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Middling in size, but thrills to spare

Email|Print| Text size + By Tony Chamberlain
Globe Staff / November 20, 2005

Every year in the national ski magazines, the season starts out with a breathlessly anticipated list of ski areas, rated in order of popularity by readers. The order may shift year to year, but the Eastern lineup is always about the same: Tremblant, Killington, Okemo, Sunday River, Loon . . .

Great areas all, to be sure. And of course, though not every rural town has its own ski slope anymore, there are still the small local areas where people get their start and families go skiing together after work.

Then there's the middle ground, areas that ski big but feel small, without miles of backwoods and glades, but with trails still old-fashioned in their twisting gnarliness, areas where families can brown-bag their lunches and drink cocoa out of thermos bottles, and ticket windows where they can save a few bucks.

The midsize areas date to the age before giants. They were the areas skiers aspired to after learning those first few linked turns at the smaller places, and in fact they were once considered the giants themselves. There are still a handful left.

Pico Long before there was a Killington, the biggest giant of them all in New England, there was Pico. In fact Pico, in central Vermont near Rutland, is pushing 70, having opened on Thanksgiving Day 1937. Though it is now owned by Killington, it feels worlds apart. Never has the formula -- small ski area, big mountain -- been more true than at Pico, with its nearly 2,000-foot vertical drop.

Says general manager George Potter: ''It's a big mountain with a small ski area's personal touch. There are mogul trails, glades, and groomed steeps. But all the trails lead back to the same base area."

Indeed, Pico skis big. Anyone convinced that it takes the biggest of big mountains to get the blood racing needs only to stop at the top of Giant Killer to realize that this double black diamond is not a publicity stunt, that it is steep and tough. And there's more than one tough challenge. Check out Upper KA and Sunset 71, and if you're up for some quick turning, try the new tree ski areas of Birch Woods and Doozie.

Great ski areas are not made on their expert terrain alone, however, but on the ability to serve all comers, and Pico has some superb lower-end challenge cruising off the Golden Express Quad. These are runs that flow in long undulations with single fall-line descents and plenty of ego snow to put most skiers in their comfort zones.

As Potter says, all runs lead to a lodge-ski shop area which, no matter how big Pico feels in places on the way down, keeps it well within that coveted definition of a family ski area.

While all sorts of packages are available, the one-day adult ticket price this year is $49, as compared with $67 at Killington, with a season pass available at $399.

Ascutney Mountain In southern Vermont, Ascutney Mountain in Brownsville lies within the shadow of Mount Snow and Stratton, and compared with them, the area's 1,800-foot vertical drop and 56 trails qualifies it as a true medium-sizer. It has offerings for all skiers, including nine genuine black diamonds. They are steep, bumped, and in some cases, closed-quartered with the trees.

The area averages 15 feet of natural snow yearly, and has a balanced offering of terrain variety: about one-quarter in the green, novice range, and the rest about equally divided between intermediate blue cruisers and the true-black expert range. This latter category, by the way, is the full range, from long, wide undulating runs to narrow, cranky twisters reminiscent of New England skiing in the earliest days.

Ascutney, just a short drive from Interstate 91 on Route 44, has full off-slope and après-ski activities, from tubing and ice-skating to an in-house movie theater and fitness center with an Olympic-size pool.

Dartmouth Skiway In New Hampshire, where the big-time skiing is dominated by Waterville Valley, Cannon, and Loon, some venerable mid-sizers have price tags well under the top tier. One of the most unusual ski areas in the state is Dartmouth Skiway in Lyme Center, half an hour's drive from the Dartmouth campus in Hanover.

Host of the NCAA skiing championships and training ground for any number of World Cup and Olympic racers, Dartmouth is steeped in the college tradition, but that includes many alumni and faculty families that keep the small-town friendly atmosphere one of the draws of this area.

The skiing is everything found at larger ski areas, where most skiers use only about half the vertical drop at any one time. Dartmouth Skiway has about 1,000 vertical feet over 106 acres and 31 trails. Most people ski on about half the terrain in the intermediate blue range, while a quarter of the terrain is novice and the other quarter black diamond.

Dartmouth Skiway also offers one of the most attractive base facilities in all of ski country, the McLane Family Lodge, a soaring pine-framed building erected just five years ago and still smelling of new timber. A restaurant, ski shop, and other facilities are in the lodge.

Gunstock On the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee, with the spectacular views to prove it, Gunstock dates to the earliest days of New Hampshire skiing, and offers a substantial 1,400-foot vertical drop with about 50 trails, two-thirds in the intermediate range. Many runs overlook the lake, putting this area's views on a par with Wildcat and Saddleback.

Gunstock, with all it has to offer, remains generally uncrowded, has a detachable four-person chairlift, and even when the larger snow patterns aren't favoring the White Mountains, pulls in lake-effect snow that is augmented by an 80 percent snowmaking system.

Mount Abram In Maine, this gem of a ski area in the shadow of the state's bigfoot, Sunday River, offers some great cruising and high-speed steeps among its 44 runs and 1,100-foot vertical. Mount Abram is near enough to the Bethel region to offer plenty of lodging and dining, and there are a couple of interesting après-ski bars along the Sunday River access road.

Big Squaw So remote it will never draw a crowd, Big Squaw in Greenville, Maine, has a spectacular overlook of Moosehead Lake, and its remote beauty and natural conditions give it a Mad River Glen feel. True to the older feel in ski areas, the summit has a rustic warming hut and the trails that descend from there range from truly steep to intermediate cruisers. A hotel and full restaurant are at the base, and the center of Greenville is about five miles from the slopes. It may require a long drive (about six hours from Boston) but that effort -- and the $25 weekend lift ticket -- can buy skiers a lot of privacy and open spaces.

Contact Tony Chamberlain at chamberlain@globe.com.

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