Two colleagues and I had been working on this powder stash underneath the Highline quad chair at Butternut for about an hour one Saturday last March. It was a nice run, and hugging the left side of the trail produced some of the smoothest turns of the season on silky soft snow. Just enough moguls were interspersed throughout the run to keep things interesting. The debate thus became whether to stick with the sure thing or keep venturing downhill left to see what else was out there.
Curiosity overcame us and we headed to that side of the mountain. About a half-hour later, after two great cruisers, we stopped to ponder what we had done so far. For me, it had been about a decade since I last clicked into my bindings at Butternut. For my two friends, it was a first-time experience.
"Why haven't we been here before?" one asked.
"You know, I never thought this place would seem this big," the other member of the group said. "There is a lot more here than I thought."
That is the wonder of Butternut. OK, conventional wisdom, at least to the spoiled among us, dictates a "smaller" mountain. It's in the Berkshires and sports a summit elevation of just 1,800 feet. There are no high-speed lifts and some of the facilities, like the group sales office that staff members say looks like an outhouse, are out-and-out no frills. But with 1,000 vertical feet, there has always been an economy to Butternut's 22 trails that does not come with many smaller places. One definitely gets the most out of the runs, no matter what the level of ability.
"Butternut has a classic feel - an older, classic New England feel, that is designed around having family fun," said Matt Sawyer, the mountain's marketing director.
Alas, at the tail end of a school vacation week, the waiting at Butternut's two quad chairs averaged less than three minutes. One ride is 12 minutes and the other seven. "With our vertical, the slower quads do the same job a high-speed would because the chairs are closer together," Sawyer said. "We needed to replace the old double chairs, but what we have is fine."
With a bed base of 5,000 within 20 minutes of the lifts and the town of Great Barrington sitting at its driveway, there is really no pressure on Butternut to modernize with such amenities as slope-side condominiums and a retail concourse. Saratoga Springs-area architect Dick Butler, who writes extensively about ski area development for web sites and magazines calls Butternut's facilities a "hodgepodge" of older buildings and contemporary structures that sit in a compact base area that makes everything easy to find. "It all works," he says. "What I really like is the fact that management kept many trees at the base area. It gives the place a rustic feel that I enjoy."
There is also the matter of Butternut's trails. Its neighbors in the Berkshires might be able to brag about steeper runs, but its black runs are not wimpy and its blues are wide enough and diverse enough to keep everyone happy. The green trails - from the smartly laid out, self-contained learning area to Crosstown, which traverses a half-dozen other trails - do exactly what they are supposed to do. That is, get people on skis and boards, make them comfortable, and allow they to enjoy snowsports at their fullest from the start.
The tubing center gives non-skiers an option and also brings the family together at the end of the day.
Butternut has a solid terrain park, but be ready to take a mandatory safety course before riding through it.
In all, Butternut sports 10 lifts and can move 13,175 skiers and riders up the hill each hour. It has also invested about $2 million in its snowmaking infrastructure over the past five seasons.
Perhaps the primary thing that sets Butternut apart from many mountains is its cheap tickets. A full-day adult weekend or holiday ticket is $49, but one never really has to pay that. Butternut features a $44 four-hour flex ticket, a $36 full-day Friday ticket, and a $31 Friday flex ticket. There is also a $15 mid-week non-holiday ticket.
The 2007-08 season pass program features a $229 adult pass, a $179 junior ticket for those 7 through 13, a $69 pass for children six and younger, a $99 senior pass for those older than 70, and a $400 corporate ticket that is transferable and features the company name or logo.
Right before lunch, my colleagues and I discovered a black diamond called Downspout. It was full of good snow, sitting in the sun, and had a variety of terrain. After a bowl of chowder and a loaded baked potato in the lodge, it was back to that powder stash under the lift.
Ten years. I could hardly believe it had been that long. On the last lift ride of the day, I lifted my hand and made a promise to anyone within hearing distance. I will not make that mistake again.
I then thanked Butternut for simply being Butternut. The industry needs more places like it.