Mittersill offers trip back in time
FRANCONIA NOTCH, N.H. - Rarely does a ski hill return from the dead, but Mittersill is alive with a pounding backcountry pulse.
“I remember this being open as kids and skiing here,’’ says Jamie White, a Cannon Mountain season pass-holder and 52-year-old architect from Wenham, Mass. “Being back is a time warp sort of thing.’’
So it’s only fitting that his fifth-grade son Matt, 11, is making his childhood turns there.
“I think it’s harder than skiing a groomed trail,’’ says Matt. “I can’t see what’s underneath, the twigs and stuff. There is more of a challenge but kind of cool.’’
The Whites had just completed another heart-throbbing plunge down the winding, narrow, bumped-up backcountry trails of Mittersill, Cannon’s ungroomed and overgrown neighbor that is enjoying its first official season with access after years of flat-lining and not-so-secret skiing.
Last March the state of New Hampshire, which owns Cannon Mountain as part of Franconia Notch State Park, orchestrated a land swap with the US Forest Service. The forest service had owned the top of Mittersill, and traded its 100 acres for the 244-acre Sentinel Mountain State Forest in Piermont that’s surrounded by federal government land and includes a sliver of the Appalachian Trail. The state already owned the bottom of Mittersill.
The ski area had its beginnings in the 1940s when Austrian Baron Hubert von Pantz purchased the land that became Mittersill after fleeing his country during Germany’s takeover in 1938. He and some partners opened Mittersill with a ski lift, hotel, and chalets a few years later.
Mittersill grew to contain a chairlift and two t-bars. An old trail map from the 1960s shows it with seven slopes and trails that could easily double in number with today’s liberal trail counts. It closed in the 1980s.
Cables, lift towers, and wooden terminals from Mittersill’s past stand along classic trails before bursting out from the woods into gloriously wide open fields. There are no trail signs, and patrolling is limited. A shuttle runs weekends and holidays. If not, huff it back.
It’s a taste of what winters were like without snowmaking. There isn’t any at Mittersill. The natural snow mountain was open from Jan. 3-29. Torrential rains and stingy natural snow kept it closed until last Saturday, when a few inches of snow fell that had the backcountry bunch hooting and hollering through tight trees, the steeps, over exposed branches, bushes, and rocks, and along some fine powder stashes.
Matt Costello, from Medfield, Mass., a 39-year-old insurance company regional vice president, was there for the first time. He has a growing interest in backcountry skiing and has skied out West and in Tuckerman Ravine on the shoulder of Mount Washington a couple of times.
“There was nobody out there,’’ he said. “There was a lot of fresh powder, but I had to watch out for bushes and what-not. My legs are tired, but I had to keep going because it was just too good.’’
On a bustling vacation week Saturday, Mittersill had sparse traffic and no more than a half-dozen passengers per shuttle ride following a couple of morning excursions.
Effort is required to reach Mittersill and its advanced terrain. After riding the tram or Peabody and Cannonball Express lifts, schuss down a portion of Taft Slalom before entering a slim, bumpy lane with signage saying, in essence, that you’re on your own. At a rise, take off the boards and march for a few minutes before clicking in again. Over the years, skiers accessed Mittersill from Cannon at their own risk.
Matt MacKinnon has skied Mittersill for the 22 years he’s worked at Cannon, now as the chief snowmaker. He’s a man with local colloquial knowledge.
“This is old-time skiing,’’ he said after clicking in. “There are some original trails, glades, fields, and Mother Nature taking some trees down. It’s a dynamic environment; not static.’’
Skier Preston Jones and rider Jake Rivers, 14-year-olds from nearby Bethlehem, N.H., were also venturing into Mittersill.
Jones, who like many enthusiasts shunned lifts and hiked up in the past to ski it, appreciates the new open-door policy. He also finds backcountry skiing more challenging than the terrain park scene that attracts many skiers his age.
“People in terrain parks just hang out there all the time,’’ he said. “They can do 360s and stuff, but I don’t think they could handle the backcountry. No offense to them.’’
Diehard Cannon skiers are protective of their mountain. Retaining Mittersill’s character is part of management’s plan, but a double chairlift is on the agenda for next season. Original trail names will return, and some of the brush cut.
“We are going to keep it a backcountry area, the difference is, it is going to have a lift on it next season,’’ says Cannon spokesman Greg Keeler. “You will still be able to hike over if you want to ride or ski down from the top, but we will operate the chairlift when Mittersill is open.’’
So skiers and riders will be able to rise again over Mittersill during its projected reincarnation as a lift-accessed backcountry area.