Winters of Uncertainty: Cooperatively owned Magic Mountain aims for a future of stable skiing

Joining a party of three from my place in the single’s line, I am pleasantly surprised to notice that both kids have Magic Mountain stickers on their helmets.

“Did y’all ski Magic this weekend?” I ask their father, after briefly exchanging chairlift pleasantries.

“No,” he says longingly, looking down at the trails of packed powder below. “We were going to today. But, of course, it’s closed.”

“Yeah, I heard about,” I say. “Too bad.”

It’s New Year’s Day, and we’re riding the high-speed, detachable, six-person chair from the Sun Bowl base area at nearby Stratton Mountain, in southern Vermont. Over the past week, this relatively low-snow section of the Green Mountain State has received over three feet of fresh powder, with ten inches falling the previous Saturday alone.

For the ski industry, which struggled so mightily while enduring last year’s non-winter-weather winter season, the holiday snowfall is like manna falling from the heavenly snow gods above. And for Magic Mountain, which manages to maintain something of a cult following despite its recent history of financial struggles and periodic closings, the holiday week snowfall is a gift that they especially could have benefited.

But, unfortunately, their Red Chair picked this busy weekend to render itself unsafe. And their Black Chair, for some reason, isn’t running either. And because those two are the only major lifts at the decidedly throwback, old school, low budget, devoutly beloved ski area of Magic Mountain, they had to close, leaving desperate powder hounds to hike up for their knee-deep turns, and the rest of us to seek solace at other resorts.

“We drove up from Fairfield, Connecticut,” the man continues, as the chairlift speeds its way up Stratton Mountain. “My brother-in-law tells these stories about skiing Magic back in the Eighties. Back before they closed for all those years. Skinny skis. Powder. Unbelievable glades. He says it was just legendary.”

We exit the chairlift, wish each other a happy new year, and head our separate directions. Stratton has gotten so much snow, not even their frantic grooming policy can keep the powder from piling up into little mogul fields on trail after blessedly powdery trail. It would be foolish to want for anything more after the disappointment of last year’s ski season. But after the conversation on the chairlift, it’s clear those skiers from Connecticut would rather be at Magic. And so would I.

—–

Founded in Londonderry, Vermont over fifty years ago, Magic Mountain has long been lauded as a true “skier’s mountain” for its bare bones attitude and expert trails. In fact, the area offers little else. There is no resort village full of stores and cafés. There are few slope-side residences. The mountain looks, and feels, like something out of skiing’s past. Which is exactly how Magic’s skiers and riders like it.

“Magic connects deeply with those who come here for two big reasons,” their website offers, “its awesome terrain and its authentic community “vibe”. It’s why Magic not only endures but now offers skiers and riders a true alternative to today’s crowded corporate resorts.”

Last spring, skiers expressed their appreciation by purchasing 333 shares of cooperative Magic Mountain ownership, for $3,000 each, thereby raising almost a million dollars in much-needed capital, and providing some measure of security for this traditionally erratic ski resort.

Which is quite extraordinary, given the unstable states of both our economy and our winter, that a community of skiers and riders would make the leap of faith to financially support a small ski area. And it’s a testament to how much Magic Mountain, and independent skiing in general still matters, regardless of the industry’s rising lift-ticket prices and dwindling snowfall accumulations.

“It’s a preservation society as much as an investment opportunity,” says Jim Sullivan, President of Magic Mountain. “It’s the emotional investment that we are offering.”

The few financial perks of co-ownership are limited to discounts on lift tickets and passes. Instead, Magic is attracting the kind of investor/skier who is more interested in having a say in ski area management issues, and how those issues affect plans for the future.

“This is a very exciting time for the mountain and everyone associated with it,” Sullivan adds on Magic Mountain’s blog. “We have taken a great step in stabilizing and perpetuating Magic’s future.”

—–

Like many ski areas, this small-scale gem has endured a wide array of ownership eras. “Magic Mountain, named for the Thomas Mann novel, opened in 1960,” Seth Masia writes for Skiing Heritage. “[Swiss founder Hans] Thorner was a keen advocate of expert-level fall-line skiing, and that’s how he planned the trail system.”

Magic’s terrain continues to stand in stark contrast to that of other areas, especially in this era of wide groomers and high-speed lifts. Driving to the mountain along Vermont’s infamous automotive ski circuit, State Route 100, it is difficult to see many of Magic’s skinny trails until you have arrived upon the dirt parking lot at its base.

“With [wife] Florence and his sons Arthur and Peter, Thorner operated Magic for 25 years,” continues Masia. “It wasn’t easy. Nearby, Killington and Mount Snow were growing fast, and Stratton opened just up the road in 1961. It became more and more difficult to compete as a destination resort.”

With Hans well into his seventies, the Thorners sold the mountain in 1985, and Magic fell under the ownership of Bromley Mountain, the south-facing ski area nicknamed the “Sun Mountain” that lies just down the road from Londonderry.

Six years later, however, when the promise of real estate expansion didn’t pay off, Bromley had to let go of Magic Mountain, whose lifts would stay still above its closed slopes for five uncertain winters.

“Jim Sullivan, a Connecticut lawyer with a ski-racing background, leased the mountain [in 1996] with the intent to find a few big investors for a major rebuild,” Masia continues. “Major investors weren’t to be found. What Sullivan did find was a loyal group of Magic devotees who liked uncrowded skiing. Following the example of the Mad River Glen ski area co-op … in 2011 Sullivan and a few partners launched Magic Partnership LLC.”

Two years later, Magic continues to strive toward what it hopes will be an era of stable skiing, cooperative ownership, and mountain community preservation. But, as is the case with the expert trails for which the ski area is so well regarded, it appears there will be some bumps along the way. Which somehow seems appropriate, for Magic Mountain.

—–

Heading down the Suntanner trail to Stratton’s busy base village, I look across the valley for a glimpse of the thinly cut, snowy terrain of Magic Mountain, illuminated unassumingly in the late afternoon sunlight. And, while disappointed in the lack of lift access this time around, I know I’ll be back skiing Magic soon enough. And that, as always, the experience will be worth the wait.

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