A worker sets a crossbar on a new T-bar tower at Ascutney Outdoors in Brownsville. The new lodge sits at the bottom of the hill. The final concrete is being poured Thursday and the lift is expected to be open for this coming ski season. Photos Courtesy AO
by Timothy McQuiston, Vermont Business Magazine
A steep but not tall 3,144 feet, Ascutney Mountain has long been an anomaly among Vermont ski mountains. It has great interstate access, just off I-91 in West Windsor (Brownsville), but it doesn’t get much natural snow and doesn’t have much water for making it.
It first opened with a rope town in 1946 and went bankrupt – the first time – in 1950. Now it’s owned by the town and an all-volunteer, nonprofit organization called Ascutney Outdoors is putting a ski lift back on the mountain, ready for skiing this season, according to Glenn Seward, one of the organizers and front man for AO.
Ascutney Outdoors has brought in a used T-bar that will push two skiers 1,700 feet up the former ski trail.
“It’s much of the lower mountain,” he said. “That’s about all we’d want to maintain.”
There’s also a new base lodge that serves all recreation activities on the mountain.
Carroll Concrete prepares to pour the concrete for the T-bar terminus on September 26.
They're pouring the concrete for the new T-bar terminus today (September 26) and the lift should be ready for inspection by the end of October.
“It goes pretty fast once the concrete’s in,” Seward said.
The T-bar was donated by a Quebec City area resort called Le Relais.
They had to retrofit the lift a bit and blast the upper terminal area to create a suitable footing and landing spot. There will be 11 total towers.
And when it’s fully operational, you can ski all day at Ascutney for a whopping $15.
Ascutney hasn’t been totally dead since the commercial ski area closed in 2010. The mountain, West Windsor Town Forest and connected land have boasted one of the premier mountain biking trail networks in the region.
An 800-foot rope tow (donations only please) has kept skiing alive when snowfall cooperates.
A “hugely popular” tubing operation has also provided revenues for the overall outdoors recreation activities. Seward said they sometimes sell it out.
“When we have snow, we ski and tube and when we don’t, we don’t.” The tubing run is lighted and available at night.
The mountain’s distinctive, lonely point indicates that you’re about halfway between White River and Springfield when driving down I-91.
As noted, the mountain suffers from random amounts of natural snow.
Burke Mountain suffers in a similar way in the Northeast Kingdom. Burke has recently invested heavily in snowmaking, something Ascutney will not.
But Burke and Ascutney do share a saving grace: Mountain biking. East Burke has become a biking Mecca, which several ski areas in Vermont and elsewhere count on for non-skiing revenues.
Biking helped Ascutney fill in the recreational gap after the ski area closed in 2010.
“It’s been a huge part of what we do,” he said.
Extensive trails have been carved out over the last 10 years. Trails are used for hikers and runners, like the three-day Ragnar Vermont Trail “adventure” which drew 2,000 runners to Ascutney in August.
Seward wore many hats at the resort for 18 years and was the operations manager at Ascutney until he left in 1985 under the Summit Ventures regime, before Susan and Steven Plausteiner arrived. They were the last of the commercial owners of the resort.
The Plausteiners bought it for $1.1 million in 1993. They put several more million into it. Condos, which are still there, were built.
But the resort, saddled under heavy debt, did not open for the 2010 season and their investor foreclosed and took it over that spring.
The town bought the ski area in 2015 from the firm that foreclosed on it (MFW Associates) for just under $1 million. Ascutney Outdoors raised about $700,000 to demolish the burned out former lodge and put in a new one.
The land acquisition for the 469 acres cost $640,000. This amount does not include costs for legal, surveying, administration, stewardship fund, etc.
The national Trust for Public Land played a crucial role early on. They brought the bulk of the money to the table, but another $340,000 needed to be raised.
The Vermont Housing & Conservation Board jumped in, as did the Open Space Institute, the Outdoor Gear Exchange from Burlington, the town itself used some conservation funds, along with small private donors to round out the funding.
Now they’re moving forward with the final recreation piece.
The T-bar will cost a total of about $200,000 install.
The Grand Opening and community celebration will be held at noon January 18, 2020, the Saturday before Martin Luther King Day, with free skiing until 4.
When asked if AO is considering maybe bringing a chairlift back to the mountain, Seward’s answer was an unobfuscated, “No, we are not.”
The AO is a volunteer operation with a $60,000 annual operating budget. Revenues come from the tubing, skiing, donations, renting out the lodge and the trails for events.
Seward is the director of operations and a board member; both are unpaid positions.
The former chairlifts were sold to Crotched Mountain and Pats Peak in New Hampshire. Ascutney once had snowmaking and that also is long gone.
Crotched Mountain is part of the Peak Resorts group that just sold to massive Vail, in a deal that included Mount Snow in West Dover.
One double chair was left behind “because nobody wanted it,” which was fortuitous, Seward said, because they needed one of its towers for the new T-bar.
Just like for the burgeoning mountain biking business, there is competition for AO’s ski operation, as modest as it is.
Seward noted that Suicide Six, the small mountain outside Woodstock just up I-91, is upgrading its facility and the even larger Okemo and Sunapee (NH) resorts are all close by.
Indeed, several of the medium and small resorts in the area are now part of the Freedom Pass of 19 resorts scattered across the continent.
Bolton and Magic Mountain in Vermont and nearby Whaleback in New Hampshire are members of the Freedom Pass.
This is an effort to compete with Vail’s Epic pass and Aspen/Alterra’s Ikon pass, which are available at many of the big Vermont resorts.
Of course, you’ll still need something more than $15 to ski at those places for a day.