Border War! Vermont vs. New Hampshire Skiing, Part 11 – Pats Peak
—by Jay Flemma—
DATELINE: THE ONLY HENNIKER ON PLANET EARTH, N.H. – It’s astounding the people you meet that learned to ski at New Hampshire’s tiny, but plucky Pats Peak: real estate magnates who play Monopoly with real buildings, skiing celebrities from chichi mountain towns all across the Northern Hemisphere, well-connected ski coaches from every corner of the country, the list is endless. What’s also undying is the devotion and fervor for a mom-and-pop operation that is now 60 years young and getting stronger every winter. No matter who you were or where you came from, or whatever corner of the world you ended up moving to, you always fondly remembered your youthful days at Pats Peak.
ALL IN THE FAMILY
Let’s get one thing straight first: the correct spelling of the mountain is P-A-T-S Peak; there is no apostrophe because there are many Pats described, not just one. It’s an adjective, not a possessive noun.
Subtext: Jay Flemma, Grammar Police. To educate and correct.
The Pats in question are the Patenaude family, (pronounced “PAT-ehn-ode”), and they can trace their family history in America back hundreds of years. Some family historians claim they could have made their way into America even as far back as Mayflower times, others disagree, saying they came from Canada originally.
If you find that a bit confusing, your nightmare is just beginning. Hardly anyone in their family used their given name; they were always tagged with a nickname that often times bore no semblance whatsoever to their real name. However, for our purposes, we can consider one Walter Patenaude, founder of Patenaude Lumber, to be the family patriarch, and it was his four grandsons who founded, built, and originally operated Pats Peak.
Walter had three sons, known to the world as “Pat,” “Pete,” and “Oscar,” though their given names were, respectively, “Merle, Sr.,” “Barry,” and Duane.” (They also had a sister named “Teen.”) Pat and Oscar went to the University of New Hampshire during the Great Depression and graduated with engineering degrees: Pat with a focus on civil engineering, Oscar concentrating on mechanical engineering. Pete with a more general concentration that led him to found Henniker Stone Company, now run by his nephew Wayne. It was the scions of Merle, Sr…excuse me…”Pat,” who, with the help and support of their uncles, built Pats Peak.
Pat had four sons, and – here we go again – only one of those four went by his given first name: Joe, (really “Merle, Jr.”), Barry (real name “David”), Stuart (given name “Walter), and Wayne. These four sons started it all.
The roots of Pats Peak date back to circa 1961, when Dave and Joe began thinking about building a small ski area on the side of Craney Hill. According to one family member Joe shocked his wife Beverly when he came home and announced, “We’re going into the ski business.” Knowing full well the depths of such an undertaking, the lovely Mrs. Patenaude just intoned an exasperated, “Oh no…”
“Uncle Joe once told me they had Sel Hannah [Author’s Note: the New Hampshire legend and Hall of Fame skier turned consultant] come down and paid him a hundred dollars (an amazing amount of money back then) to have him end up telling them it was not a good place to have a ski area and it was too far south. They were told they won’t make it,” the family source recalled. “The boys obviously didn’t heed his advice.”
The four Patenaude brothers bought the original 200-acre (0.81 km2) plot of land for the Peak from their father, Merle, Sr. in 1961.
The development soon became a family affair. According to the Concord Monitor, Merle, Jr. was responsible for building the base lodge, Joe helped with carpentry and trail cutting, Stuart was “the mechanical one” involved in lift construction, and Wayne handled the well drilling with his Contoocook Artesian Well Company.
It was the ultimate do-it-yourself effort, but with their breadth and depth of knowledge and experience, they were the team to do it and keep costs down. The chairlift was contracted from Warner Wagoner from Switzerland, who came to New Hampshire and supervised the boys as they put it up under his supervision. (Wagoner was also especially known for yodeling…) The surface lifts the Patenaudes built from scratch, with Uncle Oscar providing a yeoman’s share of the mechanical engineering help. As New England Ski History noted, ‘Merle later discussed his sons’ efforts with the Concord Monitor, stating, ‘This is just what they did. They laid out their own trails, did their own surveying and cutting. They installed the steel towers needed for the chairlift and T-Bars. They ran the bulldozers, graded, back filed [sic] – performed every construction job there was until it was built.’”
