’s initiative to become a year-round facility.

“We’d like to make it sort of an outdoor YMCA, where people can come to learn and train at all times of the year,” Schiffman said. “I’ve been trying like heck to come up with a proper way to define this place, and it truly is a learning and training facility. It’s one that a lot of people value, and that’s why we’re optimistic.”

Jared Pendak can be reached at or 603-727-3306.

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