Border War! Vermont vs. New Hampshire Skiing Part 4 – Attitash
—by Jay Flemma
Special to Slave to the Traffic Light Adventure Magazine—
BARTLETT, NH – Oh sweet, sweet justice! For once this east coaster was in the right place at the right time; for once, I caught the sick powder where and when it happened. Hallelujah!
It could not have worked out more perfectly: get into the White Mountains of New Hampshire before Winter Storm Harper arrived, ski legendary Attitash both before and during the storm, and then leave North Conway the morning after Harper did, right behind the plows and salters working clean-up. It’s almost as though Harper planned it that way. “Hey, I’ll show up on Saturday evening after y’all have already gotten into town and skied for a day. Then I’ll blow all night and all day Sunday, leaving town just in time for everyone to drive home during the Monday holiday. YOU’RE WELCOME!”
The grand total was a whopping 18 inches in 24 hours of the proverbial BEST POWDER EVER! And of all places to be snowed in, New Hampshire’s fabled Attitash – one of those old school New England places spoken of in holy whispers by the cognoscenti – was absolutely glorious. Every single trail was open on Harper Sunday (a perfect 68 for 68!) and Attitash’s twisting, narrow, steep, thickly-wooded runs were downright mesmerizing, while its lift lines were a boundless ocean of powdery moguls as far as the eye could see. You spent the day buffeted by the snowy waves, a kayak riding class 5 rapids.
Just like the Ski Gods drew it up on the chalkboard.
Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s Attitash Mountain was regarded among New Hampshire’s definitive ski resorts, one of the four faces on the state’s skiing Mount Rushmore. Cannon, Attitash, Waterville Valley, and Loon: they were the Fab Four, New Hampshire’s proper rejoinder to Sugarbush, Stowe, Killington, and Mount Snow.
Cut to 40 years later, and Attitash is still strong regionally. Although its star has waned slightly as the age of super-resorts rolls on, like most New Hampshire ski areas, what Attitash lacks in size, it makes up for in character and terrain.
Tucked deep in the White Mountains in northern New Hampshire (latitude 44 degrees 05 minutes North, longitude 71 degrees, 14 minutes West) Attitash is actually two adjacent, north-facing peaks, interconnected to each other by two crossing umbilical cords, one on either side. Smugglers’ Notch is a close analogy, only instead of the two mountains roughly facing each other (as Madonna Peak and Sterling Mountain do at Smuggs) at Attitash they are side-by-side bookends, almost mirror images of each other: Left Twix and Right Twix as they say in the candy commercial.
“That’s actually a really good analogy,” chuckled an amused Jamie Storrs, senior director of communications for Peak Resorts, which owns and operates Attitash, nearby Wildcat (which is included in your daily lift ticket in combination with Attitash) and Vermont’s Mt. Snow. “Many people tend to be fiercely loyal to one side or the other. It makes for quite the fun debate.”
Attitash (on Little Attitash Peak/Left Twix as you face the mountain or read the trail map) is to the east and contains roughly twice as many trails as Bear Peak (also called Rogers Mountain/Right Twix) positioned immediately to the west. The two were originally separate developments; Attitash opening in 1965, while development on Bear Peak, planned for many long decades, finally proceeded in 1994. Both peaks feature a base lodge which sits at exactly 600 feet above sea level, and you can park the car at either lodge.
Attitash makes the most of its terrain. On paper, its summit elevations of 2,350 feet for Little Attitash and 2,050 for Bear look humble compared to the higher summits of, for example, Wildcat and Cannon (4,062 and 4,080 feet respectively) but don’t be fooled. That’s still a solid 1,750 foot vertical descent on the Attitash side, and 1,450 for Bear Peak, the equal of just about anything in the east. And with trails cut into the teeth of the most interesting terrain, Attitash is far tougher – and far more exciting – than it looks on the trail map.
A true throwback to the Golden Age of the American Ski Boom – the place screams old school in every way – they are never far from their rich history. And what a history it is! You have to chuckle at the homespun stories of the old guard who remember the formative years of the resort. First there was a colorful rakehell of a groomer named Wilfred Normand who was notorious for driving his Caterpillar around the mountain like a demented Jeff Gordon.
