November 4, 2012
Bretton Woods is going retro. In an age of high-speed lifts, meticulous grooming, and expanded snowmaking, the ski area in New Hampshire’s White Mountains is unveiling an old-school T-bar lift that provides a dose of nostalgia for parents and grandparents with the thrill-seeking spirit of younger skiers and riders.
The 2,000-foot surface lift takes riders to a wooded natural snow area on Mount Stickney with steeps, cliffs, and trees. Dubbed the Telegraph T-bar, it got its name from pieces of old telegraph cable found during installation that once linked a tower on a neighboring mountain to a hotel.
Near the summit there is a rustic, solar-powered, 600-square-foot cabin set on a ridge with inside and outdoor fireplaces, food service, and mountain views. “You really get a sense of place for the backcountry,” said Chris Ellms, director of ski operations.
Intermediate and advanced snow lovers can hit terrain that increases in difficulty on both sides of the lift line. A groomed bail-out path allows those with second thoughts to glide elsewhere. Ski resorts aren’t all following the lead of Mad River Glen, the eclectic Vermont area known for its natural snow trails, stingy snowmaking, and wild terrain, but some are providing a taste of the sport’s hardscrabble beginnings. Pockets of glades, ungroomed runs, and off-piste skiing are opening across New England with easier access than the hiking up the mountain of the early days.
Though advanced skiers and riders relish the challenges, even newbies skiing in control can take to gentle woods runs with trees spaced not too tightly and errant branches removed. Ski schools provide lessons and guided backcountry tours such as the one at Sugarbush with ski legend John Egan.
Many areas — including Vermont’s Jay Peak, Stowe, Smugglers’ Notch, Sugarbush, and Magic Mountain — are known for their gladed and backcountry runs. Western Maine’s Sugarloaf continues to expand its off-piste terrain, adding 400 acres in Brackett Basin and the Eastern Territory since 2010 with 60 acres set to open, and Saddleback’s Casablanca Glades tests snow nation’s mettle. Granite State stalwarts like Cannon and Wildcat are revered by the hard-core crowd. As more take to the woods, a new term has emerged: sidecountry. Take Sugarbush with the 2,000-plus-acre Slide Brook Wilderness between Lincoln Peak and Mount Ellen. Get there with a lift. Then go a short distance to some terrain while hiking to more challenges.
What’s the difference?
“From my perspective it really comes down to access,” said Sugarbush public relations coordinator Patrick Brown. “Anything that can be skied from the top of a lift but is out-of-bounds can be described as sidecountry, but could be called backcountry. . . . To me, backcountry . . . is where the only means of getting to it is by hiking.”
Skiing off the top, back, and sides isn’t limited to downhillers. Nordic skiers do it, too. Jackson Ski Touring Foundation’s legendary lift-accessed Wildcat Valley Trail from the top of Wildcat to serene Jackson Village was cut in 1972.
For the past four years, off-piste terrain has been emerging at Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe, where skiers climb on groomed trails to plunge into virgin powder before reconnecting with groomers. Outside Burlington, the Vermont Public Land Trust signed a contract to purchase 1,161 acres used by Bolton Valley’s backcountry trail network and is looking to raise $1 million by March 31.
Southern New Hampshire’s Windblown XC in New Ipswich cut some 30 acres of new glades over the summer while Bretton Woods has plans in 2013-14 to add a 5-kilometer-high elevation loop off that Telegraph T-bar for its XC network.
All of these trails need one essential item — snow.
Cannon Mountain’s ballyhooed reopening of the adjacent Mittersill ski area as a lift-served backcountry area in 2010 brought legions to a hill that for years was accessed only by hiking up or over from Cannon.
To ski Mittersill is a badge of honor. Spokesman Greg Keeler says it will open this winter when there’s enough snow, but there is interest in turning a portion of it into a ski race training hill with snowmaking.
Since opening historic Mittersill, Cannon has kept track of days it is open. The first winter, it was open about 80 days.
“Last winter not so much,” said Keeler. “We got in about a week. That’s how it goes.”