Second Runs: Backcountry Skiing in Lost Ski Areas - Appalachian Mountain Club

Second Runs: Backcountry Skiing in Lost Ski Areas

December 27, 2017
Ian MacLellanTwo backcountry skiers earn their turns, hiking up Ascutney Mountain Resort, a lost ski area in Vermont.

Have you ever skied a “lost” ski area: a hill that once had maintained trails, some sort of lift, and a base lodge or warming hut—but doesn’t anymore? The hill is still there, and we’ll focus on that shortly, but for now, picture the ski area itself. It’ll put you in the right frame of mind for this story.

Misplaced somewhere over my many moves is a black-and-white Kodak snapshot of a toddler in a snowsuit and overshoes, standing on wooden skis and steadied by the hand of an unseen adult. The toddler is me. The date on the photo: 1954. I was 2 years old. Visible in the background is the Woodbound Inn in Jaffrey, N.H., where my dad operated a rope tow on weekends for extra cash. The inn is still thriving, but the rope tows are long gone, and the ski slope is now a sledding hill. If I could find that photo, I would scan it and send it to the New England Lost Ski Area Project.

MEMORY PALACES MADE OF SNOW
Back in the days of dial-up modems, the New England Lost Ski Area Project, or NELSAP, was one of the first truly crowdsourced websites. Begun as a hobby by Jeremy Davis in 1998, it has just kept growing. Davis, now 40, grew up in the 1980s skiing Massachusetts. He first grew intrigued by New Hampshire’s lost ski areas—Mount Whittier in Ossipee and Tyrol in Jackson, in particular—on family jaunts to ski Jackson’s Black Mountain and North Conway’s Cranmore.

Twenty years on, the site now lists 605 shuttered ski areas in New England, including 79 in Maine, 172 in New Hampshire, 119 in Vermont, 172 in Massachusetts, 59 in Connecticut, and 4 in Rhode Island. There are also an estimated 350 lost ski areas in New York, only a few of which have been fully documented. And then there are sites such as Saddleback in Rangeley, Maine, which hasn’t made it into NELSAP’s lost column yet, although it has been closed for the past two seasons. (If Saddleback reopens this season or next, as planned, that’ll be a moot point; see “Ski Here Now,” below.) In any case, all of these numbers are fluid and rarely precise: Ski areas come and go, and NELSAP is very much a work in progress.

“The whole website is in need of a major modernization,” says Davis, now a meteorologist and TV weatherman in Glens Falls, N.Y. And yet, Davis’s labor of love not only keeps growing but has inspired similar sites, such as Jeremy Clark’s newenglandskihistory.com, which documents far fewer lost ski areas in much greater depth.

“I never imagined when I started NELSAP that it would grow this big,” Davis says. “But if you think about it, the growth of NELSAP isn’t surprising. Skiing is a lifetime sport, part of the fabric of who we are and the communities we live in. We enjoy the people we ski with and the places we skied, and want to remember those experiences.”

The same can be said of brick-and-mortar memory palaces. It’s no coincidence four of the great ski towns in New England host permanent museums. All of this documenting, digital and analog, represents a truth you know in your bones but may not have consciously considered: In addition to being fun and keeping you healthier, outdoor recreation creates memories. Workdays get lost in the fog; ski days generally don’t. It’s part of the reason we get so excited about our next adventure: We know we’ll create experiences to store away and relive. Take all of those individual memories and aggregate them into a permanent, collective archive, and you’ve got a powerful tool for preserving the past and inspiring the future.

A VERY PERSONAL HISTORY
About that skiing past: Fast-forward from my own 1954 photo to what must have been the winter of 1961–62 in New Ipswich, N.H. My friends and I had been using whatever skis we could find to climb up and slide down the roads in the hillside graveyard near my home. Getting up the hill was hard work, and my turns were nonexistent, but I loved the thrill of straight-lining that little slope.

