The Lookout trail forms a backdrop for the Welch Village base lodge
(photo Marc Guido)
Click image to open a full-size Welch Village trail map in a new browser
Peering down from atop the Lookout trail to Welch’s base lodge
(photo Marc Guido)
Everything quickly fell into place as I approached within two miles of the
ski resort, however. The road quickly dropped into a ravine. Over the ages,
the Cannon River has carved its path deep into the surrounding plains, and
at Welch Village you actually ski the sides of this ravine. Pulling into the
parking lot at sunset, the havoc wreaked by November’s warm winds was clearly
evident by the narrow strip of white trickling down the ridgeline on the Lookout
trail. I knew that everything that I was to ski this week was +/- 300 vertical
feet, but somehow I was unprepared for the stark reality that this offered.
In any event, Lookout appeared to have an inviting pitch for an intermediate
run, and I headed into the main lodge to boot up and head out.
Welch Village serves up a buffet of 30 named runs, and uphill transport is
provided by 3 fixed-grip quad chairs (one of them new this season), one triple
chairlift, 4 double chairs and a mitey-mite. As one might expect with all
of that hardware, the skiing is strung out across a considerable length of
the Cannon River ravine. One-hundred percent of Welch’s runs are illuminated
with lighting for night skiing and are serviced by the resort’s airless snowmaking
system. In addition to Lookout, I only spotted the novice Heidi’s Hollow/Ski
Shule combination covered with snow, and after a half-dozen quick runs down
Lookout I had already started glancing at my wristwatch when I bumped into
season passholder Bill Devries, who was out three-pinning for the evening.
"On a busy Sunday you might find two or three of us telemarkers here,"
Bill commented, illustrating the local lack of interest in the variation.
Tonight, however, there were precious few customers at all, let alone free-heeled
skiers. Despite the tuck-and-schuss mentality of the majority of the testosterone-charged
teens, there was plenty of elbow room with which to avoid the unguided missiles.
Even though Lookout carried a blue-square designation, there was enough pitch
to allow the flying-wedge crowd to gather a good head of steam. "I ski
Welch because it has the most challenging terrain in the Metro area,"
Sure enough, Bill led me around the mountain that evening and pointed out
darkened runs such as Dan’s Dive and Pete’s Pike, which had short but steep
headwalls. He also brought me down Harley’s Hollow, a gentle cruise to the
East Chalet on the opposite end of the resort, and home to Mad Jaxx Bar and
Grille. Had I not been with Bill, I doubt that I would have discovered that
this run was even open, as it was the lone descent on that side of the mountain
that had been covered with machine-made snow. The base was firm but adequate
to cover all obstacles, with a thin loose granular surface that begged for
high-speed cruising – and Bill was more than happy to turn on the afterburners.
I had a blast chasing his ski tails, and was very appreciative of the company
and conversation on this quiet evening.
With the pangs of hunger starting to hurt, we ducked into the Jaxx bar for
a quick beer and a basket of chicken fingers. The staff was warm and receptive,
and the room possessed the character that was sorely lacking in the main base
lodge. Despite its smooth exterior, the main lodge was stark and barren on the
inside, and the only foodservice that I spotted there tonight was a standard-issue
fast food counter staffed by young teens. By contrast, with their glowing fire
in the fireplace and an eclectic collection of ski paraphernalia adorning the
walls, the Mad Jaxx Bar and Grille was an inviting respite from the dark, chilly
I had to give Welch Village a lot of credit for the conditions, as up until
this point snowmaking opportunities had been few and far between. It was barely
more than a week after the mercury topped out in the 70’s, and only a couple
of nights of snowmaking weather had occurred between that disaster and my
visit. I was lucky to have had any skiing at all, and although there were
greasy spots (particularly on Harley’s Hollow in the center of the run), I’d
have had no right to complain … and I certainly didn’t. It sure felt good
to ski, and I found myself forgetting about the short runs and limited vertical,
a trend that I would soon discover would continue throughout the week.
Heading back to a warm bed at the Embassy Suites, 45 minutes away in St.
Paul, I was entranced by gaudy and elaborate displays of Christmas lights
on many of the rural homes, in between episodes of dodging whitetail deer
on the road. Surely the local power grid was struggling to keep up with the
demands of these festive celebrations! It was nightlife, rural Minnesota style
… and I loved it.
