Nearly a half century ago, the rock group Chicago released a song called “25 or 6 to 4.’’ To most listeners the numbers meant nothing. Here are some numbers that will be meaningless unless you are a skier and a cold-weather-loving skier at that: minus-10, 1,700 and 200.
In the warmth of the ski lodge, beside a crackling fire, let’s unpack those numbers. Minus-10 was the temperature at the base of Mount Cranmore in North Conway the morning of New Year’s Day this year. Now let’s consider 1,700: That was the number of skiers who bought passes two days earlier. And the figure 200? It’s the number of people who bought ski passes at Cranmore that frigid holiday Monday, when otherwise a healthy crowd might have been expected.
My calculation: Some 1,500 people missed out on a terrific ski day — one of the best of the year, and not only because the year was only hours old when, at around 1:30 in the afternoon, I strapped on my boards, took the Skimobile Express to the very top and had my pick of 149 acres of skiing on trails with a base of as much as 32 inches. That’s 48 trails open for skiing and riding, some of the nicest packed powder you could ever want … and no crowds.
Not only were there no crowds, there were almost no people at all. I did wait in one lift line, for in the eight or nine runs I took that afternoon there once — once! — was one person ahead of me. That intolerable wait was the only delay in a couple of hours of terrific skiing. And truly the temperatures didn’t bother me. Though the minus-24 wind-chill factor did provide some bragging rights later in the evening.
I grew up in New England and went to a northern college where, for a study break, we left the library and walked downtown to check out the thermometer at the corner of Main Street, hoping that the temperatures had plunged below zero so we Dartmouth boys could feel superior to the sissies at Harvard and Columbia. It happened enough that we were steeled to the cold, addicted to the cold, worshipful of the cold. I remain that way to this day. There is a Dartmouth song, well loved in my time and today, that brays that “the wolf-wind is wailing at the doorways, and the snow drifts deep along the road.” The line we love the best is this one: “And the great white cold walks abroad.”
It does make you wonder how Theodore Geisel, Dartmouth College Class of 1925, could have, in his Dr. Seuss book “The Cat in the Hat,” deplored what he called “that cold, cold wet day.’’ Perhaps the cat did not have the right hat.
There is, to be sure, a cult of the cold, a worship of the time when, as the novelist Roman Payne once put it, “Winter is putting footsteps in the meadow.’’ (He also wrote of the time of year when, in his words, “Our nights were growing cold at last.’’)
My younger daughter, who went to Bates College in Maine, shares this attraction to the Arctic blasts of winter, as do all her classmates, who were never so happy as when a moose wandered down from Mount David onto campus. “No big deal,’’ she reported, though of course it was. My older daughter reacts poorly to cold — her hands and feet turn yellow — and yet she’s not afraid of a few degrees below freezing, or of freezing a few degrees below zero.
We know — and here comes the caution — that, like speed, cold can kill. Do not, for example, wander out in sub-freezing weather without ample protection, and that includes your face; products such as Dermatone, developed in Sweden, offer protection against frostbite, chapping and sunburn. (It has broad-spectrum SPF 23). I picked up a terrific item, produced by Turtle Fur, called a Shellaclava, a combination of a neck gaiter and a balaclava mask, for my wife. It allowed her to brave cold she otherwise might have shunned.
So what is the advantage of cold when it comes to our winter sport?
First, the obvious: Skiing is a winter sport, and without cold — indeed without inclement weather — this sport simply cannot be performed. Then there is the aesthetic: the way the snow squeaks, crackles and crunches when your skis traverse a packed-powder surface on days the temperatures dip into single digits. Then there’s the clarity of the blue sky against cold mountain peaks — Wildcat, Cranmore and Bretton Woods have perhaps the best views for this purpose — in especially cold weather.
Plus this: No one else is out there.
I can hear my wife’s remark: No one else is out there because no one else is as nuts as you.
Not nuts. Just appreciative.
Now here’s some advice for the few — the proud — crusaders of the cold: Never leave your boots in the car. They’ll be frigid, and you’ll never last more than a run. Don’t leave your hand warmers there, either. They won’t tell you this on the label, but they will freeze. Take all of your ski wear and put it in the clothes dryer for 90 seconds, maybe two minutes, before venturing out. That will warm them up considerably. Don’t forget that Shellaclava. And remember that your moment of greatest peril and exposure is not necessarily on the slopes.
It may be on the lift. If there’s a gondola or tram at your home mountain, take that, and leave the chairlift to the 16-year-old boys. They won’t know any better. Watch for frostbite. It’s not the skier’s friend. Layers, by contrast, are the skier’s friend. Embrace them, and let them embrace you.
But remember this wisdom from USA Today: “If you’re a skier who can’t stand cold weather, you probably need to pick a new hobby.’’
I would suggest checkers or backgammon.
And one other thing: Don’t tell too many people you ventured out in severe cold. They will think ill of you. But the joke is on them. The downhill sport may be best when the temperatures go down, down, down, and the great white cold walks abroad.