The Thanksgiving blizzard meant a lovely start to the 2014/15 ski season. Lots of snow, early opening. Heaven! Then, reality returned: disastrous, warm rainstorms hit New England around Christmas. Driving through North Conway on the 26th, there was little snow on the sides of the road…and then MORE rain hit. The last time we had rain like this a handful of years ago, the damage to the snowpack was catastrophic and permanent, affecting the skiing for the rest of the season. Rain worked itself through the snowpack, then froze solid, becoming a layer of blue ice that let snow slip away. The “best” conditions you could hope for was powdered sugar on top of blue ice. Ugh.
But, that was then, this is now. Since that memorably awful snow season, most of the areas have upgraded their snowmaking significantly. They can now blow more snow, more quickly, even in marginal conditions. The deeper bases that result can absorb more water and keep the infamous blue ice from becoming the primary skiing surface.
Cranmore Mountain is perhaps more susceptible to rain damage than many ski hills; its peak is lower than the “big boys,” meaning less snow on the top, more rain running from top to bottom. But they’ve significantly upgraded their snowmaking in recent years. Given what we’d seen a few days before, it seemed like a perfect place to check the worst-case scenario and see what we could expect with cold weather and more snowmaking coming in; if the conditions were even vaguely acceptable, they’d be great in a few days!
Arriving at 8:30, I was pleased (for myself) to find few cars in the parking lot. During school vacation, ski areas tend to be zoolike, and this was a bonus. The skiing might not be what I wanted, but at least I’d be able to get some runs in without dodging rampaging schoolchildren, a/k/a moving slalom gates. I haven’t had much of a chance to get out this year, so some fast runs were just what my legs needed to get back into rhythm, and into condition for the longer days coming up. No line to get my ticket, tables available in the cafeteria for booting up; by 8:45, I was clicking into my bindings and hitting the lift.
And…the view was a bit scary. A couple of wide white stripes of manmade snow surrounded by a whole lot of brown. With a morning temperature of 25 degrees, my mind immediately said “ice.” Off the lift, turn around, head downhill…and man, was I wrong! Frozen granular, nicely groomed, almost more like firm spring skiing. The runs were limited…Middle to North Slope, Skimeister, Schneider, Artist Falls, Koessler. In other words, not a LOT of trails, but definitely some of the best! For the next three hours, it was fly down, ski directly onto the lift, no waiting, repeat. Around 10:30, traffic started to pick up; I sometimes waited as much as a whole minute or two to get back onto the lift. Horrors.
Well before noon, my early-season legs were suggesting that too many fast runs might lead to regret the next day, and with all the snowmaking that’s going on this week, I didn’t want sore legs. So, regretfully, I headed home. Bottom line, though, was that all that I’d hoped for from the upgraded snowmaking systems came true; instead of ice, I got great skiing. No scratchiness, just fun. Kudos to Cranmore for doing such a great job of grooming, and all indications are that they, along with other areas, are going to provide great skiing in the upcoming months, regardless of Mother Nature’s worst efforts.
With modern snowmaking equipment and techniques, we’ve entered a new golden age of skiing, one in which there’s no reason NOT to get out there, even after lousy weather; in fact, those times may be some of the best skiing we’ll get, thanks to other skiers not recognizing the opportunity!