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An inside look at Whiteface: meet the new mountain manager

Spring, summer plans for the ski area

March 14, 2013

LAKE PLACID - It's always interesting to see how things operate behind the scenes. Thousands of skiers and snowboarders visit the Whiteface Mountain Ski Area in Wilmington on a daily basis, but few have probably learned what makes the mountain tick.

The person who overseas daily operations is the mountain manager, and his main function is to oversee making sure everything runs smoothly on a daily basis. Although running a ski resort has its perks, such as being able to ski regularly, there are many challenges faced by the individual in charge.

This ski season saw a changing of the guard when Bruce McCulley left the post and Aaron Kellett took over that post. With the ski season coming down the home stretch, the Lake Placid News sat down with Kellett to discuss how his first year on the job is going.

Article Photos

Whiteface Mountain General Manager Aaron Kellett stands outside the base lodge on Friday, March 1.

Photo/Richard Rosentreter/Lake Placid News

Not only did the News learn more about what it takes to manage a ski area, but also some upcoming plans for the mountain during the summer.

Lake Placid News: So, overall, describe how the ski season has been so far at Whiteface?

Aaron Kellett: The ski season's been great, we've had a pretty good winter. We had a few warm spells, but we were able to recover really fast. The crew worked very hard, they're very good at their jobs. If the surface wasn't top-notch, it was real quick.

LPN: You've probably settled into the job pretty much, so describe your main responsibilities at the mountain?

AK: I make sure the lifts run, snowmakers work, the groomers work, basically oversee the entire product making sure it's as good as it can be. I help coordinate all the departments and make sure everything runs smooth.

LPN: So, how long did it take for the dust settle?

AK: The dust hasn't settled (laughs). Every day I learn something new, that's for sure. I have since I started working here in 2000.

LPN: What is some of your background and what do you think qualified you for this position?

AK: Well, I grew up on the mountain. My dad was a patroller here (ski patrol), when I was growing up, so I skied as much as I could. I graduated from National Sports Academy, so I skied every day my senior year in high school. Then I went to college at Plattsburgh State, and worked here full-time during that entire time, so I basically got book smart and mountain smart at the same time, so that helped me a lot. By the time I graduated college, I'd started full-time in the terrain parks. I grew up building the parks, learned how to drive the snow cats, then working here year-round, you pretty much learn how to do everything on the mountain.

LPN: Describe a typical day for the mountain manager?

AK: Usually my day starts about 6 a.m. I start calling people when I wake up, calling the department heads. I usually touch base with the groomers almost every day. I like to know what to expect when I come into work. If for some reason we have some funky weather or something's going on, I like to know that. I like to get the scoop before I see how the day pans out and try to be a prepared as we can, getting messages out to people on what's going on.

And then when I get in, I touch base with all the staff here personally, talk to the marketing department, the operations department, making sure we're all coordinating. I touch base with our lift maintenance department and make sure all the lifts are going to run, figure out if there's any special attention we need to getting a lift to run or grooming this or that.

Then patrol gets on the hill and I listen in on the trail checks. Patrol usually gets out around 8 a.m. Every trail that we open needs to be skied and the patrol goes out and gives the general surface conditions. I review the (trail) listing and make sure we are opening all the trails that we scheduled to open, and then I coordinate that with marketing. I check in with the lift operators to make sure the lifts are opening on time. There's a lot of variables there a lot going on.

Usually when I get that settled, I communicate with Centerplate, our vendor for food service and retail shop. Then I try to get out usually and take a couple of runs in at some point, but that doesn't always happen every day (laughs).

I also communicate with our main offices up town and what's going on and what they're looking at, but I always try to get out and check the trails whenever possible (laughs).

LPN: What have been some of the greatest challenges you've faced so far?

AK: I think weather. It's always the biggest challenge at this mountain. You know, we have a lot of technology with snowmaking and grooming, but if the wind's blowing then we can't run the lifts, and that's a challenge. A lot of people don't understand that the wind blows a lot harder at the top of the mountain than it does here (at the base), so struggling to get lifts open when we have wind is probably the biggest challenge that I face.

