I feel it, and I believe in it: the same sense of community responsibility for the good and welfare of tiny, but plucky Magic Mountain that every one of its myriad fans shares.
Tucked between southern Vermont’s Bromley, Stratton, and Mt. Snow – all much larger and far more corporate – this seeming runt of the litter actually bites even more fiercely than it barks, a little dog that’s every bit as alpha as the big dogs in its quite formidable pack.
Magic’s fangs are in its rugged, narrow, twisting, steep terrain. Any of the double black diamonds at Magic can stand shoulder to shoulder with Paradise, Castlerock, Rumble, Cloudspin, Outer Limits, Goat, or anything else east of the Rockies. In fact, if you can ski the steeps and drops and ledges of Magic, you can ski pretty much anything in bounds in North America bar Corbet’s Coloir. (And you might give Corbet’s a shot anyway, you have a puncher’s chance…)
Much better still, there was something enchanting, bewitching, mesmerizing about Magic. It was palpable: an electricity, an energy, an esprit de corps. It’s one of the great communities in winter sports – a feel good story of a place where every time you go there, you come back with half a dozen new friends. And each time you walk in the lodge, somebody recognizes you and comes up to chat.
Everyone feels the same way it seems; Magic is your home, and you’re here with family.
Sadly, Coronavirus is going to kayo a significant amount of socializing and après. Nevertheless, Magic is again showing that the smaller operators are just as clever and possibly faster and more able to adapt to a Coronavirus season than their larger counterparts. Magic has implemented state-of-the-art Covid defenses and protections without a noticeable reduction in any services. And now a part of the Indy Pass, ticketing is Covid-streamlined (like everything this season, soup-to-nuts), but standardized as well.
Happily the entire winter sports industry is doing everything they can to ensure that this season is a one-off, an anomaly. Yes, the sport of skiing has Covid protections baked in, but humans are social creatures, and anti-social distancing throws shade on our growing and celebrating our community and our sport.
In that regard, anti-social distancing has a particularly pernicious effect on Magic. A strong pillar of not only eastern skiing, but the entire American indy winter sports scene, there’s a palpable sense of community here, an unquenchable loyalty and camaraderie that they need to keep alive and vibrant, Coronavirus or no. That’s the lifeblood of Magic. Hopefully, although the number of skiers/boarders will be slightly reduced (see below) the high-spirited energy will remain. Their passion in the face of this crisis, gives everyone in our sport hope. And, of course, any time a mom-and-pop place does well, the whole winter sports world wins.
We caught up with Magic’s owner/operator Geoff Hatheway on Halloween evening. Here’s his update on the 2020-2021 season at Magic:
JF: Tell us about Magic – its history, its trails, what else it has besides skiing, and how you got involved.
GH: This is actually Magic Mountain’s 60th anniversary. We were planning a big celebration, but obviously it will have to be put off to next year. We really want the whole community to be involved because that’s Magic’s style.
Magic was founded in 1960 by Swiss ski instructor and movie maker Hans Thorner. Hans picked this spot because the terrain at Magic reminded him of his home in the Swiss Alps. The steep pitches and the prominent faces that form valleys with interesting ledges all were reminiscent of the varied terrain of the Alps and in particular where he grew up, and he wanted Magic to be his homage to Swiss skiing and his home.
JF: “More Swiss than a Swiss watch” as he put it.
GH: Yes, that’s exactly what he was going for, and he succeeded. Magic was part of the original Golden Era of European influence on American skiing, and along with Bromley and Stratton – all within ten miles of each other in southern Vermont – together they became renowned as the original Golden Triangle of skiing in the east. In the ‘70s and ‘80s we were one of the premiere places in the east.
But then in the early ‘90s there was a real estate recession, and Magic was shuttered from 1992-1997. It’s tough for a ski area to come back from being closed, but it did so from late ‘90s to early 2000s. Sadly, during that period it suffered from inconsistent ownership, aged infrastructure, and lack of capital investment.
JF: Like a golf course, a ski area is a living thing and needs constant nurturing…
GH: Exactly. So five years ago it was struggling to survive, and the ownership group came to me, and asked me if I’d purchase the mountain.
JF: Why you? How did you have the inside track?
