They have a plan
Hiram Towle knows a little something about taking chances, calculating risk-versus-reward probabilities and protecting himself against possible consequences. None of those things are in the job description, per se, but for those who make their living on the top of a mountain and at the whim of Mother Nature, life can often assume the form of a roulette wheel.
But Towle isn’t afraid to play. He proved that 13 years ago when, in summer 2002, according to his LinkedIn page, he said goodbye to a stable career in the high-tech industrial automation industry, sold his house in New Hampshire and moved with his wife to Bethel, Maine, to help manage a ski resort. That’s where Towle stayed, ascending to lift maintenance manager and finally conference sales manager, until another spin of the wheel in August brought him here to be the new general manager of the Mt. Ashland Ski Area, which is operating on a $750,000 disaster loan from the Small Business Administration.
Why is it operating on a loan? Because there was no 2013-14 season — it didn’t snow enough. What’s the message that’s currently splashed across the top of Mt. Ashland’s website against a can’t-miss red banner? “Mt. Ashland is Closed — Awaiting Snow.”
But if Towle is worried, he’s doing a good job hiding it.
“Having been in this business a long time, we know one of the things we can’t control is the weather,” he said. “What we can control is our reaction to the weather, so we’ve adjusted. After last year we realized we do have to be prepared for these low-snow events, and one of the ways we do that is to use the snow we do have in the most effective way possible, with really good grooming.”
Towle and new sales and marketing director Jamie Schectman, whose current contract runs through April, are trying to lead Mt. Ashland through its current run of bad luck. They’re both hoping that changes very soon, and it may. The weather forecast calls for precipitation today through Sunday, but whether that comes down in the form of snow or rain likely will be determined by a few degrees Fahrenheit one way or the other. Towle estimates the mountain will need 9 to 10 inches to re-open.
“It really comes down to Mother Nature,” Schectman said. “We’ve opened and closed twice this (season) and we’re ready to reopen. People are really eager to get back to the sport they love.”
Schectman has his own unique story. Inspired by the 1980’s comedy “Hot Dog,” he moved to California after graduating from high school to become a lift operator. He’s been in the business ever since in varying capacities — part of the opening team at a five-star hotel in 1990, at age 22; as a member of Tahoe’s Nordic Search and Rescue; as office manager and trail guide for a heli-ski operation in Alaska. Schectman is also the co-founder of the Mountain Riders Alliance, whose mission is “to develop values-based, environmentally-friendly, rider-centric mountain playgrounds that encourage minimal carbon footprint business practices, while making a positive impact on the local community.”
To Schectman, operating a green mountain isn’t just about saving the planet, it’s about keeping small, community-based ski areas such as Mt. Ashland sustainable, even when times are tough and slopes bare.
“My primary focus is getting people on the mountain and bringing awareness at this stage,” he said. “But the thing that’s important is, being environmentally sustainable goes to the bottom line, and a lot of these improvements (in energy consumption) will reduce our expenses, so they need to be penciled out. And that goes right to the bottom line. It’s not just because it sounds good. They’re good business decisions, too.”
Towle and Schectman say the cost-cutting already has begun at Mt. Ashland, which has been open 13 days so far this season. The top three costs at a ski resort are insurance, employment and energy. Schectman says they’ve found a way to cut costs in both insurance and labor, but as far as equipping Mt. Ashland to harness solar and/or wind power, there’s simply no room in the budget for that.
“I’ll be honest — those are pretty far off in the future,” Towle said. “We have an older infrastructure and a lot of work to do. Most of what we’re doing now is for the short term, stabilizing, just to get through this year.”
As far as long-term solutions go, Towle is excited about a forthcoming analysis which will be conducted by STOKE Certified, which according to its website uses 153 metrics that measure the “efficacy of sustainability management systems, alpine resource conservation, quality and safety of the riding experience delivery, as well as social, economic, cultural heritage, and environmental impacts” to assess ski tourism operators.
“They’re doing us a great favor by coming out and getting this analysis done,” Towle said. “It’s just kind of one more set of eyeballs, and it lends some credibility when you bring in a third party to really be open and honest, to see what might be there to work on.”
What possibilities might the assessment yield? Schectman hesitated to make any predictions prior to seeing the results, but said that a wood pellet boiler system was installed at Mount Abram in Maine, and the results — it was used to heat the lodge — were phenomenal. “It eliminated the need for oil and greatly reduced energy costs,” he said.
And anything helps.
“(The Mt. Ashland) lodge was built in 1963, so it’s not particularly energy-efficient,” Schectman said.
In terms of long-term sustainability, one way a small ski area like Mt. Ashland can survive a series of low-snow seasons is to increase its summer offerings and thus its offseason revenue stream, something the Mt. Ashland Association is looking into. Some of the possibilities Schectman mentioned: a zip line, a portable climbing wall, rope courses, a trampoline and “outdoor holistic recreation,” such as geocaching. Mt. Ashland already offers its lodge, grounds and restaurant services for weddings, retreats, meetings, reunions and parties in the summer and fall.
Towle said he’s often asked about adding a snow-making machine or snow cannon, and his answer is always the same: It’s impossible because there isn’t a usable water source.
“You need compressed air, pumping water and cold temperatures,” he said. “We can provide two of those things but the water supply is critical and we just don’t have it. So we’re just kind of adjusting our business model to fit that and taking advantage of the snow we get. And history shows that by and large, we get a lot of snow up there.”
About 300 inches annually, when it's not a drought year. Enough to cover 220 acres of skiable terrain and 23 ski runs. And enough to bring the locals back, even when the snow’s a little thing. Locals such as Pete McAfee, 31, an avid skier who lives in Medford and counts Mt. Ashland as his favorite place to shred.
Like many others, McAfee hopes Towle and Schectman find a way to guide Mount Ashland through the storm. And, he hopes it snows. Soon.
“It’s in my backyard and I love how steep it is, and it’s usually not packed like some of the other mountains are,” McAfee said. “I would rather ski there than anywhere else. I would hate to see them close. I would feel like I really don’t have a place to ski if it’s shut down.”
Reach Ashland Daily Tidings reporter Joe Zavala at email@example.com.