The parking lot is about half full when I pull into Black Mountain in Jackson, New Hampshire, just before 6 o'clock. The lifts stopped spinning a couple hours ago, and the late-winter sky is fully dark. But the no-frills base lodge is bustling with mellow energy, as skiers gear up for Friday Night Lights, a weekly uphill-downhill series that is more social than competitive.
In one corner of the lower level, Andrew Drummond fits skiers into AT gear and explains to newbies how the bindings work, how to properly remove and fold skins, and to remember to lock the boots from uphill to downhill mode before transitioning on the mountain.
"Thank you for doing this," one woman, who seems to be a regular-Jill-type skier in her 50s, says to Drummond as he greets skiers and moves equipment. "This is such a great community you're helping to build."
That's music to Drummond's ears. The 36-year-old endurance athlete and mountain enthusiast is a founding board member of the Granite Backcountry Alliance, a non-profit striving to educate skiers and develop backcountry routes in and around the Mount Washington Valley, where options run from high alpine routes like Mount Washington's famous Tuckerman Ravine to once-forgotten ski trails carved from the forest 80 years ago by the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps.
Drummond rents and sells AT gear from his Ski the Whites shop, which he opened at Black in December. He started Friday Night Lights as a way to promote AT skiing and bring together local backcountry enthusiasts and newcomers to the burgeoning uphill movement. FNL was meant to be a six-week series, but it's been so popular he's extended it through the winter.
"I had the Valley Pass for two years," Drummond said, referencing a local ski pass that allows skiers access to the handful of areas in the Valley. "I would never punch Black, because I didn't know anyone skiing here, and there were no events to draw me in. The whole uphill scene is really putting Black Mountain in the conversation and giving people a reason to come here."
The first week of FNL, about 30 people showed up, braving bitter sub-zero temps to ski a lap or two up and around the designated route. The next week more people joined in, this time skiing through the rain-softened snow. By week three of FNL, there were 80 people on the hill and a couple dozen more hanging out to watch the action from inside the bar.
Drummond has seen budding friendships form through runs in the dark as skiers made plans to train together or become backcountry partners. He's also seen a spark of interest in AT skiing grow robust at this family-owned ski area.
Jackson (population roughly 815) is a ridiculously quaint town - there's a covered bridge, a white-steepled church, and a couple of farmhouse-turned-B&B operations - tucked between two winding east-west state highways and bordered on all sides by the White Mountain National Forest. And Black Mountain is small by Mount Washington Valley standards.
It's the kind of area skiers are unlikely to stumble across on their own. But give them a reason to come, and they'll be quick fans - especially if they show up for Friday Night Lights.
The music blaring from the outdoor speakers as I head out to the start matches the vintage of the chairlifts at Black: sometime between 1965 (the double) and 1982 (the triple). There's some Pink Floyd, a bit of Elton John, The Kinks, and a playlist of other groovy tunes.
I click into my bindings and slide to the back of the pack of 40 or so racers gathered at the casual start line. Drummond's girlfriend, former U.S. Ski Teamer Hilary McCloy, sends us off into the night - she'll run a sweep lap later - and a combination of serious racers and casual skiers in singles, pairs, and family groups heads up the mountain.
Near the back of the pack, I follow the receding headlamps ahead of me. At the transition area, I catch up with a girl who looks to be about 11. She's the only one I see that night not on AT gear and has just changed from snowshoes into race boots. She's decked out in slalom gear, complete with a chin guard and pole guards, which her dad declares too much of a hassle to take off for tonight's adventure and put back on for tomorrow's race training.
Also there are weekenders Keri Fabrizio and her 13-year-old son, Anthony, a first-time uphill skier. Keri's taken a couple of daytime tours up Black, but this is her first FNL outing. Despite being a runner of marathons, she declares, "That kicked my butt!"
The fast skiers, the ones sporting speedy ski-mo spandex, are long gone by the time I push off down the mountain to connect the dots of LED lights marking this week's zig-zagging path back to the base area, where I'm greeted by a cowbell-ringing McCloy.
Some skiers head out for another lap through the dark. Others - families, 20-somethings, and middle-aged skiers - gather in Black's Lostbo Pub, where glittery red hearts leftover from Valentine's Day still adorn the beams and there's a single bartender on duty.
Drummond, who did two fast laps before I'd finished one, is still out on the hill. He'll stick around until everyone has gone home, and be back early Saturday to open the shop for the weekend crew of uphill and backcountry skiers.
"It's a lot of work doing these events," he says. "But it's all about fun. You get to socialize, meet like-minded people, maybe find a backcountry partner. The highlight of my week is when I watch two people connect at Friday Night Lights."