The Skiing is Fine in New Hampshire
By Jack Dunphy
My friend and Gonomad editor Max Hartshorne asked me if I might like to join him for a few days of New Hampshire spring skiing? Let’s go! We wanted to compare two popular ski areas: Waterville Valley and Loon Mountain as well as find out what kinds of energy improvements they have made in snowmaking.
Spring skiing–What can compare? Lots of snow from a long winter. A strengthening sun pushes fresh warm air in your face.
Riding up the chairlift and skiing down the slopes all the while in comfort is my idea of a great time.
Skiing with the Boss
The ski rental shop at Waterville got us outfitted promptly and onto the slopes. We hopped onto the three-person chairlift. The General Manager of Waterville Valley Ski Resort, Tim Smith, graciously joined us for our afternoon of skiing. What an enjoyable afternoon!
Besides the perfect ski conditions, we hung out with Tim Smith, CEO with over 600 employees under his watch.
Tim told us about all the ancillary businesses he oversees for Waterville Valley– hotels, restaurants, condo developments, even an elementary school. Waterville Valley continues to expand and morph into a four-season recreation center, he said. We learned all that on our first chairlift ride up together!
As we enjoyed the stunning view from the top of 4,004 foot Mount Tecumseh, Tim pointed out their newest snowmaking equipment and how different the new snow guns looked compared to the old ones.
The new guns make better quality snow at a 90% reduction of the electric cost.
And with a monthly electric bill of $350,000 as CEO he better figure something out! He said virtually all the electric costs for snowmaking result from blowing the air through the gun as the water comes free from the Mad River.
The new guns at $7,500 each give a quick payback.
Waterville Valley History
Tim shared the interesting history of Waterville. It is the proud birthplace of Freestyle skiing- the acrobatic skiing with jumps and impossible looking twists and turns.
Tom Corcoran started both the sport of Freestyle Skiing and the ski area. He was a friend of the Kennedys and Bobby Kennedy with his family were frequent early visitors.
Bobby and Tom took a helicopter ride in 1967 over the mountain to plan the original trails. A political connection continues to this day as Waterville Valley Ski Area is now owned by the New Hampshire Republican Sununu family– John Sununu was the former New Hampshire governor and White House Chief of Staff under President George H. W. Bush, and his son runs the ski area with other family members today.
Waterville Valley continues promoting freestyle skiing with 5 terrain parks that offer plenty of challenging jibs and jumps.
No Wait Lines Here with RFID Technology
We were skiing on a busy Sunday afternoon but we experienced no wait time for the chair ride back up. A big reason why is that Tim installed a Radio Frequency Identification RFID electronic state of the art lift access system.
No dangling paper ski pass on a clumsy wire hanging from your jacket here. After buying your lift ticket the mountain knows electronically you belong there.
No one is checking your pass and it all works seamlessly and feels more friendly and certainly faster. Tim’s system is clearly the future. He has even started a new business, Affinity Access, whose business plan is to install “gateless” RFID systems at other ski areas.
This is one busy guy. He and his wife are involved in the local elementary school and they are raising identical twins. In their children’s class of five, a total of twos other children are identical twins. 4 out of 5 – what are the odds of that?
With the sun dropping and our legs screaming for a rest we dropped in at the lively after ski pub, Buckets, for a beer. There Tim told us he earned a bachelors degree from Northern Michigan University with a degree in Ski Area Management.
Who knew one could get such a degree? That sure sounds to me like a clever way to get to ski your way through college.
Tim obviously made much of it. He learned how to ski pretty well too. He skied backward faster than I skied straight down. He actually skied circles around me.
Snow Cat Ride to the Summit
Tim next introduced us to one of his snow groomers, John Jarkistan. John drives the big machine you see at the end of the day working the mountain. We jumped in with John in a Canadian-made $260,000 Bison snow groomer and crawled up the steep slope to the summit. I asked John if these giant machines ever tipped over on such steep slopes. “Not yet,” he said.
I was surprised to learn the act of skiing pushes snow to the sides of the trail. The giant plow on the front of the machine angles the snow back onto the trail and the tongs dragging behind smooth it all out for the next day of perfect ski conditions.
We stayed that evening at the Town Square, a new Waterville Valley project. Our condo was comfortable and spacious. What a stunning view of the mountains from our windows. It looked to me like I was in the Rocky Mountains.
The Town Square is designed to meet your needs so you can relax there and find most anything you want: a few different restaurants, a grocery store, Nordic store with skiing on groomed trails right from your door.
We learned that Town Square is rocking for three days, mad crazy crowded, and then it’s crickets for most of the week. They depend on crowds of families who come up to Waterville for hockey tournaments at the nearby ice rink.
Combined with skiers, it gets very busy but not at all during the week, when we visited. Such is the cycle of ski business, we were told.
Off to Loon
We left Waterville on a scenic 30-mile drive to Loon Mountain in Lincoln, NH. I felt a very different vibe with Loon. For starters, there is Lincoln, a town offering numerous places to stay at various prices, many restaurants, and stores.
There is no sense of isolation here. The first thing we noticed entering the ski area is an old logging train chugging along blowing its whistle. That made for a dramatic and fun welcome.
I like the name Loon and their logo of a flying loon. It gives me a sense of flying myself down the mountain.
A quick and professional ski rental store got us outfitted and we headed for the gondola. The gondola is the best part of Loon in my opinion. I like everything about it. It gives such a comfortable and quick ride to the top. The four-person cabin encourages a friendly chat as we all relished a bird’s eye, or Loon’s eye, view of the town and valley below.
I especially liked Loon’s unique sideways chairlift, the Tote Road Quad. It takes you sideways across to the western mountainside and drops you atop a bunch of new trails.At Loon you almost feel you are in 2 different ski areas, west, and east.Also, it is fun to go on the chairlift sideways and pass peopleon both sides of the lift.
Loon sports a superpipe. We watched with wonder at young skiers on snowboards skiing up the sides of the superpipe, flying high into the air, turning and repeating on the other side. The superpipe, known as a “Terrain Park,” was very popular with the kids. Loon offers six Terrain Parks!
Year Round Fun
Loon was early in the four season trend. Their summer Adventure Center offers lots of family fun from rock wall climbing,zip lining across the Pemi River, backcountry bicycle riding, strategizing on how to escape from the “Logjam Maze” and climbing over the 30-foot high netting known as the “Spider Web.”
Apres Ski Beer & Camaraderie
At the Paul Bunyan Room
So which area did we like best? Max picked Waterville Valley. Life seems to slow down there. The ski area is on and surrounded by National Forest Land. Development of the area is severely restricted so you are really in the wilderness.
Hat tip to Mike O’Brien, of Legends, the bar at Town Square. He said he’d been there for 32 years and that every day he still feels like he is on vacation! O’Brien explained that an indoor rink is a treasured place in any New England town, and a big draw.
Hockey tourneys are played every weekend during the season, and these condos are where many of the visiting hockey families stay.
I chose Loon: the gondola, the sideways chairlift, superpipe, nightly tubing, and with the town of Lincoln offering so much more. Waterville and Loon are only a scenic 30 miles apart.
The drive had me oohing and aahing all the way: mountain views, churning rivers, small charming New Hampshire towns, and old-fashioned New England farms with classic barns.
You might consider doing what we did- try them both.
Waterville Valley: Vertical Drop: 2,020;Number of Trails: 60
Loon Mountain: Vertical Drop: 2,100 ft: Number of trails: 61