Finally towards spring there was the great glacier run, smooth and straight, forever straight if our legs could hold it, our ankles locked, we running so low, leaning into the speed, dropping forever and forever in the silent hiss of the crisp powder. It was better than any flying or anything else, and we built the ability to do it and to have it worth the long climbs carrying the heavy rucksacks.
—-Ernest Hemingway, “A Moveable Feast”
The other day, the travel writers of the New York Times had a bright idea: Take your spring skiing itches to Crete.
As someone whose ski dreams have no bounds, and no boundaries, I never thought about going to Crete. In fact, in a lifetime of skiing and reading, my two greatest pleasures, Crete has seldom intruded into my thoughts. It’s somewhere out there in the Mediterranean, right? Near Greece, or part of it, I’m almost sure. Something about the Minoans and the Mycenaeans, though I’m not quite sure what exactly, or in which order. A World War II battle, I am almost certain, with lots of casualties.
The Times had some help for the modern peacetime traveler: “The Greek island has no lifts, no lodges, no trail maps,” the paper told us. “But for those willing to climb for their turns, it’s got miles of wide-open terrain, dependable spring snow and no crowds.”
But wait. The Times doesn’t tell us this, but one of Crete’s distinguishing geologic characteristics is a range called—now we’re talking! — the White Mountains. Close to home — the name, if not the exact set of peaks. Close to my heart — the place where skiing, and where my skiing life, began, 4,900 miles away from Crete and 1,140 years, give or take a decade, from the period of Andalusian Arab rule of Crete.
But really, no need to fly to Crete for spring skiing, no need to buy a Greek phrasebook to find the word for “hamburger” (χάμπουργκερ, pronounced “chámpournker”), no need to set your sights on the airport in Heraklion, no need to contemplate an air journey of 18 hours, 25 minutes from Boston (with a two-hour layover in Zurich and a six-hour layover in Athens) to get in few turns when the weather turns warm.
Really, our own White Mountains will do handily, and even the drive from Providence, R.I., to Pinkham Notch, N.H., for the trek up to Tuckerman Ravine is only slightly more than half the time of your layover in Athens alone, and you can use American money and almost everybody will speak English. Plus, like Greek literature, the whoosh down Tucks is, well, a classic.
But: Why spring skiing at all?
That is like asking, Why love? Why chocolate? Why do we put oyster crackers in clam chowder? Why do we play football games on Thanksgiving morning? For gosh sakes, why do we sing “Sweet Caroline” before the eighth inning at Fenway Park?
Because that is what we do.
And because the good times never seem so good as when we ski in shorts and a T-shirt; when we substitute sunglasses for goggles; when the snow is soft and the sunshine is warm; when the meatheads have departed the slopes for the links and have left the soft corn to us. It is the time when we don’t battle the crowds, we don’t fight the elements, we don’t evade the snow guns, we don’t avoid the ice patches, when we don’t conclude that skiing is one part sport and two parts survival reality show.
Spring is the time for pond jumps, outdoor grilled hot dogs, nutty ski outfits and songs from the 1970s blaring on the loudspeaker. “Go Your Own Way,” by Fleetwood Mac, perhaps. “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough,” by Michael Jackson, almost certainly. “Too Much Heaven,” by the BeeGees, probably. But not “Midnight Train to Georgia,” by Gladys Knight and the Pips. Nor “Sweet Home Alabama,” by Lynyrd Skynyrd. No, not those two, not in the springtime hills of New England.
No one knows when spring skiing began. (I know the wise-guy answer: Spring skiing begins when winter ends.) If skiing traces its history to 6,000 B.C., we can assume that some of that activity, which bears no resemblance to our winter sport, occurred in the spring. We do know that the Canadian fur trappers, the Norwegian lumbermen, and the Colorado miners and mailmen who used skis to travel the woods and transport goods in the 19th century didn’t quit on the day of the spring equinox.
But spring skiing’s historical recreational roots are unknown, except it very likely had to do with those crazy boys of the Dartmouth Outing Club, whose activities to “stimulate interest in out-of-door winter sports” began in the first decade of the 20th century. Hemingway’s reverie about skiing was based on his experience in the 1920s. The first summit-to-base race on Mount Washington, known by the intoxicating name of the Inferno, was in the spring of 1939. The great Dick Durrance’s famous feat of skiing that route in 12 minutes, 35 seconds, was in the spring of 1934. It was in the spring of 1939 that Toni Matt created a legend with his schuss of the headwall.
Heli-skiers can continue well into June, maybe later. These days, Killington tries to stay open 180 days a year. Mad River Glen stayed open 135 days in 2019, doing so without snowmaking. Whistler Blackcomb and Sunshine Village, both in western Canada, plan to stay open this spring until May 23. I’ve skied in late April at Timberline Lodge in Oregon. It was darn good, though I did get a bit of a sunburn.
So: No frigid temperatures, no problem. No threat of windburn, no sweat. No snow at home, no reason not to head north. Pack sunscreen and quit by 1 p.m., when the snow takes on the form of mashed potatoes — and when a vacant Adirondack chair outside the base lodge becomes hard to find. It’s springtime in New England. Truly, good times never seemed so good.
David Shribman can be reached at [email protected].