The best time of the year?
Spring skiing provides plenty of advantages and fun
by Brion O'Connor/
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the Spring 2011 issue of New England Ski Journal.
Spring doesn’t simply call to skiers and boarders. It beckons us, cajoles us, teases us. It’s like some snow-bound mating season, brief, blissful, full of bravado and boisterous behavior. The smothering crowds have left, taking the long lift lines with them, but the snow remains. And that’s what we live for. Well, the snow, and a rockin’ party.
“I have very mixed emotions regarding spring skiing,” says Bob Vigneaux of Boxford, Mass., who is equally at home at Tuckerman Ravine in Pinkham Notch, N.H., as he is at tiny Powderhouse Hill in South Berwick, Maine. “On one hand, it is easily my favorite time of the year to ski, with warmer weather, sunshine, no crowds. My form is as good as it’s going to get, and the legs and lungs are in shape. There’s no need to worry about frozen fingers, 15 layers or frostbite. There’s an appreciation earned through dealing with the subpar conditions in November and December, the bitter cold of January, and the crowds in February.
“On the other hand, I know the end is near,” Vigneaux says. “I imagine it’s similar to the feeling you get when celebrating your 100th birthday. The end can come very suddenly, as well. A couple of warm days much above 60 and a mountain with a 5-foot base will close without warning. I never know if I’ll be able to get in another trip, and it can be a long summer. I swear melting snow causes pain in my body.”
Vigneaux has plenty of company among skiing’s true faithful. New England, by nature, is a land of change, but it’s hard for many of us to let winter go. Or, more to the point, to acknowledge that our skiing and riding season is done. We always want one “last” run.
“I love skiing in the spring the same way I like golf in the fall,” says Victor DeRubeis of Massachusetts, who makes an annual pilgrimage to New Hampshire’s Wildcat every spring. “The crowds are gone, and the conditions are often the best of the year.”
I joined DeRubeis and another friend at Wildcat last year, and we were treated to an absolutely banner day. Crystal blue skies, gentle breezes, warm (but not too warm) temperatures and spectacular snow. The longest we waited in any lift line was two minutes, max. By 3:30, my thighs were fried, and I was more than happy to adjourn to the tavern.
“When I think of spring skiing, I really think of Wildcat,” says Ann Guyer, who lives on Boston’s North Shore. “Picnics on the Wild Kitten, silly slaloms, salting the hill for a GS course, skiing over small developing streams across the trail, wearing old colorful ski gear and rainsuits. While the city folks leave other resorts, it is a hearty and committed skier that sticks around Wildcat until Tuckerman’s season.”
Not that Wildcat has a monopoly on great spring skiing. Not by any measure. The bigger resorts — including Vermont’s Mount Snow, Killington, Stowe, Sugarbush, Okemo, Smuggler’s Notch and Jay Peak; New Hampshire’s Cannon and Loon Mountain, and Maine’s Sunday River, Sugarloaf and Saddleback — are always a good bet, primarily of their outstanding commitment to snowmaking and grooming.
But this year, with tons of snow dumped along New England’s southern tier, even smaller areas such as Jiminy Peak and Catamount in western Massachusetts; Bromley and Burke in Vermont; Pat’s Peak, Bretton Woods, Cranmore and Ragged Mountain in New Hampshire; and Shawnee Peak in Maine, should all have conditions worth boasting about well into April.
“Wherever you go, spring is the best,” says Nathaniel Reade, a former Bethel, Maine, resident who now calls western Massachusetts home. “All the flatlanders down south have moved on to golf and tennis, leaving those millions of dollars of machine-made snow piled high and empty for the true devotees.”
Spring skiing, like the general awakening that occurs when Mother Nature shakes out of her winter doldrums, is a celebration of the senses. All of them.
Whether olfactory, auditory, gustatory, visual or tactile, our senses are just a little more heightened in March and April, because we never opted for hibernation in the first place. We embraced Old Man Winter, and now we accompany our good friend as he takes his leave. But instead of our nose hairs bristling in single-digit breezes, our olfactory senses delight in the sweet aroma of the pine tree forests coming back to life, burgers and fresh veggies sizzling on the grill and, of course, suntan lotion.
