by Bob Soden
Submitted to the Newport Daily Express – Dec. 1999
All rights reserved by author
EPISODE IV… Once upon a time in a Kingdom far, far away…
How farest proud Jay Peak? Gone now, from her lofty ramparts, are the heroes of old (on errant quests?). Mighty Walter, bowlegged ski lord of Kitzbühel, and his noble ladies and knights – Lady Alice of Newport, Lady Blanka of Montgomery, Sir Harold of Troy, Fra George of Richford, Sir Roy of Derby, Sir Win, Sir Earnest & Sir Dean of Newport, Sir Tom of Jay, Sir Ellsworth of Albans, Sir Hubert, Sir Sonny, Sir Denis & Sir Wolfie of Montgomery, and Sir George of Sutton. Whither goest the Kingdom’s highest sentinel at the threshold of a new millennium?
January 2, 1999, 9:30 AM. Jay Peak, Vermont
“Golf is the key,” explains Bill Stenger, President and Chief Operating Officer of the Jay Peak Ski & Summer Resort, as we leave the main parking lot… I visualize a smooth sloping green amongst the trees… My wedge makes a shimmering arc in the morning air, as I take my approach shot… Outside of Stenger’s 4×4 the sky is blue, but the ground is decidedly white, and the temperature around -15 deg. F. So I re-focus on the image of golf, and pay attention. “Skiing made Jay Peak and is its foundation, but golf will underwrite its future – as a four-season resort,” he elaborates as we motor west from Jay’s “new” area to the “old” (i.e., the “tramway” and “state” areas) to my meeting with Jon Anderson, leader of the Jay Peak Ski Patrol. Stenger points out where the new 27-hole golf course will be set amongst the beeches and maples on our left (ground is to be broken this Spring), just a chip shot from the slope-side Townhouse Village condominiums on our right.
Courtesy of the COO, I’m getting a tour of the facilities, a chance to meet some of the players, and a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the workings of a modern resort complex. And the complexity is surprising. Not what you think of as you drive up to buy your ticket for a day’s slope bashing with the kids. Stenger heads up a 350-strong team of individuals, in 14 departments, specialized in very diverse and arcane skills, from lift maintenance and trail sweeps, through ‘Ski-Wee’ instruction, torch-light ski entertainment, and linguini prima vera (lay on the garlic – per favore) table-side preparation, to adventure ski programs and marketing promotional tours to Florida and England. The resort presently boasts over 60 trails, 7 lifts, a 48-room hotel, 112 rental condos, 2 restaurants, 2 cafeterias, a pizzeria, 4 lounges, a ski/sports shop, a repair/rental shop, a 70-instructor ski school, a swimming pool, 3 tennis courts… and so on. And yet the foregoing long recitation does not begin to tell the story…
The temperature was a cool -20 deg. F when I arrived at 7:30 AM (it had bottomed-out overnight at -30), but it was getting warmer (… well, everything’s relative). Stenger had been here more than an hour by the time I’d arrived, driving in from his home in Newport. A seaside resort may have many facets, too, but usually you can count on the wave machine and the sandmaker not going belly-up when the mercury hits 90 degrees. Not so with a snow sports retreat. No, these days with El Nino and the hole in the O-Zone, a winter resort often has to manufacture its playgrounds, often on a daily basis, something that its warm-seasons-only cousins are blithely unaware of. On top of that, when the weather is following the script, which in ski country means cold, mechanical parts of the clockwork start to balk. Go figure.
-20 deg. F – I’m on a mission in my down parka (… hey, wait a minute, I wonder…?); my pockets are bulging with a tape recorder, tapes, a steno-pad, and several pens and pencils: my camera bag is slipping from my shoulder, but I press on. The hard packed snow squeaks like Styrofoam under my sno-paks, as I fight a gale towards the Bavarian-style building at the (distant) end of the parking lot. My glasses fog-up solid as I finally push inside. To my right is the Ski Shop. I turn left into Reception, blinking over the top of two translucent ovals, and find I’m in the eye of an indoor storm.
