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Early start on the slopes

Sudden nor'easter left a trail of devastation, but many resorts already open

By Tony Chamberlain
Globe Correspondent / November 10, 2011
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For the last five years, Sunday River in Newry, Maine, has upheld its tradition of early opening - either before or after the Halloween weekend. Some years are easier than others, given the vagaries of autumn weather in northern New England.

But two weeks ago, when a classic nor’easter mixed moisture with cold air flow, the result had skiers and boarders scrambling to get snow equipment down from the rafters and onto the lifts. Nine inches fell on top of the manmade snowcover the resort had been stockpiling, and the result was a taste of midwinter.

“That 9 inches was the most perfect opening weekend gift we could ask for,’’ said Darcy Morse, a Sunday River spokesman. Morse said the first terrain open was T-2 trail on Locke Mountain, along with Upper Sunday Punch - two resort favorites.

In Vermont, Killington also enjoyed the early snow, and amid ongoing efforts to clean up the damage caused by Hurricane Irene two months go, the resort was able to get lifts running over Rime Run.

According to Killington president Chris Nyberg, the Halloween opening was the earliest since 2005.

Many areas moved forward with improvements despite suffering damage from the tropical storm that struck in late August.

Just a few miles from Sunday River, Mt. Abram in Greenwood, Maine, suffered weather damage more than a month before Irene blew in. On July 6, a freak lightning strike destroyed the ski lodge.

Without time to completely rebuild, Mt. Abram has erected a 50-by-110-foot temporary structure that will house the Loose Boots Lounge, Café, and general seating and lockers. The building, close to the main chairlift and original foundation, will become the future deck on the planned base lodge.

At Sugarloaf in western Maine, the 2020 expansion plan moved into its next phase of the Burnt Mountain Glade expansion, adding 100 acres in its quest to become the largest ski area east of the Rocky Mountains.

Sugarloaf has also opened a new lift, the $3 million Skyline Quad, to replace the Spillway double chairs, one of which derailed last season during high winds. The new lift features a conveyor loading system.

The Sunday River area also expands its glades terrain, adding about 75 acres to Blind Ambition, a glade stretching over a mile in length.

From zip lines to tubing runs and ice rinks, ski resorts have always tried to provide alternative activities for those no-ski days. Outdoing them all has to be Jay Peak resort in Jay, Vermont.

On Dec. 12, Jay Peak will open its Pump House Waterpark, a $250 million facility that will ensure a “weather-proof ski vacation.’’ The 50,000 square foot, glass-enclosed building will have a 50-foot bar overlooking the rides, which consist of a slide that drops riders into a free fall, then shoots them upside down into a standing wave called the Double Barrel Flowrider.

Also in the Northeast Kingdom, Burke Mountain, whose academy has produced dozens of Olympic athletes, will join the higher tech revolution with a new high speed quad, the Willoughby Chair. Also joining the lineup of trails and glade runs, Burke has cut five new trails off the summit.

As many areas are thinking more green, Burke has built a wind turbine on the summit, and this January will open a prototype of its first green single-family home lodging to be built at mid-Burke. These are designed to be some of the most energy-efficient, affordable ski-in, ski-out homes in New England ski country.

Down in southern Vermont, Mount Snow will open New England’s first high speed, detachable six-passenger bubble chair lift, the Bluebird Express. The lift should be on line early this season. This lift will run base to summit in seven minutes of protected travel, out of the weather. The Bluebird lift gives riders shelter, but lets them keep the footgear on.

In New Hampshire, Attitash has a non-skiing attraction in its Mountain Coaster - the Nor’easter Mountain Coaster. The ride starts at the summit and runs more than a half-mile down a 300-foot vertical, at speeds around 25 miles per hour. The ride is a two-person sled running over stainless steel rails. Single riders must be 9 years old, and all riders older than 3.

Mt. Cranmore in North Conway has expanded its tubing park for the new season and features a new Sun Kid surface lift. A new fixed grip quad has been installed to replace the old double chair, doubling the uphill capacity for the lift.

Cranmore continues to upgrade its riding parks, and now offers three. The primary one is Darkside Terrain Park featuring 30 jibs. This is for more experienced riders. The Other Side Park has small to medium elements, and the Lucky Loop Jib Park is a venue for those learning to ride with park elements.

Loon has continued to invest in new snow guns (170 of them), and has cut four new trails for this season’s opening with an increase in uphill capacity. Upper and Lower Twitcher and Jobber will add 16 acres of terrain on South Peak, and the Burton Progression Park and Dropline add terrain on Grand Junction.

Waterville Valley has made a renewed commitment to its black diamond skiers and riders who love the 4,000-foot steeps when they’re skiable. And this season, with the addition of new snowmaking pumps on summit elevations along with a new Sherpa Snowcat with a tower winch for grooming steeps, they should be more skiable than ever.

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