Ah, yes, the sun. And skin. And snow. What a wonderful combination. Be sure to bring tanning lotion with a SPF rating of 30 or higher, lip balm and polarized sunglasses.
“I have extremely fond memories of picnic lunches at the top of Sunday River in April in our shirtsleeves, where our greatest worry was to burn or to tan,” Reade said.
Then you have the auditory sensations. The hills literally come alive with the sound of music, as areas bring in live acts to spice up the carnival atmosphere, notably the legendary reggae parties at Mount Snow in Vermont and Sugarloaf in Maine.
“Reggae Festival in April,” says long-time Sugarloaf fan Nancy Rowse of Massachusetts, when asked what spring skiing means to her. “Not exactly a ‘family event’ in my book, but it is everything you could ask for in a reggae festival, skiing in shorts and little else when the snow sticks around until mid-April. If you’re a skier, you know why we drive to the ’Loaf. If you have to ask, ‘Why the ’Loaf?’ it isn’t worth explaining.”
Likewise, if you need me to tell you about the visual attractions, then you’ve obviously never been spring skiing in the first place. Suffice to say, anytime you combine the terms “ski boots” and “bikinis,” you’ve got my attention.
Adding to the eye candy are the annual pond-skimming contests that are now a staple at most New England resorts. This is skiing’s version of the Keystone Kops, and great fun. At last year’s Bretton Woods Beach Party, my two young daughters were entertained no end by the pond-skimming shenanigans, while my wife and I, knowing those days are well behind us, grabbed a few extra runs.
The joys of spring skiing are all the more special because we understand that they, like many of life’s pleasures, can be fleeting. The warmer temps can also be a mixed blessing. After all, it’s still New England, and the vagaries of the weather are a harsh reality. I always bring rain gear and layers, and try to remind myself to be flexible regarding my expectations.
But when the conditions are right, there’s nothing better. Soft snow, forgiving snow, “hero” snow. I’ll tackle those steep mogul runs that I would never dream of dropping into during January.
“For me, spring skiing means one thing: bumps,” says Josh Anthony of Massachusetts, who regularly makes the trek northwest to Vermont to feed his skiing appetite. “It’s hard to beat Killington for really late-season skiing in New England, though I’ve had killer spring days at many other places. Last year, I was skiing super soft bumps at Mad River Glen in 85-degree weather on closing day. Awesome.’
Still, it’s not all fun and games. Even hills with a great base can have thin spots. That’s why I typically lug my older model “rock skis” along as well, just in case. The time-honored first rule of skiing — know your limits — applies in April the same way it does on New Year’s Day.
Plus, all that heavy, mashed potato snow has been known to catch an edge or two, as my daughter Maddi learned the hard way last winter. Poor kid let down her guard for just a second while finishing out a run late last season, hit a patch of slush and helicoptered her way right into the First Aid station. This year, she’ll know better.
The time warp
Maybe it’s that first burst of warm weather that accounts for the many intriguing correlations between spring skiing and the tropics, such as reggae music and Jamaican jerk chicken. There’s also the undeniable “island time” quality to skiing late season. All the Type A “bamboo for breakfast club” diehards can still rush off for first runs at the crack of dawn, but, really, what’s the rush?
“I like many things about spring skiing, but one that stands out is the mandatory late start,” says New England ex-pat Carson Stanwood, who now makes his turns in Jackson Hole, Wyo. “The snow’s frozen in the early morning, so the spring skier is required to sleep a little later, hang out with extra coffee, etc.
“After a winter of cold, dark, Alpine starts, I love being off the hook to get going. And it’s still light at the end of the day.”
Which will, in all likelihood, find you on your favorite outdoor deck.
“By 1 p.m., it’s beer time,” says Vermont’s Peter Oliver. “The snow is slush, and it’s time to kick back and be a lush.”
So relax, and take it all in. Whether on the slopes, or at après ski, spring is the sweet season. You’ve earned it. Now enjoy it.
Brion O’Connor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org