Jan. 8 was not a good day at Pats Peak.
Oh, the weather happened to be just fine. In fact, the 4-6 inches of snow that had fallen the night before in the area surrounding Henniker, N.H., made it such a nice day for skiing and riding that more than the normal weekend crowd probably should have been expected at the ski area.
But what Pats Peak received instead was more than it could possibly handle.
“It seemed like everybody came out that day,” Pats Peak general manager Kris Blombeck said. “We didn’t look so good.
“We thought it was going to be a busy weekend, but we didn’t expect what we saw come. We really struggled to control the crowds that were driving at our facility.”
It was a situation that the ski area didn’t think it would have to anticipate this season. Prior to the 2021-22 skiing and riding campaign, Pats Peak had done away with the reservation system that was required of Indy Pass holders last season in order to control overcrowding on the mountain. The Indy Pass is good at 81 ski areas across the country, including 11 in New England. Locally, only Cannon Mountain and Magic Mountain entered the season still requiring reservations. Pats Peak, meanwhile, predicted a ski season returning to normal, this despite the pandemic’s tendency to linger two years after changing all of our lives.
As if to cement the decision to do away with the reservation system, the ski area survived the busy Christmas vacation week and had no issues with capacity. A few inches of fresh snow didn’t necessarily seem to be an insurmountable hurdle to face during the second weekend of January.
Then, the crowds came, and Pats Peak had nowhere to put them. The ski area wound up running out of parking early in the morning. It was forced to turn away its own season-pass holders.
“That’s not really what we’re all about,” Blombeck said.
On Jan. 12, only four days later, Pats Peak announced that it would be returning to the reservation system for Indy Pass holders, a decision that drew applause from the ski area’s season-pass-holding faithful.
“Thanks for a great season so far,” Blombeck wrote. “(However) there is also some reality setting in as demand is incredible. Simply, we love you all but we could not provide the service that you expect from Pats Peak. We are taking steps to remedy the situation.”
Pats Peak hasn’t oversold since making the change.
“Above all, we’re about service and putting a top-notch, quality product out there,” Blombeck said. “So we made the decision to reinstate the reservation system.
“We think we’ve got our capacity dialed in right now. It changes based on special events, races, et cetera. There are a ton of variables that go into determining what your daily capacity is. But we haven’t oversold since.”
It was, indeed, a swift decision that also spoke volumes about how Pats Peak treats its faithful clientele. Pats Peak has dealt with many of the same staffing issues that other Northeast resorts, as well as others in the hospitality industry, have had during the pandemic. But the staff that is on hand understands the Swiss Army knife nature that pervades Pats Peak.
“We’ve got a staff that is cross-trained in every aspect of our operation,” Blombeck said. “So it’s not uncommon for a race coach to be out there making snow before he needs to return to being a race coach.
“We’re all about delivering on service and quality. It doesn’t do us any good to keep selling lift tickets if you’re going to be standing in line for 30 minutes.”
Baking a reputation for itself
For no reason in particular, Super Bowl Sunday has traditionally become an annual tradition where my oldest son and I take a day for ourselves on the slopes. More often than not, the day brings us to Pats Peak, a favorite of his for the variety of friendly groomers, but also the entry-level glades that have helped him progress into becoming a pretty good tree skier. Or, at least a heck of a lot better than I was at 14 years old.
There are the cookies too, obviously, which we’ll get to in a bit.
Besides signature baked goods, Pats serves as the perfect destination for a father and his advanced-intermediate son seeking a day trip from southeastern Massachusetts. It’s just a shade over two hours away, just down the road from another popular spot, Vail-owned Mount Sunapee, which has had its own challenges with controlling Epic-fueled lift lines. But whereas the length of lines at Sunapee probably will make their share of social media posts complaining about the time spent in the queue, wait times at Pats Peak generally are fewer than 10 minutes.
Pats also had another prominent feather in its cap this season. In December, when other ski areas in the region were struggling to battle warm temperatures in order to make snow, thus leading to limited terrain, long lines and unmet expectations, Pats Peak had close to 100 percent of its terrain open.
“That time of year when you’re getting everything open is always a challenge because you’re stretching everybody pretty thin,” Blombeck said. “I think it was just a benefit of all the years of investment that we’ve made into our snowmaking system paying off.”
There’s a running joke at the mountain, Blombeck noted, that when the ski area reconciles at the end of each season, 50 percent of the money gets poured back into the snowmaking system. The rest is left for the other departments.
Those funds have helped lead to what the ski area boasts is one of the largest snowmaking systems per developed acre in the Granite State. The system includes more than 450 hydrants, 370 snow guns and more than 18 miles of snowmaking pipes. It can allow up to 90 snow guns to operate at once. It is a great warm-weather system, Blombeck said, powered by Sno-Matic Engineering, one of the industry’s leading snowmaking design firms.
“We’re just a bunch of passionate skiers and snowboarders at our facility,” Blombeck said. “Our team is just super-pumped to put out a good product every day. We’ve got ownership that gives us all the tools that we need to do our jobs.”
