This article was paid for by New Hampshire Tourism.
PHOTO: Jamie Walter
You wouldn’t have called it a base lodge as much as two single-wide trailers welded together. Inside the front door, a desk sat empty save for the tiny pizza machine keeping the day’s food offerings warm. To keep everything else warm, a space heater cranked overtime in the room’s back corner as ski gear littered a picnic table that had somehow squeezed inside. A short walk away sits the bathroom trailer, its wheels frozen solid into parking lot ice.
It wasn’t a lot, but for two brothers from Keene, New Hampshire, this trailer village and the little ski runs snaking above it were everything. Fred and John Baybutt grew up here, racing down the short, 40-degree pitches of Pinnacle Mountain. Years later, they had brought their childhood playground back to life, opening Granite Gorge, and giving Southwest New Hampshire a place to go skiing again. For that, the local ski community could forgive just about anything—even lukewarm pepperoni.
“My brother and I have always wanted to bring it back,” says Fred Baybutt. “The locals have so much pride in having their own area. It’s been good for the region. It really goes back to the founding fathers over here.”
Today, Granite Gorge has grown modestly to 13 trails, a summit double, and 537 feet of pitchy terrain, replacing its trailer collection with a permanent base lodge, bar, and ski school. Over the last 13 years, the area has reconnected the region to the mountains after nearly three decades without a ski area to call its own.
Blink twice and you might miss it. Five miles from Keene and tucked along a curve of Route 9, Granite Gorge is the newest iteration of a project more than a half decade in the making. In the late 1950s, New Hampshire, worried it was hemorrhaging skiers to the nearby markets of Vermont and New York, appointed a state committee led by Olympic alpine skier Charles Tremblay to build a new ski area to serve as a gateway hill for local skiers.
After homeowners around Mount Monadnock (the most climbed mountain in the U.S.) balked at starting a resort there, the committee settled on a north-facing catcher’s mitt of a mountain called Pinnacle Mountain, and in 1960 Pinnacle Mountain started spinning its first surface lifts.
Like many of the ski areas dotting New England at the time, Pinnacle couldn’t survive the purge of rising insurance rates and bad snow years, and the area closed for good in 1977, but not before introducing the Baybutt brothers to a lifelong obsession.
Fred went on to take over the reins of the family construction business, yet he yearned to ski again in his hometown. When 100 acres of the former Pinnacle property went up for sale in 1999, he jumped on it, putting the family business on hold to take a shot at the ski industry.
“I can’t tell you how many boot top days I’ve had, I’ve had more great skiing days there,” recalls the 57-year-old. “I used to go to Stowe and Killington, but this area has all I need.”
Granite has been just the right recipe for many skiers in the area. Before the mountain opened in 2003, skiers had to trek an hour plus to get turns in. Today, night skiing accommodates the 9 to 5 crowd and busses full of school kids come to take lessons and bomb around with friends as part of the area’s Winter Youth Program.
Many of those kids are greeted by Operations Manager Dave Morin, or as he’s known by his hip-high compatriots, “Babysitter Dave.” Morin came to Granite Gorge during his time as a student at Keene State College. Pretty soon the thick-accented skier was digging and welding with the park crew, learning to drive snowcat, and lugging around snow guns.
“This place is a fun little jam out mountain,” says the 31-year-old. “Back then, I just saw the drive and vision it took to make it a success.”
After a short stint in event marketing, Morin felt the pull back to his adopted hill, and returned to Granite intent on cementing the area as a wintertime staple in the Granite State, while making sure it, “never outgrows who we are.”
With last year’s snowless year in rear view, Granite is now at 85-percent snowmaking coverage and has seen an influx of college students grabbing its $99 college season pass. Morin and Ski School Director Alex Kaufman have grown the Winter Youth Program to nearly 300 participants, and the adult night race league is back for another year (Baybutt says his race handicap has been a serious help with his NASTAR standing).
But above all, the little ski area on a bend in the road is helping bring the winter community in one of New England’s most overlooked regions together again. Though cranking a run down Headwall is bound to get the blood pumping, Granite is the place where neighbors go to ski with their daughters, or grab a few runs and a Long Trail while putting the week stress on hold.
For Baybutt, it’s a dream realized in his own backyard.
“We’re not one of those mountains with the six pack bubble chair,” says Baybutt. “Some people like those, but some people like our old double. It runs great.”