In 1962 four trails and two slopes featuring a 613 vertical drop, were cleared with some of the resulting timber used for constructing a 30-foot by 80-foot lodge uphill from the present-day base area. Pats Peak ski area opened on January 5, 1963 on a thin natural snow base with a T-Bar and rope tow; two weeks later, the double chairlift to the summit debuted. Night skiing was available on a semi-private basis.
Luckily for the Patenaudes, the weather that year turned for the better, “a giant snow year” as one relative called it, and their collective efforts as a family still serve as an inspiration to small mountains everywhere.
“The first year, Grammy Patenaude (Marjorie) and my aunts worked a snack bar. I know this reading my grandmother’s diary; she sold hot chocolate that first year,” our family source stated. [Author’s Note: a search is on for that diary as we speak by the family. What a contribution to skiing history it would be!] Meanwhile, in a grass-roots attempt to get the word out, the brothers stood on side of roads to give free lift tickets to people driving towards Pats Peak on their way to Mount Sunapee, billing the mountain as “short on driving, long on skiing!”
“Most all turned them down,” our source relayed. “To Sunapee they went.”
Still, the Patenaudes believed and soldiered on. Though none of the four brothers had gone to college as their father and uncles had, they all supported one another – their collective skills greater than the sum of their parts, and even as the mountain became owned and operated by just Joe and Wayne a year later, the skills and sweat equity of the other brothers was always there to help. (Wayne became sole owner in 1994.) And as the decades passed, the Patenaudes, Pats Peak, and local skiers prospered.
SNOW WHITE AMD THE SEVEN WELLS
1973 was a crucial year for Pats as not only was it 10th anniversary of the founding of the mountain, but the year they committed to snowmaking in the biggest way anyone in the east had yet seen: a DIY masterpiece forever known in New England winter sports lore as “Snow White and the Seven Wells.”
Snow White was, for a long time, the largest single snowmaking compressor in New England. A gargantuan twin-piston compressor built in 1936 that once served as the air circulation system at the Packard Automobile Plant in Detroit, Michigan, Snow White has been the heart of Pats Peak’s snowmaking operation for the last 40 years. The Seven Wells are, of course, what they sound like.
“Being in the Banana Belt of southern New Hampshire, these southern latitudes required us to supplement the natural snow because it was often so inconsistent. We needed a water source, and with Wayne owning a water drilling company, they drilled seven wells located throughout the property and installed the air compressor, nicknaming it Snow White,” explained Kris Blomback, general manager of Pats Peak and a gentleman who can recall four decades of the mountain’s events. His longstanding friendship with Wayne reputedly goes back to when he started working at the ski area in 1991. “For a long time, it was the largest air compressor in New England used for snow making.”
Instantly, Pats could cover its entire mountain with snow, irrespective of whether or not there was precipitation. Legions of skiers from across eastern New England swarmed to the mountain.
100% snowmaking – that’s a great way to compete, even against mega-resorts.
Snow White and the Seven Wells paid instant dividends. With New Hampshire suffering an unseasonably warm winter, Pats Peak was called upon to host the 1974 U.S. National Slalom Championships due to their remarkable snowmaking capabilities; Pats Peak had snow when other larger, wealthier ski areas did not. Held on what’s called “FIS Race Trail,” Cary Adgate took home the men’s gold medal. (The women competed at Sun Valley that year.)
“We always invest in our snow surface – we don’t go a single season here without making a $500,000.00 investment into our snowmaking and snow surfaces capabilities. What we ski on is great,” Blomback concluded, rightfully proud of such a remarkable commitment and achievement.
TO 60 YEARS AND BEYOND
Slowly but surely, more capital improvements followed. The Hurricane Triple Chairlift was installed for the ’77-’78 season, adding a second lift to reach the summit. In the late 1990s, glades were cut over a multi-year period off the trails between and among the main summit runs.
