Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Assessment of Boyce Park Ski Area Renovations

Here I come to clear up a few of the misconceptions concerning the recently updated facilities at the Boyce Park Ski Area. As many Pittsburgh area winter sports enthusiasts know, the Allegheny County Parks system has for years provided locals with a reasonably well maintained, inexpensive option for skiers and snowboarders, nestled minutes aways from the bustling commerce center of Monroeville, in beautiful Boyce Park. The reason I state the ski area is "reasonably well maintained" has more to do with mother nature than any human shortcomings, so when it was revealed that the county recently pumped a few million dollars into snow making and chair lifts, it seemed like a good time to revisit the place.


First of all, it's difficult to find information about anything the County is doing, let alone the specifics of an updated ski facility, so you can take pretty much take all of the online information offerings with a grain of salt. What you will find are a variety of skiing websites listing inaccurate specs. For example, the vertical is 160' to 180', depending on which site you visit. Many site indicate the snow making capacity is 100 percent, but this is sadly not the case either, even after the newly installed snow machines (more on that sore point, later.) The closest thing to an accurate measure of the base was 31", but I think it's probably more like 18". Nor does the ski area boast five lifts, no matter how broadly you define the term. The map pictured above is all I could find, and I would soon find out it is in no way current. After all the renovations, you'd think they'd want to make a new trail map available. Since no one else has, I have altered the previous map to reflect the current layout of the Boyce Park Ski Area, seen here below.


If it looks like I merely chopped off the left side of the mountain, it's because it is now entirely occupied by snow tubing. Six glorious lanes of snow tubing, lanes that look like curious moguls if that's what you choose to believe. You'd probably get charged with homicide if you tried, so it's better to let the tubers have their lame fun. I would love to continue verbally attacking these people, but that would be unfair since the long lines for the activity are comprised entirely of families with young children too small to ski. I can even see myself taking my young nephew and niece there next winter, since little kids probably need to experience that type of sensation before they can move on to skilled activities. The reason Boyce snow tubing is such a touchy subject is that it's obviously getting all the emphasis from management. It is where the money went, while the real sport of skiing suffers neglect. Here's how:

Snow Making. There are nine brand new snow machines pointed directly towards the snow tubing lanes, against the wind. I cannot understand why this activity deserves nine machines. I can only hope that as the activity becomes more established and pays itself off, they will relocate half of those devices and begin opening the trails between Casper and Adams Run, maybe including Alpine and Avalanche. I couldn't be sure Avalanche is still there, but I left it on the map out of hope. The best thing that can happen to the ski area with this current set up would be for the snow machines to be so poorly managed that some fake snow mistakenly gets blown over towards the slopes.

Chair Lifts. This was a good rumor; new chair lifts. When I saw that they had removed Tahoe's lift I freaked out, fearing that local skiing was gone for good. Then I heard about the "improvements" which were said to include new chair lifts, and got excited. When I got there I learned that what they actually installed were two magic carpet lifts, one for tubing and one for Casper the Friendly Bunny Slope. Watching the tubers patiently ride the carpet lift uphill, I fondly recalled the amount of effort people once had to exert in order to be able to enjoy a sled ride. As the saying goes "What goes down, must come up" but this isn't what they meant. Here they have effectively stripped the talentless activity of snow tubing of all it's cardiovascular benefit and reduced it to yet another commodified form of instant gratification. They have also removed all the rope tows.

While the idea of new chair lifts is exposed as farce, I am grateful they left the old one in at Adams Run. If it was absolutely necessary to remove half the ski area, at least they preserved the better slope. On this day, there was actually enough natural snow to be able to ski Pine Valley and parts of Rattlesnake Ridge. Adams Run itself was properly groomed and snowed, being the one trail that receives any daily maintenance. Alpine continues to serve as a board park, with some real jumps and a small half pipe, yet has not much more snow than elsewhere. When I inquired about the new chair lifts, the operator laughed, then explained that the park had actually upgraded the existing equipment with new parts. That's fine with me, except that no less than an hour later the lift broke down, which leads me to believe that, in reality, the old lift is in a crate somewhere slowly being cannibalized. So we ended our day making quarter mile trips up the 160'- 180' vertical for sake of feeling like we actually got some skiing in. "What goes down, must come up"

It worked. After, my fifth hike or so, Adams Run seemed to feel more like an epic adventure rather than the beginner ski slope that it really is. Hiking uphill in ski boots, shouldering outerwear and gear may require one to stop and take a breather at the summit, where you can peer through the trees to see the tubers enjoying their numerous amenities. It all seems so backwards. For our inconvenience, the kids at the ticket counter gave us vouchers for another day of skiing, thus further imperiling the prospect of operating a profitable facility. When we called about the lift two days later, it had still not been serviced, so maybe they know what they're doing after all.

The fact that snow tubing is an obvious attempt to make money is not lost. Anyone with twelve bucks can sit on their ass for ten seconds at a time while going fifteen miles per hour into a soft embankment of man-made snow, and on this day there was a good crowd doing just that. I just wish there could be some emphasis on the existing ski facilities, particularly in regards to snow making. Boyce's reputation is that of having poor conditions, or not being open at all. Very real climate change makes snow making at Boyce an absolute necessity, as annual accumulation continues to decline and get washed away in the alternating rains. So to have a ski facility fifteen minutes from half the population of Pittsburgh is special, although maybe not so realistic. Even if it's only half the facility it once was, Boyce Park Ski Area provides a great value, particularly for the novice skier who needs to log a few miles before attempting Seven Springs. It's the most inexpensive place to decide if you're a skier. I personally like it as a relaxed, non-elitist atmosphere where a guy without health insurance can enjoy his favorite winter sport, then go have a beer, then be home before five. The tubing park will probably make a ton of money, enough to help maintain its parent ski area, then can easily be converted to a double black diamond (in my dreams)

In summary, no improvements have been made to the ski area, unless removing half the ski area can be seen as an improvement. If you weren't enthusiastic about skiing Boyce before, I haven't much to say that could change your mind. On the other hand, maybe if the ski area received more support I could be reporting on it's expansion. With the season over, there's no point in pushing the hard sell, however next year I intend to take more advantage of whats left of the facility, whenever the region receives a proper snow fall. The place doesn't have to be there at all when you think about it, so it still deserves our support. Here's hoping management comes to understand that skiing can be profitable when there is snow and an operating lift.

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