Mount Washington an area to look up to
Steep in history, resorts remain among N.E.’s finest
NORTH CONWAY, N.H - There is so much talk lately about getting away from it all, off the beaten path, little is heard about the glories of the beaten path.
But for a good seven decades, ever since the great steam locomotives first chuffed north bearing partygoing skiers, the beaten path of New England winter fun has been New Hampshire’s Mount Washington Valley.
It’s where most activities - Nordic and Alpine, boarding, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, skating, shopping, sipping, dining, moviegoing, hot-tubbing, and tubing - are done under the genial gaze of Mount Washington itself, the mile-high white bulk that stands like a silent lord, creator of all it surveys.
It might be hard to make the case that American skiing began in this valley, but surely from the steam train days of the late 1930s through the next three decades, as New Englanders began to fully embrace outdoor winter sports, Mount Washington Valley was where it was happening at full speed.
Those origins might even be narrowed further to the open slopes of Mount Cranmore in North Conway, where, 70 years ago this winter, one of the most significant ski trains in US history arrived at the station just across from the green.
The concept of ski trains may have started a decade earlier in Canada’s Laurentians, and then were implemented in New England as a way to rebuild faltering ridership on the Boston & Maine Railroad. But the response from Hartford to Providence to Boston showed just how ready a population pent up by the Great Depression was ready to break out and have some new fun.
According to B&M records, five trains arrived at North Conway carrying 4,000 skiers for a single Sunday of skiing, starting at Cranmore’s Skimobile - a series of open cars on a track that ran to the top of an open slope.
“On our staff there’s a feeling of a rite of passage here at Cranmore,’’ said Ben Wilcox, the resort’s general manager who grew up in the valley, then worked for a decade at Bretton Woods before returning to Cranmore.
“That is, that we’re holding up a tradition that began in the late ’30s by Hannes Schneider, who had been director of skiing for the entire country of Austria before he came here and really taught the world to ski. That really resonates even today. People are just very aware of our history.’’
Indeed. Though it happened in 1939, Schneider’s arrival in North Conway after he escaped the Austrian Nazis turned into the granddaddy of all ski trains, the publicity giving a huge boost to the relatively new sport.
In fact, everything about Schneider’s arrival had been driven by publicity, including the cordons of ski schoolers who held up an archway of crossed ski poles for Schneider and his family as Time and Life magazines and major newspapers clicked their flashbulbs.
Not that Cranmore - or Black Mountain in Jackson, Attitash in Bartlett, or Wildcat in Gorham - are stuck in history, heavy as it lays over this valley.
According to Wilcox, Cranmore has invested in 80 new tower guns this season and can now whir the white stuff top to bottom, coving the entire 1,200-foot vertical.
The skiing at Mount Cranmore is decidedly benign and cruisy, with a mix of open slopes on Competition and North Slope, and more New England-feeling trails cut through woods such as Skimeister and Kandahar.
Cranmore’s two exposures make it a good January mountain, where there always seems a way to duck the howling gale. It has a terrain park - Darkside - and an everyday ticket price of $55 for adults, $42 for teens and active military, and $31 for seniors and children.
Cranmore lies in the midst of the legendary shopping center of North Conway, complete with factory outlets, sidewalk cafes, antique shops, and a movie theater. The amount of off-piste activity is endless.
Cranmore’s greatest contrast in the valley is probably Wildcat, the state’s second-highest ski area, founded on leased National Forest lands and largely unsettled in terms of infrastructure. Since the slopes open to the famous view of mid-Mount Washington at close range, the experience is pure Alpine, feeling like a throwback to the sport’s earliest days.
But even Wildcat has changed. General manager Tom Caughey skied the area as a junior patrolman in his teens and has seen and been part of those changes.
“Snowmaking on the old Gondola Liftline and the old Catapult Liftline make a tremendous difference in the terrain,’’ said Caughey. “The surfaces of the trails haven’t been touched or changed, because we can make snow in there now most of the season those areas are accessible to most people. That’s a big difference on Wildcat.’’
Some changes to Polecat and some widening on the race trail and the mile-long Wild Kitten beginner’s trail are among the mountain’s biggest renovations.
“The thing about Wildcat, is that it really feels the same,’’ said Richard Caughey, Tom’s brother who lives in Marshfield, Mass. “I mean, the experience is so different that there are a whole lot of Wildcat skiers who are loyal to just that mountain. I see a lot of the same faces whenever I go.’’
The oldest ski area in the valley is Black Mountain, in the postcard village of Jackson (turn right at the red covered bridge).
Established in 1935 with an overhead cable tow that skiers connected to via shovel handles, Black assiduously maintains its historic echo, resisting the modern use of detachable chairs that some feel loads up the density of skiers on the slopes.
Black is midsize at 1,100 vertical feet, with 140 skiable acres, all off them reached by snowmaking. The runs feel like classic New England trails through the woods, switchbacks, and rolling roads (Black Beauty).
Like most high-elevation views in the valley, Black’s summit opens to the irreducible view of Mount Washington. Check out the Shovel Handle Pub, a favorite among locals that features a nice view of Black’s slopes along with a collection of original shovel handles used on the cable tow.
For a touch of variety, the village of Jackson is anchored by one of the premier cross-country ski areas in New England, the Jackson Ski Touring Foundation.
The largest of the four major areas in the valley is Attitash, which is also the most modern and cosmopolitan, having undergone the total
Two interconnected peaks serviced by high-speed lifts, with a superpipe, terrain parks, and dense glades, Attitash has everything sought in a 21st-century ski resort, including full base facilities and a walking tunnel under Route 16 from the parking lots.
Attitash also provides the most options in the valley with highly groomed cruising runs to some well-cut glades, and a few steeps off both peaks. Snowmaking and grooming were always the ASC brand, and that holds true at Attitash, which delivers a long season.
Never was this area more in its glory than in March 2007, when it hosted the NCAA national championships and the home school, Dartmouth, won its first ski title in more than 30 years.