LAKE PLACID, NY – It’s a perfect night in the Adirondacks. The scent of burning fragrant hardwoods in the wood stove wafts to us as we sit on wooden chairs on the back porch, biting our nostrils. The snow is still lightly falling as it has each of the three days I’ve visited my beloved North Country this year. There’s tall timber all around, and the last of winter’s chill is desperately clinging to the tree branches. On this still evening the silence and solitude are both profound and comforting.
My legs ache with the burn of one final, glorious day in our winter paradise, one last rip through all my favorites at Whiteface, my home mountain, including several headwalls worth of moguls to shred, then a long hibernation for the summer as the golf clubs come back out. Lake Placid and Saranac Lake are the perfect bookend to the season and a great backdrop for reflection on a fantastic winter. It’s also time to summarize the ski season in retrospect. So join me in grabbing a cappuccino and a truffle from the Blue Moon Café and let’s look back, beaming broadly in remembrance of a banner year.
1. Magic Mountain, VT
Opening day at Magic was like getting a mid term exam on the first day of school. This homespun, community-supported mountain is the little dog that can bark and run with the big dogs when it comes to challenging terrain and bang for your buck. Everyone who visits Magic falls in love with it, and keeps it in permanent rotation, looking especially for a powder day to ride in its fearsome glades or take on some of the steepest runs n the east. We caught Magic after an epic 16 inch dumping: everything frosted like cake icing, and all 50 trails open. On a powder day, Magic is as good as any mega-resort could ever wish to be. Best of all, you come back with a raft of new friends. Totally worth the 3-hour drive there and back again, all I could think about on the drive back was how I couldn’t wait to turn all my friends on to how great the place is.
2. Snow Ridge, NY
What a ghastly December for upstate New York, (we saw no permanent snow until Martin Luther King weekend), and even in mid-to-late December if there were five trails open at local ski areas, you were lucky. Desperate to practice for my trips to New Hampshire and Vermont, we caught Snow Ridge on a bad day. Only two front side groomers were open, (up down, up down, lather rinse repeat), along with only two trails in the woods, including one called Johansen that was moderately steep, bumped out and narrowed by a fallen tree. The patrol team looked at me sideways when I said I loved it. Maybe a day with Al Schnier of rock band moe. will change my mind about Snow Ridge, (he loves the place); I don’t think I saw it on its best day. Still…I kept the legs energized for my next trip to…
3. Smugglers’ Notch, VT
It was a schlep to get there, but it was totally worth it. Their motto is Smuggs Love, and it’s real. Like Magic, the locals embrace you as one of their own and show you around the mountain proudly. Gorgeous views, the best kids camp in America, and wonderfully self-contained, Smugglers’ is easy on the mind and on the pocketbook. (It’s one of the best values in the resort game.) It’s the kind of place you remember vacationing at for the rest of your life, so come for several days in a row, not just a quick overnight. Make friends with the locals, and have them take you off the grid…both during the ski day and after! Excellent snow and even better grooming, Smuggs was pretty much the only place besides Jay Peak that had consistent snow all across the mountain during mid-December. An excellent Catwalk run opens up everything on the Madonna Mountain side, including the iconic F.I.S., while there are excellent mogul fields peppered all over the Sterling Mountain side.
4. Whiteface Mountain, NY (1)
This year Whiteface was a double blessing as I got to ski my home mountain for the first time of the season and I finally met my two newest family members: Laura (cousin Stanley’s beautiful partner and a gifted figure skater) and baby Ivan, 2040 Olympic downhill gold medalist. Plus we caught rare powder day eschewing the dreaded “Iceface” moniker. Nearly every trail was open, the town was buzzing in preparation for the imminent holiday crush, and the snow was a good as I’d ever skied in Whiteface in the many decades I’ve been coming there. Better still, Laura and Ivan are the best Christmas gift I’ve had in years.
5. Attitash Mountain, NH
For two weeks, I kept asking my Wingman, Toast the same question:
Jay: “Hey Toast, are we going to Loon or are we going to Cannon? Dude? Cannon or Loon? Come on, Man! Cannon or Loon???!!!
Toast: “We’re going to Attitash.”
Great freaking call. He nailed it, and so did Attitash. We caught Winter Storm Harper and 18 inches of fresh powder. Every trail was a boundless ocean of moguls. It was easily the best back-to-back two-day trip of my skiing life, let alone the season; the sort of day you wished happened more often, but were grateful that it happened even once. Attitash was rumored to be one of the great, old school mountains, and it surpassed all expectations. Forget those mega-resorts with trails so straight and wide, you can play golf on them. Attitash is full of steep, narrow, twisting trails that throw every different sort of camber you can think of at you. The whimsical, side-by-side layout of the two mountains gives Attitash an inimitable character, and with easy connectors, moving back and forth across the mountain is simple. And with nearby Wildcat Mountain also included in the price of the lift ticket, you’re sure to have a day that’s short on lift lines, and long on challenge.