As the millennium turned, upgrades continued across the mountain. A fully-automatic SMI fan gun installation was the first of its type in New England, allowing for frequent resurfacing of trails, especially the mogul runs. The entire night lighting system was replaced, chairlift drives upgraded, and snowmaking system optimized to put out more snow with less energy consumption and labor. Snowmaking and lighting was installed at the novice area for the 2001-02 season, improving night skiing for beginners. More lights followed in 2006-07, when the mountain installed lights and a new snowmaking system on the main lift line trail, Hurricane. Night skiing was added to the adjacent Vortex trail the following season. [Author’s Note: all the trails at Pats are named for various winds…Zephyr, Vortex, Cyclone, Backdraft, etc. “FIS Race Trail” being a notable exception, of course.]
In 2002, the mountain began a long expansion of the base lodge, adding an additional 8,000 square feet of lodge space to host banquets and weddings, in season and out.
And in perhaps the biggest news of all, a new “Backdraft” trail debuted for the 2012-2013, previewing development of the new multi-million dollar Cascade Basin area off the back of the summit. The new isolated trail pod features a triple chairlift and a large pod of about eight trails and glades, mostly intermediate terrain, but with runs for experts and beginners alike.
While many ski areas large and small have come and gone in the region over the past half century plus, Pats Peak has been able to thrive not just survive in tough economic times, attributing much of its success to a business model that avoids debt whenever possible.
“We have a conservative Yankee outlook; when it’s a good year we invest a lot, in a poor year, we conserve. We dabble in the used ski lift arena, as we have a talented mechanical crew that can take old lifts and refurbish them,” Blomback explained. “And we are slow and steady. We don’t like to borrow money at all. That’s how you get into trouble in New England because every once in a while mother nature gives you a nasty ski season where it’s a struggle to keep snow on the hill. When you run a ski area 60 miles from the Atlantic Ocean, the ocean has a lot to say about it.”
Clearly joining the Indy Pass family has greatly increased exposure of Pats Peak. Where once it was spoken of mostly by fervent locals and a wide cadre of winter sports intelligentsia, “Southern New Hampshire’s Favorite Mountain,” Pats is now on the radar of every rank-and-file skier and boarder in America, and drives of passholders are including Pats in their eastern Indy excursions at a remarkable rate, keeping both sides ecstatic.
“Indy Pass is a fantastic program. We are one of the earliest mountains to join, and we’ve seen great redemption as it’s brought a host of new skiers and boarders to our front door,” beamed Blomback gratefully. “It’s worked out so well for us.”
Doug Fish, founder of Indy Pass agreed, telling us in an earliest interview how Pats was one of the biggest surprises in the 2022-23 season, shattering all expectations on both sides with its huge numbers of redemptions across every month of the season.
KIDS KIDS KIDS
“Mom and Pop survival in a mega-pass world also depends on a combination of factors. Probably the biggest contributors to our success and longevity are the quality of the product we put out and the services that we offer our guests,” explained Blomback. “And our services like our state-of-the-art ski schools, immaculately clean lodges, and happy, helpful staff are all any skier or boarder could need or want.”
Indeed, Pats Peak is synonymous with youth skiing and boarding and has been since its founding. “I learned to ski there” is a universal mantra in their part of the world; whether it’s your bartender, your waitress, or the chap pumping your gas, they all hearken back to youth skiing camps at Pats.
Bill Coolidge’s A. W. Coolidge Ski Schools, Inc. operated the ski school, and the family employed Dartmouth grads as coaches. They cultivated a broad regional influence with a wildly popular and prosperous program. By the turn of the millennium, Pats Peak had grown its “Learn to ski” program to serve more than 8,000 children each season.
“The key to our success was consistency and quality,” Blomback asserted. “We work with 103 school districts with thousands of kids each week that come in on school buses for a five-week program. And once they finish the course they can get a free ski day pass for Bretton Woods, Waterville Valley, and here.”
“Our club’s wool sweater was brown with a red and yellow horizontal stripe across the chest,” added our family source. “I have no idea who was responsible for that color scheme.” (Answer: Obviously the Vancouver Canucks…)
“Best of all it’s small,” said one mother visiting from more than four hours away. “You can’t possibly lose the kids here. Everyone can find each other easily. Heaven for a mom!”
Located at 43°09?48?N 71°47?45?W with a 1,460-foot altitude summit and 770-foot vertical, Pats ticks off so many convenience boxes, it’s staggering. Central southern New Hampshire, just miles from Concord and Manchester? Check. Only 28 trails split into two side by side peaks so it’s easy to find everybody? Check. Beginners area away from all the main traffic? Check again. Tons of instructors so lessons are easy to book? Guessed it…Check!
