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Border War! Vermont vs. New Hampshire Skiing Part 9 – Loon Mountain

LOON MOUNTAIN, ONE OF NEW HAMPSHIRE’S CROWN JEWELS OF SKIING

(Pic courtesy of Loon Mtn.)

Border War! Vermont vs. New Hampshire Skiing Part 9 – Loon Mountain

—by Jay Flemma

LINCOLN, NH – Day 1 of 2, circa 1:00 pm – It’s not often that one can tiptoe past a sleeping dragon, but occasionally even dragons must doze. And so it was that I caught Ripsaw – Loon Mountain’s ferocious, serpentine-coiled, fire-breathing, double black diamond rejoinder to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Smaug – after it had been groomed. Suddenly defenseless in the beaming afternoon sun, it could only lay helpless as I embraced send after scintillating send and carved one aesthetic line after another over its rugged terrain.

Such is the moment of grace for the expert skier:  when you know, beyond all doubt, that no matter what the mountain can throw at you, you’re going to send it back singing.

And so it was that New Hampshire’s Loon Mountain captivated the heart of yet another winter sportsman, as it has since the day it opened in December 1966 with 12 trails, two lifts, and one toilet. 500 people showed up that morning and Loon’s founder, Sherman Adams, showed each and every one of them a grand time.

SET THE WAYBACK MACHINE, SHERMAN

All Loon Mountain reflects the heart and soul of Sherman Adams, a great lion of a man far larger in legacy than his diminutive frame. It was his vision and leadership the not only created the resort, but shepherded the entire state of New Hampshire through an age of prosperity. Best of all, Adams’s story is one of homegrown, hard-earned success.

It was the early Roaring ‘20s, and the 5 foot, 7 inch, 140-pound Dartmouth graduate got himself hired to manage a logging camp full of lumberjacks big and brawny enough to challenge Paul Bunyan himself to a stump-ripping contest. “Walking Boss” was Adams’s title, but he eschewed any walls between himself and the men he managed.

“I’m just a damned lumberjack,” he would reiterate earnestly, though in truth he ran the camp, and in that respect he walked the walk after talking the talk. He was always first on the site in the morning, was the last to leave at night, (if he left at all), and constantly leapt into action on the job, moving logs around with a vigor that greatly impressed his men. Across the camp his legend grew:  a pocket-sized John Henry, and just as beloved by his team as any hero of American folklore. (How does the old song go? Blow by blow…go, John Henry go!)

Leading by example:  it’s still the best way to earn anyone’s respect.

THE TWIN SUMMITS OF NORTH PEAK AND LOON PEAK SHROUDED IN CLOUD (Pic courtesy of Loon Mtn.)

Slowly, steadily, Adams rose to prominence. His excellence in managing the logging business gave him entry into the paper industry, and after that came banking connections. Suddenly finding himself with diversified power and widespread admiration, Adams began a political career that commanded respect across both sides of the aisle. He started as a state legislator, then, soon afterwards, served a term for New Hampshire in the U.S. House of Representatives. After that he was a two-term governor of the Granite State. And when he helped deliver retired General Dwight D. Eisenhower not only New Hampshire, but the nation-wide Republican nomination for the presidency in 1952, he was named Ike’s campaign manager and, subsequently, President Eisenhower’s Chief of Staff.

Politics being politics, the media helped build up Adams’s legend. They called him the second most powerful man in America, and not just when Eisenhower was on the golf course. In truth, Adams was never really a “Shadow President” as some powerful Chiefs of Staff were called, but he was a facilitator on a wide range of issues, not the least of which was the promotion of civil rights and access to justice for African-Americans, and his noble efforts to advance equal rights were praised on both sides of the aisle.

He was also a gatekeeper. Often republicans seeking access to Eisenhower in order to promote their project du jour, would be frustrated to find Adams telling them they couldn’t have what they asked for. His simple “no” to any idea killed it instantly, earning him the nickname “The Abominable No Man.”

