PINKHAM NOTCH, N.H. - From his office in Sandpoint, Idaho, Tom Chasse was skiing down memory lane, reminiscing about a mountain three time zones away.
"I could go back there and it wouldn't be a whole lot different from the way it was in the early '80s," said Chasse. "It was comfortable, down-to-earth, and is a mountain that doesn't have all the bells and whistles that ski areas have today."
Though today he is president and CEO of Schweitzer Mountain, Chasse spent seven years at Wildcat Mountain in the 1980s - two as race coordinator and five as ski school director - and like many who worked, raced, skied, or snowboarded the 4,000-foot-plus peak, there's a soft spot in his Alpine heart for a rugged Granite State icon that opened 50 years ago.
Wildcat is many things. It is an old-school mountain with no slopeside lodging or sushi. Located across from the weather maker called Mount Washington, it is often blessed by being in the way of a bountiful storm (remember skiing on Halloween in 2005?), but also cursed by its powerful winds that can ground the lifts (remember not skiing in early December 2007?).
The feisty ski area in the White Mountain National Forest was born by sweat, saws, and axes in the summer of 1933, when Civilian Conservation Corps crews built one of the first ski racing trails in the country: the Wildcat trail. For 25 years, skiers initially walked up in their leather boots, wool sweaters, and gabardine pants to ski on long wooden boards with bear trap bindings until a group of forward-thinking competitive skiers figured the mountain would be right for a lift-serviced ski area.
Wildcat's high elevation, snowfall, and northern exposure helped convince Brooks Dodge, George Macomber, Mack Beal, and Malcolm McLane to press ahead to form the Wildcat Mountain Corporation.
According to New England Ski Museum executive director Jeff Leich, each man brought a specialty.
"These guys were international skiers," said Leich. "They knew what was going on here and in Europe." Dodge was an Olympian, Beal an Olympic team manager.
Dodge cleared trails, Macomber oversaw construction, McLane, an attorney, outlined the prospectus, which included lifetime passes, while Beal worked with the Italian company making the innovative bubble-style gondola lift. The ski area was ready for the winter of 1957, but there was one component missing: snow.
A New Year's storm brought more than a foot and the T-bar started. It wasn't until Jan. 25, 1958 that the gondolas began running. To commemorate that date, Wildcat will sell lift tickets Jan. 25 at the 1958 rate of $9 while also having a birthday party. On Jan. 26, the 50th birthday party continues with a dinner, brief ceremony, and torch light parade.
Those colorful bubbles would operate until 1997, largely because of the efforts of Stan Judge, an engineer hired as general manager in 1959. Wildcat was the first Eastern ski area to operate on US Forest Service land. It also was the first in the United States to fly the Carlevaro-Savio gondola.
The lift became Wildcat's public face, but soon it was competitions that made Wildcat renowned. Skiers like Penny Pitou and Gordie Eaton competed in the 1959 Easterns while two years later Wildcat hosted the Nationals.
As ski areas developed, base-area lodging became important. But the Wildcat Mountain Corporation couldn't build on US Forest Service land.
But improvements have been made where possible. The funky gondolas, characterized by a 15-minute ride to the summit, and an even longer wait at times to get into one, were replaced by the Wildcat Express high-speed detachable quad in 1997, cutting that topside ride to around six minutes.
In 1986, the mountain was sold to current owner Pat Franchi.
What Wildcat hasn't lost over time is its character and terrain. Perhaps its hardy history attracts like-minded soulful skiers and snowboarders to plunge down its 2,100 feet of vertical. It's home to the longest beginner trail in the state, the nearly 3-mile-long Polecat. There's a liberal tree skiing policy, and challenges on Lynx, Liftline, and Wildcat.
"The undulations in the terrain, the off-chamber slopes challenge you," said Chasse. "You gain good skiing skills."
Since 1999, Tom Caughey has been Wildcat's general manager. He also worked at the Cat while in high school and college as a ski patroller. He says the trails follow the lay of the land and have only been minimally improved over the years while making way for snowmaking and drainage changes.
"We are a little rough around the edges, but that's just the challenge of being a small ski area in a big resort industry," said Caughey. "One of the things that has kept Wildcat going is the drive of all the people who have been through the headaches of a rough winter, a good winter, and different economic conditions. I think that they have the personal strengths of the founders."
Wildcat's expert reputation has been with it from the beginning. Rick Owen, now a Littleton motel owner, was ski school director from 1973-78.
"I think it was done by design," he said. "They wanted it for skiers like themselves. They made the trails narrow so it would hold the snow better when the winds blew off Mount Washington."
During his tenure, Owen saw the creation of the beginner's Snowcat Novice Area by the base.
"When I first came there, the only novice trail was Polecat off the top," he said. "But it became apparent they couldn't rely on a handful of skilled and experienced skiers. That brought a teaching area for true novices."
Wildcat has been an influence on many skier's lives, including Jeff Leich. A Wildcat skier for 35 years, he was a self-described ski bum in the 1970s who eventually became ski patrol director there from 1994-97. His wife is a Wildcat instructor - they met there - and his children ski there.
"They keep opening more terrain," said Leich. "They are glading some of the areas between the trails and have a skier base that enjoys that. Even though they haven't expanded much, they've also become a bit of a farm team for the rest of the ski industry. Some former employees are in interesting positions in the ski business."
And Wildcat, across from a spectacular White Mountain view, including the snow-choked bowl of Tuckerman Ravine, is in an interesting position itself.
"The one challenge about Wildcat is its reputation for being a challenging place to ski," said Caughey. "That goes back to the 1930s. We can't live it down no matter how well we groom or how much snow we make."