December 28, 2011

What I remember most is the anticipation. The tingling in my fingertips and toes when I pried my eyes open before the sun crested the horizon. Grandma’s house in Manchester, New Hampshire, brimmed with aromas — sizzling bacon, percolating coffee, and freshly warmed maple syrup. The smells were a sweet harbinger, promising a day on the New England slopes.

My mom was of robust Northeast stock, and she instilled her bedrock New England ethic in her kids, all six of us. Winter wasn’t something to whine about, or endure. You embraced it. In our house, the term winter wonderland was a redundancy. Once flurries began flying, we had to get outside and explore. And the best way to do that was skiing.

“New England is not blessed with the tallest mountains in the hemisphere, or the deepest champagne snow,” says Tim McGuire of Burke Mountain in northeast Vermont. “Our weather is moodier. Blue skies and powder give way to icy winds and hardpack overnight. But these aren’t drawbacks. They make us what we are.

“We’re happy on surfaces they scoff at in other parts of the country,” he says. “We’ll bundle up and take the wind. We’ll revel in the beauty of trees covered for weeks with snow. We’ll adapt to get the most out of every run.”

Is that attitude exclusive to New England? No, but anecdotally it’s more prevalent, like the classic mantra of my high school days: If you can ski New England, you can ski anywhere. I didn’t fully understand until my late 20s, when I finally skied the peaks of the Rockies, California, and British Columbia. These places are a powder hound’s Shangri-la, but there were far too many “skiers” sulking in the lodge, complaining about the conditions.

“A pretty good skier in New England can be a great skier out West or in Europe. That doesn’t work in reverse,” says Bob Vigneaux, who favors Maine’s tiny Powderhouse Hill and New Hampshire’s mighty Tuckerman Ravine. “Folks from elsewhere don’t usually know why someone would sharpen their edges. They wouldn’t ski in many of the conditions we enjoy. We have tighter glades and winding, steep trails — not to mention the best vertical ice on earth.”

In New England, there are no bad ski days. There can be bad conditions, sometimes brutal. But if there’s even a thin layer of fresh snow covering our classic blue-ice boilerplate (“New England powder”), we’re on the lifts. It’s a mindset perfectly captured on the bumper stickers for Vermont’s crusty Mad River Glen: SKI IT IF YOU CAN.

“To truly call yourself a New England skier is to wear a badge of honor,” says Kevin Burke, who worked at Steamboat in Colorado before returning to Massachusetts. “It implies that you’ve earned that title, and you’re proud of the suffering it took to deserve it.”

From my grandparents’ house in New Hampshire, my family trekked to nearby hills like Gunstock, Ragged Mountain, Pats Peak, Crotched Mountain, and Waterville Valley (the darling resort of the Kennedy clan in the 1960s). If we were really lucky, we’d take weeklong vacations in Vermont at Sugarbush (nicknamed Mascara Mountain for its New York social scene), Glen Ellen, and Mount Snow.

When we got older, and got our driver’s licenses, we’d tackle the faraway slopes of Cannon in New Hampshire, Jay Peak in Vermont, and Sugarloaf and Saddleback in upstate Maine. Once there, we immersed ourselves in the no-frills milieu of a true ski hill.

“The base lodges we have are usually, well…rustic, and that’s a good thing,” says Daniel Murphy, a longtime Killington season-ticket holder. “People just want a place to boot up, park their butt for a few minutes, warm up, and shoot the breeze with their friends. Give us tables and chairs, and we’re happy. We’re there to ski, not to be waited on.”

Good luck trying to find the “quintessential” New England ski area. There’s no one-size-fits-all mountain; instead there’s a dizzying variety. Want the mega-resort? We’ve got those, notably Vermont’s Killington and Maine’s Sunday River. For family fun, try Smugglers’ Notch in Vermont or King Pine in New Hampshire. History? How about Stowe, Vermont, close to the (cue “The Sound of Music”) Trapp Family Lodge? Vermont’s Suicide Six is home to one of the first ski lifts in the U.S. In North Conway, New Hampshire, the famous ski trains once delivered city slickers to sample Cranmore Mountain, Black Mountain in Jackson, and Wildcat Mountain beside Mount Washington, the Northeast’s highest peak. At Tuckerman Ravine, American ski racing took root with a mad dash called the American Inferno.

“Each mountain really has a local culture and history,” says Carolyn Beckedorff, a veteran ski champ on the masters circuit. “Most of the mountains are not ‘destination’ resorts but rather weekend retreats from the city life of Boston and New York. City dwellers identify with ‘their’ mountain as much as the locals do.”

Likewise, your typical Northeast ski town wasn’t planned; rather, it has evolved, organically. The northern reaches of the Appalachian Mountains offer some of the oldest mountains in the world. Worn down by the constant, corrosive powers of New England weather, they still have character, and so do the neighboring towns. Skiing arrived in the 1920s and wove its way into the region’s fabric, accented by the Europeans — Austrians in particular — who came to teach this thrilling new sport.

You can find amenities and condos galore, but for my money there’s nothing that reflects the spirit of New England skiing better than a classic bed-and-breakfast, like Johnny Seesaw’s near Bromley Mountain in Vermont. Or the communal ski club houses, from the Massa-Schussers to the White Mules, both in New Hampshire. Or a dark, earthy bar, like the Red Parka in Glen, New Hampshire, or The Bag & Kettle at Sugarloaf, where the après-ski stories and the suds flow freely. Feeling fancy? Check out the stately Mount Washington Hotel in New Hampshire.

“People in New England start talking longingly of winter and skiing during the depths of the August heat, as if they just cannot wait to slide down sheets of ice in 20-below cold and wind,” says Beckedorff. “That would sound crazy to anyone but a New Englander.”

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