There is a feeling of quiet awe in the grand old buildings that house universities, libraries and museums. Divining tradition and knowledge from the very walls that witnessed rich history inspires reverence. If ever an outdoor place could communicate that same feeling, it's the Dartmouth Skiway. It seems that any snapshot of skiing's history in this country leads back to Dartmouth skiers, which isn't surprising. Skiers have converged here for decades to balance intellectual challenge with a love for the outdoors and to share their passion for the sport.
The Dartmouth Outing Club was formed in the 1909-10 ski season and hosted the first competitive skiing in America-the Dartmouth Winter Carnival-on Dartmouth's Oak Hill. When archrival Middlebury College in Vermont discussed plans to build its Snowbowl Ski Area in the Fifties, Dartmouth skiers had to keep pace. In January 1957, the Skiway was inaugurated with Holt's Ledge, boasting five trails and one poma lift. Many of Dartmouth's early ski legends, such as Charlie Proctor and Dick Durrance, never competed on the Skiway slopes. Nonetheless it is their spirit and the energy of those who followed that has kept this little corner of New Hampshire a vital component of the modern ski world.
My first visit to the Skiway is perfectly timed: Carnival weekend-long a Dartmouth tradition and the best time to get a feel for the fabric that makes this area at once intimate and larger than life. I arrive to find tiny, happily charged kids clambering to the J-bar at the beginner's area. By the time I make it to the chair, the slalom is underway on Winslow Mountain, the gentler half of the ski area. Coaches, racers, students and baby-toting mothers on snowshoes line the course to watch the top NCAA racers-many of them nationally ranked skiers-battle it out in a gate-bashing blur. Dartmouth, a.k.a. Big Green, is one of few schools that manages to keep nationally ranked athletes until graduation, when they resume full-time ski racing. The level of competition here is every bit what you'd see at the U.S. National Championships, but with far less fanfare and stress.
Meanwhile in the lodge, the racing scene, the family scene and the social scene converge. The racers have staked the right half of the lodge to lounge and snack between their runs. Families, grounded by shopping-bag picnics, fill the center of the lodge, from the massive stone fireplace to the windows overlooking Holt's Ledge. On the periphery, old friends, many of them Dartmouth alums and some of them former athletes and coaches, bump into each other while ostensibly trying to move through the crowd. Clearly, the crowd's primary motivation is conversation, not locomotion. And these days the talk is more about the future than the past.
Though it's a college facility, the Skiway survives as a commercially independent venture. Season-pass sales ($130 for students and $445 for adults) are enough to help with the area's operating costs, but not to fund any improvements. A decade ago, the college realized it was time to either close the Skiway or commit to saving it. An advisory committee identified two priorities: replacing the lodge, a sentimental yet insufficient facility, and increasing snowmaking. In 1998, the Board of Trustees approved a capital campaign for up to $4 million to fund the projects. By August, thanks to the allegiance of Dartmouth alumni, that goal was met-and exceeded by another $500,000.
The campaign was kickstarted when 1969 grad Andy McClane ponied up $1.5 million toward the new lodge, which at 16,000 square feet is four times the size of the old one.
McClane was a scholarship student at Dartmouth and went on to a successful investment-banking career in Boston. "I felt an obligation to share my good fortune with Dartmouth," he says. McClane's gift is all the more satisfying to him because of its benefit not only to the school but also to the local community. "Before I made up my mind, I called my brother in Lyme, who has nothing to do with the school," McClane says. "He told me that locals consider it the Hanover/Lyme Skiway because everyone uses it so much." In fact, the ski area, located just three miles from the town of Lyme and 17 miles from Hanover, is used by 500 kids in recreation and racing programs plus another 1,100 kids from local schools. That's in addition to hosting 40 Dartmouth ski team members, 800 student season passholders and 120 student ski patrollers and ski school trainees.
Proximity isn't the only draw. The Skiway has a reputation for high-test coaching, thanks to the inordinate number of Olympic skiers who call the area home. Dartmouth alum, Olympian and U.S. Ski Team vet Tiger Shaw coaches kids in the weekend program and can handily pull off the "do as I say and as I do" methodology of teaching. "To get the most out of a small mountain you have to ski with someone better than you and seek out the terrain that challenges you," Shaw says. He takes care of both by leading the kids through the steepest, crustiest part of the mountain whenever possible.
I think of that as I return midweek to explore the Skiway. After an early March warm spell, ski season is clearly giving way to mud season, but on the rollercoaster trails of Holt's Ledge, the snow is still remarkably good. It's not enough for the Skiway simply to offer skiing. It has to be good skiing. Don Cutter has been general manager of the Skiway for the past 16 years and was a Dartmouth coach before that. "We don't just cover the trails," Cutter explains. "We bury them." Cutter runs the area with the straightforward goal of doing what's best for the skier. His philosophy is that it's better to offer a few really good trails than a bunch of pebble-strewn marginal ones. "And we have to have enough snow for Carnival. If we didn't, I'd die of embarrassment," Cutter says sincerely. With the increased snowmaking in the plans, Cutter's health is in no imminent danger.
The day I spend skiing around, I feel the area settle into its work week. The Dartmouth team is on Holt's Ledge, using all of Worden's-a training hill revered for its nasty little lesson-teaching headwall. With the NCAA Finals two weeks away, the trail is a jungle of gates, and the racers are all business.
Away from the training, I take a few runs in peaceful silence, hearing only my skis as they peel turns in the spring snow. Again I get that feeling of being in old buildings. Instead of from hallowed halls, the greater presence I feel comes from these woods and trails. I'm snapped back to the present with the arrival of the school buses and their 1,100 kids. Suddenly the woods are alive with the sounds of real shouts and turns-the sounds of the Skiway making new history.