Skiing Without the Fear Factor

As we leaf through the latest issue, we learn where we can throw ourselves off headwalls, defy mogul fields that more closely resemble detonated mine fields and hurdle down inclines that are 10 degrees short of perpendicular.

What about skiing for the rest of us? If you prefer to save your adrenaline for those of life’s emergencies that you did not deliberately seek out, read on, and learn where the real world skis.

Snow, Snow, Snow

It’s the bottom line for good skiing, and it’s more than just the falling flakes. It’s all about what they do with the natural snow and what they do when there isn’t enough. Maybe it’s because we’ve had so much practice with undependable snowfall, but New Hampshire scored two of the top 10 places in Ski Magazine’s rating for the best grooming in America. These best-dressed hills were … drumroll … Mount Sunapee and Bretton Woods.

Having skied both fairly regularly, we agree. When a blizzard rages all night, the first skiers on these mountains the next morning hit beautifully groomed trails. When an ice storm turns the mountains into tilted skating rinks, groomers somehow manage to crunch it back into snow and the guns work overtime for fresh cover. Well-groomed snow makes any trail easier to ski, so this attention to what’s underfoot particularly benefits the beginner and intermediate skier.

We suggest that Ski Magazine might also want to ski Pats Peak and Gunstock Mountain next time, because each also has exceptional grooming. Both are especially quick in recovering from sudden warm spells as well.

We’re talking about exceptional grooming here, and that said, it’s fair to expect good snowmaking and grooming at any ski area in the state.

First Tracks — Yours

Beginning skiers should look first at the SkiNH ( Web site to find the best learn-to-ski deals. These range from Black Mountain’s unbelievably low lessons-rental-lifts package (under $50 each for a family of three) to a variety of offers that include a free season pass after three or four days of lessons, offered at Loon Mountain, Pats Peak and Waterville Valley.

Deals are not the whole picture. It’s fine for little kids to ride a magic carpet (sort of a Velcro conveyor belt) up a barely-more-than-level field, but even for pre-schoolers, that gets old fast. And for adults … unless your jacket says “Instructor” on it, you feel pretty silly. But you also may not be ready for the top of the mountain yet.

Look for mountains with separate beginners areas and lifts. And look for trails and slopes that are not the route expert skiers use to get from their trails to the lift lines.

Cannon Mountain has the entirely separate Brookside area with nine trails and no experts whizzing past. Best of all, it feels like (because it is) skiing on a real mountain, and beginners can enjoy a variety of trails instead of the same terrain run after run.

Read trail maps — usually on the area’s Web site — to identify areas whose green trails access various parts of the mountain — including the top — and for the number of blue and green trails an area has. Half of Pats Peak’s trails, for example, are rated novice, the highest percentage in the state, while Loon and Gunstock lead with more than 60 percent intermediate trails.

The Family That Skis Together

Family skiing multiplies the fun, but also adds complications of finding mountains with varying levels and facilities and good kids programs. Designed to introduce youngsters to skiing, as well as to showcase individual mountains to families, SkiNH has programs that allow fourth and fifth graders to get a day (or more) of free skiing at each SkiNH mountain, plus a variety of added deals that may include free or discounted lessons, rentals or skiing for other family members.

Gunstock Mountain tops our list for its overall family-friendly programs, facilities and atmosphere. The learn-to-ski program combines enthusiastic and engaging instructors with an excellent all-day program of lessons, lunch and playtime. A separate beginners area with a chairlift eases the transition to real lifts and offers three trails. Season equipment lease programs are a bargain that allows kids to learn on the best new skis and boots without having to replace them as they grow each year.

Even people who don’t know its history — it was built in the Depression by the Civilian Conservation Corps — love Gunstock’s balconied stone lodge because of its size, open space and conviviality. Lunchroom prices are reasonable and no one cares if you bring sandwiches from home.

Sunapee entices families with their Families First program. Instead of being divided according to age or skill level, families have a lesson together. Each member learns at his or her own level, but parents also get to see what and how instructors are teaching their children. Then when the family skis on their own, parents will speak the same language. Get with it, Dad, that old snowplow turn is now a pizza wedge.

Families looking for self-contained ski resorts with children’s programs, kid-friendly lodges and shuttles between slopes, lodging and recreation should look to Waterville Valley or Bretton Woods. Along with the decidedly upscale Mount Washington Hotel, Bretton Woods has less pricey lodging, and Waterville’s village includes all price ranges. Both resorts have a full plate of winter and indoor recreation, with cross-country skiing, swimming pools and organized activities.