“One weekend, while visiting the site, I somehow managed to get a ride on the Cat with Wilfred, who immediately headed up the steepest part of the trail. It was probably the most terrifying thing that I had ever done,” wrote Tim Halloran, son of Bob Halloran, one of the original members of the Bartlett Recreational Development Corporation that operated the resort in the middle ‘60s. “Wilfred thought it was quite funny.”
Then there was the time management asked Wilfred to cut a new trail off the top of the mountain. In a gaffe worthy of Homer Simpson, Wilfred fired up the dozer, raced to the summit, and promptly cut it in the wrong place.
How does the song go? “An artist he may be, but a genius he is not…”
Seeing no other option, exasperated management threw up their hands and named the new run “Wilfred’s GAWM,” with GAWM standing for “Getting Away With Murder.” Still, things worked out well in the end because Wilfred’s GAWM is still one of only three ways down from the summit of the Attitash side of the resort, along with Humphrey’s Ledge and Upper Saco. And it has become part of Attitash lore in Wilfred’s inimitable way.
Shortly afterwards, Attitash had another Simpsons-esque misadventure: they started building a monorail to nowhere. According to website NewEnglandSkiHistory.com:
“Playing into the concept of having a unique lift like Cranmore, the original build out of Attitash’s upper mountain was to be served via a heated monorail. A monorail line was cleared and 1,000 feet of track installed for the 1966-67 season for testing purposes. Universal Design Limited designed the 7,600 foot proposal, which was expected to open in the summer of 1967.
”The monorail direction appeared increasingly less feasible when a new 5,000 foot long chairlift opened up the upper mountain in February of 1969. At this point, the monorail proposal had grown to 4 miles and was to include a sizable housing development. Plans were soon abandoned.”
Cue the entire town of Springfield singing “Monoraaaaaaail…monoraaaaaaaaaail…monoraaaaaaaaaaail!!!”
BETTER TERRAIN, BETTER SNOW
Cut to the present day, and Attitash is now owned by Peak Resorts. Since 2010, they’ve invested heavily in snowmaking, and significantly improved both the quality of snow and the quantity of acreage covered, turning what was once a drawback into a strength.
“Snowmaking is the biggest improvement we’ve made at both Attitash and Wildcat,” explains Storrs. “We’ve been focusing on making sure we not only add more snowmaking across the mountain, but that the grooming is consistently uniform.”
They talked the talk, and then they walked the walk. The snow on pre-Harper Saturday was stellar – Bravo, Mountain Ops! 63 of 68 trails were open that day, and the mountain still basking in the afterglow of almost ten fresh inches earlier in the week. My Head i.Rallys owned every single twist, turn, fall line, and chicane on the mountain as though I’d skied there all my life, and in two runs off the summit triple, we cruised breathlessly down two classic New England narrow, windy, character-filled runs, including Saco->Tightrope->Spillway, (a thrill-a-second rocket ride) and Humphrey’s Ledge->Northwest Passage->White Horse, (a wild, bucking bronco indeed).
The summit triple proved to be too slow, cold, and frustrating to stick around for long – a common theme we heard from patrons and employees alike, and seemingly the only negative comment anyone has about Attitash – so after a few moments of trekking, we crossed over to Bear Peak (Right Twix…) for runs down Morningstar, Myth-maker, and Illusion.
This highlights another of Attitash’s great strengths: There isn’t a milquetoast run anywhere on either mountain, you can ski it every day and never get bored. In fact, you need to be razor sharp; Attitash is sneaky-tough. At some places (that will remain nameless) too many black diamond runs are really just blue squares with a headwall here and there: intermediates disguised as experts. Not so at Attitash: everything is a little more difficult than it reads on the trail map. It’s true: you go to some places to cruise and chill and have a nice day…you come to Attitash to challenge yourself and get better.
In particular, the intermediates are remarkably strong. Not just simple cruisers, to ease you down the mountain, some of them could be mistaken for black diamonds, especially bumped out after a storm. Morningstar, one of the chief ways down Bear Peak, has more than one exciting headwall->chicane->headwall section, as do Saco and Cathedral, popular ways down from the summit of Attitash Peak. And not only is formidable Illusion regarded as quintessentially Attitashian, along with Ptarmigan and Avenger, it’s also one of the resort’s race courses.