The press knew it as well and ran with it. Adams was featured on the cover of both Time and Newsweek, (back when that actually meant something other than winning praise for being an iconoclast). While Adams did not attend security council meetings, nor have any influence over national security decisions, he was at table for just about everything else, often at Ike’s side when crises broke out. And President Eisenhower himself said of his Chief of Staff, “I sleep better knowing that little fellow is in that office.”

So did the rest of the country. He was known as a problem solver, and someone who, despite the “R” next to his name, was integral in ushering in several important bi-partisan social programs still used today, including important civil rights advances. Moreover, Adams recruited the first ever African-American to serve on a president’s executive staff, the great Frederic Morrow, who informally advised Adams (and therefore Ike) on civil rights nearly every day. Democrats liked working with Adams, and perhaps the only praise of Sherman Adams that might match that of Ike’s was that of two democrats conversing. Sadly their names may be lost to history, but the truth of their words still echoes today:

Democrat 1:  Wouldn’t it be terrible if Eisenhower died, and Nixon became president?

 Democrat 2:  No. What would be terrible is if Sherman Adams died, and Eisenhower became president.

Ironically enough, that’s sort of what happened…

MURDERED BY A LLAMA, REBORN AS A LOON

Okay, to be exact it was a llama’s cousin, something called a vicuna, and we’re speaking in metaphors of course, but it was Adams’s receiving a rare, expensive vicuna coat as a gift from a sketchy textile merchant named Bernard Goldfine that ended Adams’s political career in 1958.

At least that’s what the history books read. Historians such as Professor Michael Birkner of Gettysburg College, a respected scholar of political history, tell Your Author that what really happened was that Goldfine had a bad habit of throwing Sherman Adams’s name around, and that Adams – who ordinarily would never…EVER!…allow anyone to do that – looked the other way once or twice when Goldfine did it, and it came back to bite him.

Adams happened to ignore the name-dropping while Goldfine was under investigation by the Federal Trade Commission for irregularities in dealings with the government, (intentionally mis-labeling textiles and overcharging for them). Worse still, Adams made phone calls inquiring about the status of the investigation. It was a mere “What’s going on?” but even that was verboten because it was exactly what he promised he’d never do – appear to use his position for leverage. The gift of the vicuna coat was a convenient excuse to drive him from Ike’s side – politically expedient as they say in the Swamp.

Nowadays we see far worse now every morning with our breakfast cereal.

Adams returned home to Lincoln in late 1958, weighing his options. His beloved logging industry was groaning under the combined weight of new regulations and modern technology, possibly never to quite fully recover and return to the dominance it once enjoyed. But Adams saw opportunity and embraced the necessary change quickly. He decided to transition to recreation, tourism, and conservation, a move that still provides a significant economic engine to the region these many decades later.

The final piece to the puzzle was Adams’s allegedly nagging wife Rachel who provided the spark to ignite the fire from which Loon Mountain Resort and Sherman Adams emerged like phoenixes. In this regard, the story becomes similar to that of American author James Fenimore Cooper. Cooper was griping to his wife that a story he was reading was poorly written when his wife snarled back acidly, “You couldn’t write a letter to the editor.” So Cooper wrote the entire Leatherstocking Series of colonial adventures, five novels in all. Similarly, Rachel Adams looked at Sherman and said, “There must be a place to ski up there somewhere. What are you going to do about it?” and Adams was back off into the woods like a shot.

Construction on Loon Mountain began in the spring of 1966, and the resort opened for business just eight months later. During those months, Adams reprised his role of walking boss – Pocket John Henry had returned! – cruising the woods mapping trails and managing every aspect of the resort’s construction. Adams even worked in a neck brace for weeks after being hit by a tree trunk in a dynamite mishap. Cue up the old song again:

Work all through the day and work all through the night

Short stops to rest in between

Seldom does he see the light of day

Ten suns unseen…ten suns unseen

News spread through the town, news spread through the state

News spread nationwide

All have come to see John Henry’s hammer

To see what he has done

To see what he has done

And come they did:  from Boston to Burlington, and from Bangor to Bucks County, spreading the good news. Loon was wholesome family fun, low impact, inexpensive, and friendly. It was easy to get to – the new I-93 was a straight shot from Boston. And Adams made sure that every guest was treated as thought they were a head of state or visiting dignitary.

