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Selling the nonski slopes

Resorts pursue a sledding, hiking, snowshoeing clientele

Cherrymax Sleds president Steve Luhr with his ride at Tenney Mountain.
Cherrymax Sleds president Steve Luhr with his ride at Tenney Mountain. (Cheryl Senter for the Boston Globe)
Email|Print| Text size + By Nicole C. Wong
Globe Staff / January 31, 2008

PLYMOUTH, N.H. - On a recent Saturday, Cully Gustafson was racing down a slope on a Hammerhead sled - a new piece of equipment that sports bicycle-like handlebars and a springy mesh seat - on his first trip to Tenney Mountain resort.

"I haven't skied in a couple years," said the 46-year-old from Plymouth, Mass. "No time now with kids."

With lifestyles so jam-packed and high-priced, fewer people are sinking time and money into skiing or snowboarding. So several New England resorts this season are trying to squeeze more money out of skiers and snowboarders while also luring people who otherwise would not set foot on the slopes by dedicating small sections of their mountains to easier-to-learn, cheaper activities such as sledding, snowshoeing, and winter hiking. After all, a day of skiing or snowboarding can easily cost $90 at popular mountains, while snowshoeing and cross-country skiing can be as little as $30.

"This is revitalizing the ski operation," said Kirk Nassetta, a partner with White Mountain Exploration, which took over operations at Tenney in June and has also introduced snowshoeing and snow-cave construction this winter.

The steep expense and learning curve of skiing and snowboarding deterred 17-year-old Samantha Claussen, who recently skimmed down a Tenney slope in a doughnut-shaped snowtube. The Derry, N.H., student is so busy with bell choir, karate, and seven other extracurricular activities that she raches the slopes only once a year. "If I spent the money to take lessons, I'd have it only for one day and I'd forget it all by next year," she said.

Claussen isn't alone. The US population of downhill skiers has declined 17 percent since 2001, with the number of skiers ages 7 and older who hit the slopes more than once during the calendar year totaling only 6.4 million in 2006, according to the National Sporting Goods Association. The snowboarding population also has slid 17 percent since 2003, turning out only 5.2 million boarders in 2006.

David Belin, director of RRC Associates, a ski and snowboard industry consultant in Boulder, Colo., said participation in physically intense downhill skiing has been blown back by the popularity of other leisure activities and destinations, the aging baby boomer population, and perhaps even by the increasing numbers of obese children.

The number of times skiers and snowboarders visited the Northeast's 139 ski areas last winter fell 5.6 percent from the 2005-2006 season to 11.8 million, the fewest in more than a decade, according to the National Ski Areas Association.

But some slope operators said skiing and snowboarding are generating as much business as ever. Last winter, they said, unseasonably late snowfall hurt New England resorts. And nationwide, the number of times skiers and snowboarders visited the slopes - a measure of business activity rather than popularity - reached a new plateau over the past five winters with more than 55 million visits annually.

Still, "some people are just intimidated by the sport," said Bonnie MacPherson, spokeswoman for Okemo Mountain Resort. That's part of the reason the Ludlow, Vt., resort introduced ice skating and tubing last winter.

Anne Sa'adah, 52, stopped downhill skiing long ago, partly because of the expense and partly because "I don't want a broken leg," she said.

Recently, the Dartmouth College political science professor took advantage of a $15 special on Tenney's morning-long introductory mountaineering class. On an icy slope beneath a closed ski lift, she learned how to use a mountaineering axe to arrest her fall and how to climb with the "duck foot" step wearing crampons on her boots.

Granite Gorge Ski Area in Keene , N.H., plans to run a Scandinavian-inspired skijoring clinic on Feb. 23, in which four or five cross-country skiers glide along a trail, each harnessed to a mushing husky. Fred Baybutt, Granite Gorge's owner, said he will embrace skijoring next winter if the $10-per-person test run draws enough spectators, who just might spring for hot chocolate while watching.

Meanwhile, Wildcat Mountain Ski Area in New Hampshire introduced the ZipRider, which lets people rush down the slope as fast as 45 miles per hour while sitting in a swinging harness suspended from a half-mile-long steel cable 25 to 80 feet above the ground. Tickets cost $19 for the first ride and $10 for additional ones.

"You don't need any training," said Todd Donahue, Wildcat's ZipRider director. "You don't have to do anything other than enjoy the ride."

At Smugglers' Notch Resort in Vermont, overnight guests can go Airboarding, hurling down a beginner run head-first on inflatable rafts the way penguins slide over ice on their stomachs. Riders throw their legs and feet off to the side to help steer or drag them in the snow to help stop. If they tumble off, their legs won't get tangled up because they're not locked onto rigid equipment the way skiers' and snowboarders' legs are.

Airboarding, now offered for the third winter, has been slowly gaining traction. Instructor Kevin Penney, 20, explains the entire Airboarding lesson in 1 minute and 47 seconds. "It's not like skiing or snowboarding, where it takes a couple days to become a beginner. It's something you can learn in one run," said Penney, whose first Airboard run was on Dec. 26. "I was an instructor the next day. That's how easy it is."

Nicole C. Wong can be reached at nwong@globe.com.


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