Shawn Dempsey of Hickory Ski Center

I drove to Hickory Ski Center last weekend to check on progress at New York’s most recent New England Lost Ski Area Project (NELSAP) alumnus. The recently reopened ski hill is five miles from Warrensburg, New York. The terrain of the area is unique — round, steep hills are separated by a beautiful, broad valley.

Hickory Ski Center

Shawn Dempsey, the General Manager of Hickory, met me at the hill early Saturday morning. Before we went exploring we spent some time in the Base Lodge chatting. It is in nice shape both outside and in.

The Base Lodge

The lodge’s interior faces south, while the trails face north. The great room is built around a central fireplace. Shawn’s father helped build the huge metal ventilation hood in the center of the room. It was one of the few artifacts saved from the original lodge when it burned down in 1972. We sat down to talk.

Hickory Base Lodge

NYSkiBlog: When did Hickory first open? When did it close and reopen?

Shawn Dempsey: Hickory’s first season was 1946-47. Hickory closed in 2005 and reopened last season.

NYSB: Why did Hickory close, and what lessons were you able to take away from that?

Shawn: Hickory suffered through a few bad snow seasons and ran out of cash. The structure and capitalization had to change. The infrastructure needed to be upgraded.

NYSB: How many employees work at the Hickory Ski Center?

Shawn: We have a handful of paid, year-round employees. 25 during the season, and more than 40 volunteers.

NYSB: What are your terrain numbers?

Shawn: We’ve got five miles of trail spread across 220 total acres.

NYSB: What is in the grooming fleet?

Shawn: One Bombardier BR350 Sherpa WinchCat and one LMC 3700.

Hickory Groomer

NYSB: How much snowmaking do you have?

Shawn: Right now, officially, we have no snowmaking. A system has been designed. We’re working on getting approval to draw water from the Hudson River. We’re optimistic that our snowmaking system will be online for the 2011/2012 season. Our system should be able to cover 5 acres with one foot of snow in a day. That means we’d be able to cover the entire trail system, in about a week, under ideal conditions.

NYSB: How many days did you operate last season? Do you have an operating schedule for this season?

Shawn: We were open 12 days last season. Our plan for this year is to operate weekends, from the end of December through the end of March, dependent of course, on snowfall.

NYSB: What are your three biggest challenges operationally?

Shawn: As far as I’m concerned, the challenges are snow, snow and snow.

NYSB: What is the official annual snowfall of the Hickory Ski Center?

Shawn: I don’t have a precise number. I’ve seen National Weather Service estimates for Warrensburg that put the total at around 70 inches. You’d think we’d be a bit higher up on the mountain. My guess is around 60 inches in an average year.

NYSB: What makes Hickory different?

Shawn: Its scale, intimate atmosphere, and terrain. And with Bobcat in the Catskills no longer in operation, we’re the only ski hill in New York State that is run completely with surface lifts.

Tbar Midstation

NYSB: How are you marketing Hickory? What kind of skier are you targeting?

Shawn: Our target markets are families, telemarkers, those who love skiing on natural snow, and anyone who thrives on the challenge of our upper mountain. We’re getting our message out by word of mouth, the internet, including Facebook and sites like Harvey Road, ski shops, and ski groups.

NYSB: What perceptions about Hickory would you like to change?

Shawn: First, we want people to know that Hickory is not a private club. Hickory is open to the public! Second, we’d like to dispel the idea that our lifts aren’t dependable — last season should have changed that perception. And finally, we want people to know that we do offer beginner and intermediate terrain. I guess the legend of Hickory’s upper mountain is well established. In addition, for this year, we’ve added a handle-tow that will serve our new “bunny” hill.

NYSB: What other improvements have been made for this season?

Shawn: The big one is the addition of the WinchCat. It will really upgrade our grooming capability, giving us the ability to maintenance groom our steepest upper-mountain terrain.

As I mentioned, we’ve added a handle-tow on our beginner slope. We’ve also converted the T-bar’s power source from a gasoline engine to a three-phase electric motor, which will be quiet, efficient and reliable. Electric motors start right up, regardless of the temperature.

And we’ve refurbished “the Roost” — our warming hut at the summit.

The Roost

NYSB: What would you consider to be a successful season?

Shawn: An increase in skier visits and ski days. With an “average” season’s snowfall, this should be within reach.

NYSB: Is being close to Gore an advantage or disadvantage?

Shawn: We think our proximity to Gore and West is an advantage for all three mountains. It increases the likelihood that skiers will recognize Warren County as a ski destination and make it their first choice.

NYSB: Who are the owners of Ski Hickory?

Shawn: Hickory has approximately 300 shareholders.

NYSB: Are there plans for real estate development?

Shawn: No. Hickory’s unique character and family atmosphere is a direct result of its people and its small scale. We think real estate development at Hickory has the potential to succeed, but it would change the hill’s character. Hickory is unique and special, and we want to keep it that way.

We’ll continue to improve our skiing product. We’re also evaluating some off-season offerings. But real estate development is not in our plans.

Natural Bumps on Hare

NYSB: What’s your tree skiing policy?

Shawn: Ultimately, we’re going to have a restricted-access, boundary-to-boundary policy. This means that you’d be free to ski anywhere, but you’d have to pass through a gate similar to the entrance to the Whiteface Slides at the top of the summit chair. Ski where you’d like, but read our warning first.

NYSB: Can we tour the hill now?

Shawn: Let’s go.

Take a look: NYSkiBlog’s Photo Tour of Hickory Ski Center.

