With each passing winter, it becomes more difficult to find a New England ski area, or a ski town, that has remained true to its skiing roots. Things change, and often for the better (after all, we want our high-speed lifts). But oftentimes, something is lost in that progression, a sense of time and place that, once gone, can’t be restored. For those of us who still love the experience of a genuine slice of ski history, our choices are dwindling. But they still exist.
We can find it at Mad River Glen in Vermont, or Bousquet in western Massachusetts. But for the best combination of historic ski hill and town, Cranmore Mountain Resort in North Conway, N.H., stands a cut above. Cranmore is celebrating 80 years this winter. Let that sink in for a minute. Eight decades.
In 1938, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the rest of the country were still recovering from the depths of the Great Depression. Europe was a tinderbox, with countries bracing for the inevitability of a Second World War. Heavyweight boxing champ Joe Louis KO’d German Max Schmeling in their famed rematch at Yankee Stadium, and American financier Harvey Dow Gibson, a Conway native, opened a new ski area at Lookout Mountain, later renamed Cranmore Mountain.
Driving into Cranmore today, regardless of which direction you come from, it’s all but impossible to avoid the overwhelming sense of nostalgia that pervades this ribbon of the Mount Washington Valley. The time-period train depot, preserved storefronts, rustic ski clubs and old-fashion hotels all speak to a bygone era. Standing at a corner of North Main Street in downtown North Conway, you can almost sense the benevolent ghosts of skiers past, hauling their oversized boards from the Snow Train to their accommodations for the weekend.
Visitors to Cranmore are greeted by a life-size statue of Hannes Schneider, the charming, charismatic Austrian ski instructor who came to the United States in 1939 after being imprisoned for his views regarding Hitler’s Nazi Germany. The statue is a beautiful tribute, but almost seems understated given the larger-than-life influence that Schneider had on skiing not just at Cranmore, but nationwide.
“The pioneer was Harvey Dow Gibson, who started the ski area, but the credibility that he brought was Hannes Schneider,” said Ben Wilcox, Cranmore’s president/general manager and a longtime Valley resident. “That’s when we got the cover of Life magazine and everything exploded. Cranmore was the news, internationally, because (Schneider) came to America.”
Mount Washington Valley’s rich ski legacy began with Gibson and Carroll Reed. It was Reed, with the backing of Jackson hoteliers, who brought Austrian Benno Rybizka from Schneider’s ski school in St. Anton to teach at his Eastern Slope Ski School in 1937. Rybizka was soon training local hockey players to be ski instructors. Several went abroad to earn their Austrian State Ski certification exam and later became the earliest members of the U.S. Army’s famed 10th Mountain Division.
Gibson, a Fryeburg Academy and Bowdoin graduate, bought the Eastern Slope Inn (then known as the Randall Inn) in 1937, and established Cranmore. Buoyed by a $15,000 grant from FDR’s Works Progress Administration, and aided by the town of Conway, Gibson had his work crews clear roughly 200 acres at Cranmore. The earliest New England areas featured tight, twisting trails, but Gibson wanted to recreate the alpine landscapes of Austria, and that meant creating open trails. He persuaded Reed to sell his interests in the Eastern Slope Ski School, and brought in Reed’s band of Austrian-trained ski instructors, who delivered a measure of star power to the Mount Washington Valley, and Cranmore specifically. Soon others were looking to share in the experience.
During the ensuing decades, Cranmore cultivated its reputation as an innovative ski area. Due to Cranmore’s west-facing configuration, which often resulted in daytime snowmelt and overnight freezing, investing in groundbreaking grooming technology was crucial in the 1940s. Snowmaking would follow decades later, after the expansion to the East Bowl. During the 1970s, Schneider’s son Herbert launched the Mountain Meisters midweek race series, which is still the largest weekly citizens’ recreational race program in the country.
In 2018, there is an unmistakable “Back to the Future” feel at the mountain, highlighted by the completion of Phase One of a new $50 million redevelopment project — Kearsarge Brook Condominiums — at the base of Cranmore’s South Slope.
“We’ve been talking about Cranmore’s future, Kearsarge Brook, for the past few years, and today we can say this is Cranmore’s present,” said Wilcox. “Kearsarge Brook will heighten everything done at the mountain and will set the table for the next 80 years to come.”
The 18 two- and three-bedroom condominiums provide something the mountain has been missing — slopeside access to the trails and views of Cranmore and the surrounding White Mountains. When completed, the six-phase Master Plan will bring six new buildings, 106 year-round residences, and 45,000 square feet of new day-lodge space to the resort.
“With Kearsarge Brook, we’re going to do everything we can to preserve the character, but wanted to make sure what we did in this base area was unlike anything else in New England,” said Cranmore owner Brian Fairbank, whose Fairbank Group also includes Jiminy Peak in Massachusetts and Bromley in Vermont. “Taking this base area and making it spectacularly beautiful becomes an essential ingredient for us to say how we’re going to differentiate ourselves for the future.”
Fairbank took over the reins of Cranmore in 2010, two years after he first set his eyes on the celebrated hill. In many ways, he inherited more than seven decades of ski tradition.
“I’ve been passionate about the ski resort industry my entire life,” Fairbank said. “I became intrigued about the history of Cranmore and the ability to pursue new opportunities for both summer and winter, while building on its heritage and the culture that exists with the employees who work there.”