Before you could blink, Loon became the darling of New England.

Adams would go on to serve as Loon’s president and general manager for nearly two decades. He remained deeply involved in the day-to-day operations of the resort until he passed away in the fall of 1986 at the age of 87. And from the day Rachel sent him off into the woods until the day he passed on to that Great Above the Treeline Run in the Sky, all winter sports enthusiasts slept as easily as Ike Eisenhower knowing Adams was on the job.

MOUNTAIN GAZETTEER

LOON TRAIL MAP CIRCA 2020-21

The Loon Resort we find in 2021 is every bit the Loon Resort Adams stewarded when he was alive. Still to this day, because of its unwavering dedication to sterling service, Loon maintains its place of prominence in the Pantheon of great American winter sports venues, and Adams would be rightfully proud to see that family fun, warm hospitality, quality snowmaking, efficient lifts, and good value are still Loon’s hallmarks.

Located at 44 degrees 2 minutes north, 71 degrees 37 minutes west of Prime, Loon is tucked in a tiny alcove of the southwestern edge of the White Mountains, relatively close to the geographic center of New Hampshire. As such it gets excellent natural snowfall, but the resort was still far-sighted enough to invest in snowmaking all across the mountain, so Loon’s 99% snow coverage, among the best in the entire country.

In-bounds terrain is divided into two sections:  Loon Peak and North Peak, (twin summits, side-by-side, constituting the vast majority of the resort’s 66 trail network), and the newly acquired and developed South Peak area, (a handful of trails and only accessible to Loon Peak and South Peak by a Tote Road Chair over defile between the mountains).

Do not dismiss the trail map at a glance because of the friendly bird-and-sunshine logo and the vast wave of blue squares across the mountain. You can’t judge a book by its cover, nor a winter sports resort by its trail map. Loon is big time, east coast skiing. Its 2,159 foot vertical drop is one of the longest east of the Mississippi. (North Peak’s elevation tops out at 3,059 feet above sea level, while the Octagon Base Lodge sits at 950.)

Expert trails are spread across all three peaks, but it was the addition of South Peak that significantly increased the amount of expert terrain and provided much needed room for Loon to grow. With its own base lodge and parking, South Peak resembles Sugarbush’s Mt. Ellen facility – separate and apart, with no trails interconnecting to the other peaks, yet fully self-sufficient.

The scene-stealer is Ripsaw, Loon’s only double black diamond across the entire resort. With electrifying double fall lines and long steeps followed by winding curves before emptying out into another headwall, Ripsaw has moment of free fall both literally and metaphorically. Not to be outdone, Twitcher and Jobber are also exhilarating changes of pace, so lapping the South Peak chair is usually top of the list for experts visiting Loon.

Back over at main area, the gondola rises to the top of Loon Peak, accessing every trail except a small handful reachable only by the North Peak chair. That small handful, however, includes some iconic runs, including Walking Boss (named for their founder) and Flume, the North Peak Chair lift line. Flume is particularly exciting, as one side is kept ungroomed and full of moguls, perfect for a spirited ride under the chairlift. You know how it goes:  show the people how moguls are owned – hands in front, weight forward, knees flexing, bounding like a wooden ship on a heaving sea – and the crowd on the chair goes wild. (I know from personal experience…and “thank you” to the bleacher creatures on the lift…)

“Flume and Upper Walking Boss were our favorites too. They are right next to each other and they have great pitch. We rode that chair over and over,” beamed skier Andy Reath, who vacationed at Loon for a week with his wife Jeanine. “They were beautifully groomed too. Mountain ops was phenomenal, conditions were great all over the mountain. We loved Loon and would go back in a heartbeat.”

