The AMC’s Joe Dodge Lodge Ski and Stay packages in Pinkham Notch offer a great deal; tremendous Alpine, Cross-Country and Backcountry skiing are all close by. In fact, you might call Joe Dodge “ski central.” If you turn left out of the parking lot, the legendary lift-serviced slopes of Wildcat Mountain are almost across the street, and Great Glen Trails cross-country is less than three miles away. Turn right and Route 16 takes you to the sunny slopes of Black Mountain and Jackson Ski Touring. Attitash and Cranmore are only a little farther down the road. Want something a little more out there? Tuckerman Ravine, which, without a doubt can be the most challenging skiing in the east (but doesn’t have to be . . .) , is just up the hill. And three amazing backcountry ski trails, the Sherburne, Gulf of Slides, and Avalanche Brook (which parallels Route 16 down to Jackson) start from the parking lot. If you get the sense that this is a good spot to pick if you like lots of different ski options, you’re right.
Shortly after yet another major snowstorm went barreling out to sea south of New England, my sweetheart (and EasternSlopes.com correspondent) Marilyn Donnelly and I headed north to Pinkham Notch, NH to find some snow. The north country hadn’t gotten any major snowstorms, but frequent, smaller storms had begun adding up. While skiing and more skiing was on the agenda for both of us, Marilyn was also scheduled for her second and final ski boot fitting appointment on Monday morning at Stan and Dan Sports in North Conway. Choosing the right ski boots and getting them fitted properly is an investment that pays off for years to come in comfort and better skiing every time you hit the slopes, and if you have to travel to find the right shop and boot fitter for you, it’s well worth it.
Black (Mountain) Sunday Morning
We left home on a bitter-cold Sunday morning. It had snowed a couple of inches in the night, the dash thermometer showed below zero all the way, and I had to drive with both hands on the wheel to control the car in a blasting wind. When it’s THAT cold and windy, we head straight for Black Mountain, which faces south and is tucked into a wind shadow behind its own peaks. A wind out of the north or northwest, doesn’t touch the slopes at Black. On a blue-sky day (like this one), the sun makes the slopes at Black feel warmer than the ambient temperature.
Apparently, however, most people hadn’t gotten the “Black Mountain is THE place to be” memo, because the parking lot was nearly empty when we arrived before the lifts were turning and met EasternSlopes.com’s Senior Editor David Shedd, and his wife, correspondent Susan Marean Shedd. In fact, the lot was still pretty empty when we left shortly after noon. In between, we dressed warm and hammered the uncrowded hill until our legs gave out, rested a bit and did it again. Even the high-up hills around Jackson have been a little short of snow this winter, so we stuck to the groomed snowmaking trails. No problem! The snow was deep and perfectly groomed, and we carved up the corduroy like it was a Thanksgiving turkey.
Here’s the insider’s secret about Black: in addition to facing south and being sheltered from the wind, Black has older, slower lifts than many other areas, and that’s a big part of what makes the skiing here so great. The summit lift is a double chair; the other main lift is a slightly-faster triple that accesses the lower two-thirds of the mountain; then there’s an even older platter pull Poma lift and a J-bar. Those un-sexy, older-style lifts help keep the crowds away, and limit the numbers of skiers on the hill at any given moment. You never have to fight for space on the slopes at Black, even on the busiest weekend or holiday. And on this particular Sunday, we never had to wait even seconds to get on the lifts. We enjoyed a great day of skiing on twisting trails with smooth, fast, man-made snow in perfectly comfortable temperatures. It was like skiing mid-week on what was probably a busy (and colder!) weekend at most other ski areas.
The other real advantage of Black’s older lifts is that they help keep ticket prices lower. A weekend/holiday lift ticket at Black Mountain is only $49 for adults, $35 for kids 17 and under. Weekdays, it’s $35 for adults, $25 for kids. That’s to access great terrain with few other skiers on it. In my opinion, Black is one of the best mountains you’ve probably never skied….
Great (Glen) Afternoon
By noon, the snow was still in perfect condition with not even a scratchy spot to be found, but our legs were shot. Who says you can’t wear yourself out on “slow” lifts? We left Black Mountain shortly after lunch. Happily, we were too early for check-in at Joe Dodge, so we cruised five minutes past it to Great Glen Trails, where afternoon trail passes are cheap for adults, and even cheaper for kids and old dudes like me. The wind was still howling but the temperature had climbed to 11 degrees. Marilyn had had enough skiing for one day and cuddled with her book by the fireplace while I donned classic cross-country skis (which work muscles differently than Alpine skiing) and went striding out into the teeth of the biting-cold gale.
