AlpineZone Challenge 2005 – Irene Donnell of Wildcat Mountain

The AlpineZone Ski Area Challenge was designed to provide a method for our forum members to get official answers to skiing-related questions directly from a ski area representative. Irene Donnell, Director of Marketing and Communications of Wildcat Mountain in Jackson, New Hampshire, took the AlpineZone Ski Area Challenge and provided the following responses on 8/9/2005:

Bob R:  I am a pass holder from a couple other resorts, but I like to ski Wildcat and have taken advantage of the deals you have offered in the past for Pass holders of other resorts. Do you have any deals like that set up for the coming season?

Irene Donnell: Nothing specific to pass holders of other resorts, but we always have super deals, like $20 Sunday afternoons, 2-Fer Wednesdays ($27.50pp), and the $25 next-day upgrade, to name a few. The new WildCard launched last season, basically a “buy 2 & get one free” ticket card, was also a popular choice for people who wanted to secure some Wildcat days and save money. These deals are open to everyone. Sign up to receive the e-mail newsletter on and we’ll keep you posted on any other special promotions!

kickstand: Irene, how about offering a comprehensive backcountry guided tour?

Irene Donnell: This has been discussed. We need to work on some logistics, but we think it’s a great idea, and believe we have a fantastic location to offer backcountry tours! Stay tuned on this.

awf170: A couple of comments about your trails. Why did you decide to groom Black Cat more this season? I was really disappointed that it was totally groomed. Also, about halfway down on the Gondola Line the trail goes into an ‘S-turn’ instead of going straight. Why? There are a few boulders and other obstacles, but it seems like those things could be easily flatted out. Even when there was enough snow, why was it still blocked off?

Irene Donnell: The Wildcat Ski Patrol assesses the conditions on all trails and makes the decision to groom or not to groom. Trust me, our Ski Patrol does not like to see the Black Cat groomed any more then you do; but they need to consider safety, and the long term viability of the snow cover on the trail. This requires them to anticipate future conditions. According to Alexa Bernotavicz, Director of Ski Patrol, Lift Operations & Maintenance, the Black Cat was groomed several times throughout the season in order to break up the man-made snow, which can more easily become icy because of it’s high water content. Due to the steep slope on the Black Cat, icy conditions can potentially be very dangerous. Grooming the trail when there is snow in the forecast makes it more likely to hold new snow that will mix in with the man-made — making the trail more likely to “bump up”, which is what we like.

As far as your question regarding the Gondola line and the “S-turn”, once again Ski Patrol carefully considers all terrain hazards and makes the decision to close off sections of trail for skier safety. Sometimes, after a fresh snow, terrain may seem like it is safe when in fact, the hazards are just under the surface. Trust me, again, Wildcat’s Ski Patrol opens everything they feel is safe enough to ski. In fact, feel free to stop by the Ski Patrol summit building any time during this coming season. They would be more than happy to take you out on a run and explain the criteria for closing or opening terrain.

kickstand:  I had a WildCard last year and I thought that was a great pass option. Are there any plans this year to bring that back, or to introduce some other creative pricing packages and deals to lure people to Wildcat? Many of the more recent deals (2-fer Wednesday, Ladies’ Thursday) were definitely worth the visit.

Irene Donnell: We’ll have all the deals you mentioned back on the table this season, including the WildCard. Look for some great ski & stay packages, too! We’re working on it! As I mentioned above, and the e-mail newsletter are the best sources for that information when it becomes available!

awf170:  Early in the season, around mid-December Upper Wildcat was said to be open on the website for about a week or two, when it was never open. And one of those days I talked to someone involved in management (it might have been you) about it and they said it was never supposed to open, and had no plans of opening it. So my guess is this was a typo of some sort. Shouldn’t someone check for things like that so as not tom cause confusion, and how could something like that go unnoticed? We’ve heard lots of complaints regarding snow reporting, do you have any plans on addressing these errors/issues?