Atop Storebakken, one of Trollhaugen’s slopes carrying
a black diamond rating (photo Marc Guido)
Crashing the gates (photo Marc Guido)
Storebakken, viewed from the double chair (photo Marc
Click image to open a full-size trail map in a new browser
At Trollhaugen’s base (photo Marc Guido)
Mark Coty’s first tele turns (photo Marc Guido)
The lounge at Trollhaugen (photo Marc Guido)
Instead of heading south to Welch Village as I had
the night before, for the second night of my Twin Cities ski odyssey I headed
north from St. Paul to Trollhaugen, just across the St. Croix River in Dresser,
Wisconsin. The terrain felt distinctly different here – although not hilly,
the land was certainly not as flat as it had been during the drive south of
St. Paul, and trees were more common and the farm
fields somewhat smaller in size. As County Road 25 climbed the grade out of
Dresser, it also became apparent that instead of skiing the side of a ravine,
tonight I would actually descend an honest-to-goodness hill.
A small hill, however. As I approached the parking lot, it seemed that 50%
of the skiable vertical had been burned by Route 25’s ascent. At 260 vertical
feet, Trollhaugen was the shortest ski area that I would visit all week. It
was also among the busiest, in stark contrast to the relative desolation encountered
at Welch Village on the previous evening. Everywhere
I turned on this Monday night, high school race teams established sets of
slalom gates, and the boo bashers swarmed across the hill as coaches provided
by their various schools delivered feedback to their respective teams. Denise
Olson, Trollhaugen’s Marketing Director, surprised me when she advised that
during the week, Trollhaugen is busier during the day than at night. "During
the day, we have a lot of school groups coming through," Olson explained,
"but as far as people like you and I coming out and skiing, we see a
lot less of that at night. But the weekends are great," she added.
Less enthusiastic teammates had descended upon the picnic tables filling
the lower level of Trollhaugen’s sizable lodge which, while not charming,
was more aesthetically pleasing than the main base lodge at Welch
Village. Large pine trees surrounding the lodge combined with its A-frame
architecture to lend a certain alpine air to the resort.
Snowmaking weather had still not returned, but conditions were somewhat softer
than they had been at Welch, albeit with the same
distinctive feel of man-made snow. The snow cover was far more prolific, however,
as roughly 50% of Trollhaugen’s terrain was available for skiing. Olson chalked
this up to the small, yet significant difference in latitude between the two
resorts, confirming an opinion expressed by Bill Defries while at Welch
Village. A crescent moon was visible through an eerie light fog enveloping
the hilltop as I hopped on a quad chair bound for the summit.
Uphill transport is provided by two quad chairs, a double chair, and seven
rope tows. My kid may be a yo-yo fanatic, but his X-Brain collection had nothing
on me tonight. A couple of minutes up, and 30 seconds down was the order of
the evening, and never was a lift line encountered – leading to a rapid cycle
time. I alternated between the double chair and the easternmost quad, the
two lifts closest to the base lodge.
I was again struck by the enthusiasm exhibited by local sliders, perhaps
best illustrated by Eric Sahnow, a high-school gate crasher from Coon Rapids
High School with whom I shared a lift ride. Eric violated the terms of his
poetic license as he discussed the variations of terrain packed into Trollhaugen’s
diminutive size. "You can go over to Fall Line over there and it’s like
you were back in the bowls in Colorado," he emphasized.
After the first several lift rides, I headed further west across the ski
area via the Vesterdahl trail and escaped the world of slalom gates and racers.
I found a third chairlift, another quad, and visible in the darkness to climber’s
right of the lift was a broad novice area yet to be covered by snow, serviced
by several rope tows. That lack of snow failed to discourage two teenaged
snowboarders and one on skis, who prepared to cross the lip of the liftline
trail into the darkness beyond. As an avid tree skier, I had to chuckle to
myself at a sign posted above their heads, on a strip of trees no more than
a couple of feet wide separating the two runs: "No Skiing in The Woods."
Overall, the terrain at Trollhaugen was quite tame. This serves well the
families visiting Trollhaugen who, according to Olson, are their target market.
