When I look at annual magazine assessments of the best skiing in the East, followed by the lists and rankings, I am at once amused and amazed. How do they pull this thing off year after year, I wonder?
Having been a ski journalist for 30 years or so, I came to regard this as a staple of the trade. Or, to put it another way, a day off for me. It was a little like the Old Farmer’s Almanac that published its annual weather report, including snowfall forecasts for various zones in New England. If you include X number of zones, you’re bound to get a few of them reasonably close. Now and then.
So I began tucking one year’s OFA column away until the beginning of the next season, then checking out how the prognosticators did with the season’s weather. It became quickly clear that, like the stock investor who threw darts at the stock page to determine his investments, that I could have darted my way to a more accurate yearly weather forecast than OFA published.
As for ranking the best New England ski areas (or anywhere else, for that matter), I’m pretty sure they’re done about the same way. That is, arbitrarily. Except for those surveys that really do survey the skiers in the region. One year when I headed up this project for a national magazine, the problems were clear very quickly. To wit: Could we trust the source? In other words, since these were magazine responses, it was very easy to stuff a ballot box, thus leaving us to report on regional enthusiasm, and possibly to end up with a survey as crooked as North Carolina’s national elections.
At best, we weren’t rating the quality of mountains, but general trends of enthusiasm that seemed to shift suspiciously from season to season. Every New England list will have Killington somewhere near the top. It has the greatest vertical drop (3,050 feet) and is generally agreed the best ski town nightlife in New England.
On about every list, you will find Bretton Woods, with a mere 1,500-foot vertical but with a rolling canvas well-groomed and inviting, and a moniker of being the largest ski area in New Hampshire.
I will always find Loon on the list, but aside from all its enchanting features, I suspect ease of driving from Boston on nearly 100 percent highway (I-93) is a factor in this area’s growing popularity. Both Loon (2,100 feet) and Bretton Woods apparently are not penalized by skiers for their medium stature.
The rest of the bigwigs usually make the top lists, but not always — Sugarloaf (2,820), Sugarbush (2,650), Smugglers’ Notch (2,610), Stowe (2,360), Sunday River (2,340). I know for sure that at least one owner carved a trail to a towering, semi-convenient summit in order to claim more vertical for his mountain, but I don’t know about others, so no names.
Snow quality, it would seem, is a major factor in skier fave categories, and I have a hunch that the speed of development of Sunday River in the 1980s followed by Okemo a little later was pretty closely linked to these areas’ commitment to snowmaking and grooming. Or, as Sunday River owner and developer Les Otten said at the time, borrowing from the political world: “It’s the snow, stupid.”
While he was ever enlarging his ski area from a one-time backwater in central Maine, Otten built lots and lots of housing. Nothing palatial or in anyway amazing, but adequate. Otten’s view: People go to ski areas to ski, and the rest will take care of itself via restaurant and bar investors.
Sunday River quickly rose to the best list with its snow-first policy and is now a fixture at or near the top of every New England list.
I’m not sure cuisine ever added much heft to rising on the best list. I remember those first reflexes of healthful dining in the 1980s. Some ski areas introduced salad bars, health smoothies and soups worthy of Martha Stewart’s kitchens. I even recall waiting for the day, and celebrating appropriately, when Waterville Valley’s baked potatoes (from the outdoor potato cart) hit $5 per spud, a somehow consequential moment. But again, I don’t think cuisine will ever bump the needle, and besides, it remains nearly unthinkable that anything would ever bump burgers and fries from the mainline food choice at a New England area.
And regarding fave New England ski lists, I have reflected often on an interview I once had with a friend of Pam Fletcher’s mother. Pam is one of the family owners of Nashoba Valley founded by her father, Al, in the ’70s, and a very successful ski area at that. Her family friend told me that he had spent a lifetime skiing all over the world — East, West, Europe, just everywhere — and now proclaims “I’ll never ski anywhere else but right here.”
The bottom line is, despite all the lists that pop up every season, people — skiers and riders, tubers and nighthawks — just like what they like for their own reasons. Most of those never make “The List.”