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Outdoor Adventures

Outdoor Adventures: Focused on family at Pats Peak

Though its slopes have been a launching point for Olympians from another era, like Holly Flanders and Pam Fletcher, the compact ski area on a shoulder of Craney Hill in Henniker is all about creating the next generation of skiers and snowboarders.

It is a place where hometown hero and Henniker High grad Kristen Ulmer devoured countless huge M&M cookies bigger than a kid’s face and pushed herself down the double black diamond steeps of the Hurricane long before she joined the U.S. Ski Team and went to huck herself down huge mountains all over the world.

In the afternoons, 8,000 students from more than 100 schools in south and central New Hampshire and even Massachusetts come to learn to ski and ride during a five-week program.

Four times a week at night, the highly competitive, wannabes and those just out for a good time fly down a race course before hitting the Sled Pub for a friendly pint flavored with beer league bragging rights. You might even run into a “Skiing Cochran.”

On Saturday nights, locals mix with urbanites and suburbanites looking for an escape from strip malls and pavement.

That place is Pats Peak, a mom-and-pop ski area west of Concord that turns 50 next month and is all about family.

There’s a clan that’s been at the Peak since its beginnings – the Patenaudes.

Owned by Wayne and Sally Patenaude, the 23-trail ski hub was hatched in 1963 when the four Patenaude brothers – Joe, David, Wayne and Stuart – became ski developers by clearing trails, cutting trees, burning brush piles and bulldozing stumps.

The four ranged in age from 22 to 29, working in family-owned farming and construction businesses.

The story goes that David, the second oldest, bought the land because he wanted a little ski area. Only a woodlot at the time, tales are told of David and a friend hiking up and skiing between the trees when the hill was in its natural state.

The hard-working brothers also were proud. They enlisted the advice of legendary Dartmouth and Olympic skier Sel Hannah, a pioneer ski developer. He told them the spot was bad. Don’t do it.

The reaction?

“Waste of a hundred dollars hiring him,” said a brother.

The ski area opened Jan. 5 and today has 10 lifts, night skiing, tubing and three terrain parks. As part of a $500,000 improvement package, there’s a renovated arrival area, new magic carpet lift that takes newbies from the rental shop to the snow, big air bag, women’s Burton learning center and new beginner trail off the summit. Future plans call for a new chairlift and new trails, too.

The Peak is also a place with familiar faces. The general manager, Kris Blomback, has been at the mountain for nearly 20 years. The Long Island, N.Y., native and Lyndon State College grad with a penchant for bagels has been GM since 1995.

“The commitment of the family to do the right thing has kept us going,” Blomback said. “They are not obsessed with a return on investment.”

Director of services Jim Wall, with his white-colored coif, initiated Diversity Day 12 years ago. The Jan. 21 day entices inner city youth to the slopes. He tells of one young skier with a painting of Pats Peak in his apartment and the youth heralding the area as a place he feels safe.

“We do make a difference,” Wall said.

Running the cafeteria kitchen for 13 years is Guy Pelletier, who admits to 25,000 of those cookies sold each season at $2.75 a pop. His daughter met her future husband in the kitchen. He was making cookies.

And, of course, there’s Bertie Holland, the snowsports director. The Massachusetts native skied the Peak in 1981 and was convinced to start instructing. Eights year later, she was made director. Now she’s teaching her grandchildren to ski on the slopes she’s called home for more than 30 years.

When she started to oversee the ski school, there were about 150 full- and part-time instructors. Now there are between 250 and 300. Some 25 ski instructors are full-time and there are 12 full-time snowboard instructors.

When Holland started, snowboarding was a so-called fad.

“We’ve always been a family-oriented area,” she said. “With all the development, we have never lost sight of that. That has always been our focus.”

It’s easy to see that.

(Marty Basch can be reached through onetankaway.com.)

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