It also makes for marvelous learning terrain. While exploring the novice Minibakken
slope, serviced by its own rope tow, I had the good fortune to watch Trollhaugen
patroller Mark Coty make his very first telemark turns. Either Coty was a
natural, or his buddy Doug Boylan an amazing instructor, because there was
nothing tentative about Coty’s turns. Again, this overwhelming enthusiasm
for all things skiing was a heartwarming aspect of Twin Cities sliding. Coty
and Boylan both echoed Olson’s comment that Trollhaugen’s forté was
to provide a family ski experience, and Coty was also impressed by Trollhaugen’s
committment to snowmaking this season, advising that the difference in cover
over the two days leading up to my visit was amazing.
Olson advised that Trollhaugen receives some destination traffic, primarily
from the Twin Cities area and points south into Iowa. Lodging may be found
at the River Valley Inn and Suites in nearby Osceola (888-791-0022), and my
drive-by inspection revealed a brand-new, tidy two-story motel.
My evening in Wisconsin ended in Trollhaugen’s lounge. Large picture windows
frame the view of the slopes, and I thoroughly enjoyed a lengthy conversation
with the bartender on duty as I nibbled on appetizers and quaffed a local
beer. Like everyone whom I encountered this week, the staff at Trollhaugen
was warm and friendly. Also located on the base lodge’s upper level is a full-service
restaurant, and next door to the ski shop building Trollhaugen has built a
The trip back to St. Paul from Trollhaugen was a repeat performance of the
night before. My 45-minute drive nearly began with a bang as I narrowly avoided
three deer straddling both shoulders of County Route 25, no more than a mile
after leaving the ski area. Suddenly, the proliferation of International Orange
in the local convenience stores was coming into focus.
Driving toward Taylors Falls along Route 8 from I-35, Lindstrom
has to be the biggest little burgh of 2,500 resident that I’ve yet to come
across. Swedish Christmas greetings were fashioned from lights and strung
across the highway, as the streets bustled with holiday shoppers. I, however,
was on another mission: to further explore the night skiing action in the
Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area.
Tonight I was heading north to Wild Mountain, nestled on the
banks of the St. Croix River, seven miles north of Taylors Falls and a one-hour
drive from the Twin Cities. Billboards for Wild Mountain appeared en route,
bearing the slogan, "Just Far Enough North – We’ve Got the Snow."
I had already seen the effect of this slight increase in latitude at neighboring
Trollhaugen, and I was anxious to see if Wild Mountain could confirm the theory.
Although the terrain was flat for most of the trip, as Route
8 neared the village of Taylors Falls it descended steeply into the St. Croix
River valley. The bluffs high above the river provided sufficient vertical
drop for skiing, and from the river’s edge, the surrounding terrain actually
appeared hilly. Like most of the sleepy little hamlets in the area, Taylors
Falls offers a quiet diversion of several taverns and stores.
Wild Mountain trail
(click image to open a full-sized version in a new browser window)
Amy Frischmon’s parents bought Wild Mountain in 1972, and now
that they’re semi-retired she runs the mountain with her brother Dan Raedeke.
Prior to their acquisition, Wild Mountain (née Val Croix) had 7 runs,
two rope tows and a T-bar. Today it sports 4 quadruple chairlifts and two
rope tows, servicing a vertical drop of 300 feet. Those quad chairs appeared
to be two old double chairs welded together to form a quad, but Wild’s lifts
were some of the first chairs in the area to include safety bars. In the off-season,
Wild Mountain offers alpine slides, water slides, go-karts, a campground and
canoe rentals on the St. Croix, as well as scenic boat tours aboard the riverboat
Taylors Falls Princess. Frischmon advised that after this difficult
early season and a similar warm November and December last year, the summer
business has significantly contributed to the health of the corporation’s
After early meteorological challenges, once normal weather returned
last season January and February, 1999 ended as record months – a good season
at Wild Mountain sees 100,000 skier visits. Frischmon emphasized that Wild
Mountain is run by skiers, and attributed their commitment to snowmaking and
grooming to their own love for the sport. Wild Mountain prides itself as having
opened for skiing first in the Midwest for 20 of the past 22 seasons, but
Frischmon cautioned that they will not open additional terrain before the
open terrain is well-covered. They also have a policy of grooming all runs
every night with the exception of the moguls on "You Asked For It"
and "The Wall" and the terrain features on "Midway."