My parents must have noticed, because my big Christmas presents in 1961 were a used pair of Koflach lace-up leather boots and some almost-new wooden Northland skis. (With metal edges! And releasable toepieces!) The Koivula brothers had opened Kidder Mountain in town that same year, and Bill Currier, who built rope tows across southern New Hampshire and northern Massachusetts, including at Woodbound Inn and Kidder, taught me how to ride the tow up and make relatively controlled turns down. I’ve been skiing ever since. (Bill’s son, Roger, continues the family business, maintaining tow ropes for some of the smaller New England ski areas still in operation.)

Kidder Mountain closed in 1967, and most local skiers gravitated to Mount Watatic, in nearby Ashby, Mass., which was built on land that abutted my grandfather’s farm. Watatic eventually boasted two chairlifts—a major novelty back then—but it, too, closed, in 1984.

Kidder’s shuttering didn’t matter to me at the time because, in 1963, my family moved to Peterborough, N.H., where Whit’s Ski Tow was practically the center of town. Some of us junior high boys would earn our ski tickets after a snowstorm by sidestepping our skis up the hill to pack down the drifted powder along the tow lines. It was a workout, but saving two bucks on a lift ticket was worth it.

I joined the ski team my freshman year of high school and competed at Whit’s, Temple Mountain, Dublin School, Pinnacle Mountain, and Twin Tows. All of those areas are long gone, except Pinnacle, which has reopened and is thriving as Granite Gorge. My first overnight ski trip was to Tenney Mountain, in Plymouth, with a friend who had a car and grandparents who lived nearby. Tenney’s closed, too, but may have reopened by the time you read this.

When we wanted a change of pace, we skied nearby Crotched Mountain or Onset/Bobcat/Crotched West, which had an enclosed lift chair. The name changed; the hill didn’t. Both eventually closed, but Onset reopened in 2002 as the new, and thriving, Crotched Mountain. In the years following, I skied King Ridge in New Hampshire; Agamenticus, Big Squaw, and Saddleback in Maine; Ascutney, Maple Valley, Round Top, Haystack, and Magic in Vermont; Watatic and Mount Tom in Massachusetts.

All of these ski areas were shuttered at one time. Most still are. But even those now defunct and overgrown aren’t entirely lost to skiing.

NOT ALL ARE LOST
The whole notion of  “lost ski areas” implies, well, loss. But the hills that drew skiers in the first place are still very much there, still covered in snow most winters, and many are still skiable. You just need climbing skins for your skis (alpine touring or telemark) or a splitboard. Skin up, take the skins off, and ski down. Fun!

That said, skinning is a lot more work than getting on a lift and riding up. Beyond the specialized gear, there’s no ski patrol, and you are responsible for your own safety. (My best advice: Go with competent friends.) But the biggest barrier to exploring lost ski areas has to do with climate and topography. Most New England ski slopes face north, more or less, because north-facing slopes hold snow longer. When these moist, north-facing slopes stop being cleared and mowed, they immediately start regrowing vegetation, often becoming dense thickets of small trees that compete for scarce sunlight. For the first few years after a ski area has closed, the slopes are wonderful playgrounds. Ask anyone who skinned Saddleback last year. But once regrowth hits critical mass, finding a good route down the slope can be tough. Some diehards will surreptitiously trim skiable lines, but that’s both illegal and risks damaging the developing forest.

Here’s a hint if you want to try exploring backcountry skiing in a formerly formal ski area: You’ll find your best routes in what were the woods alongside the old ski trails. Mature forests generally provide more open lines than slopes and trails mid-regrowth. Do your scouting before the first snow of the season, so you can check for hazards, such as fallen trees and old snowmaking pipes, before they are covered with powder. Barring that, skin up along the line you intend to ski down. It may be more work, but it will keep you safer.

To dip your toe into the pleasures of lost ski areas without making a big deal of it, I recommend Cardigan Pastures, now called Duke’s Ski Trail, AMC’s very own lost ski area a few hundred feet above Cardigan Lodge, in Alexandria, N.H. It’s easily accessible; the slope is mowed enough to keep it open, and it’s both gentle and short enough to be doable on cross-country skis. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Cardigan Pastures featured a 600-foot rope tow. You can still see the old car that powered it at the top of the hill. No one seems to know exactly when the tow stopped running. (If you have information or photos, email jdavis@nelsap.org and become part of the collective memory.)