6. McCauley Mountain, NY
My Dad only took me to McCauley Mountain once as a kid, because he said that visibility there was difficult due to it being built on the dark side of the mountain. Dad was somewhat right: on a grey January morning I had terrible visibility on the intermediate groomers I took as warm up runs. Visibility improved as I took on the steep, tilted lift line called “Hellmer’s,” and I needed every bit of it: the moguls were the size of Volkswagons, and the trail is only two turns wide on either side of the chairlift poles. While there really isn’t much of a view from the summit, as far as practice goes, between Hellmer’s and two trails called Decamp and Olympic, McCauley will give you all you need to get ready for sojourns to any big resort on the east; it’s an excellent prep for Whiteface, Vermont, or New Hampshire.. Go to McCauley when the snow is fresh and you want a challenge. If you can ski well here, you can ski well anywhere.
McCauley remarkable for one other important reason: I rode the chairlift – several times – with an 86-year old man. And we’re not talking some skiing version of Mr. and Mrs. Havekamp from Caddieshack snowplowing his way down Easy Street. This guy was there with his octogenarian friends and they were downright sprightly, paralleling around the mountain crisply, like they were 60. It’s a good sign for the rest of – we can ski till we drop…literally!
7. Whiteface Mountain (2)
Well so much for that December powder day at Whiteface! February made me shiver with icy winds and a frozen granular surface at best, sheets of ice at worst. We were back to Iceface. Still, getting served the last dinner service at fabled Nicola’s restaurant in Lake Placid – a place that fed countless Olympians including Kristi Yamaguchi – was an honor I’ll remember forever. I just wish I’d have known it was the last table…I’d have ordered something a little more upscale than a salami pizza.
8. Magic Mountain (2)
Remember how I said I couldn’t wait to bring all my friends to Magic? Well I got started in a big way – Toast drove in from Boston to join me for a sunny Sunday. While my favorite run, Sorcerer, suffered from thin cover, the rest of the west side was fine, including my new favorite run, Broomstick. So tight that two skiers can’t ride abreast, so steep that you really have to concentrate on hitting every turn in rapid succession, and so slick you felt like you were riding Harry Potter’s Firebolt and not your Head iRallys, it was as exhilarating as any Six Flags roller coaster…
…unless of course you are a snowboarder from Boston who doesn’t like that sort of hair-raising, blood pressure jacking, high-wire act. At the end of the run Toast descended upon me, eyes of jellied fire and howling maniacally.
“WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU MAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAN TAKING ME DOWN THIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIS!!”
You’d have thought I just served Gordon Ramsay raw pork at Hell’s Kitchen. When I get yelled at like that, you know the trail is good.
9. Woods Valley, NY
Sometimes happiness in skiing is found in the bright smile of a child, and that’s exactly what I got at tiny Woods Valley when I took my little nephew Sebastian skiing. It was an added bonus that we caught a bluebird day and a massive cook out to boot. Woods Valley was easily the most enjoyable day of the smaller areas local to me (within an hour’s drive). The snow was soft and powdery, the mountain was well-groomed, and the patrons all wore bright smiles. Thanks, Woods Valley. I’d forgotten how much fun you were.
10. Mount Sunapee, NH
Easy peasy, Sunapee-zee! Talk about a well-oiled machine. Sunapee has one of the best lift systems in the east. With its summit lodge met by chairlifts from two different directions, getting back and forth across the mountain is a cake walk. While there isn’t much expert terrain, the intermediates run a wide gamut, giving the mountain variety and character. Moreover, they allow tailgating at the base of the mountain (as opposed to the parking lots) so you get a gallery cheering you on as you finish you run (and an even louder cheer and some laughs if you yard sale…). Despite its proximity to Boston, the mountain never crowded and lift lines are short or non-existent most of the time. Now a Vail resort, they’ll be able to finally get that long awaited West Expansion project going. Sunapee is taking flight like their new logo – the sun on their wing, and blue skies ahead. Perfect for a low impact day and a great party afterwards.