Irene Donnell: Looking back at the snow report copies on file, the first mention of the Upper Wildcat opening was the morning of December 27th (Christmas vacation week), following a 14 inch snow storm. It was still marked as open that afternoon and the next morning; then closed the afternoon of Dec. 28th , when there was also a “call ahead” warning in case of high winds. It was next marked open on the afternoon report of Dec. 31st and morning report of Jan. 1st; then closed that afternoon. It was not listed as open again until the morning of Jan. 6th at which time it seems to have remained open more consistently. So this is what we think happened. During mid-December Wildcat saw several snow storms that brought some substantial early season snow. (Wildcat received 4.5 feet of snow in December.) These early storms always get everyone excited for the upcoming ski season and the Wildcat Ski Patrol makes every effort to get new terrain open as quickly as possible. In this instance it must have been determined that there was enough new snow over night to open the Upper Wildcat. There had not been any snowmaking on that trail yet so there was still very thin cover in many places. It is most likely that wind had an impact on the conditions, such that ski patrol made the decision to close the trail due to thin cover conditions during morning sweep. But they probably thought they could open it the next day with some work on the trail, but perhaps the work was unable to be completed or was undone by overnight winds. Basically, the Upper Wildcat (along with other natural snow and ungroomed trails) was open or closed on a daily basis based on early season conditions. It is possible that the trail was open in the morning, or some portion of the day, but conditions changed so that it was then closed. Early and late in the ski season, conditions can change more significantly throughout the day and on a day-to-day basis. The snow report team does its best to forecast and to mark changes on the reports posted on the web and in the lodge, as they are reported from the mountain. We advise folks to check with Guest Services for the most up-to-date report, especially when conditions are particularly changeable (especially early and late season). This season there will be a sign posting open/closed trails at the base of the mountain, so that changes can be made, as they occur, by ski patrol and be more visible to folks. Beyond that, from what I’ve seen at other resorts, Wildcat’s snow reporting is pretty darn good – all processes can continue to be improved upon, and so we shall continue to improve in any way we can! But under the circumstances of Wildcat’s location, and with limited resources, we do our best.

NHpowderhound: I gave up my Wildcat pass two seasons ago after my frustration with the ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ lift known as the Wildcat Express. I love how fast it is but it seems to be shut down more than an acceptable amount of time. We know Wildcat has its own unique geographical challenges with wind, but I would think there could be other options to get paying customers up the hill. What is the general protocol when deciding to shut down the quad? Has wildcat looked into a surface lift for a backup?

Can the lift towers be lowered to the ground in certain places where they are more exposed? Thanks again!
Irene Donnell: (by Alexa Bernotavicz, Director of Ski Patrol, Lift Operations & Maintenance) I am assuming by your request for information regarding the finicky nature of the Wildcat Express that you are considering buying a pass at Wildcat for the upcoming season. I certainly hope that is the case and you make your decision based on new information regarding the lift.

The two things that make Wildcat great, terrain and location, are also it biggest nemesis. The weather created by the Presidential Range gives the mountain great snow, awesome views, and unique terrain. However, with that comes THE WIND. The Express can tolerate winds up to 50 mph. The decision to close the lift is based on several factors, wind speed and direction. Wildcat’s number one priority is skier/rider safety. Once winds reach or exceed 50 mph, safety becomes the primary concern. The wind can cause the chairs to swing to such a degree that they cause the haul rope to come off the sheave wheels at the tower. This is called a deropement and wind is the primary cause of all deropements in this country. Once this happens the only way to get folks off the chair is a manual rope evacuation. Not a great option! Rope evacs are very, very time consuming and put the guest at risk for hypothermia or frost bite. Therefore, every attempt is made to avoid this potential risk. The other problem created by wind occurs at the summit terminal. When the wind is blowing from the Northwest (which is the primary direction of winter storms) it causes the outgoing chairs to be blown back, holding them in the terminal. The lift has many sensors that calculate chair spacing and will shut down if the sensors detect that the chairs are to close together. This is called an anti-collision fault. Therefore, once this starts to happen on a consistent basis, it is very difficult to keep the lift running without many stops and starts, making for a slow and unpleasant ride.

The decision to shut down due to wind is coordinated through the Lift Operations and Maintenance Director and Ski Patrol. Patrol rides the lift and gives constant wind updates. They ski under the lift line and assess chair swing. All this information is carefully and painfully considered by everyone. No one on Wildcat’s staff likes to see the Quad go down, especially ski patrol since they have to leave the comfort of their warm, cozy shack! It is never an easy decision but one that is made with everyone’s safety in mind.

As far as lowering towers and putting in a surface lift. Lowering towers would not be a cost effective solution since the lift is designed based on load calculations and profile of the terrain. Wind was strongly considered when the lift was built which is why there are so many low chair areas on the lift. Examples include the Panther, Starr Line, and the middle of the Topcat. A surface lift is a great idea and should be considered during any future improvement plans.

Remember that the Tomcat lift, while not super speedy, allows you to access more than 80% of Wildcat’s terrain. You only miss out on the very upper trails. This is an important fact for those making the decision to close the Quad to remember. Seven upper mountain trails or everyone’s safety? Easy decision really.

loafer89: I visited Wildcat on March 27th, 2005 with my family and we had a bad experience from the start. 1) The snow conditions on the groomed trails were an unpleasant mix of packed powder and large frozen granular ice chunks. 2) My son and I were skiing down Middle Wildcat and we were detoured around an ongoing race (not marked from above) onto the Middle Catapult trail which was WAY beyond my son’s ability level. He subsequently took a bad fall on the trail and did not want to ski at Wildcat any longer. When I complained about this to customer service I was more of less brushed off. We made the decision to LEAVE Wildcat and go ski at Cranmore, wasting $55. My question is what do you plan to do to improve the snow surface, and better mark races and trail closing for skiers to avoid these activities?