FLUME, THE NORTH PEAK LIFT LINE (Photo courtesy of Loon Mtn.)

Big Dipper, Angel Street, and Rolling Bear are also wild rides. Mostly confined to tighter quarters than the rest of the mountain, they also tend to get bumped out the quickest. Angel Street is a must-see as it features a glorious moment of panoramic reveal. After bouncing and winding your way through steeps in the woods, you suddenly zoom out into a broad lift line, and the entire expanse of the White Mountains opens up before you, (Liberty, Lafayette, and Flume off to your left, Whaleback and Potash in front of you).

Also like Sugarbush, the intermediate trails at Loon are particularly strong across the entire resort. Long gone are the days when some pooh-poohed Loon as “Medicare Mountain” due to the large number of retirees cruising flat intermediates. There are more sidewinders at Loon than an Arizona gulch. That’s what makes Loon’s blues so strong:  their twists and turns and their relentless length. Off the summit of Loon Peak you can ride Haulback and Speakeasy while taking in the gorgeous White Mountain vistas or you could lap the Kancamagus chair and its plethora of narrow, bumpy, twisting runs, including the highly popular Blue Ox and Ramspasture, as well as most of Loon Mountain’s terrain parks. Happily, novices and beginners can also find enjoyable ways down from the summit of either North or Loon Peak. Exodus is wildly popular as it feeds into any number of different trails.

LOON OFFERS GORGEOUS VIEWS OF THE WHITE MOUNTAINS

As a general rule, while the intermediates are strong, expert terrain is on the easier side. There’s only one double black diamond, (Ripsaw), and it’s manageable by the vast majority of good skiers. Ripsaw is wild, and covered in moguls would be a bear, but it’s also wide.

Loon needs at least one truly unconquerable, scare-you-to-death, criminally-narrow, rocky, cliff jump-studded skier-eater of a double black diamond, maybe more. Call them New Hampshire’s proper rejoinder to Mad River Glen’s Paradise, Sugarbush’s Castlerock area, or Stowe’s Front Four:  the narrower, rockier, and gnarlier, the better. That’s the last great step Loon needs to take – turn South Peak into their Castlerock, and you’ll attract every extreme skier for miles.

Still, there’s also something to be said about being able to ski every trail at a resort. It’s an ego boost, it brings you back to the mountain for more. There are many who return to Loon simply because they know they can ski across the entire trail map. There are times and places at Loon where you need to take more than one chair to get somewhere, (South Peak, for example), and occasionally lines for a chair or the gondola get long, as might one chair or the other. But most lifts are high speed and move people up the mountain quickly.

Loon is on the IKON pass along with (among many others) Killington, Sugarbush, and Stratton in the east and Jackson Hole, Aspen, and Mammoth Mountain in the west.

THE RIVER WALK

THE PALATIAL RIVER WALK, A GRANDE DAME OF NEW ENGLAND

If stately, elegant, and refined are the imprimatur, indeed the essence of Loon Mountain, then the River Walk Resort is the perfect compliment for accommodations. From the outside it resembles an ice palace – a fairy tale castle from some wintry fantasy by C.S. Lewis. And on the inside, it’s modeled after the grand hotels of the Old Hollywood era.

“I had visited the famous Hotel del Coronado in San Diego, and decided that’s what I wanted for the River Walk,” explained Dennis Ducharme, President of InnSeason Resorts, owner and operator of the River Walk. “We wanted to build a hotel that people would remember staying at forever, a place that could stand shoulder to shoulder with the greatest hotels in the country.”

On that note, Ducharme didn’t just hit a home run. He hit a tape measure blast into the upper deck, rounded the bases to thunderous applause, and came back out of the dugout tipping his cap for a curtain call. In just five years since its opening, the River Walk is spoken of by the cognoscenti as deserving of its place among the finest hotels in New England. And with expansion projects proceeding apace, it’s only going to get better.

