December 23, 2016

Bolton Valley hits 50-year milestone

Sue Brisson teaches her granddaugher Makenna Dooley on Mitey Mite learning area at Bolton Valley.

Photo Courtesy Bolton Valley

Sue Brisson teaches her granddaugher Makenna Dooley on Mitey Mite learning area at Bolton Valley.

Most ski areas begin to wind down at 3:30 p.m. Not Bolton Valley Resort — it literally lights up and livens up.

That’s because the area, which is open daily, offers extensive night skiing Tuesdays through Saturdays from 4 to 10 p.m. With Bolton’s location near Burlington and Montpelier, night skiing attracts all ages: adults for league racing, kids for the after-school program, college students after classes, and others for recreation with family or friends.

With its iconic Alpine Village and amenities, Bolton also entices families from out of state with convenient and affordable slopeside lodging.

Sue Brisson, who first skied at Bolton Valley 45 years ago, has seen many changes, but she’s most impressed “by what hasn’t changed. It’s kept its old-Vermont flavor and friendliness. It’s easy for families and comfortable. But more than any other area, it’s stayed affordable,” she said, noting this year’s “lift ticket deals of $19.66 for Mondays and night-skiing in celebration of the area’s 1966 opening season.”

Brisson did see changes, like snowmaking, snowboarders, helmets, and more terrain. Today’s ski area offers a 1,704-foot vertical and a diversity of terrain that spills from three separate but interconnected peaks. The 71 trails range from classic New England to broad boulevards, double diamonds to gentle greens. There’s a learning area for first-timers, glades for all, and terrain parks with lights.

There’s also 15 kilometers of groomed terrain for classic and skate Nordic skiing and over 1100 acres of ungroomed terrain for backcountry skiing, splitboarding, or snowshoeing, adds Vice President of Sales and Marketing Josh Arneson.

Having bounced back from hard times in the 1990s, Bolton is celebrating its 50th anniversary season with festivities like: Dec. 26 daylong Kickoff Party with a retro ski gear contest; Feb. 11 Reunion Weekend; and March 25 revival of the Spring Thing party, Arneson noted.

George Potter, a 41-year ski industry veteran — 10 years at Smugglers, 21 at Killington/Pico, and in now his 10th winter as president and general manager of Bolton — commented, “Turning 50 is a huge accomplishment for a ski area in Vermont.” He was referring to the challenges that caused Vermont to go from 79 areas in 1970 to 24 today.

Unique history of early trails, village vision

In 1922, ski enthusiast Edward Bryant purchased 10,000 acres of mountainous wilderness in the town of Bolton, cut ski trails with the help of pioneer ski instructor Otto Schniebs, and formed the Bolton Mountain Club. Members hiked up on skins to ski down, often joined by other groups. Bryant died before he could secure financial backing for ski lifts, and the land was sold to a lumber company. (Those trails are believed to be the first to be cut specifically for skiing on what is still an operating ski area today.)

In 1964, Roland DesLauriers purchased 8,000 acres from the lumber company. His son Ralph envisioned a high-elevation Alpine Village and year-round resort, spending his life savings ($10,000) on a five-year master plan and borrowing $1 million ($7.45 million in today’s dollars) to start the Bolton Valley Ski and Summer Resort.

The state built a steep, 4-mile “access road” up through the woods and, in 1965, 9 trails and 3 liftlines were cut at the end of the road. The resort opened December 26, 1966 with 3 double chairs, a base lodge, ski shop, and 24–room hotel.

Free-skiing pioneer Art Furrer — Charleston, 360° Tip Roll, Stepover, Airborne Helicopter innovator — trained a squad of local Bolton youngsters to be the nation’s first “acrosquad” in 1967 (acroskiing was the next step in the freestyle progression). His presence helped to put Bolton “on the map,” and it became a training ground for America’s extreme skiers extraordinaire Rob and Eric DesLauriers, Ralph’s sons.

The resort continued to expand with townhouses and tennis courts (1968), followed by more housing, trails, lifts, ice rink, outdoor heated pool, night skiing, snowmaking (1976), Sports and Conference Center (1983), and the $5-million Timberline lift, trails and base lodge complex (1987). By 1988, Bolton was winning accolades as a family destination area, ranking seventh out of the top-one-hundred national ski resorts in a SKI Magazine poll.

But with the early 1990s recession, DesLauriers encountered five difficult years, and had to call it quits in 1997. As the third-longest continuing ski-area founder/operator in Vermont, he had created one of Vermont’s first truly walkable slopeside villages, as well as a destination that catered to locals and families with childcare facilities, after school programs, and affordable tickets.

Others attempted to revive the mountain, but were unable to surmount difficult obstacles until Bob Fries operated Bolton from January 2003 to spring 2007, when partners Doug Nedde and Larry Williams, who had been investing in the mountain since 2004, assumed full ownership and operational control.

Modern vision, plans

As principals of Mountain Operations and Development, LLC, which does business as Bolton Valley, co-owner Williams told the Herald they wanted to “keep the mountain open,” seeing it “as an incredible community resource that provided learn-to opportunities for families.”

They brought in Potter to create financial structure and accountability for the resort, which included developing revenues for non-winter months as well as improving the area, he added.

“When I got here it was like the Wild West. Morale was low; there was poor staff culture and no financial accountability, operating plans, job descriptions or focus on safety. We assembled a great management team and completely changed the culture,” Potter stated.

That team included Ryan Dinneen, Bolton’s director of hospitality, and Arneson — both formerly of Killington — and Harold Herbert, a graduate of the Killington Mountain School and grandson of a former Pico Mountain owner. Together, they implemented a Killington-style business approach.

That meant staff parked cars when necessary and the area operated with a budget, mission statement, plans, and accountability. Snowmaking and grooming upgrades, hotel and base-area improvements were made. Vermont’s first ski-area wind turbine was installed, and The Ponds, a group-function/wedding facility, was added to develop more year-round business.

But, Williams said that with increasing popularity and competition from bigger resorts comes the need to continue to invest, noting the base lodge and parking lot require enlarging, and snowmaking upgrades need to continue. More activities like canopy tours, mountain biking, and coasters are necessary to attract summer business. All require major outlays. “We’re looking for investors, partners, or a new owner who can keep the mountain up to date and competitive,” Williams stated.

Potter added the resort has a five-year plan with cost analysis and much potential to offer. “People comment, ‘What a great ski experience Bolton is and what a friendly staff,’” he said, noting the goal to “treat guests as friends” is working.

With a mission statement “to be the best choice in the Northeast for skiers and riders seeking an experience that is convenient, family friendly, inviting, and value driven,” Bolton’s 150,000 annual skier visits would not only indicate a success story, but also an interesting opportunity for another visionary.

 

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