I say hello to the receptionist, Shelley, and ask for Stenger. As I am taking a seat a young woman hurries past with a cash box in one hand, bundles of triangular-shaped wires in the other and a box of lift tickets under her chin. A young man rushes up to the desk, announcing that he can’t get the rental shop open. “You guys don’t have a key? Mike, I’m going to give you a key,” says Shelley, pulling down her headset. Two ski patrollers dressed for a sub-polar expedition sway in, check their mail, then move off to one corner discussing schedules. Three ladies enter in close conversation about their New Year’s Eves, with one admitting, “Well, we were going to go out, but I just fell asleep,” stop at reception and head out back. Shelley picks up her microphone, “Are we still on channel 3? Are you hearing me? Base to 101 (Stenger). Have you seen Bill?” “Negative, “a voice replies… “I think he’s in real estate.” Then Stenger, “I’ll be right there.”
I find out through the grapevine that since his arrival Stenger, concerned about the overloads and breakdowns this severe cold can bring, has been even more rigorous than usual on his round of early morning inspections. He has verified that all the staff vehicles were plugged in overnight (a housekeeping van that won’t move is not to be desired today, a checkout day). At the Townhouse Village he encountered his maintenance crew warming the chairlift bullwheel gearbox with a blowtorch. Next he checked the construction progress at one of the slope-side condos. Finally he videotaped a short piece for “Jay Peak Today,” at 7:15 AM, with Amy Resuski, the show’s host (a young media graduate and current Miss Vermont). This weather and general information spot would be shown on Jay’s closed circuit network, for the benefit of the Hotel Jay’s guests and condo residents.
Stenger storms into reception, face flushed with cold, Jay Peak baseball cap low on his forehead, staff parka open, miniature Motorola radio clipped to his lapel. Seeing me at the far end of the room, he waves me a “see you in a minute” signal – he’s in full flight – and turns back to Dave Heath, head of Jay’s Trail Grooming squad of six, who he’s come in with, and I hear snatches of “… half-pipe … Interstate … storm should help.” Mid-room a customer buttonholes Stenger, looking to have the final day of a 3-day pass revalidated. Stenger asks a him a question then initials it, “Just show’em that in Customer Service.” Smiling, unruffled, he works his way down the room, now turning to a lady who has a check-out problem. Then it’s my turn. “Bob, glad you could make it.”
“I like the challenge – I’m not a caretaker,” Stenger tells me, as we finally break away from the mob in reception, and retreat to the relative calm of his office, which looks out towards the Tram Haus (the aerial tramway’s lower terminal) and the main lodge. In the center of the room are two large desks, back-to-back, almost completely hidden under binders, rolls of drawings and piles of brochures. As if by magic, Stenger produces a phone that is ringing, and turning to the window behind him, fields a call from Jacques Hébert, one of two owners of the Mont St. Sauveur Group (which includes Jay Peak). A couple of minutes later, the next call turns out to be from Louis Dufour, the second partner (it’s a Saturday, and normally a big business day in this season, but it’s cold (as previously mentioned), and after a week of disappointing weather (at St. Sauveur as well), they have called to discuss strategy – how to make the best of the situation). On the walls of Stenger’s office are terrific aerial photographs of Jay, a group shot of the Ski School, and two enormous blueprints (obviously projected plot plans of the resort). Both blueprints have been marked-up with bold-colored markers.
“This long red line,” says Stenger, now off the phone, “represents our new state-of-the-art High-Speed Detachable Quad (chair-lift) which we will start installing this spring (1999). It’s 7700 feet long, longest on the East Coast, with an 1800-foot vertical rise. Ride up is just a touch over 7 minutes. That’s really going to free things up on this side (Tram-side). It will be in operation for the 1999-2000 season, and bring skiers to the top of the St. George’s Prayer (which feeds into the Northway) and the Wedelmaster trails, just below the main peak.” The new Quad will provide access to both areas, supplementing the present tramway service, but with less susceptibility to winds.