Podcast #28: Sugarbush President and General Manager John Hammond

  
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Who: John Hammond, President and General Manager of Sugarbush, Vermont

Recorded on: October 30, 2020

Why I interviewed him: Because after a transformative 19-year run, in which he once again fused Sugarbush with the community that surrounded it following a period of alienation under American Skiing Company, long-time owner and resort president Win Smith stepped down in September. Whether Win directly chose Hammond as his successor, he doubtless had some say in the decision to hand the keys to the 29-year-veteran. As someone whose entire professional career has revolved around Sugarbush, I wanted to get a sense of how Hammond would apply his vast understanding of Sugarbush’s inner workings to the resort's continued evolution under new owners Alterra Mountain Company. This is a big, important mountain, and how it responds to the short-term challenges presented by Covid and the longer-term ones inherent in Vermont’s unfriendly business environment and variable winters will in many ways influence the direction of the larger Northeast ski industry, which means that Hammond’s perspective and approach are important to understand as he takes the controls and flies this thing into the storm.

The top of Castlerock. Photo courtesy of Sugarbush.

What we talked about: It snowed at Sugarbush! (last Friday); Hammond’s path through the Sugarbush ranks from cold-calling intern to head of ski patrol and beyond; the one job at the resort he hasn’t done; what the resort looked like when Hammond showed up in the pre-Slide Brook days of 1991; how that compares both to the Sugarbush of today and to its peer resorts around Vermont at the time; witnessing the mountain’s dramatic, wide-reaching, and instantaneous transformation under the American Skiing Company (ASC); going deep on the Slide Brook Express, the longest chairlift in the world, and what could happen when it’s ultimately replaced; why the resort began adding tree skiing in the 1990s and why it’s an important element of the skiing experience at Sugarbush today; remembering the days when a ski patroller could get fired for skiing in the woods; where skiers are most likely to get lost wandering out of bounds; how morale dropped when ASC started to falter; whether Sugarbush would ever compete with Killington for first-to-open or last-to-close; ASC’s legacy; why Castlerock is the most unique pod at Sugarbush; the mountain’s grooming philosophy and why they let trails bump up; the reaction when Win Smith’s Summit Ventures group bought the mountain from ASC; how the new owners won back the trust of the community and staff; the lessons Hammond draws from that era as he takes control of the resort now; why Sugarbush sold to Alterra and how that transition has gone so far; whether there’s a terrain expansion in the resort’s future and where that might be; potential long-term lift upgrades; the state of the mountain’s three oldest lifts; how Hammond will continue to tap Win’s experience and expertise as he settles into the job; how Sugarbush locals have reacted to their season pass’ transformation into an Ikon Pass, and why the mountain kept some of its local passes; why there are so many knockout skiers at Sugarbush; the mountain’s relationship with Mad River Glen; rewinding to the chaos and uncertainty of the Covid shutdown; how the shutdown clarified the dynamic of the Sugarbush-Alterra working relationship and power structure; what the ski experience will look like at the mountain this year; the status of the adaptive center at Mt. Ellen.

Questions I wish I’d asked: As usual, I had a few questions I didn’t get to because we ran out of time. Among them: how intense was it to smash the normal weeks-long winter wind-down period into a couple of days post-Covid shutdown? Did the police ever figure out who broke into the employee gear shed shortly after the shutdown? Was there ever a chance Alterra would re-open Sugarbush for spring skiing? (They re-opened Crystal for a few days in June.) How will they calculate how many day tickets will be available in any given day? (He sort of answered this anyway, alluding to how historical data will inform the availability of day tickets.)

A Sugarbush pow day. Photo courtesy of Sugarbush.

What I got wrong: For some reason, I thought Sugarbush offered Cat skiing in Slide Brook Basin, but it looks as though the resort only takes people in there via private lessons (skiers can also explore it on their own, and the trails eventually lead back toward a bus stop). The mountain does provide a variety of Cat-skiing options, however (John also goes over these in the interview). There’s also a funny moment when I ask Hammond if there’s ever been a winter in which they couldn’t open the all-natural-snow terrain on the Castlerock pod, and he tells me that it was only open for 45 days during its worst winter. “That’s not bad,” I said. “That’s terrible,” he answered. Which is the difference in perception between a guy who’s a season passholder at wow-there’s-a-snowflake-it’s-a-powder-day Mountain Creek and a guy who’s spent three decades skiing the Mad River Valley every day of every winter.

Why you should go there: Nothing has changed from what I said in this section for my January interview with Win Smith. Sugarbush is vast, snowy, varied, interesting, and glorious. It is in the top-top tier of Northeast skiing, my third-favorite mountain after Sugarloaf and Jay, and one that every Northeast skier absolutely must visit at least once per season if they’re able.

Additional reading/videos:

For perspective, the Sugarbush trailmap the year John showed up for his internship as a University of Vermont student:

Sugarbush today:

Some great Sugarbush history here:

This is pretty cool too, especially if you already know the mountain:


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