Two others to consider are Hogback Mountain in Marlboro, Vt., where local conservationists recut one trail each year to preserve clearings, benefiting wildlife as well as skiers, and Dutch Hill in Heartwellville, Vt. There, the Dutch Hill Alliance of Skiers and Hikers is working with Catamount Trail Association and the U.S. Forest Service to remove blown-down trees and open new glades on what was one of the oldest ski areas in New England. The goal is to create a true backcountry ski area: no lifts, no amenities, no snow machines. Just a trail open enough to skin up and ski down on whatever snow nature provides.

Finding a good lost ski area is a constantly moving target. But the reward is untracked snow—and your own memories in the making.  


LEARN MORE: SKI HERE NOW

BACKCOUNTRY OR BUST: Some are forever DIY; others may reopen with lift service soon.

  • Duke’s Ski Trail (Alexandria, N.H.): On Mount Cardigan, just up the hill from AMC’s Cardigan Lodge.
  • Dutch Hill (Heartwellville, Vt.): A beloved slope adopted by the Dutch Hill Alliance of Skiers and Hikers.
  • Hogback Mountain (Marlboro, Vt.): Another former commercial slope maintained by its users, the Hogback Mountain Conservation Association.
  • Saddleback (Rangeley, Maine): This ski area in western Maine has been purchased by an Australian investment company and is slated to get new lifts, perhaps for winter 2018. If the lifts aren’t turning, the new owners will allow backcountry skiing. 
  • Tenney Mountain (Plymouth, N.H.): New ownership is overseeing renovations; may reopen this winter. 

COMMUNITY-SUPPORTED: The best old ski areas are the ones locals refuse to let die.

  • Abenaki Ski Area (Wolfeboro, N.H.), with its trails first cut in 1936, has never really been lost but is undergoing a renaissance, thanks to hometown skiers. Lift tickets are less than $20, even if you are “from away.”
  • Ascutney Mountain (Brownsville, Vt.) is about to get a new outdoor center and a T-bar lift, thanks to a local community group, with a target opening of winter 2018.
  • Big Squaw Mountain (Greenville Junction, Maine) is growing under the care of Friends of Squaw Mountain, a nonprofit community group that leased the area from the new landowners for $1. In season, Big Squaw is open Friday to Sunday, with $30 adult day passes. AMC’s new Medawisla Lodge is only an hour away, so you have two reasons to visit.
  • Whaleback Mountain (Enfield, N.H.), which has closed and reopened a couple of times, is now thriving as a community-based nonprofit. It, too, is adding a new T-bar this winter. 

ONCE LOST, NOW BOOMING: Sometimes a hill has a third life as a thriving ski area following a backcountry stint. If you’re into amenities, try these historical slopes.

  • Granite Gorge (formerly Pinnacle Mountain in Roxbury, N.H.) is once again a bustling little ski area, thanks to the local construction entrepreneur Fred Baybutt.
  • Crotched Mountain (formerly Onset/Bobcat/Crotched West in Bennington, N.H.) represents the first Northeastern venture from the Midwest-based Peak Resorts, which also now owns Mount Snow in Vermont and Attitash in New Hampshire.
  • Mittersill (Cannon Mountain in Franconia, N.H.) saw skiers ride Cannon’s lift to that peak’s summit, ski down Taft Slalom Trail, hike up the saddle, then ski down this former ski area. Recognizing an untapped resource, the state of New Hampshire, which owns Cannon, reopened Mittersill in 2009, adding a double chairlift in 2011. 

REGIONAL SKI MUSEUMS: These brick-and-mortar memory palaces help keep the flame alive.


FURTHER READING


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Tim Jones

Tim Jones is a lifelong skier, an outdoor writer, and the executive editor of easternslopes.com. In summer, he hikes, rides bikes, and can be found paddling easy whitewater with AMC.