Built at the base of Loon’s South Peak, it’s an easy walk to the lifts. (So you can lap Ripsaw!) The $33,000,000 development presently has 79 opulent condominiums, each one more spacious and well-appointed than the last. Even the smallest single has tall ceilings, recessed lighting, a huge kitchen with its own island, a  living room, a spacious bedroom, (complete its own bathtub), a huge bathroom, and a balcony with mountain or valley views, but there are also 2, 3, or 4-bedroom options or even penthouses with conference rooms.

The rest of the resort is equally impressive. Completely self-contained, the River Walk sports its own restaurant, winery, spa, gym, game room, and Olympic-sized indoor ice rink – the “Rink at River Walk” –  reserved for ice shows and other events. The facility has hosted winter sports royalty such as 4-time world champion Kurt Browning, and 2-time U.S. champion Alissa Czisny.

Perhaps the most striking physical asset is the enormous 8,000 square foot, 169,000 gallon pool surrounding the resort’s fountain and two outdoor Jacuzzis that can also be converted into – you guessed it – an ice rink! Though seemingly puckish, the idea caught on like wildfire, and you’ll occasionally find vacationing hockey greats skating around. It’s a particular favorite of Boston Bruins stars, including NHL Hall of Famer Joey Mullen, who three Stanley Cups, two with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Better still, with America in the midst of a wine craze, the resort’s Seven Birches Winery is firing on all cylinders. A full-scale commercial operation, they distribute wine made on-site to all corners of the northeast. You can not only tour the vineyard (right in the resort’s backyard), you can enjoy tours and tasting flights year-round. Using locally sourced fruits, they make cider as well.

They don’t serve meals at the winery, but for breakfast or dinner, the River Walk’s Italian restaurant, La Vista is everything you could wish for in a down home ristorante. They’re reputation is built on their savory brick oven pizzas, but the rest of the Italian classics on the menu read like an all-star lineup:  butternut ravioli served in the traditional brown butter sage sauce, calamari arrabiata, or octopi arrabiata for appetizers, or perhaps pappardelle Bolognese, pork belly carbonara, or shrimp scampi for your entrée. Made you hungry, didn’t we?!

River Walk like Loon Mountain itself, is the kind of place you remember vacationing at for the rest of your life, and every time you think about planning another trip, you yearn to come back to Lincoln. With another 66 condos – Phase 2 – slated for opening later this year, and an even larger winery and spa in the works as well as a convention center, it’s going to be one of the preeminent places to stay in all New England, as well as the flagship facility for the mountain.

SIDEBAR – A GAME OF CAT AND MOUSE (OR DRAGON AND HOBBIT)

Day 2, circa 9 a.m.

RIPSAW, LOON MOST FEROCIOUS DOUBLE BLACK DIAMOND

The expected 3-4 inch dumping turned out to only be a one inch glancing blow, but the temp dropped sharply overnight, and a frozen rain had sprinkled for a few minutes in the early evening.

Iced over, but not frozen hard, I thought to myself as I walked my way over to the South Peak chair from the slope-side River Walk Resort. The plan was to open the day with Ripsaw and its South Peak brethren before taking the Tote Road Chair back over to the main area for the rest of the morning.

Catching Ripsaw as I did yesterday – on a bluebird day right after mountain ops groomed it – was a rarity indeed. But today was another matter entirely. Dragons and double black diamonds have wily ways, and after that freezing rain, it was unlikely I’d catch this one napping a second time.

As such, I must confess I felt a little like Bilbo Baggins creeping back into Smaug’s lair in Lonely Mountain as I peered over the precipice that leads to the evil double fall line that opens the run. If you listened with the right kind of ears, you could hear Ripsaw’s voice – much like Smaug’s – dripping with fiendish malice and murderous intent.

“Well, Skier, I smell you and I feel your air. I hear your breath. Come along again. Help yourself. There’s plenty and to spare.”

“Oh Ripsaw the Tremendous,” I responded with just a hint of saccharine-y politeness, for one must be careful when talking with dragons and double black diamonds. “I did not come for presents. I wished only to have a look at you, and see if you were truly as great as tales say; I did not believe them.”

