Border War! Vermont vs. New Hampshire Skiing Part 1 – Waterville Valley
—by Jay Flemma
Special to Slave to the Traffic Light Adventure Magazine—
WATERVILLE VALLEY, NH – It all started with a snarky T-shirt worn by a local skier at Waterville Valley in New Hampshire:
SKI NEW HAMPSHIRE – WE’RE LIKE VERMONT, JUST NOT AS STUCK UP
“Bro, them’s fightin’ words!” joked a fellow skier in a Mad River Glen hat. “I’m gonna make my own shirt! ‘SKI VERMONT – IT’S LIKE NEW HAMPSHIRE, BUT COOLER,” he replied, and the trash-talking was on. Vermonters, on the one hand, championing Killington, Sugarbush, Mt. Snow and the like. And the New Hampshirites (that’s the demonym – the noun you use for people from New Hampshire) New Hampshirites on the other hand praising the likes of Cannon, Attitash, and Loon. It’s the Long Trail against the White Mountains, and your loyalty depends on what side of the border you live.
It’s a worthy question to explore. Along with Whiteface Mountain in Lake Placid, the White Mountains and the Long Trail are the east coast’s definitive ski resorts, and their contributions to the American skiing culture are impossible to overstate. This series will explore the New Hampshire and Vermont scene in depth, but along the way we’ll review the latest gear, meet some of the interesting people who color our sport and, of course, talk about where to play golf and ski on the same day.
WATERVILLE VALLEY RESORT, WATERVILLE VALLEY, NH
THE EARLY DAYS – CAMELOT NORTH
Old School. Classic. Chichi. The name Waterville Valley conjures up images of majestic White Mountains grandeur, stately New England charm, and Kennedy family opulence. Opened just in time for the 1966 holidays, Waterville Valley was heralded from inception to be a powerhouse.
Built at a cost of $2.5 million ($17.29 million adjusted for inflation), where most northeastern resorts often had humble beginnings, (at times starting operations with a single t-bar or short double chair), Waterville opened with four state-of-the-art Stadeli double chairs spanning over 2,000 vertical feet, along with a novice j-bar. There were two large base lodge buildings with every modern appointment of the day and another atop the main double chair’s terminus. Most importantly an extensive snowmaking system ensured they could stay open in warm weather while others might struggle.
Why was Waterville able to make such an enormous splash so soon out of the gate? They had help from influential friends…the Kennedy family. It was no less a personage than Robert Kennedy himself, brother of assassinated president JFK, who helped procure financing and permits for developer Tim Corcoran, a former U.S. Olympic skier.
Despite having their grand opening slightly delayed by mild temperature and a lack of snow, by the holidays there were blizzards of both snow and activity at Waterville. The Kennedy clan made headlines across the country by flying into Lanconia and arriving at Waterville Valley to ski. Their extensive entourage not only included Senator Ted Kennedy and his brood, as well as Eunice Kennedy’s husband, Sargent Shriver, (another Washington power broker and former vice presidential candidate), but also Stephen Edward Smith, husband of Jean Kennedy and the 1960 campaign manager for JFK.
Suddenly Waterville Valley was “Camelot North,” and everyone who was anyone (or who wanted to be seen) was flocking to Waterville. Overnight it became Boston society’s favorite snow sports resort. It was the middle ‘60s…who wouldn’t have wanted to party with the Kennedys?
A madman named Sirhan Sirhan, that’s who. And on June 5, 1968, just minutes after securing the Democratic nomination for president, Robert Kennedy was assassinated by Sirhan, who proceeded to become a political lightning rod and rallying cry for a generation of terrorists across the globe. Sirhan was granted parole in January 2022 by a parole board, only to have California governor Gavin Newson veto the release.
The skiing world mourned with the rest of the country, and during the winter following RFK’s assassination, Corcoran opened Bobby’s Run, a fine tribute dedicated to his late friend and benefactor. Bobby’s Run is still to this day the most iconic of Waterville’s trails and as stern a challenge as can be found anywhere on the mountain.
Later that season, Waterville rose to international fame when it hosted the final World Cup races of the season. Held in honor of Senator Kennedy’s memory, his widow Ethel Kennedy and young nephew John F. Kennedy Jr. were in attendance.
