Preserving Wildcat: Owner seeks Peak balance
by Eric Wilbur/
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the January 2011 issue of New England Ski Journal.
When it was announced in late October that Peak Resorts had added New Hampshire’s Wildcat Mountain to its New England portfolio of ski areas, the news sent shockwaves through the skiing community of the Mount Washington Valley.
“It was definitely considered big news in the valley,” said Marti Mayne, public relations manager for the Mount Washington Valley Chamber of Commerce. “As we all know, it’s getting more and more difficult these days to individually own a ski resort.”
Thanks to rising costs in insurance, snowmaking and the demand for peripheral activities not generally related to skiing and riding, private ownership is indeed becoming a thing of the past. After Pat Franchi, whose family had owned Wildcat since 1986, sold to Peak, a resort management firm based in the Midwest, it left the valley with just two remaining family-run downhill ski areas — King Pine in West Ossipee, and Black Mountain in Jackson. Conversely, it gave Peak two controlling interests in the area — the Pinkham Notch-based Wildcat and nearby Attitash in Bartlett. Including Crotched Mountain and Vermont’s Mount Snow, that now gives Peak ownership of four ski areas in New England.
The immediate reaction to the sale from Wildcat loyalists was unambiguous: “Don’t mess it up.”
As if that were possible.
Let this be known about any potential changes at Wildcat now that the ski area is under new ownership: There will not be a posh hotel and spa sitting slopeside anytime soon. Nor should you expect any impending base village, nightclubs or fine-dining establishments to be erected in the shadow of Mount Washington. In other words, forget about Wildcat Mountain “Resort.”
The reason, to use a real estate cliché, is simple: location, location, location.
Because Wildcat operates entirely within the White Mountain National Forest under a Special Use Permit issued by the U.S. Forest Service, it means the pristine surroundings are there to stay, helping to retain a certain timelessness over the past 50-plus years. The view of Mount Washington and the Presidentials will forever remain unspoiled by expansion, which is just one of the many reasons Wildcat ranks high among New England skiing experiences.
“It’s a unique experience because of its location,” Wildcat spokesperson Thomas Prindle said.
Still, for a place that seemed impervious to change, Wildcat certainly has seen its share of it the past few months. Peak’s acquisition of the mountain was a transaction that split a divide between the Wildcat faithful. Some saw the benefits of improved snowmaking, potential lodge improvements and, most of all, combination lift tickets and season passes with nearby Attitash. Others pointed to the fact that Peak immediately wiped out all of Wildcat’s deals (including 2-for-1 Wednesdays, $25 Sunday afternoons and free birthdays) that consistently made it an affordable and attractive destination as an indication that other big changes were imminent.
But the core of what drew Peak to its acquisition of Wildcat in the first place — the terrain, vibe and view — is going nowhere. Instead, the resort operations company thrives on the potential of having two very distinct ski areas within a 15- to 20-minute drive of each other. The allure of giving skiers and riders that option is in no way an attempt to create a franchise look and feel.
“We’re not trying to clone one after the other,” Peak vice president Kent Graham said. “Every mountain has its own character. Wildcat is going to remain Wildcat.”
It would be difficult to think of the ski area otherwise. Wildcat’s deep history dates back to 1933, when the Civilian Conservation Corps started clearing the Wildcat trail, one of the first ski racing trails built in the United States. In 1958, the Wildcat Mountain ski area opened with the first gondola in the country in tow and gained a reputation of being a mountain for experts, one that it still holds to this day, even if such an assumption isn’t entirely accurate.
“There’s this perception of Wildcat Mountain that it’s only for the hard-core skier or rider,” Prindle said. “And it’s not.”
For certain, there are plenty of trails for beginners and intermediates to find to their liking at Wildcat. The meandering Polecat, the longest trail in the state, is a top-to-bottom treasure with spectacular views that anyone who knows how to carve a turn can experience. Intermediate run Lynx is such a hit that it can tend to get skied over by late morning, and trails such as Bobcat and Cheetah offer the chance for aspiring racers to cut their teeth.
Of course, there’s also Wildcat’s gnarly terrain to keep experts happy, and that includes trails such as Al’s Folly, Feline and Hairball, areas of the mountain that will challenge even the most trained skier. So will the boilerplate conditions that can tend to exist in midwinter, as well as the deep corn that has made Wildcat a spring skiing mecca for decades.
Sitting just a shade over 17 miles away, Attitash has its own set of characteristics. Initially opened in 1965 as a “red carpet” ski resort, by limiting ticket sales and lift lines via a reservation process, classic-cut trails such as Ptmarmigan’s and Tightrope of the main event today complement the wide cruisers and glades next door at Bear Peak, which opened in 1994, offering skiers and riders the most variety in the valley. With slopeside lodging, a spa and nighttime dining, its culture is seemingly everything that Wildcat’s is not.
“It’s very cool to have these two resorts so close to each other,” Prindle said.
The partnership awards skiers and riders options they’ve never had in the valley before, with not only combination season passes but also lift tickets, which is an attractive option with the resorts’ proximity to each other. If it’s raining at Attitash, it could be dumping at Wildcat, which is 1,000 feet higher in elevation. Vice versa, if the Wildcat quad chairlift is on hold, as will happen from time to time during the winter months thanks to wind blustering from the direction of the Presidentials, ticket holders have the choice of making their way to Bartlett and Attitash for the day instead of a possible futile wait at Pinkham Notch.
Wildcat and Attitash also announced a joint discount card in November that may help alleviate some of the discounts for which Wildcat was widely known. The $79 frequent skier card allows users 50 percent off non-holiday weekdays, 25 percent off non-holiday weekends, and 10 percent off on holidays at both areas. Skiers and riders also have the options of purchasing season passes good at both Mount Washington Valley areas, or adding Crotched, Mount Snow and Jack Frost Big Boulder — a Peak-owned area in the Poconos — for additional costs.
Peak also has made immediate improvements at Wildcat, including the installation of 60 new snow guns, a new grooming machine and $80,000 worth of Rossignol rental equipment. Future endeavors could include both base and summit lodge renovations, for surely both need love to varying drastic degrees.
But those decisions are for a later date, Graham said, as Peak will use its first year of ownership to create a priority list at the end of the season, at which point decisions will be made.
“This is the year that we sit back and evaluate,” Graham said. “Hopefully, we’ll put a better product on the ground. Beyond that, we’re just sitting back and watching how things operate.”
The jury is still out as to what it means for the area moving forward, as businesses in the Mount Washington Valley, including dozens of hotels, restaurants and retail outlets, depend on the income the areas skiing brings with it. Whether or not the marriage between Attitash and Wildcat persuades more skiers and riders to make the valley a destination remains to be seen. Mayne, for one, is optimistic.
“I think any time you make skiing more attractive and more affordable, it’s always going to have a positive effect,” Mayne said. “It gives (skiers and riders) an additional reason to choose the Mount Washington Valley over other areas in New Hampshire and New England.”
As for Wildcat, Prindle said that he thinks the mountain is the perfect fit with Peak in that the resort operator is not a real estate trust, more focused on improving and maintaining the quality of its product, the main ingredient that drives business — snow — than developing hotels, condos and five-star restaurants.
“For the long run of Wildcat Mountain, it will be a good thing,” he said. “It’s about as good of an ownership that Wildcat Mountain could have hoped for.”