From atop Competition
(photo Marc Guido)
Snowcats lined up,
parked with snow guns in tow (photo Marc Guido)
This commitment to quality was evident tonight. The open trails
were well-covered by a firm and fast base, with a bit of loose granular on
top for a very edgeable and enjoyable skiing surface. Wild Mountain was adding
to its open trail count quickly, and was poised to resume snowmaking once
temperatures permitted. For this season, Wild Mountain had purchased an additional
25 snowguns, bringing the total to 100, covering every trail. Although most
are portable, several permanently-mounted tower guns were visible at strategic
locations around the hill.
Most impressive, however, was the arsenal of 14 snowcats scattered
about the mountain, all prepped and ready to go for the next snowmaking round.
Most were old Bombardiers and LMCs, no longer fit for grooming, now pressed
into service as workhorses for towing wheel-mounted fan guns. One, which I
had never seen before, was a portable tower gun. The system appeared to be
airless in its entirety.
I spent much of the evening chasing Frischmon from one end of
the ridge to the other – no mean feat, as she obviously spent a childhood
growing up at her parents’ ski area. Wild Mountain Ski Area covered a decent
lateral expanse of the vertically-challenged ridgeline, and the terrain featured
numerous topographical dips and rolls. "North Wild," in particular
seemed designed for high-speed GS arcs, and "Competition" had enough
pitch to let the speed roll.
Frischmon defined Wild Mountain as a family-owned and family-operated
mountain with a family atmosphere, and was quick to agree with my observation
of Wild Mountain as a breeder hill. They offer numerous opportunities to introduce
new participants to the sports of skiing and snowboarding.
All Twin Cities Independent Ski Area Association (TCISAA) ski
areas participate in a 5th- and 6th-grade ski program, and students of that
age at Wild Mountain can receive a lift ticket, lesson and equipment rental
package for a paltry $10. An estimated 100,000 children participate in this
program annually when the numbers at all member ski areas are tallied. Children
aged 4 to 14 (6 to 16 for snowboarders) have the Wildcats program available
seven days per week, and your child can sign up on a week-to-week basis, three
times per season, or for the entire season. Children are paired up with the
same instructor on a weekly basis, and for $90 they may purchase an entire
season’s supply of lessons. $99 additional gets a season lift pass, and for
another $99 your child gets rental equipment for the season. Children are
separated into one of six levels based on both skiing ability and age, and
a printed report acknowledging demonstrated skills is the key to progressing
to the next level.
A skier starts down
North Wild (photo Marc Guido)
For adults, Wild offers a "Get Hooked on Skiing or Snowboarding"
program for ages 14 and up – $99 will get the purchaser 3 lift tickets, 3
lessons and 3 rental packages. Great care has been taken to make the program
as user-friendly for the participant as possible. Should the student wish
to continue their skiing development further, a reduced price season lift
pass is available at the conclusion of the three-session series. Finally,
anyone who walks in the door is offered a free ski (ages 8 and up) or snowboarder
lesson (ages 12 and up), and anyone can purchase an upgradeable $6 rope-tow
lift ticket to the beginner hill.
Like its competition in the Twin Cities market, Wild Mountain
was swarming with race teams, including Forest Lake, Centennial, West Lake,
and Irondale High Schools. Most of the gates appeared to be set up at the
far eastern end of the resort. Along with other area schools, these teams
train at Wild Mountain two to three times per week. For more racing opportunities,
a USSA program is offered through coaching staff provided by Sports Hut, and
participants have their choice to train at Wild or at Buck Hill. Along with
all of the local areas in the TCISAA, Wild Mountain offers the Development,
or "D-Team" program training on Saturday or Sunday, and a full competition
calendar is scheduled between area teams.
Once again, Midwesterners’ enthusiasm for skiing was evident.
In the first five days of this season’s operation, from November 3 until warm
weather forced Wild Mountain to close temporarily on November 7th, upwards
of 2000 sliders enjoyed cover on only one run, "Expressway." On
Thanksgiving Weekend, the record-setting warmth into the 70’s and 80’s reduced
Wild’s trail count to only "Daisy," a novice slope on one side of
the beginner rope tow, yet a lift line existed for much of the holiday. Wild
Mountain typically closes on the last Sunday in March, generally more for
a lack of customers than for a lack of snow cover. Contrary to most resorts
losing customers to Spring activities, however, Frischmon asserted that it’s
due to Western ski vacations by their clientele.
Buck Hill (photo Marc
Buck Hill lends new meaning to the term "suburban ski hill."