Waterville Valley Resort, in the eponymously named New Hampshire town, lies in latitude 43 degrees, 57 minutes North, and longitude 71 degrees 30 minutes West. Comprised of two connected peaks – Mount Tecumsah and Green Peak, facing northeast and north respectively – it stands at a highest altitude of 4,004 feet above sea level, and its 46 miles of trails descend a 2,020 foot vertical. Mount Tecumsah is the larger of the two by far, but they are cleverly interconnected by a high speed quad chair, moving skiers back and forth across the terrain with ease.
Snow in the White Mountains is always excellent, but they are also known for some of the most frigid temperatures on the planet. After all, we are only about 75 miles as the crow flies from Mount Washington Observatory. Happily, for our first visit, the Snow Gods were kind. Two different winter storms dumped close to four feet on the region, and Waterville in particular was glorious. Moreover, temperatures stayed in the 30s, and the wind howled only intermittently, so skiing was quite comfortable. 90-95% of the trails were open and well covered – there were sparingly few icy spots, even well into the day. With one brief exception, the vast majority of lifts were open and lift lines were virtually non-existent.
The overall trail plan of the resort is excellent. Skiers of all levels except beginner can ascend to the summit and ski all the way down in any of three different directions, all enjoying the stunning panoramic views. The aforementioned quad chair – called Sunnyside – connects the two mountains, making traversing across the mountain easy.
With almost 70 trails to choose from, Waterville Valley gives you 70 reasons to ski till you drop. Varied terrain top to bottom with both good vertical drop, yet plenty of room to maneuver? Check! Fast lifts and ample snowmaking coverage? Check! A ridiculous volume of high quality snow including fresh powder? That’s a big check!
Favorite trails of Your Author and His Wingman include Periphery or Tangent -> The Boneyard, (Featuring the best moguls on the mountain that weekend). True Grit and Psyched, two other quintessential black diamond runs, were covered in fresh powder, making for exhilarating skiing. Gema and Ciao rumbled fiercely down the side closest to Green Peak, while Sel’s Choice, Upper Abandon, and World Cup Run explored the other side of the white Peaks Express Chair. Finally Lower Bobby’s Run, is a universal favorite, as is Wong Way, named for Wayne Wong, the famous, colorful Canadian freestyle skiing pioneer.
Waterville Valley is also renowned for three more things: it’s the birthplace of freestyle skiing, its ski schools are all but unparalleled at any level, and it’s always packed with families and kids, especially tykes. As soon as they can walk, parents are putting them on skis; it’s a beautiful thing.
“Lookit Daddy! Lookit Daddy! I ski! I ski!!!” a bubbly little blonde girl shrieked joyously, as her proud parents beamed. The Mom hugged the Dad, who looked just as delighted as she did. The family that plays together stays together, indeed.
Equal parts free-wheeling racing/freestyle venue Waterville Valley has something for everyone…and whatever that is, they do it so well, people keep coming back. The season is long, there’s plenty of inexpensive lodging available, and with enough varied terrain for everyone, it’s no wonder Waterville Valley has been both a World Cup stop (from 1969-1991) and a family vacation Mecca. And now it hosts the United States Alpine Championships on a rotating basis.
If there are any drawbacks, it’s that some trails (No Grit and Oblivion, for example) intersect in crowded places or at the base of headwalls with sharp turns, so you have to be careful not to get creamed by skiers bombing down from the trail above. The only other issues are food and parking. Get there early and park next to the mountain. Get there late and you park in Timbuktu and arrive at the base lodge in an open-air motorized chicken coop that passes for a shuttle.
Every time we visit Waterville Valley, the resort always shows its best side. Two days mid-week saw zero lines, five inches of fresh pow each day, and easy, ergonomic logistics.
Now an Indy Pass resort, an entire new generation of skiers and boarders from all across the continent are discovering Waterville’s rich history and plentiful White Mountains powder.
“Waterville is one of the top resorts in the east. Its close proximity to Boston makes it great for both day trips and longer getaways,” explained Indy Pass founder Doug Fish in an interview with Your Author. “And it is classic New England skiing. It has a storied past, and its excellent facilities make it a premiere choice for Indy Passers.”
Fish’s words proved prophetic. The Friday-Sunday immediately preceding our visit was the number one weekend for Indy Pass redemptions ever recorded, and it was Waterville Valley leading the charge.
“It was the biggest day in our history!” beamed Fish. “Waterville was number one in the country!”
