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Region’s ski resorts rise to meet challenges left by Irene

Tropical Storm Irene badly damaged Killington’s Superstar Pub, which is being replaced with a new bar nearby. Tropical Storm Irene badly damaged Killington’s Superstar Pub, which is being replaced with a new bar nearby. (Killington Resort)
By Stephen Jermanok
Globe Correspondent / November 6, 2011

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All eyes were on the Atlantic shoreline the morning of Aug. 28 as Hurricane Irene, downgraded to a tropical storm, slowly made her treacherous way north. We would soon find out that this broad-shouldered storm had a far greater affinity for New England’s mountains than for its sea. Irene wreaked havoc as she followed the spine of peaks from the Berkshires into Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. Southern Vermont took the brunt of the hit, not necessarily from the wind as much as from the deluge of rain that caused rivers to overflow, washing away bridges and resulting in more than 200 sections of collapsed road.

New England ski areas were not immune to the devastation. Killington’s Superstar Pub was knocked from its foundation by surging Roaring Brook. Mount Snow was virtually an island surrounded by floodwaters, with road closures limiting accessibility. All along the spine of the Green Mountains, from Ludlow, home to Okemo, to Waitsfield, the site of Sugarbush, Route 100 was so torn up it looked as if it had been bombed.

Ski areas outside of Vermont were not spared Irene’s wrath. The storm dropped over 10 inches of rain on Lincoln, N.H., causing the East Branch of the Pemigewasset River to flood and the main bridge from the Kancamagus Highway to Loon Mountain Resort to crumble. Other bridges came tumbling down on the extensive cross-country trail network at Jackson Ski Touring and along the access road to Sugarloaf in Carrabassett Valley, Maine. In the Berkshires, work at Jiminy Peak cost upward of $30,000 to renovate damaged slopes.

Spurred on by a strong sense of community and the financial need to keep the important fall foliage season afloat, the response to the devastation was almost instantaneous. Ski resorts did their part to chip in and help clean up.

“We had about 40 men and women from the Army National Guard staying with us for a month,’’ says Dave Meeker at the Mount Snow Resort, adding that “they were nothing short of incredible. They brought many pieces of heavy equipment and worked tirelessly to help rebuild our roads, fix culverts, whatever was needed. Mount Snow employees joined the volunteer force to help muck out people’s basements, clean up debris, and do anything else we could do to help.’’

Over at Okemo, Irene took a personal turn when folks discovered that an associate who occupied a real estate office in the base lodge had drowned in the storm and Brian Halligan, director of group sales, had lost his home to flooding on the White River. The resort decided that the last concert of its summer music festival would be used as a fund-raiser. More than $10,000 was raised for Black River Good Neighbor Services, a local charity that helps provide food, fuel, and other services to those in need.

Other ski areas such as Killington quickly set their sights on fixing the problems on the mountain. Crews dismantled and removed the Superstar Pub and restored the raging Roaring Brook to its original stream bed.

“We’re in the midst of building the Roaring Brook Umbrella Bar on a deck overlooking the water, which should be open by the end of November,’’ says Killington’s Sarah Thorson.

Major excavation work to the snowmaking pond at Sugarbush cost close to $700,000 to repair, and all roads heading to the resort are now accessible, including the entirety of Route 100. Less than 2 percent of Vermont roads are still closed and that number could shrink by the time ski season starts.

“Despite all the damage to our valley, you wouldn’t believe how beautiful foliage season has been. Two of our prized restaurants in the region suffered damage, but the Pitcher Inn is back up and running and we hope the Green Cup will be soon,’’ says Candice White, Sugarbush’s vice president of marketing.

In New Hampshire, road repair took top priority, with many ski areas praising the work of the Department of Transportation.

“They’re to be commended for repairing major roadways well in advance of the peak foliage season. All roads were reopened relatively quickly,’’ says Thomas Prindle at Attitash Mountain Resort and Wildcat Mountain.

The damaged Loon Mountain Resort bridge has been replaced by a temporary, two-lane bridge with sidewalk until the main bridge can be repaired next spring. At Jackson Ski Touring Foundation, crew director Laurie Spence has been working diligently to replace 10 bridges that washed away, including one on the popular Ellis River Trail, which links the Currier & Ives-like village of Jackson with the Appalachian Mountain Club’s center in Pinkham Notch. The storm’s severe erosion widened the riverbed by as much as four feet, causing much of the damage. Three bridges have also been replaced on the 70 kilometers of groomed cross-country ski trails that wind though the White Mountain National Forest at Waterville Valley.

At Sugarloaf, the two bridges that washed away on the access road were replaced with temporary bridges within a week. Permanent bridges are scheduled to be completed by opening day on Nov. 18.

Closer to Boston, Wachusett Mountain had some minor flooding in the basement of its skier services building, but like the other resorts, is long over Irene and wants to talk about exciting changes like the high-speed quad chairlift for novice skiers that will debut this winter. Mount Snow hasn’t let the storm deter its crew from installing the country’s first high-speed, detachable, six-person bubble lift this season. The bubbles provide the same warm confines of a gondola with the convenience of keeping skis and boards on guests’ feet. Along with the Roaring Brook Umbrella Bar, Killington plans to unveil a new lift-served tubing park across from the Killington Grand Resort Hotel.

Okemo spokesperson Bonnie MacPherson sums it all up: “We’re ready for winter and looking forward to the start of another brilliant ski season in Vermont. This time we need a gentler, kinder Mother Nature to help, in the form of cool temperatures.’’

Stephen Jermanok blogs daily at www.activetravels.com.