The mountain is ergonomic: Three chairs all terminate at the summit from which every trail on the mountain can be accessed – all 28 as we go to press. A fourth chairlift terminates at the top of a park called Turbulance, providing an arena for the boarders and trick artists to showcase their talents. The Turbulance Terrain Park chair accesses a combined seven runs and glades, along with all the area’s park features. A fifth chairlift accesses the aforementioned backside Cascade Basin Area.
There are three iconic runs off the summit: Hurricane, Vortex, and FIS Race Trail. FIS Race Trail is exactly what you’d expect from the name. It’s steep, wide, groomed, and fast. As far as difficulty goes, at the top of the scale, Pats Peak punches far above its weight class with Hurricane and Vortex.
I couldn’t decide whether Hurricane is a mogul lover’s dream or a mogul lover’s nightmare. I’m afraid it’s both. There are double fall lines: one throws you right into the woods, and the other vaults you headlong into the chairlift towers. What fun! And the center-line is studded with ginormous, irregularly shaped moguls – Hurricane is short, but terrifying. Meanwhile, Vortex, just next door is your classic, criminally-narrow, super-steep, mogul-studded lift line. Though short, both Hurricane and Vortex should be considered in the highest echelon in New Hampshire for difficulty. Finally! Some on piste gnar in New Hampshire. Hurricane and Vortex? More like Scylla and Charybdis: pick your poison and strap yourself in: everyone on two chairlifts is watching you, so shred well.
Easier routes down from the summit abound as well, including intermediate runs East Wind and Duster and novice runs Breeze and Zephyr as well as others. On both days we visited, each and every trail was open – 28 out of 28. Arriving only days after the 60th anniversary celebrations, the mountain was still buzzing with the afterglow of the festivities.
“We started a tradition with a 20-foot-long cake for the 20th anniversary, so this year for the 60th anniversary, we had a 60-foot cake!” gushed Blomback. “We fed hundreds of people at a huge party with bands and the cake as a centerpiece. We had champagne toasts and fireworks and close to 1,500 people celebrated with us.”
Still, perhaps nothing speaks more poignantly to the devotion the Pats had and still have to skiing than the 1998 State Senate declaration that skiing is the official sport of the state of New Hampshire. The bill’s sponsor? Stuart’s daughter – Amy Patenaude Gunn. That’s the devotion one family has toward the sport of skiing. The runaway success and prosperity of the mountain is the skiing and boarding world’s way of thanking them.
Quality of Snow/Grooming – 9.25
Variety of Terrain – 8.25
Lifts – 8.5
Snow coverage – 9.25
Natural Setting – 8
Kid/Family Friendly – 9.5
Character – 8.5
Challenge – 8.5
Dining on Mountain/Base Lodge – 7 (They are famous for their $5 M&M cookie.)
Overall – 8.64
[Editor’s Note: This is the eleventh article in our series analyzing the battle between Vermont and New Hampshire ski resorts. As the series progresses, here are the places we’ll visit:
For New Hampshire: Attitash, The Balsams, Bretton Woods, Cannon, Dartmouth, Gunstock, Loon, Pat’s Peak, Sunapee, Waterville Valley, Wildcat
For Vermont: Jay Peak, Middlebury, Killington, Mad River Glen, Magic Mountain, Mt. Snow, Okemo, Smuggler’s Notch, Stowe, Stratton, Sugarbush/Sugarbush North]
Other articles in this series:
PART 1 – WATERVILLE VALLEY
PART 2 – MAGIC MOUNTAIN
PART 3 – SMUGGLERS’ NOTCH
PART 4 – ATTITASH
PART 5 – MOUNT SNOW
PART 6 – CANNON MOUNTAIN
PART 7 – STRATTON MOUNTAIN
PART 8 – MOUNT SUNAPEE
PART 9 – LOON MOUNTAIN
PART 10 – JAY PEAK
PART 12 – MIDDLEBURY SNOW BOWL
PART 13 – GUNSTOCK MOUNTAIN RESORT