Jonathan Hunt leads non-profit working to revitalize Whaleback Mountain ski area

Jonathan Hunt sits on the 70s-era chairlift at Whaleback Mountain on Thursday, July 20, 2023 in Enfiled, New Hampshire.

Jonathan Hunt sits on the 70s-era chairlift at Whaleback Mountain on Thursday, July 20, 2023 in Enfiled, New Hampshire. Concord Monitor — Geoff Forester

By DAVID BROOKS

Concord Monitor

Published: 08-11-2023 5:44 PM

When Jonathan Hunt came on board at Whaleback Mountain, which like many independent ski areas had repeatedly flirted with failure for 20 years, he knew that it would take more than speeding up the chairlift to keep things going.

“Immediately my job was to provide stability in the organization and leadership to staff — to continue to find ways to do our job better and provide other revenue sources,” said Hunt. “We needed to re-earn the community’s trust in the product we were trying to put out by making the investments that were necessary, doing deferred maintenance.”

Whaleback, which sits alongside I-89 in Enfield, is a rarity in the ski and snowboard world because it is owned by a non-profit group, the Upper Valley Snow Sports Foundation. The foundation was created to buy the mountain in 2013 after an attempt led by former Olympian Evan Dybvig to resurrect Whaleback, which has been shut for four years, fizzled out.

Going non-profit was a necessity, said Norm Berman, chair of the foundation’s Board and Directors and who, like many of those involved with Whaleback, skied the mountain and has kids who learned to ski there.

“Were it not for that, being a non-profit, there’s no way we’d still be in operation,” he said, pointing out that the mountain has lost money on operations “every year for the past 18 years.”

This includes last winter, which went pretty well by recent standards but still produced a loss of about $100,000 on an operating budget of $1.2 million, 40% of which goes to payroll.

Hunt, 45, who lives in Canaan, was hired two years ago as the mountain’s first executive director, replacing the previous position of general manager. His role is not to run the mountain operations, although he and other senior staff will help out as needed — “on the chairlift, out in the groomer, flipping burgers,” he said — but to run the entire foundation. That includes the vital job of fund-raising.

“We’re doing corporate outreach. People are generous. There’s a lot of support … and good feeling about Whaleback,” said Hunt.

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Hunt, who had previously been a lacrosse coach and worked in administration at Colby-Sawyer College, had no experience running a ski area. That was almost part of the appeal, said Berman.

“We hired Jon knowing that Jon has absolutely no idea how to run a ski area. We figured if we hired the right person he could figure out ski area operations; what we really need is someone to run the whole show,” Berman said.

And it worked.

“Almost overnight the atmosphere at Whaleback changed. He’s a positive, effective ‘people person.’ He created a very positive environment; you hear it all over the place. It demonstrates the power of one person with a positive attitude, particularly in a small organization.” Whaleback has four full-time staff year round, and bulks up to as many as 100 people when the snow is just right.

Although Whaleback is a small mountain, at 700 vertical feet, it has some steep terrain and “skis bigger than it is,” as the saying goes.

It also has issues, including a 1970-era chairlift that the board would love to replace, at a cost of more than twice the annual operating budget, and snowmaking that has improved but could be better. The foundation has applied for a federal grant to help get more energy-efficient snowmaking equipment and a second pump to supply water.

Whaleback’s biggest strength is its history with skiers around the Upper Valley and Sunapee regions, many of whom regard it fondly.

“Most of our folks have some relationship with the mountain — they grew up skiing here, or their parents skied there,” said Hunt.

Both Hunt and Berman pointed to Gerd Reiss, the mountain’s race director, who has skied the mountain at least since it got its first chairlift and became Whaleback in 1968. The mountain was known as Snowrest when it started in 1955, using surface lifts.

“He is the reason why we are still operating,” Hunt said of Reiss.

Whaleback may benefit from the fact that small ski areas have been having something of a rebirth in recent years, partly in reaction to sky-high prices at large, corporate-owned mountains. It is also benefiting from the industry’s move to year-round activities.

“That’s probably the biggest change since I started: We are venturing into the year-round model with full support of our board,” said Hunt. He pointed to a six-week summer day camp for children, which helps solve the need for day care in the Upper Valley. “I think the summer-camp model is one where we will continue to advance.”

Whatever happens, though, Hunt said he’s happy to help keep Whaleback alive.

“It’s more rewarding when you turn that lift on and you see kids lining up, or see them come off the magic carpet and skiing right to mom and dad,” he said.