Every year around this time, a battle begins. A battle against darkness. A battle against cold. Night arrives early, stretching its sunless chill across the land, and lingers in the morning, making it increasingly hard to get out of bed. You can see your breath as you wait for the bus. You feel the blood slowing in your veins. You hunch your shoulders, pull up your hood, bury your gloved hands deep into your pockets, fix your eyes on the sidewalk, and try to keep your time outside to a minimum. You’re grumpy. You’re Grinchy. Winter is winning.
And right about now, the line in the snow is drawn, separating the winter warriors from the winter wimps.
The winter wimps curl up in blankets and wait for swimsuit season. The warriors go skiing. We will not be stopped by icy winds, snowy climes, and shortened days! the warriors cry. Six hours of sunlight? We’ll use them all! Thirty degrees below zero? Pass me another pair of gloves! Give us snow and hills and colorful gear, and we will war against winter with all our might. Give us boards and boots, poles, hats, and skis, and we will own this winter season.
New England mountains have spent the summer gearing up to aid in the fight. So to all you winter warriors, here’s a rundown on what to expect on the slopes this season.
Canton-Milton line, (781) 828-5070
All right. So Milton ain’t Montana, and the Blue Hills ain’t Big Sky. But within a 15-minute drive from Boston, where else can you go to strap on your skis? New ownership took over three years ago, and since then, snowmaking capabilities are up 300 percent. That means you can go skiing in Milton even when you don’t see snow banks on Mass Ave. Last season, management increased available rental equipment, expanded snowmaking, and opened a new terrain park with added features and a comprehensive event schedule. This year, there’s a new rental building and a new tubing park. Blue Hills boasts seven trails, five lifts, night skiing, and a snowboard park with half-pipe. When you don’t have time to drive hours to Vermont (or fly to Colorado), Blue Hills is the perfect skiing solution.
Great Barrington, (413) 528-2000
Unfortunately, Butternut isn’t continuing its tradition of charging a mere six bucks on opening day, but it is continuing to offer some of the most affordable skiing around. There’s no new hardware to speak of, but there are new deals. An adult season pass is $199, which allows unlimited skiing without restrictions. There’s a new $45 Ski and Stay midweek package: you get lodging and a lift ticket for a two-consecutive-day stay. And fifth graders ski for free. (Don’t ask us why.) Plus, every Monday and Tuesday (excluding holidays), lift tickets cost $15. What do you get with these deals? Twenty-two trails, two terrain parks for skiers and snowboarders, and an eight-kilometer cross-country center. Seems worth it to us.
Catamount Ski Area
South Egremont, (413) 528-1262
Last season, the biggest improvement at Catamount was a base-to-peak redesign of a mile-long intermediate trail called Sidewinder. Catamount has continued to improve this popular trail, and this season you’ll find that the entrance to Sidewinder is wider and more accommodating to intermediate skiers and snowboarders. Catamount caters to all ability levels with trails for the wobbly first-timer as well as the daredevil, speed-seeking pro. Snowboarders will continue to carve their gnarly paths at the Megaplex Terrain Park. Across the entire ski area, increased snowmaking capabilities mean more snow in less time. And after a cold day of whooshing through the white stuff, you can enjoy a hot chocolate in the newly refurbished base lodge.
Hancock, (413) 738-5500
Within the last four years, Jiminy Peak has added 30 percent more skiing terrain, improved the Hendricks Summit Lodge, and completed a $2 million construction project on the area’s only high-speed, six-passenger detachable chair lift. But that doesn’t mean this ski destination has finished upgrading. Jiminy Peak continues to stand by its policy of annual improvements. The 2002-’03 season marks the completion of a $500,000 country store and a new mountain operation center. After taking advantage of the 40 trails, eight lifts, 1150-foot vertical rise, and snowboard park complete with half-pipe, now you’ll be able to stroll into the country store for sandwiches and maple-sugar candy.
