Saturday, February 12, 2011

"On weather..." A review of Winter Sports in New England.

[Usually I ban my mother and Aunts from discussing weather and traffic in front of me, but just for today, I concede defeat.]

On Thursday, our field day was cancelled due to inclement weather (rain/thunder storms) and naturally having four hundred kids and teachers running around on a field would have been problematic, and maybe lethal. This got me thinking about weather and how much of a pain in the ass it can be. But really, I love bad weather. Floridian thunderstorms can be especially epic. Especially with tornado warnings. There's nothing more exciting than watching overzealous local news reporters get blown around on live T.V, and I have always loved watching radar and 3-D weather models. There's something pretty fulfilling about lame animations. (It makes me think of John King and his "magic" screen on CNN.) As bad as some of the Florida storms have been- they've got nothing on New England weather. Of the blizzards that have been in Boston, I can still remember three foot drifts and walking back to Simmons through it all, coming home from T's "Blizzard Party" (which contrary to popular opinion was probably not a brilliant idea) and watching a lone Taxi swerve all over the four lanes of Brookline Ave. New England has seen some killer storms. From Maine summer heat thunderstorms, to New Hampshire's "Out of nowhere" hail storms when mom & I are hiking, exposed on a ridge, to hurricanes... I've decided the most fun I've had in bad weather usually is when I'm out in it.

So here is a review of the best Winter Sports New England has to offer:


Aimee at Pat's Peak
For the virgin or novice skier: There is a little hill, a little over 2 hours north of Boston, called Pat's Peak, where I first learned to ski. Pat's Peak is ideal for the virgin or novice skier. It also has enough trails to keep the intermediate and advanced skiers occupied. They still offer the BEST DEAL IN NEW ENGLAND, and on Saturdays from 3-10PM you can rent gear and ride for $42.00. (Granted it was $20 when I was in college, but if you've never been and you're not sure if you'll like boarding or skiing, this is the ticket to buy.) They offer lessons, have a large lodge, and wicked fun snow tubing in case you don't like boarding or skiing, (or your butt is sore from your one and only day of snowboarding ever.) There are two terrain parks (stunt parks) which allow skiers and snowboarders to take on an inverted bowl, fifteen+ foot hills that put you in the air and a half pipe (see orange on map below.) You can also catch speeds of 45mph on the cutover from Breeze to Squall Line on this mostly abandoned trail. On the rare occasion that Hurricane is open, you can spend a good 45 minutes trying to get down that mogul cut perilous cliff face safely...and as fun as some of the more dangerous trails are, the best trails are the green ones like Puff and Whisper, Breeze->Zephyr->Blast, with little dips for the fun seekers and mostly wide trails for beginners. 

Also for the novice skier: Almost 2.5 hours from Attleboro, MA, is Gunstock Mountain (near Lake Winnipesaukee), where for $60-80, you can ski a similar mountain to Pat's Peak. 

For the novice skier, intermediate skier and advanced skier: 

Aimee & Nate at Bretton Woods
Bretton Woods takes the prize for the best all of the New England ski mountains. The best trails for every kind of skiier, and: a high ropes course, dog sledding, horse drawn sled rides, tubing and more. For the more aggressive Fun Seeker, check out the super fun Nastar Races, down the pole course! Check out my lame stats here. It's scary, but fun, and you can check your scores online over the course of seasons, to see how you improve for speed, and it compares you to the top skiers in the country! And while the Mt. Washington Hotel (which owns Bretton Woods) may be unaffordable to the average college student or recent Grad, the equally fun and educational Highland Center (run by the Appalachian Mountain Club) offers hearty family style dinners and breakfasts at an affordable rate of $140.00 (non-members) per night for lodging, food and a lift ticket at Bretton Woods. The best part are the bunk rooms that you can rent out for you and friends. 

Aimee on summt of Killington
Tom strapping up on Summit of Killington
Killington Resort, in Killington, VT, is 3hr 45min northwest of Attleboro, MA, but is worth the entire weekend (or week) trip. With a much more extensive trail layout than the smaller mountains like Pat's Peak, Gunstock, Cannon, Wildcat, and Mt. Snow, Killington enters the largest resort terrains like Sunday River and Bretton Woods. "The Beast of the East," has trails for everyone, and even gondolas to keep you toasty warm on the extended trips up this 4,200 footer in the Canadian cold fronts. My favorite trail was the 45-minute easy breezy descent down Great Eastern, and the subsequent three lifts to get all the way back up to do it again and again.

