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Comeback Trails: Attitash, NH

Comeback Trails: Attitash, NH

New owners finally put Attitash on the path of progress.
By Moira McCarthy, Contributor, SKI Magazine
posted: 11/18/2008

If Attitash, N.H., were one of those celebrity kids you read about, who would it be? Easy: Maddox Jolie-Pitt.

Bear with me. Both suffered neglect in their youths. Both struggled to survive. And both have been adopted by loving new parents who see their potential.

Attitash’s new parent (company) is Indiana-based Peak Resorts, and to be sure, reviews were mixed when that was announced in 2007. Midwestern owners? Would they understand and respect the culture of Mt. Washington Valley skiing? Would they raise prices? Would they finally fix up aging base facilities? See more pictures of Attitash.

My family and I, longtime Attitash skiers, had a chance to find out during our annual pilgrimage. And one visit was proof positive: Under new management, Attitash has a new lease on life.

Promising signs emerged early in the season. First, the new owners demonstrated that they understood that affordability was one key issue. Loyal pass holders were delighted to hear that Peak would hold the line on prices.

Then came the fan guns. Not just a few. Dozens of them, lined up one after another down the side of Illusion, one of Attitash’s most universally loved trails. For the first time in anyone’s memory, Illusion would have superb conditions from Day One of the season—
evidence that if there’s one thing a Midwestern ski company knows, it’s that, in the end, it’s all about the snow.

From there, nature took over. To say that 2007–08 was the best snow winter in memory isn’t hyperbole. It had been 48 years since an equal amount of snow fell. By midwinter, Attitash regulars, who had begun to wonder if their sport was cursed, instead began to worry about snowbanks that were too high and roofs that needed shoveling. And somewhere along the way, a wonderful thing happened. A sense of community—long
dormant at Attitash—began to gel again.

***

My family and I have long visited Attitash every Martin Luther King weekend. In recent years, we’d learned to lower our expectations. The year before last, for instance, we found a few strips of soggy man-made snow surrounded by mud—in January. As we recall, it rained, then froze. The year before that, we awoke to tropical downpours. So on this trip, we were positively giddy to find so much natural snow.

We arrived on a Friday night, and the difference at Attitash—the new Attitash—was immediately apparent. “There’s a regular Friday night party in one of the condos every weekend now,” my friend Jean told me. We headed over to find a large slopeside condo packed with regulars—plus a few newbies—drinking wine, noshing, getting to know one another. Everyone was energized, like new friends at the start of an exciting adventure. It was a vibe I hadn’t felt since the ’70s.

In the morning we hit the hill early, heading straight for Bear Peak. It’s Attitash’s newer section, added in the ’90s, with broad cruisers to complement the narrow originals. Illusion, groomed and waiting, was a joyride. And the rest of the morning only brought more of the same: trails well maintained, snow everywhere.

Attitash has changed little since its creation in mid-’60s, despite the addition of the Bear Peak terrain. It has a distinctly New England feel—trails a bit narrower and twistier than you’ll find elsewhere, trees a little thicker, and always a trail intersection just ahead for stopping and admiring the magnificent view across the headwaters of the Saco River to the southern flanks of the Mt. Washington massif. It’s the kind of place that feels like home to an Eastern skier. And on this weekend, every trail choice was a good one. Even Ptarmigan, considered by many to be New Hampshire’s steepest, longest, narrowest run, was open top to bottom. And it seemed like every stop at the top was another chance for someone to say hello, share a trail tip or remind us they’d met us the night before. At noon, Jean’s phone rang with word of an impromptu barbeque lunch at another regular’s slopeside deck. She headed over. With an impressive 52 ski days logged, she could afford to skip a few runs. But I kept skiing. How could I not? Long-slumbering Attitash was suddenly alive and shining.

***

There’s still work to be done, but Peak appears to be up to the challenge. The Attitash base lodge, for instance, which could politely be called quaint, is in great need of an update. The owners promise a new look, fireplaces, even an outdoor fire pit in time for this winter. The gear rental system, once dismal, will have changed, too. In fact, general manager Kent Graham is focusing all his energy on such fundamentals.