Wachusett Mountain Ski Area
Princeton, (800) SKI-1234
Wahhhh-Wahh-Wahh-Chusett. If nothing else, Wachusett Mountain can be credited with one of the catchiest ski-resort jingles of all time. But a great tune is not all that this ski area offers. Two years ago, Wachusett added high-speed quad and triple chair lifts. Last season, a 10,000-square-foot, two-story addition to the main lodge opened to the public. This season, improvements include an expanded cafeteria and new menu, a new country store, and more retail space. On the actual slopes, snowmaking power has increased, there’s more Rossignol gear to rent, and a Magic Carpet lift has been added to the kids’ play area. New group rates apply this season: with 15 people or more, the group receives discounts on full-day and night lift tickets. And if you’re the one coordinating your group’s ski extravaganza, you get a complimentary lift ticket and a free Wachusett T-shirt. So rally all your friends and hit the slopes.
Camden Snow Bowl
Camden, (207) 236-3438
Ski snobs, leave your attitudes behind: Camden Snow Bowl is no place for downhill flash or ski-lift glitz. The 1300-foot Ragged Mountain has 11 trails and three lifts, and offers night skiing, a ski shop, rentals, lessons, and a lounge. So what, you say — big-name mountains are higher, bigger, faster, snowier. True, but this modest mountain has flare all its own. Where else can you ski by the sea? That’s right — nowhere. At Camden Snow Bowl, you can ski down the mountain and admire the Atlantic. Consistent with its old-school persona, Camden also offers a toboggan chute. A ride plus toboggan rental costs $1. Bring your own toboggan and two quarters will get you down the hill. From January 31 to February 2, Camden Snow Bowl will host the National Toboggan Championships. And for those who lean slightly further toward the 21st century, you can rent inner tubes for $3 per hour.
Locke Mills, (207) 875-5003
Mount Abram stands in Sunday River’s shadow, but it doesn’t suffer for it. This season, Mount Abram has expanded its cross-country trails and added a new beginners’ lift. But the biggest news at this little gem is the new tubing park. At 1325 feet, it’s the longest in Maine, and a cheap alternative to schussing down the slopes in a pair of Rossis. An hour-long tube rental costs a mere $6, and an all-day pass only $12. Five lifts lead to a choice of 38 trails, all affording views of Mt. Washington and the scenic Lakes Region. Mount Abram’s got ungroomed glades, undulating cross-country loops, a terrain park and half-pipe, night skiing, and extreme tubing — all with a family-friendly, value-oriented feel.
Rangely, (201) 864-5671
Saddleback’s proximity to its better-known neighbor, Sugarloaf, has caused some to overlook this mountain. You won’t be fighting the crowds at this historic sleeper in the heart of Maine’s Appalachian Mountain range. Saddleback has 41 trails, top-to-bottom snowmaking, the highest base elevation of any ski resort in New England, five lifts, and no lift lines. It claims to be the "last uncrowded, big-mountain skiing experience left in New England." Snowboarders have unrestricted access to the entire mountain, all 4120 feet of it, as well as a terrain park. Trails range from the Lazy River Run, which threads down the mountain over 2.5 miles, to the untamed extreme conditions of Muleskinner and Nightmare Glades. Prices are reasonable, the mountain is sizeable, and there’s lots and lots of elbow room.
Kingfield, (207) 237-2000
The big news at Sugarloaf last year was the opening of a three-mile summit-to-base green-circle trail. This year, Sugarloaf spent the summer clearing away groves of underbrush throughout the mountain, which means that not as much snow is needed for it to be good snow. The terrain park will open earlier this year, thanks to improved snowmaking. At 4237 feet, Sugarloaf boasts 129 trails, 15 lifts, 1400 skiable acres, one of the most continuous verticals in New England at 2820 feet, and the only lift-served, above-tree-line skiing in the East. Off the mountain this season, full renovation of the Widowmaker Lounge is scheduled for completion in December. And because Sugarloaf knows that safety is always in season, it has replaced all its signs, making navigation down the mountain easier.