Irene Donnell: Well, I am very sorry you and your son had a bad experience here. I remember that day well, mostly because I watched with trepidation as the Wildcat mascot took an impromptu plunge via the pond-skimming contest. But that’s another issue altogether. As for the snow surface conditions, we had a warm, sunny day on Friday, March 26th (actually that whole week seems to have been sunny, temps to 40F), followed by an overnight plunge into the teens (and it looks from the Observatory report like there may have been some high winds in the higher elevations overnight). The snow report had loose & frozen granular for primary surfaces and spring conditions for secondary. And, as I recall, the temperature higher up the mountain that day did not seem to warm up as much as was expected — so it just didn’t loosen up as much as one likes on a beautiful spring day. Spring is tricky that way because the day and night temperatures can change significantly, so soft snow freezes in cold temps overnight. You can expect firm conditions in the mornings, and it softens again with sun and milder temps. But some days it just doesn’t quite warm up enough to soften the surface, and the grooming may not quite be adequate to carry skier traffic throughout the day on every trail. Regarding the race, the criteria for this particular race required it to begin higher than in the past, and did require closure of the lower portion of the Middle Wildcat. If we decided to hold another race with those requirements again, it would be with very careful planning, most particularly if it involved a weekend day. Nonetheless, according to Ski Patrol the race in progress was marked by signs in at least four locations, including the Base Lodge, Quad Base, and both Gorham and Jackson sides at the summit. But since you did not see them, then the adequacy of signage and notification needs to be reviewed.

I am very surprised to hear Guest Services “brushed” you off, as we normally get positive feedback about the friendliness of our staff. Wildcat’s ski guarantee is that if you come back within an hour (reasonably) of purchasing your ticket, with the complaint that the conditions are not to your satisfaction, then you can exchange your ticket for a voucher to come back another day. And at that point in the season, the voucher would have been valid at least through December, if not the whole of the next season. I am not sure what your time-frames were, whether it fell within or well beyond the ski guarantee. But usually the staff will do whatever they can to ensure folks don’t leave here in a bad mood. Unfortunately, Guest Services puts up with a lot of shenanigans, and it is possible that reasonable complaints and issues might receive short shrift once in a blue moon. We certainly hope you’ll give Wildcat another try!

NHpowderhound: Does Wildcat plan on offering any multi-mountain pass deals like the Cannon/BW, ASC or SKI93 deals?

Irene Donnell: By SKI93, do you mean SKI NH? Wildcat is a member of SKI NH and lift ticket packages including tickets of member ski areas are offered for sale by SKI NH. At this time, we don’t offer multi-mountain passes, as the prospect is just a bit more tricky for independently-owned and operated ski areas, like Wildcat. We do offer the WildCard, which is a multi-day card (and tickets can be up-graded for just $25, too – so you can spread the days or weekends out). If we offer a multi-mountain pass down the road, you will know about it.

dmc: My only question is what’s up with the layout of the Quad chair when you first get on? You have to sit down and then it swings around the bullwheel. It just seems a little odd. Why is the lift set up like this?

Irene Donnell: Good question. The current layout is based on the amount of time needed for folks to sit in the chair before being launched at 6 meters/second. The Wildcat Express is running at faster line speed than other straight loading quads. It allows us to move 400 additional skiers per hour, so it keeps the line shorter, ride faster & gives folks more time on the slopes.

awf170: Are there any plans do something with the summit gondola, like make it into a warming hut and a snackshop like it used to be? Why was it closed in the first place?

Irene Donnell: Not a bad location for a spot o’ tea, I must agree. The old gondola building was closed because the old gondola ceased operation; and unfortunately, the snack bar operation was closed because food service is no longer permissible under state health regulations without several hundred thousand dollars worth of permitting and construction. We would hope to reopen it in some capacity in the future. By leaving the old summit gondola building in place, Wildcat essentially is reserving the right to revitalize the building when the time is right.

Comment – Wildcat on the market:

Wildcat Mountain is on the market, as folks seem to be well aware. It should not come as too much of a surprise. Mr. Franchi has owned Wildcat since 1986, and there have been extreme changes in the industry during his tenure as steward of this beautiful ski area. Wildcat has gained the most powerful quad in New England (accessing a 2,112 foot vertical in just six minutes), seven new trails, 90% snowmaking, and numerous other improvements under Mr. Franchi. Wildcat today is a testament to Mr. Franchi’s good will and to the loyalty of Wildcat’s staff and pass holders, encompassing three generations of avid skiers, riders and outdoor enthusiasts. It is our hope that new ownership of Wildcat would bring renewed energy and vision directed at the preservation of a unique and historical landmark, and be motivated by continuing the tradition of skiing in Pinkham Notch. For there are few places left where one can escape the rapid development of our beautiful White Mountains. Wildcat is a special place and offers more in natural spirit with its four lifts and 47 trails than any resort boasting 20 lifts and 200 trails. It is a place like no other and deserves respect, celebration, and preservation for future generations. Wildcat is listed with CB Richard Ellis,

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