Snow fun with housemates
Skiing is not just about carving out turns, time, and money, but about camaraderie and cutting costs for your winter pleasures
Ski Wheelers Ski Club musters here in their North Conway, N.H., lodge, where dinnertime is a cooperative occasion. (Barry Timmerman)
In winter in New Hampshire's Mount Washington Valley, when snow clings to pine branches and the smell of wood smoke lingers in the air, the peaks of the White Mountains are irresistible to skiers. But that idyllic scenery and great skiing can come with a hefty price tag: A weekend of lift tickets, lodging, and meals can easily top $600.
There is a way to enjoy this paradise on a budget - at the ski clubs that have existed here since the 1950s. For the cost of an average weekend, you can enjoy a full year's membership, hitting the slopes or trails as often as you like. "It's like a secret society that no one knows about," says Mike LaFrance, president of the Ski Wheelers Ski Club.
The secret may not remain one for long. With tighter economic times, clubs like Ski Wheelers and others are seizing the opportunity to recruit members.
"We just hosted a new members weekend that we publicized in Boston," LaFrance says. "We advertised on Craigslist and posted fliers, but it's also word of mouth. When your friends hear about what a great weekend you had up here, they'll want to come up too."
Membership for most of the ski clubs ranges from $200 to $600 per person, per year, based on the accommodations and level of use, LaFrance says. The fee includes year-round use of the house. "We don't close up after the ski season. . . . We do a lot of mountain biking and hiking. Some clubs are beginning to market themselves as 'all-season' and changing their names to reflect that," he says.
Ski Wheelers is one of more than 20 clubs, including the Polecats, Skidaddlers, Ski-Bees, and others in former inns and private houses nestled along backcountry roads stretching from Conway, to Jackson, to Bartlett. The clubs were formed by groups of "ski-minded" individuals, often from the same Boston-area town, or groups of employees from the same company. Original members financed the purchase of the houses and carried the mortgages. Today, most of the houses are paid off.
Members don't share ownership in the houses, but pay annual fees for usage. The clubs have 25 to 150 members and function as nonprofit trusts run by elected boards and committees.
The clubs are part of the Eastern Inter-Club Ski League (EICSL, pronounced "ice-ul"). According to Maria Rocco, EICSL president, affordability is one of the big selling points of membership. "We try to maximize the benefits to our members," she says. The organization uses its collective buying power to negotiate discounts on everything from lift tickets to ski equipment to meals at local restaurants. Lift tickets for EICSL members average 15-20 percent off regular weekend rates. Last year members could purchase weekend tickets at Wildcat, which usually cost $59 a day, for $37, and at Bretton Woods for $48, instead of $69.
Rocco, her husband, and their two young children belong to the Abenaki Ski Club, one of the few family clubs in EICSL. Before getting married and having children they were members of the Randolph Ski Club. While family clubs are not common, they are on the rise. "We go up and ski every weekend," Rocco says. "Being members of the club is the only way we can do that." Membership for their family of four is $1,200 a year. "We use the house the whole year; it's like our home away from home," she says.
Rocco said the clubs also offer other affordable activities. "We try to do different events like full moon cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, or ice skating. We also run a race program with 160 to 200 members ranging from junior to senior levels," she says.
To join a club, prospective members must stay at least four nights at the house so that members can get to know them and see whether they will be a good fit. LaFrance also advises candidates to try different clubs. "We'd like to get new members in, but it's quality not quantity that we're looking for. It's not a frat house atmosphere," he says.
This particular morning at Ski Wheelers, prospective members Shannon Courtney and Nicole Cullinan are hanging out in the kitchen chatting with members about who is going where that day. It's around 8:30, and bacon and eggs are frying on a large commercial stove. Everyone is dressed in either pajamas or ski gear, sipping coffee and talking, while others eat breakfast. Some are heading to Attitash, others to Jackson for cross-country skiing, and a few are going snowmobiling. "Our house is big enough that you can do stuff together, or you can go off on your own," LaFrance says.
Cullinan, a hairdresser from Watertown, heard about the club from a client. This is the second weekend she has stayed as a guest and she has already submitted her application. "Everybody here is unbelievably friendly. I can't afford to come up and stay in a hotel, and I don't want to ski by myself. The social aspect is great. You can always find other members to ski with," she says. As guests of the club, Courtney and Cullinan stayed for the bargain price of $27 each, per night, including breakfast.
Accommodations at Ski Wheelers are tidy, not fancy. Membership at most clubs generally includes a few chores, such as pitching in with cleaning and maintenance, and taking turns cooking meals on weekends.
"The rooms are kept up. We all pitch in and do chores during the season. We all clean our rooms before we leave," LaFrance says.
Ski Wheelers is in a rambling old country inn with three floors and 26 rooms. Downstairs includes the Elbow Room with a pool table and stereo, a large kitchen, a dining area with a fireplace, a reception area, and a living room with a TV and woodstove. The bedrooms upstairs are divided into men's and women's rooms. Some have full bathrooms. Ski posters decorate the walls, and the furniture is an eclectic second-hand mix.
Accommodations vary by club. Most are dormitory-style with bunk beds and shared baths. EICSL offers a word of caution on its website: "Lodging at the clubs is not designed with the glitzy Ritz-Carlton person in mind." Members bring sleeping bags, pillows, and towels. Room assignments depend on how many people are there on any given weekend, so members must be prepared to be flexible.
Members from all the clubs get together at EICSL-sponsored events. "There are a lot of people who have met their significant others [at ski club events]," Rocco says. Each club takes a turn hosting après-ski events from 4 to 7 p.m. There are also evening gatherings where clubs might offer dinner for a small fee, or entertainment like a DJ or a band.
The clubs attract a range of ages, from 21 to 60. According to Rocco and LaFrance, the common interest isn't necessarily skiing, but more often a fun-loving spirit that extends to other outdoor interests and social activities.
"Everybody is unique, but we share a common interest, and that's what makes us a family," Rocco says. "I call it the hug effect. You walk in the room, and you're instantly a part of the group."
Heather Denny can be reached at email@example.com.