GH: I had been skiing Magic since the early 2000s, and brought my kids up skiing there. Plus, I got involved with their alpine club and assisted with marketing. Previously, I was chief marketing officer of several companies. (I went into the ad business after I left Dartmouth in 1981.)
So I put together a group of 15 investors and a business plan and purchased the mountain in November of 2016.
JF: Was it also a sort of homecoming? Buying the mountain where you had so many years of fond memories?
GH: That’s exactly why I bought it. It was a chance for a re-emergence of what skiing here was all about: chock full of great people who love the sport of skiing and riding. And it’s got – to me and to many other people – the best terrain in southern Vermont: very challenging, interesting, winding classic New England trails unchanged from their original design.
JF: Now you’ve been busy since then with many upgrades and new developments?
GH: We put $4.5 million into the mountain: not to change its character – not at all! Instead, everything we did was designed to enhance the delivery of service so more people could enjoy the mountain. To improve lifts we added the new Green chair, a double to mid-mountain that accesses easier terrain for young kids and families. We added a new beginner area, and now we attract even more families than before. And we are also finishing a new quad from base to summit to replace the original summit lift built in 1962.
JF: So for those of us familiar with the mountain that’s the Black chair?
GH: Yes. We also have upgraded snowmaking. We now we have more consistent snowmaking nearly all across the mountain, a huge improvement to a problem that Magic had been known for in the past.
JF: Would you say you’ve added enough snowmaking across all sectors of the mountain to turn that negative into a positive?
GH: Yes. Now while we don’t have coverage across every trail, we expanded snowmaking so that there was consistent quality of snow on both the east and west side of the mountain. Now we intentionally groom some parts of the mountain and leave others to Mother Nature so that we have greater variety for a wider range of skiers and boarders.
JF: What are the iconic runs? What’s the heart and soul of the mountain?
GH: What really makes Magic, it’s true essence, are the trails carved in the ‘60s, such as Wizard which meanders down the west side of the mountain, Magician, one of the original trails from the top and featuring one of the steepest pitches in the east, and a great expert run in empties into another advanced run called Heart of Magician.
JF: I love Heart of Magician. I especially love coming into it from Broomstick, one of the craziest runs I’ve ever skied anywhere. Broomstick is a scream…
GH: Oh yeah, it is!
GH: It literally is skinny as a broomstick, it’s steep, it develops big moguls with glades falling away to the left side, and it finishes by emptying into steep trails like Black Line and Magician.
JF: Tell us about what guests should expect at the mountain this season, both on and off the trails due to Covid.
GH: The skiing doesn’t change at all; being outside in the open air is what skiing is all about. That’s the safest place you can be. What will change are as follows:
––limited capacity on lifts: If you’re not traveling with anyone, you’ll be going solo in a double and double in a quad, spaced at either end of the quad. Lines will be spaced further apart, but we hope not to have long lift lines, because of the new Black Line quad;
—wear face covering at all times when not skiing: That’s how many of us ski anyway.
—lodge capacity is strictly limited by the state of Vermont so reservations will be required at all times to enter the lodge for dining, whether for the cafeteria or the Black Line tavern, unless you have made advance reservations on our on line ticketing system. You must make a separate reservation for dining. If you don’t get a reservation we still have created spots on the mountain for people to purchase food and beverage and of course you can bring your own lunch and eat it in the car or in some outdoor warm-up areas we’ve created all over the property.
JF: What about ticketing?
GH: There will be no reservations required of Magic season pass holders for tickets themselves, but all ticket holders and all Indy pass holders will need to make reservations on line.
JF: How will that work for Indy pass holders? Will there be a button on line?
GH: Correct. We will be limiting total capacity of ticket buyers each day. We’ve done it in the past – sometimes we would limit on-line tickets to 1,500 per day. We want to maintain and promote an atmosphere at Magic of fewer and shorter lines and more open space for skiing. So for Covid we are actually going to decrease the number of day tickets from 1,500 to 1,100. This is an additional safeguard over and above anything the state of Vermont requires.
JF: What advice do you have for operators of smaller mountains now, and do you think they actually may have an advantage over mega-resorts and mega-passes?
