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Ski notebook

Resorts enjoy favorite present: a blanket of snow

Email|Print| Text size + By Marty Basch
Globe Correspondent / December 20, 2007

Talk about timing. Sunday's northeaster, which brought more than a foot of snow to spots in New England, was a lot easier to take for most people than last Thursday's commuting headache. The blustery storm carried strong winds, ice, and sleet, and made young skiers and riders count the days until the upcoming vacation week.

Those high winds derailed Loon Mountain's gondola. About 75 people were stranded for 90 minutes before being evacuated, as the winds forced the mountain to close for the day. But the incident in Lincoln, N.H., paled in comparison to another gondola mishap that occurred halfway around the world.

A cable came loose from a pulley last Saturday at Ontake ski resort in central Japan, trapping 90 riders in gondola cars for up to 12 hours. Rescuers had to climb the ice-covered slopes, ascend the structure, pry open the doors, and lower the passengers one by one 80 feet to the ground. Nobody was hurt in either incident.

Other than that, the December snows have been ideal for area ski operators looking for a merry holiday season.

"Even if the snow hadn't fallen and if it stayed cold, our snowmaking has been going very well," said Bill Swain, Sugarloaf's communications man. "We would have increased our terrain without help from Mother Nature, but Mother Nature's help is greatly appreciated."

Vermont hasn't had this much terrain open in eight years, according to the Vermont Ski Areas Association. Killington has 130 trails open, more than tripling last year's trail count at the same time, while Stowe is 100 percent open.

Last season, Jiminy Peak in Hancock, like many other areas, was just trying to stay open during a lackluster December. Now, they are 75 percent open. "Between the two storms we got about 15 inches of snow," said Jiminy's Betsy Strickler. "We have a base of 4 to 5 feet, which is really great for this early in the season."

Waterville Valley's steepest trail, Bobby's Run, is open, a testament to a snowy December.

"That's the mark of a great season, when Lower Bobby's is open before the holidays," said Waterville's Deb Moore.

On the Nordic side, skiers have been making their way through the woods. "There is a lot of pent-up demand from last season," she said. "There is a lot of interest out there."

And it's still autumn. Time will tell what winter will bring when its makes its official entrance Saturday.

Then there were three

Taos Ski Valley in northern New Mexico opened for the season Dec. 14. Not only were skiers greeted with the best opening-day snow conditions in three decades, but management also sprang a surprise announcement on visitors: Starting March 19, the mountain will lift its longtime ban on snowboarding.

According to an explanation posted on the new Taos snowboarding website (ridetaos.org), "For a long time the discussion has been more focused on when we would open, and we feel like now is the right time. Taos has a longstanding tradition of being family oriented, and now with so many young people snowboarding, we are turning away more and more families."

Only three anti-snowboarding holdouts will remain in the United States: Mad River Glen in Vermont, plus Alta and Deer Valley, both in Utah.

Taos officials said they decided to wait until the end of the season to lift the ban because the resort did not want to rile skiers who bought season passes based on the premise that there would be no snowboards on the mountain. The late-season date will also allow management to assess the boarders' impact, enabling the resort to fine-tune issues in time for the 2008-09 season, when snowboarding will be fully integrated with lessons, rentals, and retail sales.

Taos is known for its deep powder and steep ridgelines that allow skiers to hike above the lifts to the daunting off-piste chutes of 12,481-foot Kachina Peak. The mountain has a fervent following of loyalists, and by the time opening weekend ended, more than 500 of them had posted comments on the new website. Sentiments seemed split.

Taos anticipated resistance to the decision.

"Any time you have a significant change, you risk upsetting a group of people," read a statement that accompanied the announcement. "The number of people who will see this change as positive far outweighs the number who will be upset by it. Taos Ski Valley isn't a place defined by keeping people out, we're defined by inviting people in."

White, Bleiler winners

Shaun White and Gretchen Bleiler, both Olympic medalists, rode to halfpipe victories in the US Snowboarding Grand Prix event last Saturday at Colorado's Breckenridge Resort.

White entered the contest at the last minute.

"This year I'm just trying to have some fun and not really put too much pressure on things, and so I wasn't going to do the event," White said in a statement on the US Snowboarding team's website. "Then, I just knew, I was here, I felt good, and I just went for it."

White bested Steve Fisher and two-time Grand Prix winner Elijah Teter.

On the women's side, Bleiler won handily with a score of 45.3. The Olympic silver medalist shared the podium with Kelly Clark and Hannah Teter, both Olympic gold medal winners from Vermont.

Nordic ski school

Former US Ski Team member Sue Wemyss is the new ski school director at Great Glen Trails in Pinkham Notch, N.H. A longtime GGT employee and ski instructor, Wemyss skied with the US Team from 1983-86 and competed in the 1984 Olympics in Sarajevo, finishing 28th in the 20-kilometer race. She also earned an 11th-place World Cup finish that year. Wemyss has two bronze World Masters Championship medals to her credit, won in 2003.

Cheap skiing alert

Need to take a vacation day? Consider using one tomorrow at Cranmore in North Conway, N.H., where the lift tickets will be a cheap $3.30 on ticket roll-back day. Cranmore is kicking off its 70th anniversary with the bargain rate reflecting the price of tickets back when Franklin D. Roosevelt was in the White House. Former area owner Herbert Schneider, son of skimeister Hannes Schneider, is expected to be on hand . . . Sunday River has gone to the dogs, but it's for a good cause. The Maine ski resort is selling $20 identification passes for pups, and the money will go to upgrading a nearby playground in Bethel. The canine passes will be sold year-round, and the resort will partner with a different charity or worthy cause every six months. Passes provide identification in case a dog gets lost, including owner's name and phone number. Apparently, Maine ski resorts enjoy a favorable reputation when it comes to canine endeavors, at least at Nordic areas. According to a site that tracks pet accessibility (dogfriendly.com), Maine leads the nation with the most cross-country resorts whose trails are open to dogs. (Colorado ranks second.) When it comes to individual dog-friendly areas, New Hampshire's Bretton Woods Mountain Resort ranks first on the list because of its "8 kilometers of groomed trails for dogs and on-site fido-friendly lodging." Other resorts that made the top-dog list include Bear Notch Ski Touring Center in New Hampshire, Craftsbury Outdoor Center in Vermont, and Carter's X-C Ski Center and Bethel Inn and Country Club, both in Maine.

Globe correspondent T.D. Thornton contributed to this report.

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