Big memories on a small Berkshire mountain
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A small New England ski area begins to fall on hard times. The proliferation of mega-resorts slowly draws once-loyal skiers and boarders away from the hill, and money becomes tight. It gets worse when global warming gathers force and snow becomes as scarce as straight skis. Soon the mountain is forced to close, adding to the crop of defunct ski areas scattered throughout the region.
There’s only one catch: This has not happened to Blandford Ski Area. Nestled in the Berkshire foothills, Blandford is the oldest club-owned ski area in North America, according to its fiercely loyal members. The Springfield Ski Club is celebrating the mountain’s 75th season, with the club itself having been established around 1934, at the height of the Great Depression.
I grew up skiing Blandford every weekend through the mid-1990s. I had not been back in some 15 years and, looking to escape the corporate climate of some resorts, I decided to see how much nostalgic skiing could still be rubbed from that magic lamp of my youth.
So, one Saturday morning earlier this month, I arrived to lightly falling snow. By all appearances, the mountain looked just as I had left it — and, to the untrained eye, it doesn’t look all too impressive. In fact, some might say calling Blandford a mountain is a disservice to rocky peaks everywhere. At only 465 vertical feet, the ski area cannot boast mile-long runs. But it does offer enough diversity and personal touches to counterbalance any perceived deficiencies in elevation.
I took one of three double chairs to the summit and soon laid claim to my own stretch of freshly groomed corduroy. By my side was my cousin Bill, who shared many of my childhood skiing exploits and who, like me, hadn’t carved a turn at Blandford in the new millennium.
Like so many club members, we chose Broadway for our first run of the day. It’s the longest and widest of Blandford’s 22 trails and is perfect for cranking giant slalom turns. Stopping halfway down the gently rolling slope, we both noticed something remarkable. The view from the trail remained unblemished. There were no resort condos to be seen, no blinking cellphone towers, only a sea of white-capped hills extending to the distant horizon.
Not to be outdone by the panorama, Blandford exudes an authentic flair at nearly every turn. The trails at the center of the mountain are wide and preserved from the club’s earliest days, when the base was nothing more than cow pastures that were groomed by wandering cattle in summer and leased by the farmer to intrepid skiers in winter.
As one goes up the mountain and toward the right, the trails become increasingly narrow. There were days that Bill and I would ski these almost exclusively, alternating between Yodeler, which slices through the forest at the top of the mountain, and three steeper runs that comprise the north slope. These trails, along with Put’s Peril, arguably the hill’s most iconic run, have for me always defined Blandford’s terrain and history.
As a true ski club, the trails were all cut by volunteer hands. Club members would arrive for “work parties’’ in the summer and fall and carve out idiosyncratic little runs shaped by the mountain’s natural contour. Their handiwork can also be found alongside Glade, the hill’s first trail. Among the pines are the wheels of a long abandoned ski tow, its predecessor powered by an old Ford motor that club members salvaged from a local junk yard.
The volunteers still come, said club president David Schoen. More than 300 volunteers do nearly everything: paint chairlifts, mow lawns, maintain snowmaking equipment, and repair Blandford’s two lodges.
“What keeps them returning,’’ Schoen said, “is a sense of community you don’t find anywhere else. Generations learn to ski together at Blandford and return year after year for the camaraderie. If you don’t know the names, then you know the faces and that’s what makes a small mountain special.’’
When Bill and I entered the old lodge for lunch, too much time had passed for us to recognize any faces, but the ambience in the rustic building, built in 1941, was more than familiar. “It’s like we were just here yesterday,’’ said Bill, echoing my thoughts.
Families were eating together on long, gray picnic tables as wood crackled in the oversized brick fireplace. On the mantle were old hickory skis and the club’s famed “bunkhouse trophy,’’ a porcelain bowl that dates to the 1950s. The scent of dozens of home-cooked meals filled the air. While Blandford has a cafeteria in the new lodge, the ski area allows families to plug in slow cookers along the walls, so they can enjoy their own chili or pasta e fagioli for lunch or during impromptu après-ski festivities.
Blandford seems to embrace tradition in all its forms. In early February, it holds a longstanding cardboard box race, during which participants slide down the mountain in a variety of surprisingly sophisticated contraptions. Later in the month, the area holds its annual jubilee, which includes a torchlight parade on skis, dinner and dancing, and liberal portions of glühwein, a hot, spiced wine.
But that’s not to say Blandford is a time capsule. Night skiing was introduced in the late 1990s and continues to expand. So do the two terrain parks for snowboarders and freestyle skiers, which helps keep a young crowd devoted to the slopes.
“Blandford is where we want to be in the winter,’’ said club volunteer Lisa Masciadrelli, who runs Ski with Me lessons for children ages 3 to 6, while her husband, Greg , directs the area’s extensive Snowsports Education Center. The couple put in 12- to 14-hour days on Fridays and weekends and are part of a team that also organizes instruction for nearly 600 elementary schoolchildren each week, offers ladies-only ski classes, and provides training assistance to Special Olympians who practice here.
Families come to Blandford each weekend from as far away as Brooklyn, N.Y., most for the same reasons that make the Masciadrellis fixtures on the mountain. “I love those coveted chairlift rides with my kids,’’ said Lisa, “where I can share time with my family and enjoy what’s important in life.’’
It was my first day back to Blandford since I was a teenager, but riding up the chairlift with my cousin I couldn’t help but feel the same way. Apparently, you can go home again.
Matthew Bellico can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.