Hey, That's My Coast

Outside magazine, Travel Guide 1997-1998

Hey, That's My Coast
By Peter Oliver


What's in a name? When the name is Les Otten, the answer is almost the entirety of Eastern skiing. After three years of acquisitional frenzy, Otten can no longer be considered merely a ski-resort owner. He has become, within the microcosm of Eastern skiing, an empire builder.

Under the aegis of Otten's American Skiing Company are now seven major Eastern ski areas: Killington/Pico, Mt. Snow/Haystack, and Sugarbush in Vermont; Attitash Bear Peak in New Hampshire; and Sugarloaf/USA and Sunday River in Maine. Mom-and-pop ski areas, once the foundation of Eastern skiing, have become an historical oddity. The multiresort corporation is upon us.

But what does this mean for skiers? In transforming his flagship resort, Sunday River, from a modest ski hill into an eight-peak, 17-lift giant, Otten relied on three key components: fast lifts, extensive snowmaking, and meticulous grooming. As his empire expands, so does that basic, three-pronged philosophy. After buying Sugarbush in the summer of 1995, for example, Otten immediately shelled out $28 million for seven new lifts and a 300-percent increase in snowmaking capacity.

Restlessly ambitious, Otten continues to pursue aggressive expansion and renewal. This year, Sugarloaf is perhaps the leading beneficiary. The summit (and the famed snowfields) are now more reliably accessible thanks to a new quad chair; closer to the base, a new high-speed quad makes the lower-intermediate Whiffletree terrain more user-friendly.

New lifts also have gone in at Attitash Bear Peak along with 52 new skiable acres, and at Sunday River a high-speed quad replaces the North Peak triple. Snowmaking upgrades continue apace at all ASC resorts. And the future simmers with grand plans: With permits still pending, Otten expects soon to connect the six mountains of Killington with neighboring Pico to create an Eastern colossus large even by Western proportions.

Much of the recent expansion action, however, has been non-skiing-related. Another critical component of the Otten blueprint has been the base-area hotel. The prototype, the 230-unit, time-share Summit Hotel at Sunday River, is now being recast in various guises throughout the ASC world. The Grand Summit Hotel opened last winter at Attitash Bear Peak, and new hotels at Killington/Pico, Mt. Snow/Haystack, and Sunday River (again) should open their doors this winter.

Not everyone, of course, shares Otten's expansionist vision. Efforts to build a hotel at Sugarbush, for example, have so far been stymied by environmental opposition. Many skiers worry about the encroachment of a numbing, fast-food homogeneity in Eastern skiing as similar trail designs, similar uniforms, similar advertising, similar food, and similar hotels arrive at all ASC resorts.

ASC is still young, and the jury is still out on that score. Otten insists that seven interchangeable Sunday Rivers are not in the works, and can cite as evidence in his defense the hands-off policy toward Sugarbush's Castlerock area. With narrow trails, a slow lift, and no snowmaking, Castlerock represents the antithesis of the original Sunday River formula. American Skiing Company also has veered away from its wide-and-groomed roots by opening gladed trails for more adventurous skiers.

And if you don't like the ASC way, you're not stuck with it. With the U.S. Justice Department looking over his shoulder (he was ordered to divest Waterville Valley and Cranmore in New Hampshire because of anti-trust concerns), Otten has not monopolized Eastern skiing, and his competitors are more than making a go of it. Okemo Mountain Resort offers a reasonable alternative to nearby Killington by producing what many skiers consider the best man-made snow in the East. Quirky Mad River Glen, virtually unchanged for half a century, has, like a post-industrial antihero, developed a growing cachet among gen-X adventurers. Loon Mountain continues as New Hampshire's leading resort; Smugglers' Notch in Vermont has carved out a niche as the top family resort in the East.

Otten lately has begun to cast his hungry eye on other empires. Last July, his company completed its purchase of The Canyons (formerly Wolf Mountain) in Utah, where Otten has already begun work on an $18.2-million capital-improvements program. And last August he reached an agreement with Kamori International Corporation to acquire two more Western ski resorts: Steamboat in Colorado and Heavenly in California. If this trend continues, it may one day come to pass that the sun never sets on Les Otten's empire.

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