Fortunately, as soon as I reached the shelter of the woods, the wind couldn’t touch me anymore, the sun shone through the leafless branches, and it became a perfect afternoon for XC skiing. I thoroughly enjoyed a wonderful couple of hours alone on Great Glen’s trails. I saw only five other skiers the whole time I was out (I think the cold was keeping most people inside). Because I was alone and already a little tired, I did a fairly long but very easy loop on Great Grumpy Grade and Libby Trace (both rated as Green Circle or Blue Square for difficulty) with a couple of extra, shorter loops thrown in. I wasn’t in any hurry and kept moving just fast enough to keep warm. Snow conditions were prime, and movement kept me comfortable—XC skiing is a wonderful thing on a cold day. In all, this was a perfect afternoon of cross-country skiing. Two great ski experiences in one day! What a splendid way to put the bad memories of a nasty January thaw behind you!
Joe Dodge Evening
After a full day of great skiing in the cold, arriving for our Joe Dodge Lodge Ski and Stay found it as warm, welcoming, and friendly as always. We quickly checked into our private room with a queen bed and the bathroom just down the hall. The newer Highland Center in Crawford Notch (near Bretton Woods Alpine and Nordic, Attitash Mountain, and Bear Notch Ski Touring) has rooms with private baths if that’s important to you. As soon as we’d unpacked, we headed for the comfortable couches and gas fireplace in the quiet library, where Marilyn curled up with her book and I stretched out and promptly dozed off, feeling I’d earned it. This is a wonderful place to relax.
Dinner is served family-style at 6 pm, and we were more than ready for soup, salad, roasted turkey with fixin’s and pumpkin pie. If you like wine with dinner, bring your own. Completely unexpectedly, we met up with some old friends from another AMC trip at the table. Over dinner, caught up with them, and made some new friends as well. That easy, causal, friendly atmosphere is one of the real joys of staying with the AMC. After dinner, we relaxed and read by the fireplace until we couldn’t keep our eyes open any more (about 15 minutes . . .), then slept well in that comfortable bed. Heaven!
Backcountry Skiing: Sliding The Gulf Of Slides
One of the best things about staying at the AMC lodges is that breakfast is included. And what a breakfast it is—all you can eat, whether it’s hot or cold cereal, bagels,toast, pancakes, eggs, sausage, bacon, breakfast burritos . . . It’s important to fuel up for the day ahead!
After a huge (and I do mean HUGE!) breakfast, Marilyn and I went our separate way. She bundled up and headed out to her boot fitting with a list of issues she’d noted from skiing the day before.
I slapped the skins onto my Alpine Touring setup (K2 Skis, with Diamir bindings, and K2 pre-cut skins), donned my ski pack with extra clothes and emergency gear, and met up with my partners for the morning. Danielle Jepson is one of the backcountry trail specialists for the AMC who was skinning and skiing on a morning off; Nicole Sims was another guest at the lodge I’d met at dinner the night before. We’d all decided to band together for an informal trek up the Gulf of Slides ski trail, one of three legendary backcountry ski trails that start from the Pinkham Notch Visitor’s Center parking lot.
The temperature was still 11 degrees and the wind was still howling, but now we had an added bonus: it was snowing hard. If you stood still for even a couple of seconds, a layer of snow built up on your parka and pack, and if you faced into the wind, the snow stung your eyes if you tried to go without glasses or goggles. The couple of inches of new snow on top of a frozen base made for ideal skinning. Like most backcountry ski trails, the Gulf of Slides starts out easy and flat, then alternates steeper and flatter pitches as you climb. The trail is wide enough for a comfortable ski turn coming down, and the woods alongside are mostly open hardwoods. The only challenging moments came at frozen brook crossings (we could have used another foot or so of snow to smooth things out), and on the very steepest of the steeps, where, even with skins on, we had to occasionally herringbone to keep from sliding backwards. Climbing can be a real workout at times.