16 comments on “Shawn Dempsey of Hickory Ski Center

  1. And don’t forget to stock up on smoked goodness from Oscar’s down the road when in town. Yum.

  2. Thanks for a great interview and update about Hickory. It is great to see they were able to acquire a winch cat. This should improve the skiing immensely. I hope they are open more than 12 days this year. Hopefully this will be a big snow year so we can all get a few runs in at Hickory.

  3. Honestly. To me, a local, the prices are way way way too high. It’s about the same price for a midweek gore pass for a season pass and the day tix are $45. The terrain is nice, dont get me wrong, but I cant imagine an instance where I’d be shelling that kind of money out. Maybe for the half day for $30. Especially with the lack of any snowmaking and a non-surface lift. I think i paid $25 for a day the last time I was there a few years ago. I realize its not possible to make ends meet with that kind of profit margin, but its also difficult to attract clients with the current quality/price ratio.

  4. To take it a step further, the season pass is currently 540. 540 divided by 12 is 45 for those without a calculator. What incentive would you ever have to buy a season pass? I can ski Gore 100 days for that price. I’m not anti-hickory, I just wish the prices were more reasonable so I could enjoy it.

  5. I hate to say it (because I’d love to see Hickory succeed), but I think Anonymous might be right. I’d definitely consider Hickory more often if the price wasn’t so high. Most core skiers in the area have a pass to Gore, so they’d have to be enticed by a lowered rate to go to Hickory. Most non-core skiers in the area wouldn’t want to spend $45 to ski anywhere (especially in a down economy), so they’d have to be enticed by a lower rate to go to Hickory.

    I think Big Tupper has the right idea with their $15 tix. Bring on the masses!

  6. Hickory is fighting an uphill (no pun intended) to succeed financially. They failed financially once and they are only operating now because an angel in the form of a wealthy Investor bought up, I believe, a majority of the shares and he is dumping money in to the operation. Nostalgia only draws so much business. There is a reason that small ski areas lacking snow making and chairlifts have gone the way of the dinosaurs.

  7. Harv, good one. Not having skied or even seen Hickory I’m interested about the terrain on the upper mountain. It sounds as if its steep and varied. I’d be interested to know what people think. Also, when there’s enough of it we all know you can’t beat real snow! Time to start doing a jig for the snow gods!

  8. It’s a badly-kept secret that I’m a sucker for places like Hickory. I only got to ski it once before it closed five years ago, and can't wait to go back.

    The people above are probably right that pricing it at $45 won’t help build crowds, but it’s a completely different experience from, say, Gore. And one that I think is worth it. Curious to see if enough other people feel the same way.

  9. Harv great interview.

    Since skiing Plattkill and MRG last year my kids fell in love with the retro/low profile ski area. Another great thing about Hickory, it’s close to the Northway..If they can get their snowmaking up and running, I think they have a real shot at being successful.

  10. Warrensburg = Ski Town 🙂

    The ticket price raised my eyebrow too. But it appears that they have invested in infrastructure upgrades and maintenance that were neglected, invested some high end grooming equipment, and have eyes on a snowmaking future. They also have paid staff now, that I don’t think they really ever had before.

    How much base is necessary to use a winch cat effectively? With no snowmaking, I picture a lot of grass, bark and rock mixed into the snow. Did any portion of the upper mountain ever get groomed in the old days with that Tucker that they had?

    I’m excited for Hickory, even if I don’t think I’ll be hitting it up any time soon. Harv, you must use your vast internet powers for good and make the promotion of Hickory an ongoing theme throughout the season!

    And my only advice to Mr. Dempsey would be to abandon the phrase “skiing product”, when referring to Hickory’s offerings. “Skiing experience” might be more appropriate. Hickory is long on intangibles, but short on the types of statistics, amenities, and facilities that Marketing types would quantify into a product.

  11. Nice photos, interesting interview. 60 inches sounds light. I’m sure I average more than that at home, 35 minutes to the south in Saratoga. Regardless, snowmaking has the potential to be a game-changer for Hickory.

    I have to agree with Matt and Anon above: the pricing seems out of line, especially the season pass pricing.

    Quite a contrast between Hickory and Big Tupper. Both rely heavily on volunteers, but the similarity ends there. Despite the relatively pricey Hickory lift ticket, I’ll be making a real effort to ski there this winter (I didn’t make it last year). I won’t be heading up to BT, and that has little to do with the fact that Tupper Lake is 80 miles further each way.

  12. I don’t think the upper mtn ever had grooming. I’ve heard people say it had moguls the size of school buses. A very frequent comment heard is… “I learned to ski at Hickory. If you could ski Hickory, you can ski anyhting.”

    I read somewhere that Hickory has the 6th steepest vertical drop in the East/nation(?) I took it to mean that the whole vert is relatively steep compared to most other hills. Perhaps others know more. Snowmaking and night skiing (like West and Willard) might be Hickory’s winning ticket. Night skiing makes midweek skiing available to the masses, i.e.$$$. It makes West and Willard viable, they could likely never survive without night skiing. Besides the adult skiers. lots of parents drop off their kids for a few hours skiing after school and regional schools run bus loads of kids over to West on different nights.

  13. I’m the Officer in Charge of the West Point Cadet Ski Patrol, and we spent two long weekends at Hickory last year. It’s the one hill that the cadets can’t stop talking about and Shawn is a gracious host. I’ll be bringing the cadets up again this year on MLK Jr. and President’s Day weekends. We’re just praying for snow now.

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