***UPDATE FOR THE UPDATE! The following weekend, Waterville Valley broke their own, week-old record!***
After further review the play stands as called: Periphery, Tangent and Boneyard were, once again, the best runs on the mountain. Periphery and next door’s Preston’s Path were a glorious field of moguls the size of Volkswagon Buses, and on more than one occasion we saw snowboarders toppling over one after the other, scattered like bowling pins throughout the trails’ twists and winds.
The previous intel that the High Country Chair, (servicing a smattering of short summit trails above the White Peaks Express’ terminus), would be replaced by a t-bar proved true, an improvement that forever alleviates closing that portion of the mountain when strong winds would otherwise shut down a chair lift, as frequently happened in the resort’s recent past.
The new lift also provides no end of comedic amusement, as people just don’t know how to ride a t-bar properly, let alone dismount. First a poor little girl got dragged almost the whole way. I say “almost” as she finally yardsaled a couple hundred feet from the summit. As I went by I smoothly pulled her to her feet, and showed her the proper positioning of the bar – flat across your buttocks with one hand deftly holding it steady. She smiled and eagerly headed downhill for another try, but worse t-bar wrecks were to come.
Next was the middle-aged businessman-looking fellow, who jammed the seat of the bar up the crack of his butt and was wedgied all the way up to the top. His ungainly attempts to extricate himself from his mortifying predicament were only made worse by his loud protestations which drew the attention of everyone riding the lift, the lifties, the nearby Waterville Academy athletes practicing on that run, and several curious birds. In the end, today’s Jerry of the Day had to fall off the bar and tumble clumsily into the snow so as not to end up being carried back down the hill like a half a cow hanging off a meat hook.
I didn’t stop to pick him up.
Snowboarders, alas, fared no better. One held the bar under his armpits. And still another looked like he was water skiing. I don’t know how the Waterville Academy youth ski team could concentrate on their drills with all the tragi-comedy unfolding within two ski poles of where they set up their slalom practice course.
WATERVILLE VALLEY ACADEMY
Actually, I do know how they concentrate: a combination of laser sharp focus, (they are vying to be future Olympians after all, and in dangerous sports at that…), state-of-the-craft training and equipment, and a world class coach.
Waterville’s team is spoken of in the same lofty company as the Stratton school, Burke Mountain Academy, and Steamboat Mountain School. During the winter term, students study their home curriculum while training and competing at the highest levels.
Training is particularly modern; Waterville employs the Burdenko Method of Training, balancing water and land-based exercises.
“Because it’s a land-water based program, it focuses on fitness and recovery at the same time,” explained Head Conditioning Coach and Return to Play Coach Tom Barbeau. “It targets six essential elements of training: balance, coordination, flexibility, endurance, speed, and strength.”
By coincidence, Your Author was in the right place at the right time, and from the comfort and safety of a nearby jacuzzi, got to witness first-hand the strange but effective ritual that apparently blends aspects of synchronized swimming, water aerobics, and breaks for the hot tub.
“Ha ha!” chuckled Barbeau when I pointed that out. “It’s true though. And whatever we do on the land we duplicate in the water; the resistance of the water helps healing as it relaxes muscles, but also, with vigorous exercise, increases strength.”
Barbeau, by the way, is regarded as a legend of the winter sports world. For over 30 years he’s stewarded Olympic hopefuls and pro tour athletes. His Tom Barbeau Training Center was dedicated in 2014, and he recently became a consultant strength and conditioning coach for the NFL’s Carolina Panthers.
“Watch in the future for these names in GS, slalom, and super-G: Gunner Guilbert and Kate McKenney,” Barbeau added, referring to two of his prize, blue-chip Academy athletes. “They may go quite far, that’s for sure.”
Waterville Valley Academy is an offshoot of the illustrious Black and Blue Trail Smashers, a ski club in continuous existence since 1934!
FOREVER ROMANTIC WATERVILLE VALLEY
Waterville has something for everyone (you don’t need to be a Kennedy) and its almost universal appeal has helped it remain one of America’s quintessential destinations. Expert shredders love to send it to the maximum fearlessly, grommets revel in the welcoming atmosphere, and couples kindle loving memories in classic New England charm and elegance. Even non-skiers love it.
“I got engaged there! (The first time…) Back in 1995 on Valentime’s Day in an beautiful, ornate horse-drawn carriage!” gushed a sprightly and effervescent social worker from Connecticut. “I ultimately married someone else, but it sure is hard to say no on a horse-drawn carriage on Valentine’s Day!”