LPN: People probably get frustrated when they show up at the mountain and the lifts are on wind hold. Explain a little how wind hold procedures work.

AK: Well, every lift is checked. The gondola and Lookout lift have a wind meter, and those actually tell you and they don't let you run the lift when the wind is too high. It's a safety factor. When the gondola isn't running, it's sometimes because it won't let itself run. If it's windy, the lift can run, but very very slow. When the wind picks up and the meter reads, I think it's around 40 mph, it will slow itself down. These two lifts monitor themselves.

But the other lifts, we basically just watch them. We watch chair swing and chair bounce, and if a chair is swinging in either direct swinging more than a foot, you really don't want to run the lift because you run risk derailment. It's completely a safety factor. We want to run every lift we can every day, that's the business we're in. When people say we don't run the gondola to save money, they just don't know what's going on. We run the gondola whenever we can, that's our bread and butter.

LPN: It would seem this job may have a few perks, describe some of the more fun aspects of your job?

AK: Well, I get to go behind the scenes at a ski resort. It's a really really cool thing to see how things work. I get to drive a snow cat, that's pretty awesome. I get to ski get to make sure our trails are good, that's a pretty major perk. I get to meet a lot of great people. There's a lot of great people who work here and a lot of great people who ski here, and I get to meet them all.

I guess it's self explanatory, if you work at a ski resort you get to use the ski resort, it's a number one job perk for sure.

I also love seeing people have fun on the mountain and talking to the people. I grew up with a lot of people here, it's a lot like family.

LPN: What is the worst part about it?

AK: It gets pretty stressful. We had a stressful President's Week, we ran into some wind. Just the battle to get the lifts open when you have a lot of people at the mountain. It all makes up for it though when the lifts open and people get out on the trails and are happy and we have a great skiing product.

LPN: People seem to always talk about the Slides at the summit. You once said you'd like to get them open more. What are the challenges of opening the slides, and then keeping open for a stretch of time?

AK: The main challenge with the Slides is they're very, very rugged terrain and we don't have snowmaking and we can't groom it. So, there's some very dangerous natural hazards, and unless we have enough natural snow to cover them, you can't go in there. And it's not a matter of how good you are, you have to think in the aspect of the ski patrol. If you get hurt in the Slides, they have to carry you down in a sled down that part you just got hurt on. Anything we open we have to make sure ski patrol can bring a sled down it.

Another problem with the slides is - they slide. Even if we have a great powder day, it doesn't mean it's safe for the Slides to open because there is a legitimate avalanche danger at times.

LPN: Let's play the role of mountain groundhog. What is your prediction. Will there be at least three extra weeks to the ski season this year?

AK: I say three extra weeks to the season ... it's still snowing

LPN: You're still in your first year as mountain manager, but are there changes you'd like to see and are there things you're working on?

AK: One of my major things is doing more in the summer. I want to add more summer activities and bring more people here. We find that people come up here on vacation and want to stay near the mountain.

We're going to operate the Air bag this summer. We'll let people jump without their skis ... we'll bring them up the lift and jump off the lift onto the bag. It's a pretty unique experience. We're trying to get more fun activities. We're going to do more hiking more biking. We're going to offer Ranger rides ... we bring people for a tour around the mountain on our 4x4 utility vehicles. so we'll do like an hour tour. People will be able to see the snowmaking buildings, go along the river down toward the Hungry Trout, and see things you don't see during the winter.

LPN: What do you do in your spare time besides ski?

AK: Well, I have a two-month old daughter, so when I'm not skiing, I spend as much time that I can at home with my daughter and my wife.

LPN: Is there anything else you'd like to add?

AK: We have a great March lined up, we have Spring Fest and a lot of great activities, the Pond Skimming and Easter Egg Hunt. We have some bands coming this spring. We have some new things and hopefully everyone comes out to enjoy the mountain whether you ski or don't, come by and check out the bands.

Also, we just finalized details for a Snow Cat dinner at the mid-station bistro in two weekends. We're going to bring people up on snow cats and let them enjoy dinner then drive them back down. We're finding new and creative things to do around the mountain.

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