Ah yes, Ptarmigan and Avenger, the sturdy backbone of their respective peaks. We knew Harper was coming, and we wanted to save those two so as to ride them under optimum conditions, (read: moguls the size of VW buses), so we waited until Sunday to tackle them. Instead, we traversed back to the Attitash side (Left Twix…) via Stoneybrook, a quaint, charming connector run featuring trailside, mid-mountain lodging. People were grilling outside as we were skiing past. Some even offered us a drink. *BONUS!*
We closed the day with runs down Idiot’s Option – which despite its spooky name was one of the more enjoyable rides of the day – and a breezy schuss down White Horse. And as we tucked into dinner in North Conway, we were absolutely thrilled and impressed with Attitash’s snow, terrain, and mountain plan. Attitash was spectacular even before the Biblical dumping that was about to hit it head on.
But by now Harper had arrived, with all the ferocity of an angry thunder god looking forward to giving something a good smiting.
I’ve skied since I was four, and Harper Sunday was the best ski day of my life. On a day like this, throw away the trail map. 14 inches had fallen already upon our morning arrival at the mountain, and every inch of both peaks was covered in dreamlike powder. The only thing missing was the Night King astride his ice dragon, leading his army of zombies to lay siege to Winterfell.
“This is so nectar!” rasped a hippie riding a new Jeremy Jones board as he cruised the left tree line run after run, shredding madly as he did. Were Jones himself there, doubtless he’d have pointed, nodded approvingly, and said, “Yes. That’s what I was going for.”
If Sunday was a rock show, then we played all the hits: Saco, Cathedral, White Horse, Spillway, Avenger, Mythmaker, and (of course) Upper, Middle, and Lower Ptarmigan.
Ptarmigan is the iconic trail of the resort and the run every expert comes here to ride. The best overall top-to-bottom run, with all the twists, turns, and drops of a rollercoaster, it leaves you breathless, but deeply satisfied.
“It’s one of those old school New England trails that totally follows the fall line – narrow and steep – with gorgeous views of valley,” said Jack Fagone, marketing director of both Attitash and Wildcat. “On a powder day it hugs the snow and the pitch, and it gives you enough speed to cut through deep snow.”
Actually, they can call it “New and improved Upper, Middle, and Lower Ptarmigan,” because its here that the upgraded snowmaking shines through the brightest.
“We hadn’t made snow on Middle Ptar for about 10 years,” Fagone recalled. “But this year repairs were made to snowmaking line, and conditions are so good, we finally added Middle Ptarmigan to the list of snowmaking trails. Now all three sections of Ptarmigan are uniform in conditioning.”
Make that “uniform in mint conditioning….” The contiguous whole far surpassed the already sterling recommendations it received from the New England ski intelligentsia who gave us a pre-Attitash briefing.
Not to be outdone by its older sibling, Avenger is a worthy rejoinder over on the Bear Peak side. After a brilliant, steep, narrow, hard-bending chicane to open the run, it empties into a vast area so wide, it’s bisected into upper and lower sections, the left being a narrow ledge, while the right becomes a deep bowl.
It was an unforgettable moment: Standing there in the middle of this gargantuan expanse, plummeting basin to my right, sea of moguls to my left and the earth dizzyingly far beneath my feet, and only my razor-sharp edges keeping me attached to the side of the mountain. It was primal. Such a spellbinding sight is perhaps the only way that my fear of heights doesn’t overwhelm me while skiing. Put me at the top of a Mayan pyramid, and I’m grabbing a pillar for dear life. Stick me atop the Eiffel Tower, and you have to pry me off the girders with a crowbar. But I’ll drop into Avenger and take the time to savor the curve of the earth off in the distance before pinballing off moguls bigger than me. Heck: bigger than Cadillacs! At a moment like that, who needs the Alps?
A SQUIRRELLY SITUATION
Attitash has one weakness: the lifts.
“We desperately need new lifts,” “that damn summit chair,” “I love retro, but not like that,” “please write about this,” and *making the sign of the cross* were all reactions of patrons who implored me to write about the elephant in the room: Attitash needs to upgrade its lifts, starting immediately with the summit triple on the Attitash side.
As the summit chair on the main peak, it is the most important lift at the resort. It is also, by far and away, the worst. Count on it stopping. Count on swinging in mid-air for several minutes. And count on some Jerry dropping gloves, poles, camera phones…even freaking skis!
