Ski 93: Live Free or Ski

A road trip through New Hampshire reveals a history steeped in ski culture

This story originally appeared in the November 2015 (44.3) issue of POWDER.

Tenney Mountain, New Hampshire, reopened this year for the first time since 2010. Randy Elles shows why that’s a good idea. ALL PHOTOS: Justin Cash

We're standing on the eastern edge of Cannon Mountain, 1,900 feet above Interstate 93 where it winds through Franconia Notch. After traversing windswept granite fields and an enchanted forest of snow-capped fir and spruce trees, we've arrived at the rocky outcrop containing the cannon-shaped boulder formation that gives the mountain its name. Across the notch, the broad, craggy expanse of Mount Lafayette emerges from clouds that have been spitting snow all day.

Ten minutes ago we'd stepped off the tram and bundled up against the face- and toe-freezing cold and 30-mph winds whipping across Cannon's 4,080-foot summit. Now we're about to drop in to a network of trails on the mountain's precipitous backside. They all have names, but none of them are on the trail map.

I'm on the final leg of a three-day trip in New Hampshire, visiting the original areas of Ski 93: Tenney Mountain, Waterville Valley, Loon Mountain, Cannon, and Mittersill. In 1966, owners of these five areas embarked on a collaborative effort to entice skiers from the crowded Boston area to drive north to the small towns 130 miles up the interstate, and Ski 93 was born.

Now part of the larger Ski NH organization, the original Ski 93 classics are as alluring today as they were 50 years ago. Along the frosty northern reaches of I-93 are steeps and glades, big terrain parks, fast groomers, hidden stashes, and a hearty dose of ski history. More importantly, though, is the skiing soul embodied here by the locals who rack up 100 days of skiing each winter despite their jobs, the lifties who have been bumping chairs in the same spot for decades, and the skiers coming north along I-93, leaving behind snarled traffic and a landscape of endless buildings for a skiing fix in a world immeasurably more enchanting.

Highway 93 in New Hampshire has drawn skiers north for nearly 80 years.

Highway 93 in New Hampshire has drawn skiers north for nearly 80 years.

My own Ski 93 journey begins on a Thursday morning in February during the snowiest--and coldest--winter New England has seen in years. Big snowflakes float onto the highway, laying down a fresh dusting atop the six inches from two days ago and the foot and a half that fell last week. The extended forecast on my phone shows mostly snowflakes in the future, with a bit of cold sunshine mixed in.
The forecast doesn't hint at what tomorrow may hold for Tenney, which has been closed since 2010. New owners bought it in 2014 with the promise of opening it for winter 2015-16. About 115 miles north of Boston, Tenney's skiing started on old logging roads in the 1930s, and the ski area opened in 1960. Despite its closed status, a sign announcing "Tenney Mountain Resort" indicates where to turn.

Condominiums, many of them obviously lived in, surround the abandoned base lodge and line ski slopes spiked with brush and saplings. Chairs hang from lift cables as if the bullwheel will start turning any minute. The wide parking lot is plowed smooth, giving the sense that someone is expecting a crowd of skiers to arrive. This is where I meet my guide for the day, Tenney Mountain local Dave Lorrey. Our cars are the only ones in the lot.

"I first skied Tenney when I came to Plymouth State in '84," says Lorrey, now a real estate agent and weekend ski coach. "We came out, skied a few closed trails, took some big jumps over crossed bamboo, and got chased by patrol. They finally caught us and clipped our tickets. As we were doing the walk of shame across the parking lot, the GM came out, laughing. He said he'd been listening to the antics on the radio for the last hour and it was the most entertainment he'd had all day. He said they needed a ski school instructor and offered me a job."

The snow stops falling as we start up a faintly established skin track and climb past tall light posts from Tenney's night-skiing era. An hour and a half later, we're near the 2,350-foot summit, where wind turbines loom nearly 400 feet above the overgrown slopes. After checking our options, we decide on a downhill route along the Sunflower trail.

Waterville Valley is known as the "birthplace of freestyle," but its down-home nature welcomes all skiers.

Waterville Valley is known as the “birthplace of freestyle,” but its down-home nature welcomes all skiers.

The pitch is mellow, and we have to pick our way around scrub brush, but the snow is sweet--a creamy base under a layer of untracked boot-top fluff. Tenney is neither super steep nor very big, but it has a devoted following. "There has to be a way that small ski areas can survive," says Lorrey. "Tenney is the only hope for local kids that want to ski but can't afford the big areas."

