Active Outdoors: Snow is here and ski lifts are turning

  • All the skiing at Sunday River on opening day was from mid-station to the summit. But they will be open top-to-bottom by the time you read this. TIM JONES / Courtesy

  • Every skier and snowboarder on the mountain at Sunday River that morning was smiling. When will you start your ski season? TIM JONES / Courtesy

For the Monitor
Published: 10/29/2018 8:57:22 PM

As of this writing, the top of Mount Washington had received 28 inches of snow in the month of October, including 18 inches during a short stretch. And it’s still snowing up there. Normally, the Observatory records about 17 inches of snow in the entire month, so we are off to a great start this winter.

Snowbirds, it’s time to start your engines and think about migrating. We’ll see you in the spring when the blackflies come out. For the rest of us, it’s time to get our boots, skis, and snowshoes out of the attic and the snow tires on the car. Winters have been growing increasingly unpredictable, it seems, and you don’t want to miss out on a moment of the fun that snow brings.

Earlier in October, when the first real cold snap arrived, several ski areas, including Sugarloaf and Sunday River in Maine and Killington in Vermont “tested” their snowmaking systems.

This is an annual ritual, usually done the first morning the temperature falls below freezing. It’s partly a legitimate trial of the system but mostly it’s a great publicity stunt. And it always works.

As soon as we ski fanatics (I count myself among them) see those first slashes of white on the ground (usually against a backdrop of flaming autumn leaves), we start to salivate like Pavlov’s dogs. Can’t help ourselves, even though we know it’s all likely to melt later the same day. It means that winter’s coming.

Turns out the “tests” came none to soon this year. On Oct. 17, the temps dropped, natural snow filled the air, and the snowguns turned on for real. By late that week, Killington and Sunday River had announced they would be open and stay open for the weekend. Yes, you read that right. Lift serviced skiing started in New England on Oct. 19.

Killington has stayed open continuously since, while Sunday River closed. Both Killington and Sunday River will continue making snow every chance they get. So we are likely now to have continuous skiing until May.

Hooray!

What’s opening day like?

Depending on your perspective, opening day at Killington or Sunday River (or, really, almost any other ski area) is either the best of times or the worst of times. Or both.

What’s greatest about it is that you are on snow, having fun. You’ve been waiting for this since your last visit to the slopes. And you get automatic bragging rights for being there when the lifts start turning.

It’s also definitely a cool feeling riding a chairlift over bare ground (sometimes with no snow at all in sight) and suddenly get deposited on top on snow you can actually slide on. It’s like no other feeling I know.

And, when you think about it, the only way to really get your legs in shape for skiing is to ski as much as possible. Cross training only goes so far. Getting out on opening day will mean you are that much stronger and more polished on day two.

Of course there are some downsides as well. All that pent up demand means you have to share one or two trails with several hundred of your closest friends – not all of whom are going to ski courteously or even well.

Also, the crews have been focused on getting the trails covered, not necessarily on producing a quality snow surface. You better have sharp edges and some skills before you tackle opening day.

You know what? The upsides definitely outweigh the downs. That’s why I’ve managed to ski the opening day at either Sunday River of Killington at least 10 times in the last 30 years. Can’t do it every year, but enough.

Earlier this month, I couldn’t ski. I’m still healing from recent surgery, so walking has been my only outlet. But I headed up to Sunday River anyway, figuring I could at least enjoy the atmosphere.

The base lodge at Barker was humming with the happy cacophony of folks getting on their boots for the first time this year, greeting friends they may not have seen since skiing shut down last May. Ski areas always sound happy in the morning.

There was a pretty good lift line when the lift started turning, but it disappeared quickly and I was left standing at the base lodge, wishing I could get up the hill with all those happy folks. Unfortunately, the only skiing was from the top of the mountain down to the mid-station, so once the skiers had ridden up the chairlift, I was left alone with my envy.

That was when I ran into Karolyn Castaldo, formerly of Ski NH, who is now the new communications director at Sunday River. Castaldo was checking out the scene herself. She took pity on my infirmity, pulled some strings, and we got to ride up the lift to the summit get off an linger awhile, and then ride back down.

The ride itself was beautiful (riding down a chairlift is a different view of the world!). The views at the top were spectacular (Mount Washington was shining in the distance like a white iceberg floating on gray-blue water). We got to watch skiers and riders making their first turns of the season. Everyone seemed very happy to be there. All in all, it was a good experience. Not as good as skiing would have been, mind you, but certainly better than grumbling at home.

My advice: keep tabs on your favorite ski area and get there as soon as it opens. You’ll have bragging rights around the water cooler on the following Monday and a day outside no one can ever take away from you.

Tim Jones can be reached at timjones@easternslopes.com




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