As we drove along Park City’s Main Street toward the High West Distillery, we were surrounded by historic brick buildings containing dimly lit restaurants and trendy boutiques. Inside the distillery, a tall post-and-beam ceiling gave off an “Old Western” ambiance. Visitors sipped cocktails while sharing stories from the slopes. At the Grand Summit Hotel, located at the base of the Canyons Village side of the resort, guests reconvened at the restaurants, or dispersed to the spa. Some soaked in the hotel’s trio of outdoor hot tubs and heated pool. We hadn’t even had time to ski yet, and we already were immersed in the culture of après ski.
The concept of après ski isn’t new. Since the mid-19th century, shortly after downhill skiing originated in Telemark, Norway, skiers have gathered at each other’s homes in true après fashion, sharing stories, meals and drinks. These gatherings eventually led to the foundation of ski clubs, which quickly spread across Europe, continuously evolving. Before long, après ski had transformed from informal gatherings in skiers’ homes to dances and formal events at grand hotels.
North America’s ski country wasn’t far behind, and it was New England leading the nation’s charge. In 1872, shortly after organized skiing came to the logging town of Berlin, New Hampshire, the Skiklubben Club was founded with the goal of promoting nordic skiing. Currently known as the Nansen Ski Club, the club was the first documented modern day ski club in North America, and is still in operation today. The popularity of ski clubs continued to spread, and would prove to be a long-lived New England tradition.
As the popularity of skiing began to grow and ski culture flourished, winter became a profitable time for tourism in mountain towns that were previously fruitful only during the summer months. France coined the term “après ski,” which literally translates to “after ski,” during the early 20th century to describe the celebration of a great day on the hill through food and drink.
It wasn’t long before the first snow train was run from Boston to Warner, N.H., in January 1931, pushing New England’s après-ski culture further. A mix of advanced, intermediate and beginner skiers traveled north to ski towns. Many of them were more interested in the culture and parties than the skiing itself. Local inns that previously remained closed during the colder months stayed open on weekends, contributing to a lively ski community through winter. The development and popularization of snow trains throughout New England contributed significantly to winter tourism and the grand resort hotel boom, which hosted guests and events in luxurious ballrooms, bringing up to 24,000 tourists from Boston to New England’s ski country in a single season.
When skiers from Austria began fleeing post-war Europe in the 1930s, instead heading to the hills of New England, après-ski scenes as we know them today began sprouting. The first Hannes Schneider ski school, headed by Benno Rybizka, was based at the Wildcat Tavern in Jackson, N.H., and proved to be one of the first concentrated après-ski scenes in North America. Skiers (and non-skiers) would flock to inns and taverns like the Eagle Mountain House in Jackson, a number of inns in Stowe, Vt., the Lodge at Smugglers’ Notch and even the Tuckerman Ravine Shelter, halfway up Mount Washington, for après. And with the winter debut of Peckett’s-on-Sugar Hill during the 1929-30 season, which turned out to be an après hot-spot for the next 30 years, it was proven that “strong après ski can trump mild ski terrain,” according to an article published by the Skiing Heritage Journal in 2007. Après-focused ski towns — Aspen, Breckenridge and Sun Valley, to name a few — continued to pop up across the U.S. through the 1960s, forming many modern après-ski destinations that are just as popular today.
By the 1970s in New England, the après scene had shifted. The snow trains had long ceased to exist, thanks largely in part to the popularization of automobiles and the creation of the interstate highway system, and the atmosphere had become much more casual. Wine and fancy ballrooms had been replaced with rock and roll and bar hopping.
“(North Conway’s) party scene was directly connected to music,” says George Cleveland, who has been involved in the Mount Washington Valley’s après scene since the early 1970s. “The bar you went to was usually dependent on who was playing a lot of times. Often, there would be people playing at more than one place, so you’d have to jump around.”
Cleveland recounts late nights at the Red Parka Pub, Oxen Yoke and Wildcat Tavern, watching popular folk and folk-rock bands perform in packed rooms.
The nightlife and party scene in North Conway and ski towns throughout North America continued to be a draw for those living in major metropolitan areas, looking to spend weekends partying among snow-covered mountains after a day of skiing — or simply a day of relaxing, immersed in a ski atmosphere.
The nightlife scene in North Conway might not be as rowdy as in the 1970s and ’80s or as luxurious as the ’30s, but the town continues to be a major winter destination for skiers and non-skiers. Those with minimal interest in skiing join those who count their days religiously at the slopeside bars in Stowe, Aspen and Park City, continuing this long-lived tradition of après-ski, and sharing a love for the atmosphere the mountains create.