It’s been a good season for ski movies. Sherpas Cinema served up another mind-bender, Sweetgrass Productions put out the genre-bender, Valhalla, Matchstick Productions gave us an excellent retrospective on Shane McConkey, and most recently, the all-women ski movie we’ve been supporting, Pretty Faces, is going to become a reality.
But there is another film that may have escaped your attention that is certainly worth watching: United We Ski, from T-Bar Films.
T-Bar Films is owned by brothers and native Vermonters Elliott and Tyler Wilkinson-Ray. They spent two years on United We Ski, their first film, to highlight the existence and importance of small, local ski areas in the United States.
This documentary-style film tells the story of how Vermont has maintained an element of family-oriented skiing based in small country towns, while also producing some of the best skiers in the world.
Local ski hills like the ones featured in United We Ski began to show up in the US in the 1930’s and 1940’s, as skiing was spreading across the northeast like wild fire. By the 1970’s there were around 700 ski areas in New England. Today, there are 80. (Eh hem… only 80.)
To put this number in perspective, let’s look at some other states: Colorado has around 27, Utah has 14, California has 31, Oregon has 13, Washington has 17, Wyoming has 9, New Mexico has 9, Montana has 15, and Idaho has 18. Wisconsin has 37, and Michigan has 39.
Wait, Michigan and Wisconsin?
Yup, these two midwest states have such an avid love for skiing that they will turn any hill—no matter what it’s made of—into a slope. And New England, an area less than the size of most of the states mentioned above, has 80.
United We Ski highlights a few of these community ski hills in Vermont, including two areas introduced as: “Somewhere in the North East Kingdom” and “Somewhere out side of Burlington.” You get the feeling it’s because these are actually hills in somebody’s back yard. And if you are part of the neighborhood, you help out around the hill and ski for free. That means anything from clearing trees to shoveling snow to lift maintenance.
These are ski areas where poker games fund the operating costs, and tractors run the rope tows. Maybe they have grooming, maybe they don’t. This is where the ticket price comes in…
Meet Northeast Slopes and Hard’ack ski areas. Northeast Slopes has a ticket price: $15 for a day pass. Hard’ack has a donation jar at the base. Both depend heavily on volunteers to run their operations. Hard’ack’s president had the dream to have a place where the kids of his community could always ski for free. Not only do they ski for free, but the area has evolved with them: “We have one of those things…don’t we?” he asks the camera at one point, “What’s it called?” “A park.” “Oh, yeah, a park!”
Cochran’s Ski Area: a Breeding Ground for Olympians
Cochran’s Ski Area was started on a family farm in the heart of Richmond, Vermont, and later added an additional 140 acres of terrain. Ticket price: $20/day, and they offer a few discount days at $5.
Cochran’s became the nation’s first IRS 501 (c)(3) tax-exempt ski area in the summer of 1998. Their website states, “No child will be denied the opportunity to ski or ride,” and their mission is “to provide area youth and families with affordable skiing and snowboarding, lessons and race training, in the Cochran tradition.” With these principles as their backbone, the Cochran family has produced 9 Olympians and 19 national championships. Cochran’s moto? “All you need is a hill.”
So, How’s the skiing in United We Ski?
This movie is remarkable mostly for the story it tells of small ski areas of New England. United We Ski isn’t full of ski porn or huge lines, but it’s not short on skiing by any means either, and it’s the only ski film I saw this year that I wished went on for another hour.
The skiing in United We Ski is presented in creative shots of skiing home through the trees and down side-walks (a’la JP Auclair’s All I Can segment) and with an epic park session highlighted by beautiful cinematography and a well-chosen soundtrack that includes tracks by local Vermont artists.
Above all, the skiing resonates with the kid in you, the one who didn’t care about snow quality or skis that came from the swap. The kid that wasn’t able to sleep while it was snowing because, at a young age, you were already in love with this sport.
* T-Bar Films is a Vermont-based production company owned by brothers Elliott and Tyler Wilkinson-Ray. Their first full-length film, United We Ski finished its premier tour of Vermont and New Hampshire in November, but the film continues to show around the country and is available on DVD through their website and at the Outdoor Gear Exchange in Burlington.