The ski area has been owned by the Patenaude family since opening in 1963. As history tells the story, the four Patenaude brothers — Joe, David, Wayne and Stuart — simply got tired of waiting in lift lines and decided to open their own ski area. According to NewEnglandSkiHistory.com, half of the land was owned by their father Merle, while the other half was acquired for about $10 an acre. The brothers cleared enough land for four trails and two slopes accessible by a double chairlift, a T-bar and a rope tow.
One year shy of the ski area’s 60th anniversary, the Patenaude family has made certain to steadily improve Pats Peak over the years, creating one of southern New Hampshire’s most popular, independently owned winter destinations. Today, visitors will find 28 trails and slopes with nine gladed areas at Pats Peak with 11 lifts (including four triples, two doubles and a pair of carpet lifts) leading to all the fun. With a vertical drop of 770 feet and 50 percent of its trails considered novice, Pats Peak long has been a family favorite. Lift ticket prices top out at $89 for adults on weekends (9 a.m.-4 p.m. or 12:30 p.m. to close) but there are other time slots at a lower cost, making Pats one of the more affordable options in southern New Hampshire.
The cookies don’t hurt, either.
According to the Concord Monitor, which in 2016 detailed the history of the famous, enormous M&M cookies that have become a signature item at Pats Peak’s base area Tradewinds Cafe, the cookies began as a regular chocolate chip offering in 1963. They slowly evolved, and got much larger, over the years.
“They started making the cookies bigger and bigger until they’re the size they are now, which is about the size of a person’s face,” food and beverage director Guy Pelletier told the Monitor.
Baked from scratch every day since their inception, the cookies’ M&M’s were sprinkled in over the years, leading to the area’s most-sought-after food item at the end of a day skiing. On days when school ski programs are in session, Pelletier told the Monitor that the ski area can sell up to 800 cookies in a day.
The cookies are good, if not otherworldly, but more so they are significant of a day spent at the ski area, an après item that ties in the experience. My son definitely looks forward to getting one after we tour the mountain for the day.
Alas, Super Bowl Sunday came one week later this year, landing on my daughter’s ninth birthday. That means my son and I had to postpone our annual father-son trip to Pats until later in the month.
The cookies will have to wait.
POP goes Pats
Blombeck is a moguls skier at heart, so his favorite trail at Pats is the bumpy Vortex, a double black diamond trail that runs beneath the Vortex double chairlift. Vortex is one of southern New Hampshire’s steepest slopes, Blombeck said. From there, if there’s good snow, he’ll pop into the Hurricane glades.
Despite the majority of its trails being tailored for beginners and intermediates, Pats does have enough gnarly terrain to keep experts interested. Eight advanced and expert trails lead to a variety of gladed areas as well as terrain parks with enough features to keep all abilities occupied.
Nighttime takes on its own aura at the mountain, and Pats Peak has a bit more to offer under the lights than just a couple groomers. The ski area has the most illuminated double diamond terrain — even glades — in northern New England. One hundred percent of the mountain is lighted for all abilities to get out under the stars.
It’s one reason why the ski area’s popular POP (Pay One Price) program has been such a success over the years.
“It’s as strong as ever,” Blombeck said.
One of the local ski industry’s coolest promotions, guests can purchase a POP ticket with access to skiing, snowboarding, snow tubing, rentals and entertainment on Saturday nights ($79 for four hours, $89 for five hours, $99 for six hours). If it’s just tubing you have on your mind, tickets can be purchased ($28 for two hours)
solely for the 600-foot tubing park, Fridays and weekends.
During February vacation weeks this month, the POP program will be available for the entirety of the fortnight (Feb. 19-March 5; POP not offered on Feb. 27). POP discounts are available for groups of 15 or more.
“It’s all about managing the capacity,” Blombeck said. “We have strong numbers at night.”
Bus service from Boston to Pats Peak also has resumed on Saturdays this season. The bus departs from various locations in the morning from the Boston area and leaves Pats Peak at 4:30 p.m. Reservations must be made online at www.nasufun.com.
There also is bus service direct from Boston to Pats Peak on Saturday afternoons, a service that includes the POP ticket. Advanced reservations must be made by calling Boston Common Coach reservations at 877-723-3833 or 617-773-2784.
“These bus services are a great way for college students and others that need transportation out of Boston to come skiing or snowboarding at Pats Peak,” said Celina Braun, group sales coordinator at Pats Peak.
With such a popular product, one has to wonder if Pats Peak sees any further expansion down the road. The latest one came within the last 10 years, when the ski area added Cascade Basin, an area on the backside of the mountain that includes six trails, two gladed areas and a triple chairlift.
“Never say never,” Blombeck said. “But we’re very comfortable where we are now in terms of uphill capacity. That’s not to say we wouldn’t cut a new trail here or there, but we’re in very good shape right now for what we’re trying to accomplish.”
In other words, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
But if the situation does, in fact, break, as it did on Jan. 8, Pats Peak has proven it is committed to giving immediate attention to anything that might disrupt the product.
Eric Wilbur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.