Generally, though we skinned along easily, enjoying the easy camaraderie and the beauty of the winter woods. Much of the time, the only sound was the rhythmic clicking of AT bindings, and the sighing of wind in the trees–though we could occasionally hear the roar of the gales on the higher peaks above. We traveled along at a good pace; Danielle and Nicole (who’s combined ages totaled less than mine) were kind to me and slowed or stopped whenever needed.
We never intended to climb as high as the unpatrolled avalanche terrain in the Gulf of Slides itself. But it was my first skin-ski of the year, and I didn’t make it as high on the mountain as I’d hoped before my legs gave out (I’m blaming all the skiing I did the day before). Still. I did travel a couple of miles and could see the peaks above before I turned, and knew I had a good long run down to look forward to. Danielle and Nicole decided to go a bit higher while I stopped, ate a snack and pulled the skins off my skis and stowed them in my pack, donned my helmet and warm mittens for the cold ski down. By the time I was ready to launch, Danielle and Nicole had disappeared into the woods above me, our “up” tracks had disappeared under fresh snow, and I was skiing alone though untracked powder. Knowing they’d be coming down the same trail shortly behind me and knowing there were other folks coming up below (we were the first out but saw others getting ready to follow), I felt confident skiing down (cautiously) alone. The brook crossings were still a challenge, but I made it most of the way down before I encountered my first other up-skiers leaving their tracks in “my” powder. My solo run down was a perfect reminder of why earning your turns by skinning up is sooooo worth it. It’s an entirely different experience than fighting for fresh tracks on the slopes of a ski area on a powder morning.
If I’d had more snap left in my legs, I could have skied the Sherburne Trail as well that afternoon in more wind and snow. As it was, I pulled out my computer and used the good wifi connection at the lodge to start this story.
Dinner that night was a hearty beet borscht soup followed by salad, pot roast, mashed potatoes, squash and German chocolate cake. Yum, again, and well-earned by the day’s efforts!
Comfortable Cranmore Tuesday
We had planned to go to Wildcat Mountain for our last day but it was, you guessed it, below zero and incredibly windy. The parking lot looked like a scene from the high Arctic with wind whipping up dancing snow devils. Wildcat is even more exposed to that northwest wind, so we decided it was NOT a Wildcat day. So, we packed up and headed toward home. But, by the time we reached North Conway, the temperature had risen by 12 degrees and the wind had dropped so the flags in town were barely stirring. Amazing what dropping 2,o00 feet will do for the weather. So we turned into Cranmore and found an empty parking lot, an empty lodge, and no lift lines. Out on the main mountain, trails like North Conway and the aptly named “Hurricane,” took the brunt of a rising wind as the morning progressed, but the slopes and trails on the southeast face of the mountain were sunny, sheltered from the wind, and perfectly comfortable to ski from the new Schneider triple. So we spent most of the morning tearing up untouched corduroy on East Slope, Gibson Pitch, Schneider, and Artist Falls. Unfortunately, Koessler and the Gibson Chutes were closed, but we still had plenty of sheltered, sunny terrain to ski. We only felt the bite of the wind near the very top as we rode the lift up. Another great morning on the slopes.
So that was our adventure. One lodge, two nights, three days, four ski experiences. It could as easily have been five, or six, or more different experiences if we’d wanted. This is one place where almost any kind of ski experience you desire is within easy reach. This trip, we missed skiing at Wildcat (one of the defining mountains—and the best views— of eastern Alpine skiing) and Jackson Ski Touring which has over 130 km of maintained XC trails. Next time! Soon!
If You Go
Joe Dodge Lodge Ski and Stay are a GREAT deal. For the 2013/14 season, $88 per adult ($74 if you are an AMC member) gets cross-country skiers a comfortable bunk (private rooms are a little more) with a bathroom down the hall, an all-you-can-eat dinner served family-style, an all-you-can-eat buffet breakfast and a trail pass for skiing, snowshoeing and tubing at Great Glen Trails (greatglentrails.com). For Alpine skiers, $140 per night gets the same deal with tickets good for either Wildcat or Attitash (15 minutes away).
If you are interested in backcountry skiing around Pinkham Notch, I’d recommend you pick up a copy of David Goodman’s “Best Backcountry Skiing in the Northeast: 50 Classic Ski Tours in New England and New York.” This new edition describes much of the skiing around Pinkham in detail, plus other great routes from New York to Maine.
For local, real-time backcountry ski info, go to