I’m not just a skier, I’m a lifer at this sport. I get it: I don’t mind a cold ride, I don’t need heated seats, I don’t need a pumpkin spiced latte, and I don’t need a kiss from Christy Turlington every time I board the lift. But I also don’t want to be left dangling three, four, even five times per ride. I don’t mind swinging for a minute or two, but certainly not for 10-15. And I really don’t enjoy getting lurched hard to the left right as I try to disembark a chair, (the Yankee Triple).
Remember the Left Twix/Right Twix debate? As an illustration for those of you scoring at home (and I speak for many Attitashians who feel the same way) I’m a Left Twix person until I can’t stand that infernal summit chair any more, and then I’m Right Twix until well after lunch. The summit lift’s incessant sputtering and stopping sends many people over to the Bear Peak side. It’s such a pandemic problem that even loyal people who work there made a point of speaking to me on condition of anonymity and begging me to provide candid, heartfelt feedback on this to make Attitash even better than it already is.
It’s possible their pleas are finally being heard, with the triggering event being…a squirrelly situation…that happened over the Christmas holidays.
“It’s something we’re looking at and are very aware of, especially so after the problem earlier this year,” stated Storrs. “A squirrel shorted out main power line on the Attitash side, and from that power surge it produced electrical gremlins in the lift that took us a little while to chase down. That’s why it was down earlier in the year. But we did replace the entire drive of the lift in late December. Rest assured: we’re not just talking about it, but considering options.”
Obviously the squirrel likes Right Twix.
All joking aside, perhaps the squirrel and the subsequent on-line feedback from patrons will finally bring long-needed upgrades. Attitashians have been frustrated with that lift for 10 years, and management hears about it all the time. While right now no concrete plans have been made by Peak Resorts, they have been investing in Attitash and Wildcat (better snow quality isn’t as sexy as a new lift, but it is both necessary and satisfying). Here’s hoping that after the squirrel misadventure this year, Peak Resorts realizes the summit triple is an urgent priority. They should actually be heartened that so many of their patrons love the place enough to ask a writer to express their well-measured words and extend their well-intended ideas for suggestion.
WE DON’T REBUILD, WE RELOAD
Attitash can proudly claim to have not just a rising star, but an Olympian and Junior World Downhill champion as one of its scions. Alice Merryweather started skiing Attitash when she was just four years old, spending her days trying to beat her older brother Simon down the mountain. Now just 18 years later she’s won gold in Sweden as a junior in 2017 and competed at Pyeongchang in 2018. She’s not just turning heads on the World Cup circuit, she looks to be next in line as Queen of U.S. Women’s Skiing behind Mikaela Shiffrin.
While some writers lament that the retirement of Lindsey Vonn means the end of an era and a sunset on U.S. dominance in women’s winter sports, it doesn’t look like rebuild to me, it looks like reload, with Shiffrin stepping smoothly into Lindey’s shoes as the face of the women’s team and Merryweather as heir apparent, hot on Mikaela’s heels. In a recent interview with msm.com, Vonn herself hints that might be the case.
“Alice is a very good skier and she has the potential to be on the podium,” Vonn gushed proudly. “I’m hoping she can punch in there and be the future of our speed team.”
“Having skied at places all across the globe, my perspective on Attitash hasn’t changed- it’s a really fun mountain with some great terrain and a tight-knit community,” Merryweather said energetically. “Among my favorite runs are Illusion, Idiots Option, and Spillway. If I took my USST friends out for a rip, I’d be sure to hit Illusion, Avenger, and Upper Ptarmigan to spillway.”
As for the Left Twix/Right Twix debate, Alice was pretty clear: “I think I’m more of a Right Twix.”
***UPDATE*** A few short weeks after publication, Merryweather won the 2019 U.S. Alpine downhill national championship at Sugarloaf and took third place in the first ever parallel slalom.
LOCAL KNOWLEDGE AND BOSTONIANS ESCAPING BOSTONIANS
Perhaps nothing else speaks to Attitash’s quality than one fact: it’s where the locals go – Attitash and Wildcat.
“It’s the best terrain,” said an employee of a rival mountain nearby. “Attitash and Wildcat have the wildest, steepest terrain, hands down. That’s where we go, that’s where we take our friends, and that’s where the best skiers train. Ptarmigan, baby!”