A mere 15 minutes from either of the Minneapolis or St. Paul downtown areas,
Buck Hill is perched precariously above I-35 such that it appears that a runaway
ski could impale a passing Kenworth. Tight neighborhood subdivisions rise
right to the top of a chairlift bullwheel, and finding the access road is
tricky amongst convenience stores, fast-food restaurants and new car dealerships.
"Because of our proximity to the Metro area, we’re so convenient to many
people," explained Don McClure, Buck Hill’s General Manager. "If
you’re a season pass holder, you can stop on your way home from work, ski
for an hour and a half, and go home for dinner. When I first worked out here,
it was basically farmland."
Having risen through the ranks from the Buck Hill Ski Patrol,
the soft-spoken McClure seems to feel more at ease in the maintenance garage
than speaking with a ski magazine reporter. Tight spiral iron stairs rise
to a tiny loft above the cafeteria where his office resides. The office itself,
however, fits the typical mold, as ski publications and reports lie scattered
Buck Hill commenced operations in the 1930’s, when a local ski
club installed a double rope tow on the highest point in seven surrounding
counties. Present-day owner Chuck Stone acquired rights to the property and
opened Buck Hill in 1954, and in 1960 he sold shares to the public to finance
the installation of a Hall t-bar and one of the country’s first snowmaking
systems – a necessity in a part of the nation which averages only 60 inches
of natural snow per year. Buck Hill has continued to grow over the years such
that it now claims one quad chair, three double chairs, one j-bar, three rope
tows, one handle tow and two tubing lifts.
Buck Hill trail
(Click image to open a full-sized version in a new browser window)
In a word … consistent
(photo Marc Guido)
Buck Hill’s base
area, tucked close to the Interstate (photo Marc Guido)
It was Erich Sailer’s racing program, however, that put Buck
Hill on the map. Sailer has placed many members on the U.S. Ski Team, including
current members Tasha Nelson and slalom sensation Kristina Kosnick. One soon
realizes that running gates proves an effective way to keep skiing fresh when
practiced on a 310-vertical-foot hill. Accordingly, the Buck Hill Ski Club
claims over 100 members in its roster.
For their training, slalom is the only event that’s transferable
to other regions of the country. A three-hundred-foot vertical slalom hill
in Minnesota can prepare someone to ski slalom almost anywhere in the world.
In speed disciplines, however, the hills just aren’t big enough. In fact,
there is only one FIS approved giant slalom trail in the entire USSA Central
Division. Coaches from other regions have been known to give the Central coaches
a rough time for visiting Mount Hood in the summer and using precious training
time for slalom. Their reasoning is that the kids can get that anytime at
home, whereas at Hood the Super-G training can be ideal, especially during
early summer. Slalom is, however, their “bread and butter.” The performance
of Cindy Nelson from Lutsen in the 1976 Olympic Downhill seems to be the long-standing
anomaly. Night skiing, training and racing is done here more than almost anywhere
else on earth, so it’s no wonder that in the last two World Cup seasons, the
only woman to win both night races (slaloms, of course) is Koznick. She’s
better known in Europe, where the press call her the “Queen of the Night,”
than she is at home.
Their reputation as a center for slalom expertise has created
a waiting list of high school teams who wish to practice at Buck Hill. Racing
programs include adults as well – three leagues on Sundays, USSA Masters racing
on Mondays, another adult Ski Challenge league on Tuesdays, another one on
Wednesdays, another one on Thursdays, and NASTAR racing on Fridays. What happens
on Saturdays? "We take the day off," sighs McClure. Virtually all
of the adult race series are sold out for this season.
A cold front welcomed a return to snowmaking weather on the
night of my visit, and numerous guns of both the air/water and airless variety
sprang to life in succession. Snowmaking installations line 100% of Buck Hill’s
trails, as do lights for night skiing. Despite the fact that Buck Hill had
just suffered through the warmest November on record, and in fact had yet
to experience a daily high temperature under 30 degrees, a full 50% of their
terrain was open and well-covered. Under the conditions ushered in by tonight’s
front, McClure beamed with pride when he advised that they could have the
remaining 50% opened in a matter of days.
Out on the hill, one word came to mind: consistency. As consistent
as Sailer’s coaching, each trail had the most even grade that I was to find
all week. On one hand, this uniformity provided the opportunity to really
concentrate on my technique. On another, it quickly led to monotony.
