If I’d known what I was getting into, I’d’ve brought the Delorean instead of the Prius. The Prius was fine for getting me here — I just typed “Black Mountain Ski Area, Jackson, NH” into the GPS route-finder, and the lady with the precise accent took care of the rest. But once I got out of the car a couple of hours later, put on my carbide-studded sneakers, and looked around, I felt as if I’d stumbled into a time warp.
The crowded parking lot was just as I remembered; but instead of the ski rack-bedecked second-hand Chevys, Hudsons, and Plymouths of my youth, it was full of shiny SUVs topped with Thule boxes. Loud music and announcements echoed from the far side of the base lodge, and the snowy slopes above it were studded with swooping skiers and snowboarders in the golden afternoon.
Back in prep school during the early 1950s, after a few hard crashes and last-place finishes in races, I lost my enthusiasm for downhill skiing. A trip by ski patrol toboggan down the slopes of Snow Ridge in Turin, New York, cemented the disaffection. (For many years I saved the leather choppers I’d worn that day, frozen forever into crabs’ claws from gripping the wet tow rope.) Instead, I took up cross-country skiing, much better suited to my temperament and budget, and loved it, entering ever-longer races. The Canadian Ski Marathon, a two-day, 100-mile slog up the Ottawa Valley, was a favorite for over 30 years; and in February of 1985 my late buddy, Dudley, and I skied the 207-mile Iditaski Marathon in Alaska, an epic experience I’ve never forgotten. Meanwhile, my kids, when they could be induced to ski with me, trailed behind, grumbling about “Dad’s uphill skiing.” My affliction was obviously a one-generation phenomenon.
The Black Mountain base lodge was crowded with Friday afternoon vacation business — kids everywhere — and its ambiance familiar: snow churned up by slogging feet in boots not made for walking, and tracked partway indoors through entry halls; the chill of the rental room; the minimal restrooms; the hum of the lift motors at the foot of the slopes.
That was the end of the familiarity. The skis stacked against the outside deck were like none I’d ever seen before. They were in every imaginable bright color; broad, with scooped midsections; so thin it was hard to see how bindings could be fastened to them, made of carbon fiber, maybe. I couldn’t tell.
The film crew and I were here to record an event called Friday Night Lights. It has nothing to do with Southern high school football games, but is instead an after-dark race up and down the slopes of Black Mountain. Before the participants began to show up for registration — the race starts en masse at 7 p.m. — we went to the rental shop of the genius who started it all, one Andrew Drummond. An accomplished off-track skier himself, he saw Friday Night Lights as a way to further popularize alpine touring, already the fastest-growing segment of recreational skiing, and create a community of fellow skiers. He’s been successful in both; he expected between 70 and 80 participants that evening, and as they came into the lodge to register a bit later, there were hugs of greeting all around.
Black Mountain Ski Area is small by Mount Washington Valley standards. It’s also among the oldest; the Civilian Conservation Corps cut its first trails in 1934, and a year later the landowner built a hydroelectric dam on the nearby Ellis River to power the lifts he envisioned for the development. The area now has 40 runs and 1500 feet of relief. The snow last Friday was ideal: at least two feet of groomed powder in sparkling sunshine, temperature in the 20s. I was intrigued to see that, among the other special attractions for skiers and boarders, the area runs a speed-dating event on the (naturally) double chairlift.
Andrew’s tiny rental shop is jammed with equipment for uphill-downhill skiing. I looked in vain for a pair of my state-of-the-art New Nordic Norm backcountry bindings, which have seen me through many hundreds of miles, and learned they’re so far out of date that nobody even laughs at them anymore. Instead, Andrew shepherded people into super-light wide skis with bindings that looked like part of the clamp on a milling machine. The boots, rigid, unbending plastic, were essentially downhill boots, but pivoted cleverly at the front and, for downhill, clamped tightly at the rear.
Before dark, Andrew and an assistant set the uphill course with electric lamps on poles about 100 meters apart. The crowd of skiers slowly gathered around the start, bright headlamps shining like a hundred miners’ lights. Finally the countdown, and off they went up the mountain, everybody from kids of 10 to retirees with gray hair. A spectacular sight as they tackled the first slope. I couldn’t help but yearn I could join them. But then, hobbling up the stairs into the lounge, I reflected that it had been about 60 years since I last visited a downhill ski area. It wasn’t a time warp; it was just the lively, vigorous life marching on.
Willem Lange is a regular contributor to Weekend Magazine. He lives in East Montpelier.