Sunday River is an almost incomprehensibly large resort (see below photo) on the western border of Maine, where I went for the first time a month ago for five days, and had just barely began to understand the map by my third day of skiing and after hours of studying. (Just ask Tom). The trails span five mountains, and in bad weather, can be impossibly hard to access through the maze of 17 lifts and Chondola: the most interesting day being when the resort closed down the high speed lifts after its sister resort Sugarloaf closed due to the chair line derailing, which injured 8 people and stranded a hundred or so for hours. While the resort offers skiing for any type of skier and boarder, it's almost "too big" to get in any consistent number of runs, and most of the day is spent trying to figure out where you are and how to get down the mountain. I did finally get into a good groove by day three, avoiding the massive lower-mountain Christmas Vacation crowds, by looping up to the Jordan Bowl on the easternmost peak, and skiing greens down to lift 13, and circling again, but the 300+ foot stretch of flat ground to cover each time with a 'cross country nordic like roller blade gliding' which was quickly exhausting. The flats and most of the green trails were almost impossible for Serge and Tom on their snowboards who spent a good deal of time walk/sliding to keep up with me. 

For the advanced skiier:

Aimee & Maggie at Wildcat Mtn
Wildcat Mountain is renowned for their "Vertical Fun" and this is also close to another AMC lodge, the Joe Dodge Lodge at Pinkham Notch Visitor's Center, almost a carbon copy of the Highland Center, where they are currently running a deal  of $117.00 (non-members) per night for lodging, food and a lift ticket at Wildcat Mountain. You can't beat the views of the infamous Tuckerman and Huntington Ravines on the eastern slopes of Mt. Washington while you ski at Wildcat either. While Wildcat is really not set up for lessons and for snowboarders, Maggie and I did find some fun zip-lining after a day's skiing (see photo right).

Cannon Mountain, in Franconia Notch, is one I haven't skied, only hiked, but every time I travel north to Wildcat or Bretton Woods, I see the ominously steep runs of the Northern face trails. Facing directly into the Canadian Weather, but unprotected by Mt. Washington (like Bretton Woods is), Cannon is infamous for steep sheer ice trails. Naturally, it's next on my list. :) The non-skier or boarder could take the gondola up to the summit lodge to see the stunning views of the deadly 5,000+ foot Mt. Lafayette Ridge.

The girls Apres-Ski, Mt. Snow
Mt. Snow, on the eastern border of Vermont, is also for advanced skiers, being that when I went the entire mountain was covered in pebbles of ice. After conferring with the locals, I discovered that this was not unusual for the mountain. Being located almost three hours from Attleboro, MA, the best part about this mountain is the Apres-Ski lodge that served killer Peppermint Patties to warm up from the Canadian weather. 

I supply the following information not as a suggestion, but with the deepest respect for one the most challenging, backcountry, Bucket List alpine skiing adventures in New England: skiing the Deadly Tuckerman's Bowl up on the shoulder of Mt. Washington in the Spring. There is a whole webpage dedicated to the weather and Avalanche warnings which recommends safety precautions, gear and wilderness first aid courses for the hike up to the bowl (there are no lifts). The Center Headwall has a 90 degree pitch, making it beyond scary even for the Expert Skier. The even rockier and harder to access Huntington Ravine, is closed (but not officially) because the trail disappears under snow and ice in the winter months. "It is probably the steepest of all the hiking trails in the area, and contains a good deal of exposed rock scrambling. Because of its steepness, it’s not frequently used when wet, by persons traveling with dogs or heavy packs, as a descent trail, or by the faint of heart." (Source)

X-Country (Nordic) Skiing & Snowshoeing:
In my travels to the Alpine ski resorts, I have also checked out the alternative winter sports such as winter hiking, snowshoeing and X-Country skiing trails. Here are the best:

Bretton Woods/Crawford Notch:
From the Highland Center (Crawford Notch, NH): (Snowshoe/X-Country trail list here.) Snowshoe up Mt. Willard (3.2mi, ascends 2,800 feet), or on the Red Bench Trail (for a stunning view of Mt. Washington). The Nordic Center at Bretton Woods also has 95 km of groomed trails for the Nordic Skiier/Skater.

Pinkham Notch:
From the Joe Dodge Lodge (Pinkham Notch, NH): (Shoeshow/X-Country trail list here.) See the Crystal Cascade, or hike up Bootspur to see better views of Tuck's and Huntington Ravine and the Wildcat Ski range. Two miles down the road is the famous Great Glen Outdoor Center for Nordic Skiing with 28 miles of beautifully groomed trails for the avid X-Country skiier. 

Sunday River, ME:
Located across the street of the southernmost base of Sunday River, is the Sunday River Outdoor Center where for very reasonable tickets and rentals you can X-Country ski or snowshoe the trails. I show-shoed a three-mile trail out to a beautiful covered bridge on my last day at Sunday River. (See photo right.) Then I warmed up and read the paper at their fully stocked cafe and had delicious homemade vegetable soup. It was a very cozy place to warm up after the hike! 

Winter Hiking and Camping:

The Appalachian Mountain Club also publishes some of the best maps and guides in the world. To the left is their winter hiking and camping guide: a must for any outdoor enthusiast. (I'm talking to you Jackie.)

(<--Their summer hiking guide.)

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