Suburban lights twinkled from atop Buck’s lifts amongst the
spray from blazing snowguns. The St. Paul skyline glowed some 15 miles away,
while traffic sped past on the Interstate highway below. It was a radical
departure from the relative solitude experienced thus far during my week in
the Twin Cities area. The snow was of a fine quality, especially from the
air/water guns, and I found places with a couple of inches of dry manmade
in which to play.
Tubing seems to be the new rage at many small- to medium-sized
ski areas, and Buck Hill debuted their tubing program for the 1998/99 season
with seven chutes and one lift. Its success prompted them to double both the
uphill and tubing capacities for this year. Buck Hill claims 125,000 visits
annually, and McClure estimates that tubing contributes to about 10% of their
Buck Hill welcomes snowboarders to a terrain park and a competition-spec
half-pipe serviced by a Pipe Dragon. New this season, they’ve added a "mini
half-pipe" for kids 12 and under with four- to five-foot walls.
For never-evers, Buck Hill offers its "Guaranteed Learn
to Ski Program": a three-time package of lifts, lessons and rentals for
$70. Those beginners will be outfitted this season on one of 650 new pair
of Elan SCX parabolic skis with Marker bindings. Similar intermediate and
advanced programs are also available for $60, sans rentals. Roughly 130 PSIA
instructors are available to teach these courses.
It didn’t take long to reach my hotel room in St. Paul after
leaving Buck Hill. My Midwestern ski odyssey had but one day left…
Dick Lemke is a fascinating man. I hadn’t known what to expect
from the General Manager of Afton Alps when I established a time to meet with
him, as he seemed too hurried on the telephone to deal with a ski magazine
reporter. I wasn’t sure that I’d gain any valuable information from our meeting,
but I arrived at the appointed time nonetheless and hoped for the best.
With well-worn features from a lifetime of hard work in the
ski industry, and a deep smoker’s voice, he quickly ushered me out of the
office. "If I don’t get out of here to do this, we’ll be interruped,"
he explained as we dashed to the adjacent building. "Let’s go upstairs
to the bar, because I could use a cigarette."
Once there, Lemke was a different man. He relaxed, and I suspect
that he doesn’t have many opportunities to do so. The corporation also owns
Mount Kato in Mankato,
Minnesota, and Titus
Mountain in upstate New York, and has its hand in real estate development,
farm leasing and a golf course, along with other projects. Lemke manages all
aspects of business development for the company, such that he is a very busy
We enjoyed nearly two hours of stimulating conversation, and
I found it difficult to pull myself away to actually go skiing. Lemke has
spent his entire career in the ski industry, first at nearby Buck Hill and
later here at Afton Alps, and has the experiences, tales and opinions to show
Afton commenced operations in 1963, and has been owned by Paul
Augustine since day one. Despite his advanced age and deteriorating health,
Augustine was visible throughout the base facilities all evening, and clearly
wishes to remain as involved in day-to-day operations as possible.
Afton Alps trail map
(click image to open a full-sized version in a new browser window)
A lot has certainly changed during the 37 years of Afton’s operation.
"Go back 20 years … what was there to do in the winter?" Lemke
asked rhetorically as we discussed the flat number of skier visits. He sees
diverse competition for the lift ticket dollar across all leisure time activities.
"There was skiing, snowmobiling hadn’t surged like it has in the last
decade, there weren’t really VCR’s, there weren’t these huge multiple-screen
theaters with stadium seating, no pull tabs … you’re talking about disposable
income." Despite industry stagnation, Afton still puts 200,000-250,000
snowsports enthusiasts per year on 40 runs over 350 vertical feet, via 18
chairlifts, two rope tows and one handle tow, and a snow tubing park with
two handle tows.
What makes Afton unique in the Twin Cities metro area? "One
word: size," replied Lemke. "We’ve got about 250 acres, and there’s
no other area in this market that’s got half that. Eighteen chairlifts. Four
chalets. Because of our size, we’re closer to being all things to all people.
Kids want to go over to the terrain park, Mom and Dad are in NASTAR racing."