Bethel, (800) 543-2754
Damn. You just missed it. Last month, Sunday River hosted the third annual North American Wife Carrying Championship, a competition that involves a man carrying a woman (not necessarily his wife) over a 278-yard course. But believe it or not, there’s still a lot to look forward to at Sunday River this season. November 15 is opening day, and besides the eight peaks, 126 trails, 18 lifts, 1600 snow guns, and White Heat — one of the longest, steepest trails in New England — skiers and snowboarders will find improvements and additions throughout the mountain. Sunday River cements its commitment to snowboarders with improved parks and pipes. Several new rails and jib elements have been added to the already huge Rocking Chair Park. For kids, there’s a new adventure park called the Enchanted Forest. And an observation deck is being added to the top of Jordan Bowl. From March 24 to 30, Sunday River will host the USA Snowboarding Association National Championships. You won’t find wife-carrying, but there are sure to be some serious slope stylings.
Killington, (800) 621-6867
With seven mountains, Killington is one of the largest and busiest ski areas in the east. With "more mountains than you can ski in a week," Killington’s got something for every ability level, from knee-buckling bumps and hold-your-breath verts to trails like Juggernaut, a 6.6-miler that threads its way down the mountainside. The Bear Mountain area boasts moguls the size of VWs (let’s hope they’re talking Bugs, not buses), and the views from the peaks stretch over five states and Canada. There’s a season full of events, including the Taste of Killington (January 26 to 31); the Budweiser All-Star Aerial Show (February 8 and March 8); the seventh annual Sunshine Day Dream Festival, a tribute to the Grateful Dead (March 30); and although it might seem far away now, the Spring Loaded Pro/Am Snowboard Event (April 12 and 13).
Mad River Glen
Waitsfield, (800) 850-6742
A lot of ski resorts these days are like genetically modified apples: nature-defying, perfectly shaped, identical to each other, corporately homogenized. Not Mad River Glen — it’s the organic apple of the ski industry. Maybe the shape’s a little irregular, maybe there’s a bump here, a bruise there, even a worm crawling around inside. But that’s how MRG likes it. This feisty area bucks ski-industry consolidation trends and remains the only cooperatively owned ski area in the country. MRG belongs to the skiers. Its founder, Roland Palmedo, believed the key to the resort’s success lay in the community’s attachment, involvement, and loyalty. This ethos stands today. The place aims to keep its skiing as natural as possible; minimal snowmaking forces skiers (and only skiers — it’s the only major Eastern ski area that doesn’t allow snowboarders) to bargain on Mother Nature’s terms. Heavy grooming there’s not — thus the famous ski it if you can bumper stickers. The Co-op anticipates spending $1.5 million on capital projects over the next five years. But you won’t hear about new deluxe condos, ultra-fast high-speed lifts, or an increase in the number of snow guns. MRG is skiing in the raw.
Mount Snow Resort
West Dover, (800) 245-7669
While many ski resorts brag about cutting down trees to create new trails, Mount Snow brags about planting them. Working with the National Forest Service, Mount Snow planted 1000 balsam-fir trees on the Main Face of the mountain in an effort to reforest the area. Un Blanco Gulch, "the East’s original terrain park," celebrates its 10th birthday this year with more than eight new acres of tough freestyle terrain. There’s a Mardi Gras festival on March 1 and a St. Patrick’s Day Celebration on March 16. The Anti-Gravity Grail, "the first free-skiing event in the East," with half-pipe, ridercross, and big-air competitions, takes place March 8 and 9.
Ludlow, (802) 228-4041
Last season, the big news at Okemo was a couple of new groomers. That’s a bunny slope compared to this year’s black-diamond news. This season, Okemo will open a whole new mountain area to skiers. Seven new trails and a high-speed quad will be available, bringing the total mountain count to five, the total trail count to 106, the total skiable-acre count to 562, and the total lift count to 16. Upon completion, the Jackson Gore expansion will result in a 30 percent increase in terrain, with 16 trails and four lifts. A new kid’s carpet lift has been added to the Solitude area, and Okemo’s just acquired a Zaugg Pipe Monster, which offers state-of-the-art maintenance technology for world-class super pipes. The Pipe Monster cuts walls over 22 feet high, making, indeed, for a monstrous pipe.
