Podcast #44: West Mountain, N.Y. Owners/Operators Spencer and Sara Montgomery

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Who
Sara Montgomery, General Manager of West Mountain and Spencer Montgomery, Co-Owner and Operator of West Mountain, New York
Recorded on
April 12, 2021
Sara and Spencer Montgomery took over West Mountain, N.Y. prior to the 2013-14 ski season. They have since led a $17 million transformation of the ski area.
Why I interviewed them
Because West Mountain is one of the best stories in New York skiing. A decade ago, the place was falling apart. Trails-in-name-only had become overgrown and were rarely open. A handful of homemade mobile snowguns serviced the mountain. A trio of doddering antique chairlifts rose from a cluster of ramshackle or abandoned buildings. Night-lighting was inconsistent and covered only portions of the mountain. The place puttered along on 30,000 skier visits per year. Then the Montgomerys arrived with a new vision and energy, moving their family of six to the base of the mountain and initiating a $17 million gut renovation. Eight years after their arrival, the place is transformed, with a forest of tower guns that can bury the full trail network in a few days, three new lifts, 100 percent night skiing, widened and consistently open ski runs, renovated lodges and cafeterias, and reinvigorated race and after-school programs. And that’s just phase one. The long-term aspiration is to transform West into the sort of ski-and-stay destination that New York is desperately lacking, build an affordable ski academy, and continue expanding the lift and trail network. I wanted to speak with the Montgomerys to understand how they did all this and how they were going to stretch toward the future.
West is divided into two distinct pods: the Main trails, left, where the race programs are centered, and the Northwest section, right.
What we talked about
Growing up skiing at West; how they came to own and operate the ski area; living on the mountainside; what West looked like when they took over in 2013 and where they invested $17 million to completely overhaul the ski area; why they widened the front trails beneath the main summit lift; how to raise $17 million; transforming West into a true resort with ski-and-stay condos and a pedestrian village; where we could see ski expansion and new lifts on the mountain; the great missed opportunity of New York skiing; mirroring the Holiday Valley or Jiminy Peak model; the topography and future of the mountaintop; the growth and future of the race program; ramping up customer service; the overhauled cafeteria and Northwest lodge; amping up the night-skiing operation; the growth of after-school programs; balancing strong race programs with a good ski experience for the public; making race programs affordable; growing the college and twenty-something demos; why West bought Hermitage Club’s old summit triple and why they added a loading carpet; selling off the old Riblet chairs; upgrading the Facelift chair to a quad; West’s steep terrain; choosing a new triple chair for the Northwest side and shifting it onto a different location than the lift it replaced; why stationary guns are superior to mobile guns; why a 10-inch pipe can carry three times the water of a six-inch pipe; ditching the habit of having trails-in-name-only and making sure the full trailmap was open for the majority of the winter; clearing out the warren of narrow trails beneath the main lift; why West eliminated a number of Northwest-side runs listed on old trailmaps; the potential to thin more glades; long-term expansion potential; the logic behind the $499 season pass; surging pass sales; why West ditched the midweek pass; the chances of West joining the Indy Pass; and Covid-era adaptations that may stick around beyond the 2020-21 ski season.
West on a snowy night.
Why I thought that now was a good time for this interview
For all the reasons itemized above. If you haven’t been to West since 2012 or so, you’re not going to recognize the place. It looks different. It skis different. It feels different. West circa 2010 was not throwback in the man-this-is-what-skiing-used-to-be-this-is-so-quaint-and-idyllic kind of way. It was throwback in the am-I-going-to-die-falling-off-this-jalopy-of-a-chairlift kind of way. Like what Holiday Mountain or Spring Mountain feel like today. When a ski area hits that point it either withers like a forgotten Jack-o’-lantern – still somewhat resembling the thing it once proudly was but clearly not that thing anymore either – or it finds some path to reinvention and reinvigoration. We’re seeing it elsewhere in the Northeast, where formerly beaten- down ski areas lost in the poor decisions, bad luck, and underinvestment of past decades are suddenly resurgent: Saddleback and Magic, Greek Peak and Bousquet. West has climbed aboard that list, though with less fanfare and fireworks outside of their local market, and I wanted to throw a spotlight on what’s become a remarkable little ski area.
Before the Montgomerys took over, this trail, known as The Cure, was “a snowcat’s-width wide” and rarely open.
What I got wrong
At one point I referred to the portion of I-87 from which you can see West Mountain’s 1,000 vertical feet blazing in the winter night as the “Thruway.” No doubt many of you are eager to inform me that this section of I-87 is actually called the “Northway.” I am aware of this and simply misspoke, mostly because I do not actually give a s**t what this particular section of I-87 is called because what I call this highway from top to bottom is I-87. I do not understand this Northeast habit of naming your expressways as though they are family pets, particularly when they ALREADY HAVE A F*****G NAME. I still remember the sense of rage and confusion inspired by a road sign announcing “Closures on the Deegan” as I exited the Tappan Zee Bridge one day several years ago, and all I could think is “What the f**k is the ‘Deegan’ and why would anyone call it that when any interstate traveler like say a trucker or tourist attempting to navigate cityward by map would identify this road as Interstate 87?” But hey why not disrupt the flow of commerce and confuse the s**t out of people by tossing out some colloquialism that makes sense to exactly four dozen people running the local road commission. This may just be some hokey Midwest sensibility but I generally prefer the simplest solution to most problems and the solution here is to give one road that has already been assigned an easily identifiable numeral that syncs logically with the naming conventions of the 46,876-mile United States Interstate system one name and exactly one name and that is the name it already has: I-87. But no instead New Yorkers have to give it not one or two but three separate additional special names along its 333-mile route. And this all seems confusing and unnecessary, like if I called my cat “Spike” while he was in the basement and “Fiddles” while he was upstairs and “Pokeypoo” when he was out in the yard. But it’s all the same cat you see and his real name is Number 9 but really my main goal in life is to confuse the s**t out of people for no good reason and I can see that it’s working so you’re welcome.
Why you should go there
Because you drive past it on your way to Gore or Whiteface or perhaps Vermont depending upon your route and as you do so you look up off of the road universally known as Interstate 87 and say, “Oh look a ski area I wonder what it’s called?” Well it’s called West Mountain and it is worth your time. It has a thousand vertical feet and all new everything and a cool community vibe. And it’s a family business, a place worth supporting, the kind of ski area we need to print new skiers who will one day fly their three kids out to Colorado for spring breaks. It’s not a bumps-and-glades kind of place, at least not yet, but it has good steady pitch and an interesting trail layout. And it has a big future. Go now to see what it’s like so you can follow along while it becomes what it will be.
Additional reading
Coverage of West in the Glens Falls Chronicle, Spectrum Local News, Daily Gazette, Saratogian, and WNYT. Lift Blog’s inventory of West Mountain lifts.
The Montgomerys have overhauled the trail network - compare this 2011 map to the current iteration, below.
West released this new trailmap for the 2020-21 ski season.
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