Hanging on by a rope tow

 

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Have you skied CochranÕs lately? HardÕack? Northeast Slopes?

Elliot and Tyler Wilkinson-Ray didnÕt think so.

But through their production company T-Bar Films, the brothers (and UVM alumni) are documenting the stories of three small ski hillsÑ CochranÕs in Richmond, HardÕack in St. AlbanÕs and Northeast Slopes in East CorinthÑ to capture the allure of the slopes less travelled, and remind people that theyÕre still here.

ÒEven most Vermonters donÕt know these places are still around, they think theyÕre something of the past. Especially when theyÕre up against the PR machines of the big resorts,Ó Elliot said. ÒBut weÕre trying to bring attention to everyone.Ó

To show how these T-bar-only ski hillsÑ thereÕs no chair liftÑ still manage to hang on even in the wake of the Stowes and Sugarbushes of the world, Tyler put together a short film on Kickstarter in late September to solicit support for the documentary with a goal of $5,000.

As it turned out, they werenÕt the only ones who thought this was a project that needed to get done.

ÒWe reached our goal within a week,Ó Tyler said.

With 234 backers and over $10,000 as of Oct. 1, the film has now grown beyond what Elliot and Tyler said they thought was possible. With sponsors that include Burton, the Alpine Shop, Ski Vermont and Select Design as well as a grant from the New England Ski Museum, T-bar Films has evolved from a two avid skierÕs idea to a community project.

Which is a lot like how the subjects of their film operate, they said.

ÒYou can only do something like this if people are passionate about it and willing to do it for free, and thatÕs the same with these small ski areas,Ó Elliot said. ÒThey donÕt function within normal economic parameters. TheyÕre only here because people want them to be here.Ó

The brothers said they hope the film will convey why small ski hills are still worth preserving, even beyond their accessibility and cheap (or free) season passes. After all, the bare-bones ski hills of the Northeast represent the very history of todayÕs $5.8 billion ski industry, as the National Ski Areas Association estimates.

And yet while the largely untapped terrain of these rope-tow areas might be part of their appeal, without corporate support their relative obscurity could also lead to their demise.

ÒItÕs a constant battle and the small ones are by no means secure,Ó Tyler said. ÒIf we can renew some interest beyond the corporate people running them, we can set them up to continue to operate.Ó

Then there is also the chance the project could become too successful. With a strong social media presence and buzz about the film gone global, the brothers joked that the publicity of small ski areas could make them too popular.

ÒWeÕve thought about it but I donÕt think the ski hills realize that. If more people realize they exist it will be good for the continuation of these places, but itÕs going to change the character a little bit for sure,Ó Elliot said.

CochranÕs general manager Jesse Paul said filming has already been helpful for the ski hill. While CochranÕs benefits from a central location in RichmondÑ about a 15 minute drive from BurlingtonÑ and is well known for its racing and elementary school programs, Paul said that without support from locals, CochranÕs might be in a very different place.

ÒWithout the community involvement we would just be a hill with snow on it,Ó Paul said. ÒPeople have no idea how much it takes to run a mountain, even one as small as we are.Ó

Despite the challenges CochranÕs faces each season, now exacerbated by a recent slew of light winters (Òif we didnÕt have snowmaking we would be closed for sure,Ó Paul said), the ski hill is still viable.

With no debt and a new event coordinator, Paul said CochranÕs is likely to be around for a long time.

But other places have not fared as well. Earlier this month, Whaleback Mountain in Enfield, N.H., announced it could no longer stay in business after eight years because the mountain had amassed more than $1 million in debt, according to a letter posted on WhalebackÕs website. 12