For kind-to-the-budget prices and overall low-key ambiance — the kind of places where your kids won’t feel bad in mismatched outfits — Black Mountain, Pats Peak and Crotched Mountain join Gunstock at the head of the class. Everyone is thoughtful of kids; total strangers will help scoop small-fry onto or off a chairlift or yell an encouraging “good turn!” to a beginner.

Respect Your Elders

Most areas seem to have been brought up on that admonition because they pamper the over-65 set with discounted rates, clubs and ski clinics. Senior rates can be as low as half-price on weekdays, and at Ragged Mountain and Wildcat, every day. While a lot of seniors have skied for decades and are highly skilled, most have also grown a bit wiser over the years. Among other things, they’ve learned that life doesn’t always need to be about the challenge. They can have more fun by taking it a little easier and taking time to enjoy the view.

Think about it: how many teenagers do you see stopping in wonder at the top of the mountain to drink in the vista before them? It’s a better bet that those pausing helmets conceal gray hair. Gunstock and Mount Sunapee give them reason to pause, with helmet-turning lake views over Winnipesaukee and Lake Sunapee; both offer summit huts where you can eat as you admire it.

If you don’t mind being outnumbered by hot-shots, and if the day is crystal clear and conditions near-perfect, ride the cozy gondola to the top of Wildcat for a breath-taking close-up view of the summit of Mt. Washington. To get down in one piece, follow the equally breathtaking Polecat trail, without doubt the steepest, longest and narrowest green-marked beginner trail in the state. But worth it for the view.

The view from the top is only one of the intangibles that make skiers partisans of particular mountains. Après-ski is part of the whole ski mystique, more important to weekend and vacation skiers than to day-trippers.

New Hampshire can’t compete — and doesn’t want to — with the mosh pits on Killington Road, and the closest thing to an après-ski scene outside the self-contained resorts is in North Conway. Elsewhere it’s likely to be a fireside dinner in a country inn, which is just fine with the rest of us. Since we weren’t skiing the black diamonds, nobody wants to hear our stories around the bar anyway. NH

Stillman and Barbara Rogers are the authors of the guidebook “New Hampshire Off the Beaten Path” and Stillman is a member of the Eastern Ski Writers Association.


Black Mountain: Jackson;
Snow Phone (800) 475-4669
Vertical drop: 1,100 feet
33% novice, 34% intermediate

Bretton Woods: Rte. 302, Bretton Woods; Snow Phone (603) 278-3333
Vertical drop: 1,500 feet
31% novice, 41% intermediate

Cannon Mountain: Franconia Notch; Snow Phone (603) 823-7771
Vertical drop: 2,146 feet
17% novice, 47% intermediate

Tuckerman Brook family area
9 trails all beginner and lower Intermediate
Crotched Mountain: Bennington
(603) 588-3668
Vertical drop: 875 feet
28% novice, 50% intermediate

Gunstock: Gilford; (603) 293-4341
Vertical drop: 1,400 feet
12% novice, 6 % intermediate

Loon Mountain: Lincoln; Snow Phone (603) 745-8100,
Vertical drop: 2,100 feet
17% novice, 67% intermediate

Mount Sunapee: Newbury
Snow Phone (603) 763-4020
Vertical drop: 1,510 feet
26% novice, 49% intermediate

Pats Peak: Henniker
(603) 428-3245,
Vertical drop: 710 feet
46% novice, 18% intermediate

Ragged Mountain: Danbury
Snow Phone (603) 768-3971
Vertical drop: 1,250 feet
30% novice, 40% intermediate

Waterville Valley: Waterville Valley
Snow Phone (603) 236-4144,
Vertical drop: 2,020 feet
36% novice, 4 % intermediate

Wildcat: Rte.16, Pinkham Notch
(888) SKI WILD, (603) 466-3326
Vertical drop: 2,112 feet
25% novice, 45% intermediate

Safety First

Ellen Moran, an assistant product manager at Eastern Mountain Sports in Peterborough, is the voice of experience when it comes to ski equipment. She says gear is always changing, but a couple of safety rules are constant: “Get the correct gear for your experience level and avoid hand-me-downs.”

EMS specializes in Telemark skis. Here are a few items she recommends for the moderate-level skier to consider straight from the EMS catalog:

BLACK DIAMOND Stigma Telemark Skis ’07, $459.95
SCARPA Men’s T2X Telemark Boots with thermoform liners, $559
SMITH Holt Ski Helmet, $70
SMITH Knowledge OTG Goggles, $60

Moran notes that the first line of safety is to be in shape before hitting the slopes and, she adds, “when in doubt, take a lesson.”