Quality of Snow/Grooming – 9.5
Variety of Terrain – 9.5 (Some glades, some moguls, some freestyle, some piste – there’s plenty for everyone)
Lifts – 9.25
Snow coverage – 9.5
Natural Setting – 9
Lodges and dining – 7.25 (There’s so many lodges and shacks, you can’t spit without hitting a concession stand. The apres ski is excellent. We’re in New England there’s snotty beer everywhere! Food, however, is average at best)
Kid/Family Friendly – 9.5
Character – 9.25
Challenge – 9
Overall – 9.08
2018 GEAR REVIEW
(With Guest Panelist Dawn-Marie Jackson of Sport Thoma Ski Shops)
A skier is nothing without his gear, so when in Waterville, you want to talk to Dawn-Marie Jackson of Sport Thoma Ski Shops. Sport Thoma actually has six locations (and two at Waterville), with more than 100 different skis to choose from, along with boots, bindings, poles and any other accessory you might need. Dawn-Marie’s raison d’etre is to perfectly marry each skier with the perfect pair for their skill level and choice of terrain. Together, we tested four models: Fischer Pro Mtn 80 Ti, Rossignol Hero Elite HP, K2 Supercharger, and Head iRally Supershape
Fischer Pro Mtn 80 TI
Incredibly versatile, offering advanced skiers real freedom to explore all areas of the mountain….popular choice for those looking for a fantastic companion on piste. An excellent all mountain carver, it especially excels on groomed terrain, but is also a solid all-around ski for anywhere on the mountain.
Despite getting a sterling recommendation from a ski buddy as well as from Dawn-Marie, I found the Fischers a rough and squirrly ride. They turned smoothly, but they chattered a bit while traversing. Mogul work was only good, but not great as they didn’t plow through the snow as aggressively as I like when attacking the bumps. Good…but I need something more stable and aggressive.
Rossignol Hero Elite HP
A recreational ski designed for technical on trail skier and groomer enthusiast….adaptive torsional flex for improved edge contact and enhanced control while power turn rocker speeds turn initiation with the versatility to carve long and short radius turns with power and ease.
An outstanding ride. Buttery-smooth turn carving, great mogul response, solid through the icy spots: as usual Rossignol is the apex of craftsmanship and quality. Perhaps no pair of skis feels more like a natural extension of your body than these. The honkin’ orange-red color scheme leaves a little to be desired (at night, I think they’re visible from space) but who cares? You ski beautifully, and that’s the object.
Interestingly, as I was getting fitted a father and young son came in and provided some impromptu entertainment. The father looked at the ski and commented, “It’s German, so you know it’s good.” Meanwhile, (as we all know) there’s a red, white, and blue rooster on the skis right above the words “Made in France.” Dude, what planet are you from? Then his kid – somewhere between 4-6 years old – picks a pair of skis off the wall…which was about to fall into the rest of the display and send them all tumbling over like dominoes. Fortunately, I intercepted the falling skis in the nick of time and whispered, “hi-tail it outta here, kid, before someone sees,” and he vanished beneath his father’s legs in a heartbeat. His dad was never the wiser.
No holds barred, pedal to the metal, let these skis run, and hang on for the ride f your life. Best on medium to long turns on groomed terrain, while a little less agile when turning on bumps or ice, it makes for a great beer league or cheater league racing ski.
I must confess myself a little disappointed. I’ve skied K2s for the last 30+ years, and with their supercool black and acid green color scheme, I thought the Superchargers might be my next pair…until I rode them. They turned well, but not as well as the Rossignols or Heads. The ride was bumpier than I would have preferred, and I didn’t have the control in the moguls that I like.
Head iSupershape Rally
A lightweight turning machine! Made with grapheme, a derivative of graphite, these are ultra-light, giving you the smoothness and stability of a full metal ski in a lighter-weight material. A lightweight turning machine, excellent for groomers and bumpers alike, and a terrific tool for the part time ski instructor.
“Are you loving your Head Rallys? I love mine!” said Gerhard, a German skier who I shared a chair with up to the summit. I do love them, in fact. They were the all-around winner today. A slightly heavier and stiffer ski compared to K2s, but still wasp-waisted like the Rossignols, the Rallys turned crisply, responding to my every whim. They shredded the moguls with ease. They stayed under control on ice, and they rode smoothly in the straightaways. Perfect for an all-purpose skier who needs a little speed, pin-point turns, and stability when shredding bumps.