We hop back on 93 and head north to Waterville Valley, "The Birthplace of Freestyle Skiing." Back in the days of hotdogging and ski ballet, Waterville hosted the first national freestyle exhibit, in 1971, featuring a young skier named Wayne Wong. But this was a racer's mountain first. Opened in 1966, Olympic skier Tommy Corcoran developed the area and hosted 11 World Cup races from the late '60s through the early '90s. Today, Waterville Valley Academy and the weekend Black and Blue Trail Smashers club continue to churn out racers and freestyle skiers, including bump skier and Olympic gold medalist Hannah Kearney.

Our first stop is the Schwendi Hutte, a 1966 original. After a bowl of Maine lobster bisque, we ski some hot laps on Waterville's "Sunnyside." True Grit and Lower Bobby's Run--named for Corcoran's friend Robert F. Kennedy--offer sustained steeps. Snow flurries have resumed, and beyond the high school racers on the lower mountain, we're about the only ones on the hill, which means we find a bit of soft snow with every turn.

Louise Lintilhac makes the most of her freedom at Cannon Mountain.

Louise Lintilhac makes the most of her freedom at Cannon Mountain.

Friday morning I brush yet another dusting off the windshield and head north to Lincoln. Negotiating Main Street's strip of ski shops, condos, restaurants, and real estate offices, I reach Loon Mountain. Just after 9 a.m., the parking lot is already filling up, but with three peaks to spread out the crowd, I ski right onto the lift every run.

The snow report indicates three inches of new snow, and the sky is bluebird. With the temperature hovering around zero--and the wind chill at 15 below--I'm thankful for the gondola, which drops me at the 3,840-foot summit. Here I find Loon's classic trio of bump runs--Triple Trouble, Big Dipper, and Angel Street--then ski from Loon Peak to North Peak and its long, steep groomers.

Loon pays tribute to Lincoln's logging and mill town past with trail names like Bucksaw, Crosscut, and Walking Boss--a nod to Sherman Adams, the former New Hampshire governor and President Eisenhower's Chief of Staff who opened Loon in 1966. Before he got into politics and ski area development, Adams worked for the timber industry in Lincoln as a "walking boss," traveling from one logging camp to the next to check on the crews. Today, Loon is known for top-to-bottom glade runs, views of the Kinsman, Franconia, and Presidential mountain ranges, and its six terrain parks, one of which is nearly a mile long and covers more than 15 acres.

Cannon Mountain has been known as a tough hill ever since it opened in 1933.

Cannon Mountain has been known as a tough hill ever since it opened in 1933.

The snow globe gets another shake overnight, and Saturday morning's 10-mile drive into Franconia Notch on I-93 is a mess of black ice and more new snow. It's still frigid, without any trace of sunshine and the addition of gusty winds. No matter, Cannon has been known as a tough hill since the first trail was cut there in 1933.

On this day of swirling snow and bitter winds, I opt for the shelter of the tram and runs at the top--Upper Cannon and Upper Ravine--where sweeping turns follow the mountain's contours and encourage big, fast skiing. A quick cruise down Taft, the oldest ski-racing trail in the East, leads me to the bootpack over the saddle between Cannon and the slopes of Mittersill. Founded by the charismatic Austrian Baron Hubert von Pantz in the 1940s, Mittersill's trails are lined with Tyrolean-styled chalets. Once the playground of titled Europeans and Hollywood stars, Mittersill's slopes closed in the '80s and were sold for $1 to the state, which owns Cannon Mountain. Now, Cannon and Mittersill operate under one umbrella.

For three decades after the Mittersill lifts shut down, skiers hiked to access the trails here. Today, they can get to Mittersill's only chair--a double installed in 2011--from Cannon's slopes. But when the snow is good, there's always a stream of hikers on the saddle, where a slew of hidden runs drop off both sides of the bootpack. I stick to the main route, hip-wiggling through old bumps to emerge at the top of the chair, where a left turn leads to the more untracked trails.

After a couple of laps, I bump my way down Baron's Run to the cutback that spits me out at Cannon's gentle family ski area and a short traverse back to the main Peabody Express quad and an afternoon ski date with Bob Ganley. Ganley has worked part time as a ski instructor and junior race coach here since 1987. He knows Cannon--its 94 runs on the trail map and the labyrinth of secret stashes that are not--better than just about anyone.

Gordi's Fish and Steak House, in Lincoln, has all you need for a classic ski bar.

Gordi’s Fish and Steak House, in Lincoln, has all you need for a classic ski bar.

We make our way to the unmapped side of Cannon and check out a line through the hardwoods. The pitch here is a consistent 30-40 degrees for about 1,800 feet. We drop in and find knee-deep powder: pure bliss. We are panting, smiling, and sweaty--the day's cold briefly forgotten--when we emerge from the woods near the tram's valley station.

Ganley skis until closing every day he's on the hill. "I like to ski right to the end and squeeze in as many runs as I can," he says. "Because you know, come summer, you're going to wish you were skiing."