Those hardy souls who took the “snow trains” from Boston to North Conway would recognize a number of remnants found at Cranmore, including the countless black and white photographs throughout the lodge and surrounding buildings chronicling its history. One of the funniest images is “The Flying Nun” in Cranmore’s ticket office, of a robust religious sister aboard a Skimobile car. A year after opening, Cranmore unveiled the Skimobile, a unique lift designed by local mechanic George Morton, featuring small cars running on a wooden track (similar to a roller coaster).
Atop the hill, the Meister Hut is as warm and as inviting as it was 70 years ago (and looks like it hasn’t been updated during the same span, which is a compliment). I can’t think of a better place for a hot chocolate or microbrew. The views overlooking North Conway, as well as Cathedral Ledge and the White Mountains to the west, are simply stunning.
Just above the top of the South Quad lift is another wonderful testament to Cranmore’s keen sense of self-awareness. Along the edge of Jimmy’s Run trail is a tall slab of granite, with a bronze plaque commemorating the memory of Jimmy Mersereau. A legendary snow crew boss, Mersereau spent four decades at Cranmore, constantly improving the hill’s terrain.
“My father got a job here when I was born, and started full time when I was 2,” said Johnny Mersereau, Cranmore’s mountain manager, who oversees snowmaking and grooming. “He was a pioneer of snowmaking. He helped lay some of the first pipe on the hill.”
The younger Mersereau said he felt like a kid in a candy store when Fairbank took ownership, providing a capital infusion that allowed him to triple Cranmore’s fleet of snow guns. Mersereau also takes immense pride in the seamless working relationship between the snowmaking and grooming crews.
“This is how my father always did it. We drove a snowcat and helped those guys make snow,” said Mersereau. “That’s the way I grew up, so that’s the way I know how to do it. A lot of mountains don’t. They’ll have a grooming guy and a snowmaking guy, and they’ve got to work together. But where I’ve been in the middle of both of them, it just makes things easier. I know where all the snow has to be made, and where to push it.”
The crew’s continuing commitment to its craft is evident. Just last month, during the Northeast’s brutal cold snap, my family and I woke up at our Jackson condo to temperatures of minus-22. By the time we reached Cranmore, determined to confront the elements, the mercury had barely inched above zero. Yet the trail conditions were absolutely superb. The classic packed powder readily accepted our edges, allowing for big, fast GS turns.
“You don’t typically think of snowmaking as customer service, but that’s really how our guys think of it,” said Wilcox. “There’s such a passion, knowing that you’re making such a difference for the mountain and for all these people.”
Currently, the mountain tops out at about 2,000 feet, with 1,200 feet of vertical drop, and 170 skiable acres (though Wilcox has acknowledged that expansion to nearby Black Cap Mountain is under consideration). Cranmore boasts a total of 56 trails, with a breakdown of 16 beginner (28 percent), 25 intermediate (44 percent) and 15 most difficult (28 percent), which includes seven glade areas, and five terrain parks. In truth, all but absolute beginners can handle most of Cranmore’s blue-square terrain, while the glades are tight and challenging but not super steep.
To get skiers and snowboarders up the hill, Cranmore has nine lifts, including the high-speed Skimobile Express quad (named after Morton’s famed invention), which offers nice views of Mount Washington and the Presidential Range. Parents will appreciate knowing that there are trails for every ability level, including the beginner Easy Street, spilling from the summit.
The Snowsports School has upheld Schneider’s legendary instructional reputation, offering an outstanding variety of group and private lessons. If you have children, you definitely should consider Cranmore’s KidsRule Mountain Camps. If you need gear, the fast and friendly rental team will make sure you’re properly fitted with high-quality Rossignol skis, snowboards and boots. As a bonus, you can take your multiday rentals to other areas, allowing one-stop shopping.
Cranmore’s lodge is a no-nonsense facility that doesn’t have many frills, but enough room for your family to stretch out and grab a burger or maybe a beverage. For a little variety, the Mountain Adventure Park offers the Cranmore Mountain Coaster, the Soaring Eagle Zipline, a Giant Swing and a lift-serviced tubing park with 10 400-foot lanes of high-speed excitement. Cranmore Fitness has workout equipment and a variety of classes, from yoga to TRX.
What to do after a day on the hill? Karen Dolan, Cranmore Mountain Resort’s Snowsports School director and an instructor with more than four decades of experience, has the perfect après-ski suggestion. “Head to Zip’s for a crafted beer,” said Dolan with a laugh. “Check in with your friendly bartenders, mountain staff or locals to learn where the best of valley (attractions) are once the lifts close. Zip’s is kid friendly, and a trip to Zeb’s Store is a must for them.”
Zip’s Pub & Grill is another New England ski institution, with a bar that recognizes some of Cranmore’s best-known personalities (yes, that’s Hannes Schneider on the menu cover) and a wall dedicated to Cranmore Ski Patrol Legends and Snowsports School Hall of Fame. Other great après-ski options in the vicinity include McGrath’s Tavern, Delaney’s Hole in the Wall, May Kelly’s, the Sea Dog Brewing Company, Moat Mountain Smoke House & Brewing Company, Horsefeather’s and Tuckerman’s Restaurant & Tavern.
Of course, no matter where you go, the history of North Conway and Cranmore won’t be far behind. That’s a good thing.