November 17, 2013

Skiing in Maine: Mount Abram – the little mountain that could set trends

By John Christie

Back in the 1950s, brothers Norton, Don and Stuart Cross were big-time loggers over in western Maine. Among their extensive timber holdings was small but imposing Mt. Abram. As they were developing plans to harvest timber on the northeast face, they came up with an idea. “We were going to cut harvestable trees anyway, so we thought perhaps we could cut them in such a way as to open up some ski trails on the side of the mountain, since it looked like there might be some potential to get in on the emerging ski business,” Stuart once told me.

Thus began a ski area in 1960 that over the next decade was setting the standard for grooming and innovative programs that were not only instructive to many of us in the still-emerging industry, but informed many of our operational decisions.

With brother Don at the wheel of their Tucker Sno-Cat, their “groom every run, every day” policy was, at the time, an innovative concept. Dwarfing their still-nascent neighbor to the north, Sunday River, their experimentation with grooming devices and policies, assisted in great part by their apple grower friend Otto Wallingford at Lost Valley, another snow farmer of note, led the brothers to be the first to use a “Magic Carpet,” a channel iron device with teeth. They also were among Wallingford’s first customers for his then-revolutionary “Powder Maker.”

Their farm-family genes also contributed to their recognition that snow is a crop, to be managed. They could be seen bulldozing snow out of the woods to cover sparsely-covered trails, and on more than one occasion transported snow banks from the parking lots up onto the mountain to assure good conditions.

With Norton and Don continuing to operate the logging side of the family business, and Stuart and his wife Jean running the ski area, their other significant contribution to the industry was their introduction of Maine’s first “Learn To Ski Free” program, offering a day of free equipment, lesson and lift ticket to kids to get them started. That established Mt. Abram as the learn-to-ski mountain in the state.

Thus is the legacy of the founders that current owners Matt Hancock and Rob Lally have emulated over the past few years through such adversity as the loss to a lightning-sparked fire of their base lodge. And to their credit they have not only kept the ski area viable, their fertile minds have been wrestling with the larger question of how can small to mid-size ski areas survive and, under the best of circumstances, prosper.

Enter a couple of iconoclasts from the West, with a vision of an alliance between like-minded “sustainable mountain playgrounds” that would return Alpine skiing to its traditional roots while creating a new business model that might just be the wave of the future.

Jamie Schectman and Dave Scanlan formed Mountain Rider’s Alliance to test their theory, and in Matt Hancock and Rob Lally found kindred spirits eager to work with them, utilizing their ski area as a prototype where the emphasis will be on quality skiing at reasonable cost, with a family-first, locally-focused, environmentally sustainable orientation, in what could well be the birth of a family of “MRA Mountain Playgrounds.”

Over time, this network of cooperatively-owned small to mid-size ski areas could benefit from economies of scale utilized by their larger, corporate-owned brethren with one huge difference. While the conglomerates’ eyes are on the bottom line, and a return to their shareholders, this revolutionary construct will be focused exclusively on the customer and the partners in the co-op, whose interest is not in a profit but in maintaining operational viability.

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