“We knew the places further south and closer to Boston would be madhouses on a holiday weekend. They always are,” added Chrissy, a skier from Boston who was there with her boyfriend for the weekend. “There are two mountains to spread out at here at Attitash. We escape the crowds, and we escape the other Bostonians,” she concluded with a laugh. (I observed this phenomenon first hand actually, as my skiing wingman and second-in-command for this assignment was one of those Bostonians who chose Attitash in the first place to escape the Bostonians going to Loon and Mount Sunapee. He’d never been to Attitash before – he just hates lift lines and Jerries.)
Still, it’s the locals that make the place so enjoyable. Attitash is another of those places where you go there once, and suddenly you have ten new skiing friends. That New England camaraderie shines through – Attitash isn’t just a ski area, it’s a community, and a particularly vibrant one. And, of course, it always helps when a Thunder God of a blizzard comes whipping through like the Night King. At moments like that, both Twix taste delicious.
Quality of Snow/Grooming – 9.5
Variety of Terrain – 9.5
Lifts – 7.25
Snow coverage – 9.5
Natural Setting – 9
Kid/Family Friendly – 9.5
Character – 9.5
Challenge – 9.25
Dining on Mountain/Base Lodge – 7.5
Overall – 8.945
[Editor’s Note: This is the fourth 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, Gunstock, Loon, Sunapee, Waterville Valley, Wildcat
For Vermont: Jay Peak, Killington, Mad River Glen, Magic Mountain, Mt. Snow, Smuggler’s Notch, Stowe, Stratton, Sugarbush/Sugarbush North]
Other articles in this series:
PART 8 – MOUNT SUNAPEE
PART 9 – LOON MOUNTAIN
On February 23, three days after we published this article, the Summit Triple broke down, requiring the complete dismantling of the sun and planetary gears as well as the bearings and bullwheel hub. What was originally hoped to be an eight day fix, unfortunately requires part imported from Switzerland and, as such, the Summit Triple was shut down for the season. Patrons and season pass holders were notified on March 14 on the Attitash blog that had been posting up to two or three updates per day. (Click here for continuing updates.)
In spite of the misfortune, Attitash and Peak Resorts can at least be commended in two ways: First, they marshaled every resource they could to try to solve the issues with the summit triple quickly and efficiently. Equipment came in from Mount Snow, rigging specialists arrived from Southern New Hampshire, and a gearbox specialist out of Connecticut convened with them to brainstorm the problems. Both Friday and Saturday of last week, (3/10 and 3/11) the Attitash lift maintenance crew along with help from Pfister Lift Services and Artec Machine had a 100 ton crane on site to help with the lowering of the bullwheel and planetary gear housing (the hub of the bullwheel) which weighs approximately 12,000 pounds.
In short, they gave it the old college try. But it’s just not to be. According to Attitash blog:
“It is my unfortunate duty to inform you all that despite the best efforts of our lift mechanic team here at Attitash – as well as that of outside specialists – we will be unable to reopen the Summit Triple for the remainder of the 2018/2019 season.
For some background, the work thus far has been all about trying to get access to the upper bearing in the bullwheel hub that allows the bullwheel to spin. While we have been able to access this bearing and have indeed found that it is damaged, upon further inspection we noticed an issue with some of the nosecone gearing in the upper gearbox of the lift. Further testing at Artec has shown us that these gears are not meshing properly. Unfortunately, this prohibits us from operating the lift safely.
We are now in the process of sourcing new gearing for the upper gearbox, but the company that originally made these gears is not only based in Switzerland and requires a four to six week lead time to produce the new gearing. With the tolerances needed for the inner workings of this lift, there is really only one company in the world capable of doing the work needed. Due to this, the resulting repair process will have to be finished over the coming summer.”
Second, they responded to patrons’ inquiries with a refreshing transparency.
“Now for the elephant in the room. We’ve heard your calls for a new lift to replace the Summit Triple, and while we appreciate all your feedback, this is not a project our parent company, Peak Resorts, is looking to do in the near future. While we continue to invest significant amounts of money in capital projects annually into Attitash and Wildcat, a new lift is just not in the plans for the near future. I know this is not what you all wanted to hear, but we feel that our passholders and guests all deserve an answer one way or another.
We know this has been a frustrating process for you all, as it has been for us as well, and we would like to thank you for your patience and kind words during this process.”
We’ve posed the question to both Peak Resorts and Attitash regarding whether once the lift is fixed, if it might alleviate some of the fits and spurts with which it operated before. We have yet to get an answer, but we will provide a further update as soon as we get aa call back.