“And do you now,” Ripsaw hissed, its voice dripping with malevolence.

“They fall utterly short of reality,” I responded. “Oh Ripsaw, Chiefest and Greatest of Calamities!”

“You have nice manners for a skier and a liar,” came the reply. The flattery amused Ripsaw, though in truth he believed not a word, but I pressed on.

“Dazzling! Marvelous! Perfect! Flawless! Staggering!” I continued aloud. But to myself I thought, “Old fool! That ice crust is too new and too thin, and there’s not a mogul to be seen, so right now you’re as bare as a snail out of its shell.” Now to press the advantage.

“But I have always understood that some double black diamonds are a little softer underneath than others.”

Then Ripsaw laughed. It was a long, evil, echoing laugh, deep and resonating. It shook the whole mountainside.

“I am Ripsaw! I lay low who I wish and none dare resist!

 My icy armor is like tenfold shields, my trees swords, my rocks spears, my steeps a lightning bolt, the shock of my moguls an earthquake…and my winds, a hurricane!”

“What majesty and splendor! Truly there can be no equal to Ripsaw the Unconquerable!” I lied. Now for the escape…

“Well I really must not detain Your Magnificence any longer. Why look, the time is chasing me down the street!” I said puckishly, showing off my bare left wrist, far too bony for me to ever wear a watch comfortably. “And I shouldn’t keep you from your much-needed rest. After all, skiers take some catching.”

And with that I tore full-bore down the head wall.

It was an exhilarating run to say the least. The double fall line serves to leave the skier in a narrow channel no matter which side they attack. If there are moguls on the run, this headwall is where they will be the largest, but few had formed already, as it was so early.

A few fast tight turns got me into position pick the most aggressive, aesthetic line to the base of the first headwall. I hit my lines perfectly:  there was just one problem. My initial assessment was wrong; the freezing rain overnight had had become diamond-hard under the new layer of powder. So after bombing the entire second half of the headwall like a paratrooper, I hurtled pell-mell into the chicane.

I was on fire as I passed under the chairlift. Trees wheeled past in a barely discernable blur, and suddenly I was soaring over another precipice and rocketing into the second headwall. This time I was ready for the ice crust, skid-turning through the camber, short-cutting the speed slots, and zooming into the second series of chicanes. Now just the last headwall remained – the final rending of claws, gnashing of teeth, and blast of flame. But there was no stopping me now.

I had seen the aesthetic line, and it was mine for the taking.

And then it was over. Breathless, I skidded to a stop at the chairlift line and looked back up the mountain. A brazen orange glint of sunlight lasered through a gap in the trees, as if the mountain were beckoning to me.

“Would you like another try?” Ripsaw seemed to purr, doing its best to mask the venom it its call.

Yes, most certainly, oh great Ripsaw. But not today, thank you.

Quality of Snow/Grooming – 9.25
Variety of Terrain – 9
Lifts – 9
Snow coverage – 9.5
Natural Setting – 9.25
Kid/Family Friendly – 9.25
Character – 9
Challenge – 9
Dining on Mountain/Base Lodge – 8
Overall – 9.06

[Editor’s Note: This is the ninth 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, Cranmore, Gunstock, Loon, Sunapee, Waterville Valley, Wildcat

For Vermont: Jay Peak, Killington, Mad River Glen, Magic Mountain, Mt. Snow, Okemo, Smuggler’s Notch, Stowe, Stratton, Sugarbush

 Your Author would like to thank Professor Birkner for his assistance researching Sherman Adams. For more information, consult Professor Birkner’s “Sherman Adams’s Fall, and the Scandal Behind the Scandal,” in Ali Dagnes and Mark Sachleben, eds.,  Scandal! An Interdisciplinary Approach to the Consequences, Outcomes, and Significance of Political Scandals (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013): 127-153. We also thank Max Verna and Ominous Seapods for the lyrics to John Henry’s Hammer.]

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