Prior to my arrival, I had a difficult time envisioning over
twenty lifts on such a short hill. Concerned that the downhill capacity at
Afton couldn’t absorb all of those skiers, Lemke pointed out, "With eighteen
chairlifts, how many bodies do you have hanging up in the air? It’s all pretty
Like every area visited this week, Afton Alps has 100% snowmaking
and night lighting coverage. "We’re probably one of the last people in
this market that has an air/water system," Lemke advised, "and we
use fan guns as well. An air/water system costs a lot of money. It’s a better
system in marginal weather, but you’re paying for it. The fans put out more
gallons per minute in cold weather, but you can’t run them in marginal weather."
Marginal weather was exactly what Afton was facing this December.
Like the other Twin Cities areas, Ma Nature cursed Afton during the early
season with repeated days of record warmth.
"Size is a blessing and a curse," Lemke added. "In
a year like this, size is a curse because you have a lot of ground to cover.
A lot of the guys like to advertise that they’re 50% open, and if we get into
percentages it kills us, so we list runs."
When asked about the lack of "mood snow," he admitted,
"It’s a big factor. In spite of us making snow – we’ve been making snow
since the early ’60s – it’s still psychological. How motivated would you be
to go to the beach if it was all overcast, but all you’re going to do there
is swim? If you’re in the water, it doesn’t make any difference. The water
doesn’t change. (People) have to slip and slide around the roads a little
bit to put them in the mood and then they think about (going skiing)."
Lemke added that years ago, "the media wasn’t putting the
focus on weather reporting, and sensationalizing it. They’d say, ‘Here’s what
the temperature is, here’s what our guess is for tomorrow.’ Now they’re giving
you 5-day forecasts, which are anybody’s guess. We draw very well out of Iowa,
and these people make their plans based on these 5-day forecasts."
Discussing Afton’s target market, Lemke continued, "Twin
Cities skiers who go for the weekend go to Spirit Mountain, Giant’s Ridge
or Lutsen – they’re going north. For those in Iowa, for a weekend destination
they’re going north, but they’re going to go as far as us. We do a lot of
advertising in Iowa, and even in the Chicago market. We do probably 1,000
skiers out of the Twin Cities market on any given Saturday or Sunday out of
7,000 or 8,000 skiers." Despite this, Afton has yet to negotiate any
package rates with area lodging establishments. The nearby sleepy namesake
ville of Afton contains several bed-and-breakfasts nestled along its main
street. More typical accomodations are available a short distance away as
one heads toward St. Paul.
The new second floor
of the Alps Chalet (photo Marc Guido)
Challenge in front of the Alps Chalet
(photo Marc Guido)
Afton Alps is in the midst of a modernization program. For this
year, they’ve gutted one of their base lodge buildings, added an entirely
new second floor, and will remodel the lower floor to bring it up to current
standards. The finishing touches were still being applied to the new addition.
"Parts of the area are 37 years old," Lemke explained, "and
there are only so many coats of paint that you can put on a wall. The skier
has become far more sophisticated over the years, far more demanding. It’s
more than just a skiing experience – it’s a social experience. You need to
offer more than just a hamburger and french fries."
Although the national average is for 25% of "skier visits"
by snowboarders, Afton sees a lower percentage than that and wishes to increase
snowboarder traffic by catering more to that market. Thoughts running through
Lemke’s head include adding a second terrain park and scheduling additional
snowboarding events. For boo bashers, Afton offers similar programs to those
available at other Twin Cities areas: high-school racing, college racing,
club racing, and a USSA program.
Lemke advised that the tubing park is a great family weekend
business, frequented by groups such as the Boy Scouts and 4H. "Anybody
can do it because it requires no skill," explained Lemke. "It’s
profitable, but the main deal is to get people out here who have never been
to a ski area. They go tubing for 3 hours for ten bucks, and many of those
little kids are going to look up there and say, ‘Mommy, Daddy, I wanna try
this!’" For these children, Afton offers an accredited SkiWee
program. Lemke added, "All (potential customers) see is people going
off a cliff on TV commercials. Why do we do wedding receptions in the summer?
It’s not because we’re getting rich off of doing wedding receptions. People
come out here and look up the hill, and realize that it’s not as intimidating
looking as they thought it was."
Afton Alps offers its tubers a discount off their ski or snowboard
Beginner’s Special, priced at $59.95 for three occasions of all-area lifts,
lessons and rentals. For those who want to try a one-time shot, Afton will
throw in a free lesson with the purchase of a lift ticket and rental equipment.
Lemke advised, "The last thing we want to see people do is come out here
and get a lift ticket and rentals, go out there and flounder around and have
a terrible time. We’ll never get them back. You have to reinvest in your future.
