Snow sports: Season springs into skiing festival mode in North Country
Let the spring skiing festival season begin.
Kicking off the traditionally zany and celebratory wind-down time for the New England skiing and snowboarding season is the perennially inventive Wild Corn jamboree that kicks off March 31 at King Pine ski area in Madison, New Hampshire, and runs until April 2.
Wild Corn ticket revenues support the Granite Backcountry Alliance, a nonprofit organization working in New Hampshire and western Maine to clear gladed areas for Alpine touring with volunteer labor and in cooperation with federal, state and local government authorities.
Backcountry zones and corn
The group has established many solid backcountry skiing zones across New Hampshire and Maine, including Maple Villa Glade, Black & White Glade, Baldface and the Pike Glades.
Corn of course is the glorious form of spring snow every skier and rider loves: the stuff that's been frozen overnight and melts into soft, crunchy crystals under the spring sun.
This event, now in its seventh year, is so super focused on the fast-growing sport of Alpine touring that the ski area's lifts will be shut down all weekend. Anyone who wants to ski in the various events or just test out equipment has to get uphill using their own power.
Wild Corn features snazzy gear demos from many of the brands that have targeted the skinning community (so named because of the climbing skins tourers affix to the bases of their skis and split-board snowboards). Fischer Skis is the title sponsor, but plenty of other gear purveyors will be on hand.
But organizers say the festival offers something for just about anyone, including kids, with plenty of children's activities, and especially rock music fans, who get a great lineup of bands day and night.
Fun for all
"What's most fun about this event is that you don't have to be a big skimo skier," said Sam Trombley, Granite Backcountry Alliance's marketing manager, referring to the nickname for ski mountaineering. "You don't have to come with all of your own equipment, avalanche gear or anything like that.
"Imagine just going to a local ski mountain where there's a big spring festival going on," she added. "But in this case, the only difference is that the lifts are shut down, and we have a ton of awesome music, and there are a lot of demos. So if someone has never tried skinning before, but they want to give it a shot, this is a great opportunity to do that."
The alliance has about 1,500 dues-paying members, and last year Wild Corn drew a crowd of about 500 to King Pine. This year, organizers are expecting more attendees, largely because of the stellar musical lineup.
Check the event website for ticket prices and other details.
Wild Corn opens at 5 p.m. Friday with skinning and skiing under the lights and two sets from Pink Talking Fish, the noted Pink Floyd-Phish-Talking Heads touring cover band, which goes on at 7 with a complete rendition of Pink Floyd's classic "Dark Side of the Moon" album, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.
Also playing the festival is the all-woman Mount Washington Valley band Catwolf, whose members also will perform fire dancing.
King Pine is offering rooms for Wild Corn participants for $99 a night (plus resort fee and tax) at the ski area's nearby Purity Spring Resort. Slopeside, mountainside and lakeside lodging is also available, as well as car camping facilities.
Most Wild Corn aficionados consider the highlight of Saturday's goings-on to be the slightly wacky skimo race put on each year by Granite Backcountry Alliance board member Andrew Drummond, owner of the Jackson, New Hampshire-based Ski The Whites Alpine touring shop and brand.
The unpredictable course Drummond sets has racers skinning up and skiing down with the opportunity to jump off the "backcountry booter" jump he builds to entertain the participants and fans. Sunday's schedule features final ski laps, vendors and more activities.
"The event is a great opportunity to get out and try out new gear and talk to people who really want to bring new folks into the backcountry community and get people into the uphill scene, because it is human-powered recreation is less environmentally impactful," Trombley said. "It that doesn't really matter if you've been skinning for 40 years or if you've never tried it before."
The longest-running and probably biggest and best spring festival in New England ski country is the 35th annual Reggae Festival that runs April 6-9 at Maine's Sugarloaf.
"Prepare yourself for four days of music and non-stop parties at the base of Sugarloaf Mountain," is this big Downeast mountain's party mantra.
I hit this legendary northern Vermont ski area last Friday with my old ski friends John Bateman of Leominster and Gregor Bernard of Milford, New Hampshire.
The conditions were great — tons of soft snow from the most recent storms, and moderate temperatures in the 20s on the hill. That situation was to change into rock-hard snow surfaces throughout Vermont the next day after a spate of rain Friday afternoon and evening, followed by plunging temperatures. Well, that's New England skiing.
Every time I come back to Sugarbush, I entertain the proposition that this place has the best overall terrain in New England. Sugarbush is now owned by Alterra Mountain Company after many years of enlightened ownership by former Merrill Lynch chairman Win Smith, who sold to Alterra in 2020 for a reported $100 million.
With a 2,600-foot vertical drop, 508 skiable acres, 53 miles of trails and 11 ski-able gladed areas and 262 inches of average annual snowfall spread across four distinct peaks, this 64-year-old resort boasts a mind-boggling array of fearsome steeps, cruisers, woods, and ungroomed lift-served runs.
Sugarbush also is home to the world's longest chairlift, the Slide Brook Express, an 11,000-foot, bi-directional, up-and-down, high-speed quad built in 1995 that connects Lincoln Peak with Mount Ellen. It re-opened recently after a two-year closure due largely staffing and maintenance problems.
I rode it for the first time the other day, and the 15-minute ride is nothing less than spectacular, soaring over gorgeous backcountry with steep drops over ridges that poke out into the dense Green Mountain forest.
Alterra, which also owns Stratton, Mount Tremblant and Snowshoe Mountain in the East and is the corporate force behind the popular Ikon megapass, has done a fine job with Sugarbush.
Earlier this week, Alterra said it will invest $500 million over the next year to improve the guest and employee experience at its 16 North American ski resorts. Included in that are snowmaking improvements and affordable employee housing at Sugarbush.
New ski lifts needed
However, the plan bore no mention of new lifts for Sugarbush, lifts this immensely rewarding ski area plainly needs.
We are nearing the third full year of Alterra ownership and still no new lifts built or publicly planned for Sugarbush. The resort has five high-speed quads, including Slide Brook, and no sixpacks. Other than those, it has a slow double, five slow quads, a slow triple and a race training-dedicated T-bar.
That aging, breakdown-plagued fleet is not up to modern standards for a ski area of this size and repute.
By comparison, Stratton in southern Vermont flaunts four high-speed six-passenger lifts, a high-speed quad (built by Alterra), a 10-person gondola, two slow quads and a double, and one slow triple. Mount Snow, owned by arch-competitor Vail Resorts, boasts two high-speed sixpacks, four high-speed quads (one bubbled and with heated seats), and five slow triples and a double. Vail has built two of those lifts since it bought the ski area in 2019.
Sugarbush deserves a lift upgrade.
In any event, I'll keep coming back.
—Contact Shaun Sutner by e-mail at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on Telegram & Gazette: Snow sports: Season springs into skiing festival mode