“We need to win back those who used to love it here,” says Graham. “We need to do all we can to make it the best experience it can be. Snow surfaces, better facilities—that’s all a big part of that.”

Weeks after my family’s visit, Graham and his wife, Robin, hosted a party for Attitash pass holders—as hardy a bunch as there is anywhere, one that has endured horrific seasons and weathered years of disappointment under the ownership of debt-hobbled American Ski Co. Phrases like “unloved stepchild” have long been tossed around at Attitash. Persistent appeals for better snowmaking and facilities upgrades went unheard or unheeded. What would these Midwesterners have to tell them?

“This place has been treated like the red-headed stepchild,” Graham admits. “We knew it needed attention, and we knew that on-site ownership was a must.”

To that end, Kent and Robin had pulled up their Midwestern roots and made the Mt. Washington Valley their home. Always visible on the hill, they worked all winter to show loyalists they were committed. The pass holders meeting would be key, and yet the Grahams weren’t about to make promises they didn’t intend to keep. Case in point: the poky fixed-grip triple, long a sore point among Attitash regulars. Kent and Robin walked into the room prepared to tell these loyalists that the one thing many of them had hoped for most—replacement of that old triple–was not going to happen. Kent Graham addressed the topic quickly. Since the triple seldom has lines, he told them, the wait would not change. A high-speed lift would access the summit more quickly, but wasn’t worth the $6 million investment. Rather, Graham said, he’d like to improve facilities, snowmaking and grooming, so that when pass holders got to the top, there’d be something there worth loving.

***

The reaction? Agreement. “Once they pointed it out, it just made sense,” said my friend Jean, a pass holder. “There are other things that make a mountain great, and there’s no way to replace that lift without prices soaring. I’m good with it.”

So was everyone else. The Grahams pointed out that liftlines are hard to find at Attitash, and that the trail system skis well now, with overcrowding seldom an issue. A faster lift would only cost a lot and put a lot more skiers on trail at any given moment.

Loyalists not only bought it, they embraced it. The Midwesterners showed the Easterners how it needed to be done. And it worked.

The 2007—2008 season being what it is, my husband and I find ourselves in an unusual situation in early April: All the East’s ski resorts are still 100 percent open. On a whim and with no plan, we head back to Attitash. Midwinter snow and bright spring sunshine greet us. The mountain is busy. Burgers grill outside at the base. The Friday night partiers spread word of a midday meet-up for sausages outside a condo. Everyone–everyone–is smiling. For the first time in Attitash history, there is even pond-skimming. My husband, suddenly gripped with spring fever, signs up. I think he’s nuts, but as he swooshes from shore to shore to the cheers of spectators, I think, why not? So much good has happened over the year. Attitash—like the forlorn Maddox—has finally found someone who understands its potential. Nature nodded its approval with record-breaking snow. The Attitash community became just that—a community. And the best, it appears, is yet to come. Thanks to some Midwesterners. Go figure.

SIGNPOST: Attitash, New Hampshire

283 acres; 1,750 vertical feet; base elevation 600 feet; summit elevation 2,350 feet; 142 annual inches; 75 runs; 12 lifts. Tickets (weekends): adults $65; teens (13–18) $52; juniors (6–12) and seniors (65-plus) $45; military personnel $55

Lodging: Attitash Grand Summit has the only slopeside beds, with studios to four bedrooms, fireplaces, restaurants and outdoor pool and spa ($109–$379 per
person, including lift tickets (800-223-7669; attitash.com). Nearby, Bernerhof Inn offers equal parts charm and sophistication, with in-room Jacuzzis, restaurant and pub ($124–$234; 800-548-8007; bernerhofinn.com).

Dining: Try Bellini’s for Italian that would stand up in Little Italy (603-356-7000; bellinis.com). In Jackson, the Red Fox has great ribs and a laid-back atmosphere (603-383-4949; redfoxpub.com).

Getting There: From Boston (3-plus hours), take I-93 to Exit 23, then Route 104, then Route 25 east to Route 16, then 16 north to Glen, then 302 west 3 miles to Attitash.

Info: 800-223-7669; attitash.com

- SKI Magazine, December 2008

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