This industry has to a large extent found it easier to steal each other’s
skiers through price, and nobody’s looking out to bring in that entry level.
You don’t make any money trying to teach someone how to ski. In fact, you
probably lose a little when you get all done with it. And, it’s a lot of work.
But if we don’t do it, we all know what ski numbers have been doing over the
past decade. It’s a known fact: where you learn to ski, you have a loyalty."
Afton spent a quarter of a million dollars this season on new
rental equipment, in the form of Rossignol shaped skis, and endeavors to turn
over 25% of its rental stock every year. This virtually ensures that no rentals
are more than four years old. Afton’s base lodge retail ski shop was also
the most complete that I’d seen all week, stuffed to the rafters with equipment,
high-end clothing and accessories. My absent-mindedness required a trip to
the cashier to acquire yet another pair of ski socks, and I found the selection
more than adequate.
The man-made blizzard
(photo Marc Guido)
Where’s the hill?!
An unusual view greets your arrival at Afton Alps
(photo Marc Guido)
At one point, our conversation turned to the consolidation trend
within the ski resort industry, and Lemke expects independent ski areas to
create "buyer’s groups" to provide economies of scale. Why should
an individual ski area buy two groomers, when an association of ski resorts
can negotiate for a dozen? It’s a fascinating concept, and an obvious way
for the remaining independent ski areas to compete with the large holding
companies that continue to gobble up resorts across North America.
By the time I hit the slopes at 7:30, skier traffic was quiet
but the noise wasn’t, as the guns were blasting everywhere. At the top of
my first chairlift ride, there was a virtual blizzard in progress as well
as an odd view of high-tension wires traversing the resort as well as a mountaintop
maintenance garage. Afton has an unusual arrangement where you arrive at the
top of the ski area, then follow a road to the bottom where the primary lodge
is located. Upon entering the access road you pass the summit bullwheels of
several chairlifts, an strange view as they cast the impression of being located
on flat ground. The narrow access road then descends steeply to the valley
floor. Once arriving at the parking lot, you have another unusual experience:
purchase of your lift tickets at a tiny booth regulating traffic flow into
the parking lot, much like a highway toll booth. Bizarre.
I couldn’t help but note that the old Hall double that I was
riding was powered by a top-mounted diesel motor, an unusual powering scheme
in this day and age. This turned out to be the configuration of all of the
lifts that I encountered at Afton Alps. Those eighteen chairlifts are spread
across a surprisingly large expanse of ridgeline, with nearly a chairlift
for each trail which descends its flanks. My plan was to gradually work my
way from west to east. The resort’s ridgeline has a 90-degree bend in the
middle, with one end of the "V" shape with a northern exposure,
and the other facing east (the Highlands area). Only the north-facing runs
were open, although a few days of quality snowmaking would boost Afton to
The aforementioned snowmaking provided a delightful surface
for my first run. The surface snow was a wonderfully dry, fluffy machine-made.
The summit area includes Afton’s golf course, and in this lean snow year it
was apparent that I was riding a chairlift over fairways, tees and cart paths
as I neared the unloading ramp. Yet another bizarre sight at Afton Alps! "You
should see it when there’s simultaneous golfing and skiing available,"
exclaimed the lift attendant.
Trudy’s Run &
Inga’s Schuss (photo Marc Guido)
It was refreshing to find terrain with a decent pitch at the
far western end of the resort on Trudy’s Schuss and Inga’s Run, directly in
front of the ticket booth. The terrain gradually mellows as you head toward
the east, with some wonderful teaching terrain on Mary’s Meadow and a separate
lodge near where the ridgeline heads around the bend to the south. Although
wide, many of the steeper runs had quirky double fall lines, concave or convex
surfaces that made the hill ski much larger than its 350 vertical feet would
suggest. I wasn’t bored this evening, thanks both to the terrain itself and
to its sheer variety.
Afton was a terrific way to end my tour of skiing in the Twin
Cities metro area, a trip which was an education for me. If a confession must
be made, I undertook the trip with an arrogant attitude, convinced that quality
skiing could not be packed into tiny vertical in the Plains states. I was
heartened to discover not only pleasant skiing, but perhaps the most enthusiastic
group of skiers that I’ve ever encountered – people who could teach a lesson
to the little bit of a snow snob that exists deep inside nearly all of us.