GH: That is what we’re hearing from customers and from other industry people: that there is more interest in smaller, Indy places as people don’t want to be in crowded spaces. So please everyone: follow the protocols and quarantine restrictions, and everything will be fine, and we can stay open the entire winter!
JF: Have you had any dry runs yet with protocols in prep for opening?
GH: We ran our business through the summer and fall. The Black Line Tavern was open, and we safely had outside and inside dining. We also ran the Green lift to the mid-mountain Sunshine Corner spot for leaf peeping season.
JF: …leaf peeping season…
JF: There seems to be confusion about what we in New York call the 24-hour rule. In some states if you leave and merely pass through another state and stay less than 24 hours, you don’t have to quarantine upon your return. Does Vermont have a similar rule or not?
GH: No. It’s county by county. If you’re not in a green-colored county, you must have quarantined 14 days in your home state or 7 days if you took a Covid test.[Author’s Note: Even as we went to press, New York’s governor further restricted both travelers to and from New York with mandatory Covid testing requirements for all travel except between border states. As this situation changes hourly, you must check the rules of both your own state and the state to which you will travel for updated information.]
JF: So basically Vermont is limited to Vermonters and denizens of green counties in bordering states? And that’s it?
GH: Yes. We have to have these numbers go down, or we’re going to have very few people here. And yes, you can quarantine in your home state for 14 days before you leave.
JF: Do you fear that New Hampshire will take away Vermont’s business this year?
GH: I only fear for us to be able to provide a winter for everyone.
GH: But I do think that more people will be skiing only in their home state.
JF: How badly were you affected losing last March and April?
GH: We were down significantly from our prior year, but the good news is we have been growing ever since we purchased the mountain in 2016. We have some cash, and we are putting it to work. We are still proceeding on our major upgrade and renovation projects like lifts. Yes the timing of Covid painful, but despite all this we had a 75% increase in season pass sales here, so there is a desire out there for people to come to Magic, and we want as many people here as will be allowed.
JF: What was the biggest challenge you’ve overcome regarding Covid?
GH: The biggest challenge with Covid is that ever-changing rate of disease spread. Staying up to date with the rules is the toughest test we face as an industry, but we have put together great plans to keep everybody safe both inside and outside. We can engage in this sport and be outside during this and overcome this disease.
JF: What’s your biggest challenge yet to overcome, and how are you battling it?
GH: I’d say it is making people aware of what we’re doing and what rules and restrictions are being implemented by the state of Vermont. So we find ourselves constantly educating and re-educating both others and ourselves about the rules as we progress through his pandemic.
JF: What restrictions are there on dining right now, and how has your restaurant, the Black Line Tavern, been affected, if at all?
GH: Not that badly. We built a lot of space outside, and we continue to do so. We’ll have all kinds of outdoor spaces with heating elements for dining so people can eat outside and warm up. From summer until now we didn’t have a decline at all, because we successfully pushed our business outside, and people responded positively.
JF: What about the concerts you used to have there?
GH: During Covid we can’t have the big, after-skiing concerts we used to have, but we might have some acoustic music outside on the deck. But no jam-packed bar scene: that’s out!
JF: Anti-social distancing (as I call it) seems to erase one of the great things about skiing and Magic in particular: making new friends and reuniting with old ones on the mountain? Is one of the great tragedies of Covid that you can’t come back from skiing with ten new friends?
GH: Absolutely. One of the best things about Magic is hanging out with new friends and regaling each other with stories of your day. But we’ll try to have that at the fire pit on the deck.
Sadly, for many people the car will be the base lodge. You have to boot up in your car and walk to the slopes and forego the lodge, but that’s what we did in the beginning, it’s part of the Magic culture, and Magic people revel in it.
JF: It is retro…
GH Totally retro…
JF: On that note, in what ways do you continue to celebrate Hans Thorner and the Swiss heritage he created and promoted?
GH: In the Black Line Tavern we have memorabilia from Hans’s day. And then we have a trail still named after him – Slide of Hans and we added a connector between trails on the east side called Thorner’s Corner.
JF: Name three of your favorite resorts in the USA.
GH: Been to (besides Magic): Taos, Alta, and Bridger Bowl in Montana
For places I want to go see? Of course the Swiss, French, or Austrian Alps.