Stowe, (802) 253-3000
Stowe’s got Vermont’s highest peak, at 4936 feet, and one of the longest average trails in New England, which undulates for more than 3.7 miles. Improvements this year include a cleared-away section of North Slope to relieve skier traffic, as well as a Hayride trail resculpted to meet US Ski & Snowboard Association race-course standards. Upon completion, Stowe anticipates that Hayride will likely be the steepest speed-event trail in New England. Grooming innovations include three new grooming machines; Stowe will also communicate directly with its grooming operators via Palm Pilots, complete with real-time productivity data and digital photos. Welcome to the 21st century of skiing.
Black Mountain Ski Area
Jackson, (800) 475-4669
Most of the skiing at Black Mountain falls under the cruise-range category. But there are a few challenging runs, including the new Black Forest Glade. Across all glades, acreage has been expanded this season, bringing Black Mountain’s skiable-acre count to 143. For snowboarders, there’s a half-pipe and two terrain parks. Get your skis and snowboards ready for the corduroy, because Black Mountain just got new Bombardier BR275 Snow Groomers. And skiing is still priced reasonably here, with weekend fees of $32 for a full-day lift ticket and $23 for a half-day pass, or $20 for a full weekday.
Bretton Woods, (603) 278-3320
This season, in an effort to welcome more novice skiers and riders, Bretton Woods will offer complimentary lift tickets to the newly installed Learning Center Quad Chairlift. Yep, you heard correctly — there’s no charge to access the novice terrain. The area will open this year with two new lifts, 60 new snowmaking guns, and a terrain park and half-pipe. In the environmental-strides department, Bretton Woods instituted a recycling program as part of the Sustainable Slopes initiative. Solid-waste production was reduced by 45 percent: more than 27 tons were recycled this year. For the gear-heads, there’s a new Salomon Demo Center. A major base-lodge expansion, with complete floor-space overhaul, will be under way this winter. And for those who like to take it a little slower, there are 100 kilometers of cross-country skiing and snowshoe trails.
Waterville Valley Resort
Waterville, (603) 236-4344
Bobby’s Run was one of Robert F. Kennedy’s favorite trails at Waterville Valley. This year, the ski area invested $75,000 in design and terrain improvements for its Exhibition Park. Most notable is the new in-ground, 400-foot superpipe relocation. As a result, the Exhibition Park is now 40 percent bigger with more terrain features, such as the nine new professionally built handrails, including a rainbow rail, bow-ledge rail, and straight-bar rail. And snowboarders are welcome on every trail. In the cross-country realm, look for a new dog-friendly trail and increased snowmaking. And this season, Waterville is offering two-for-one night skiing at Pats Peak: two people can ski or ride for the price of one any night from January 6 through February 28.
Pinkham Notch, (603) 466-3326
Wildcat is located entirely on US Forest Service Land, which means it won’t be cutting down any trees or adding any new names to the list of 47 trails. Instead, the ski area aims to provide top-notch skiing with some of the most scenic slopes in the East. This season, the terrain park is relocating to the Cheetah slope, with 100 percent snowmaking. A half-pipe is in the plans for next year. Tuckerman’s Pub and Restaurant, on the upper level of the Main Lodge, will be expanded by about 25 percent, making room for live music and entertainment as well as ski-bag cubbies. WFNX hosts the Après Party on January 11; there’s also the Wildcat Valley Inferno (February 2), Cardboard Box Race (February 18), and Women’s Weekend at Wildcat (March 15 and 16).
Woodbury Ski Area
Woodbury, (203) 263-2203
South isn’t the direction you think of heading when you want to go skiing. But Woodbury Ski Area spent the summer improving its assets, making Connecticut a viable skiing destination. Sheer vertical drops and thin-air elevation aren’t Woodbury’s fortes, but what it lacks in height, it makes up for in choice. You can get down the mountain on skis, a snowboard, a snow tube, a sled, and even a snow bike. Woodbury claims to be the first ski area in the East to offer snow biking. The new sledding and tubing course boasts two camels and large "bobsled" walls for safety. There’s a 600-foot half-pipe, and the Alpine Terrain Park includes two new tabletop jumps. There’s also a new indoor section of the skate park. Boards, blades, or bikes — Woodbury’s got it.
Nina MacLaughlin can be reached at nmaclaughlin[a]phx.com