Interest in skiing's heritage is picking up. A half-dozen ski resort histories were published this past autumn. Utah and Vermont have both recently opened new ski museums at a cost of several million dollars. Membership in the New England Ski Museum has grown by 50 percent in the past five years.
The interest has generally been confined to older skiers and sentimentalists trading anecdotes at reunions. Seventy is the average age of the 900 subscribers to Skiing Heritage, the world's only journal of ski history, published by ISHA, the International Skiing History Association. That's a fraction of the kids who trade Mickey Mantle baseball cards.
But skiing has a notable non-fogy. He is Jeremy Davis, age 24, a professional meteorologist and ski nut. I recently visited Davis at his home in upstate New York, within sight of the Adirondacks and the Green Mountains. He has created something no ski museum ever anticipated: a free do-it-yourself history-writing website, which has attracted skiers, young and old.
Davis' venture started 10 years ago when he was driving with his family to New Hampshire for a ski weekend. Near North Conway, he spotted a lift tower with a cable limply hanging above a McDonald's parking lot. It was a remnant of the former Mt. Whittier ski area.
"It got me wondering about abandoned areas," Davis recalls. He read First Tracks, a book about Maine's early ski hills. It led him to curio shops and eBay, where he bought old brochures listing ski areas that operated in the years before and just after World War II. Visiting them, he found rusty ropetow pulleys and former trails and lift lines overgrown with brush. Many of the lost areas were private or community ropetow slopes, abandoned because of liability fears and the public's desire for bigger verticals.
Davis realized it would be impossible to travel to dozens-could it even be hundreds?-of communities that once had lifts. So in 1998, he created a website called New England Lost Ski Areas Project (nelsap.org). Skiers and local residents began to click on to it and supply Davis with information about forgotten hills. Site visits have soared from a hundred per week to as many as a thousand daily.
The hero of this unlikely enterprise is compact, ruddy-faced, articulate...and decidedly not a glued-to-the-monitor geek: Davis skis 20 to 25 days each winter. When he isn't at his job, advising skippers in the South China Sea about impending weather, he is working furiously at nelsap.org, logging in information. He is expanding his site to include lost areas in New York, and perhaps, some day, the whole of the Northeast. Other budding ski historians are researching Colorado, the Pacific Northwest and the Alps.
Why does he do it? "You feel you're making a difference by enriching Americana," he says. For younger people, he believes, abandoned ski areas have a kind of morbid attractiveness, like haunted houses. There are also guides to defunct amusement parks, drive-in movie theaters and lost diners.
Davis employs a sophisticated website architecture to make it easy for visitors to participate. I supplied him with information about an abandoned 1969 ropetow area near my home in Westchester County, N.Y. Within a week, Davis had inserted my modest mini-history into his website, adding an aerial photo that he obtained via modem from Microsoft's massive 3.3 terabyte Terraserver. A town map of the park was added, and two guys entered their recollections about skiing the hill as kids.
Davis' website has uncovered more than 500 lost ski areas in New England alone! Some are still used for sledding; the overgrown ones can be bushwhacked on backcountry skis, snowboards and snowshoes. As for nelsap.org, it has become a vibrant virtual colony of skiers, who are enlarging the sport's record in a way that no book publisher or author could have undertaken. Their average age is 37; the enthusiasts range from octogenarians to 12-year-olds. Visit the site and be insppired by it, as I was.
I hope you'll come away asking, "What have I done to contribute to the heritage of my sport?"
Columnist John Fry is president of ISHA, a not-for-profit association that raises funds to operate skiinghistory.org, which has links to many ski museums and lost areas.