11. Cannon Mountain, NH
Number 1 with a bullet, as we say in the music industry, no place in the east blends such a devastating synergy of beauty and terror as Mighty Cannon. Killington may call themselves the Beast of the East, but Cannon packs as much punch top to bottom and across the mountain. I’ll put Hardscrabble, Paulie’s Folly, and Avalanche up against Outer Limits any day. The Front Five! The summit cone! The 80-passenger tram! The steeps and double fall lines, and reverse camber! Hang on for the ride of your life. There’s a reason why Bode Miller is considered in the discussion of greatest American skiers of all time. Growing up at Cannon, of course you’re going to get really good really fast. When you want to show your really REALLY REALLY! good skier friends around, bring them here.
12. Mount Snow, VT
Halfway between New York and Boston, Mount Snow is one of the largest areas in the east in terms of acreage, even though it has almost the exact same number of trails as both Whiteface and Cannon (currently 86). But Mount Snow is also a sprawling, self-contained resort, like Smugglers’ Notch. Trailside rooms, a sizzling party scene, and a whopping 20 lifts, Mount Snow can still feel crowded if the wind blows and shuts down some chairs. They have a “Bluebird Express” that features a deep blue windscreen that can be lowered to protect the riders from the elements. It also seats six, like a Chrysler Cordoba, (insert voice of Ricardo Montalban…”fine Corinthian leather”…). Many of the trails here are so wide you can play golf down them, but the North Peak expert area has plenty of mogul-studded, tree-lined classic east coast runs for those looking to shred madly. It also features the best terrain park in the east, “Carinthia,” it’s called, and it has a brand new $21 million base lodge to go with it. (Cue Ricardo Montalban again…”fine Carinthian base lodge”…)
13 Whiteface Mountain (3)
I love you Whiteface. You too, Lake Placid and Saranac Lake. I love blue-lit jacuzzis and truffles at the Blue Moon. I love endless gigs at the Waterhole and drinking long into the night with Beanpole Billy Allen as he shouts random things about crowbars. (If you need it explained, ask the guy next to you.) And I love battling the mountain in Hellish cold, brutish winds, or radiant sunshine. No skier could ask for a better home mountain.
Now the skis are standing in the corner of my breakfast nook, goggles hanging jauntily from the tips, topped off by my Hartford Whalers hat (missing a few pom-pom strings that Torrey the cat commandeered as a toy). I’ll look at them all summer, occasionally longingly (particularly on days when my golf game lets me down). The boots stand sentinel next to them. And in honor of the Tibetan tradition for departing loved ones, I have a cup of tea waiting next to them.
It sits untouched, awaiting my return.
VERMONT VS. NEW HAMPSHIRE 2018-19 YEAR END AWARDS
So far NH is crushing VT…for now. We still have a long way to go, and I’m sure Killington, Sugarbush, Mad River, and Stowe will have plenty to show me in 2019-20. But for now…
CANNON, Attitash, Magic
SUNAPEE, Cannon, Whiteface
CANNON, Smugglers’ Notch, Sunapee
FAVORITE EXPERT RUN
PTARMIGAN (Attitash), Jaws of Death (Mount Snow), Sorcerer (Magic)
FAVORITE INTERMEDIATE RUN
ILLUSION (Attitash), Wing Ding (Sunapee), Victoria, (Whiteface)
FAVORITE EASY RUN
STONYBROOK (Attitash), Magic Carpet (Magic), Snowdance (Mount Snow)
BEST LIFT LINE
AVENGER (Attitash), Hellmer’s (McCauley), Free Fall (Mount Snow)
BROOMSTICK (Magic), Avalanche (Cannon), Avenger (Attitash)
SMUGGLERS’, Magic, Cannon
Nobody dammit! Fried crap, stuff left out under heating lamps, gelatinous goops…err…soups…you are all serving rhinoceros shit parfait. Pray Gordon Ramsay never shows up for a visit. But since I’m forced to pick…
MOUNT SNOW, Waterville Valley, Whiteface
BEST SKI SHOP AND EQUIPMENT TUNING
WATERVILLE VALLEY, Whiteface, Smugglers’ Notch
SMUGGLERS’ NOTCH, Cannon, Magic
SMUGGLERS’ NOTCH, Waterville Valley, Magic
BEST ALL-EXPERT AREAS
CANNON, Magic, Mount Snow
ATTITASH, Whiteface, Sunapee
BEST TERRAIN PARK
MOUNT SNOW, Whiteface, Waterville Valley
SMUGGLERS’ NOTCH, Whiteface, Mount Snow
CANNON, Whiteface, Attitash
TALE OF THE TAPE: VT vs. NH
Safety: NH (Hey, Vermont! Learn what “ON YOUR RIGHT!” means.