Spencer Montgomery looked out the window of his home overlooking West Mountain Ski Center’s Northwest Lodge on Sunday and you could feel the smile through the phone line as he described the view.
Skiers were cruising down the hill from all four directions before they hopped on the soon to-be-replaced triple chair to do it again.
“You just don’t see that,” said Montgomery, co-owner of the Queensbury ski area, explaining that the north side of the mountain has long been underutilized. “We had as much traffic on that side as we did on the main side.”
The increased traffic on the formerly forgotten, often limited-terrain side of the ski resort is a byproduct of increased snowmaking and word spreading about how good the skiing is there.
Montgomery said a regular skier at the mountain, whose son is in the race program, came up to him recently and praised the northwest trails.
“She said, ‘I’ve never skied that before.’ She was blown away,” he said, adding that many are experiencing those trails for the first time.
Increasing the exposure of the north side is just one of the projects Montgomery enthusiastically rattled off in a 25-minute interview about the mountain and the season as a whole.
Some projects are completed, like two new lifts. Some are underway, like a full-service second lodge on the north side and an entirely renovated cafeteria in the main lodge. And some are on the near horizon, like the replacement of the triple chairlift and completion of adding stationary snow guns and lighting on every trail.
“Once that new lift goes in making it an 8-minute ride as opposed to 12- to 14-minute ride, it’s going to become a favorite place,” he said.
On Sunday, the calendar read March 24 and every trail on the mountain was not only open, but covered with snow, trees to trees. Mother Nature helped with lots of late-season cold and snow, but Montgomery said the $2.1 million in snowmaking investment is a major factor as well.
And the investment is paying off.
“Safely, our revenue numbers are up 10 percent over last year, maybe 15,” he said.
As the season winds down, Montgomery said he’d rank it at about a “8 out of 10,” explaining that the late season was great, but a rainy, nasty January made the early season tough.
Charles “Chic” Wilson, at Willard Mountain in Easton, called it “an OK winter,” but certainly better than last year when it took until March to get fully open.
“I can live with OK years,” he said. “I can’t live with bad years.”
Wilson said the rainy then bitterly cold January really hindered the season at Willard.
“We’d get snow and have a couple days of great skiing and it would rain on us. We just couldn’t build momentum,” he said. “From the first week of February it started picking up, but it’s hard to make up ground.”
Wilson decided to shut down the lifts after Tuesday night, saying despite plenty of ski-able terrain, people have stopped coming and he can’t afford to operate at a loss for long.
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Gore Mountain Marketing Director Emily Stanton said the North Creek mountain has events planned through April 21, and on Wednesday said “skiing season is far from the end” at Gore. The mountain is offering skiing on 60 trails, she said.
“I talked to several skiers today who could not believe it’s March 27,” she said.
Stanton also said revenues are up at Gore this season by about 12 percent over last season, and sales of pre-season passes that are good for the end of this season and next season are up 27 percent.
Reflecting on West
Pat Merrill, who has skied several times this winter at West and Gore and operates Merrill’s Shoe Repair in the shadow of West Mountain, said both mountains have been great this season, but the transformation at West has been “awesome.”
Merrill was skiing in the sunshine Wednesday afternoon and said the grooming has been great and decisions to open trails like the northernmost and formerly never-open AOA have been so welcomed.
“It’s a transformed mountain. It’s better than it ever was,” he said.
Merrill made a point to say he has skied Gore six or seven times this winter and it was consistently great, but the change at West is just so noticeable.
Montgomery said he loves hearing that and loves the direction the mountain is headed after five years of hard work. He was also reflective when asked if he and his four partners are pleased with the returns so far.
They are happy with the progress, he said, but he also talked about losing $1.5 million in the tragic 2015 winter season that allowed only 50 skiing days at West.
“Has it been easy sledding? No,” he said, adding the capital investment has been “enormous, north of $15 million right now.”
That will balloon to about $20 million when the new lift and all the remaining summer projects are complete, he said.
A tree-top ropes course will be opening, likely in June, and plans are still in the works for a zip line, though the planning process for that project now is merged with a proposed parking expansion off the main lot — at the town of Queensbury’s request — and will take a little time, he said.
But when everything is finished and operational, with the place humming year-round with winter skiing and summer mountain biking, a zip line and a ropes course, he and investors see the potential for real profit in the form of housing and a hotel on the north side, as well as a build-out of the long-planned Mont Luzerne development at the top of the mountain straddling Queensbury and Lake Luzerne.
He said he believed all along that revamping and re-energizing the mountain needed to come first, even employing the oft-used “Build it and they will come” line from the movie “Field of Dreams.”
“The end game is real estate development,” Montgomery said. “That’s hopefully when you get your payday.”
West Mountain will host its annual Slush Cup on Sunday and hopes to offer skiing, perhaps for a three-day weekend, at least through the following week, he said.
Gore Mountain’s Straight Brook Saturday event is April 6, and its pond skimming event is April 13, and no date has been set to close.