Chances are you learned how to ski at a small mom-and-pop ski area. Or so says the Community Ski Area Survey, which interviewed 1,400 people at the end of March to better understand the role small ski areas play in the ski industry and in the lives of avid skiers.
According to the survey, 70 percent of respondents learned to ski at areas with less than 1,600 vertical feet, confirming popular thought that small ski areas are a gateway to the sport for beginners and young families. As skiers grew older and presumably more confident in their skiing ability, the survey showed a trend of spreading out to bigger ski resorts with more vertical feet.
"The results definitely reflected my life in skiing," says Mark Weitz, who co-organized the survey. "We all learned to ski wherever was local and many of us stayed attracted to the sport. Some of us clustered to ski areas and a few of us made it our profession, and now we're at the point where we're skiing with our family."
Three organizations came together to conceptualize and carry out the survey: The Antelope Butte Foundation, Ski Essentials, and Mountain Riders Alliance. Matt McGinnis, web content specialist at SkiEssentials.com, a discount gear website with a popular blog called Chairlift Chat, recently wrote a piece about the importance of small ski areas. The article caught the eye of Weitz, who is president of the Antelope Butte Foundation. Weitz founded the volunteer group in 2010 to re-open the Antelope Butte Ski and Recreation Area, a mom-and-pop ski hill in northern Wyoming that shut down when mom and pop broke up in 2004. Weitz and McGinnis also reached out to Jamie Schectman, co-founder of the Mountain Riders Alliance, which promotes similar values in favor of community-minded ski areas.
"I was concerned about the direction the ski industry was taking. Smaller standalone ski areas closing, with a record low of 470 ski areas operating down from a high of 735," says Schectman. "We want to help these ski areas thrive."
Driven to get hard numbers that spoke to the philosophy of saving the little ski areas, the three men organized the voluntary response survey, published on the Ski Essentials blog. Respondents answered a series of 10 questions about their history as a skier: How old were you when you started skiing? Who first took you skiing? Where did you learn to ski—a big resort or a smaller ski area? Their answers spoke to a path typically followed by lifelong skiers.
The majority of skiers polled began skiing as a kid—83 percent began skiing between age two and 17—and nearly all of them are still skiing. The survey also pointed out that skiing is a family sport with 65 percent stating that they began skiing with their families, and 77 percent saying that they continue to ski with their families.
Many of the people who took their survey are connected with one of the three organizations on the web, or they were enticed by the promise of a free pair of skis or lift tickets (the reward for a few lucky survey-takers). So taken in context, the results are understood as a poll of people who consider skiing an important element of their life—important enough to be aware of ski-related news and surveys circulating the web.
With numbers to help validate the importance of these small areas, all three organizations hope to garner more support for their own causes. Schectman hopes the survey results will help larger resorts better understand how vital their "little brothers and sisters," as he calls them, are to their own success. Weitz also notes that he hopes this survey will be a platform to launch bigger studies into skier demographics and shed light on the importance of these smaller areas as a foundation for new skiers and the homes of skiing families alike.
"A community ski area is price accessible, supports local nonprofits, puts on community events. They're soulful, full of characters, not homogenized, not a cookie cutter village at the bottom," Schectman says. The familiar runs and cheap burgers, the owner's wife working the ticket counter, the same liftie bumping chairs for a decade—these mountains are where many of us learned to ski, and where we learned to love to ski.