Way to go, skiers and boarders. You’ve survived the unkindest months of all, and the vagaries of December and January skiing, and you’ve earned the right to bite into the succulent tenderloin of February and March.
Hopefully your noses, toes and fingertips are still intact, and you can finally be recognized on the hill by your friends who had no idea who was hiding under the body armor and full mask that passed for winter fashion.
The past couple of months may go down in the books for having set a new discomfort record, and many of us have the scars and blemishes resulting from 30- to 40-below wind-chilled rides on the chair.
Despite having had the bravery (my wife says stupidity) to insist on getting out for first tracks before the pale sun even had a chance to cast forth a single ray of warmth, our peeling ears, multiple-skinned noses and split lips bear vivid testimony to the fact some of us – in fact many of us, I’ve been encouraged to see – have paid dearly but earned the right to finally, actually, genuinely enjoy more than three or four hours a day out on the hill.
We’re now seeing the dawn of what many of us like to call the real ski season as the flat light of early- and late-day runs turn into sunlit slopes and trails, and the sun doesn’t dip behind the mountain shortly after noon. I even have some friends (wimps) who succumb to their wives’ insistence that they spend December and January in the sunny south.
But they’ve missed a lot more than the pleasure of shivering in the cold. They’ve missed the steaming mug up at Java Joe’s after the first couple of runs; the friendly camaraderie of the ad hoc AARP meeting at Bullwinkle’s at 10 a.m.; the welcome click of the lock as Jay opens The Bag for the day and friendly waitresses bring over a cup of hot chowder and a baguette; the scrumptious hot pastries in the Saddleback base lodge; the toddy later in the day at the cozy Whig and Smelt; and the popular hot cocoa at the Camden Snow Bowl.
There are compensations despite the early winter discomfort. In fact, Mother Nature even had an unexpected gift for me. Although many people think of last Sunday as Groundhog Day, I still remember that it’s also celebrated as Candlemas Day, the midpoint between the shortest day of the year and the spring equinox when, as the old saying goes, you should still have half your wood and half your hay.
The hay I don’t worry about any more, but as for the wood I noticed we’ve burned a far greater percentage of our allotted four cords in the old Queen Atlantic in the kitchen and the Garrison in the living room so far this winter. But old Ma Nature kindly brought down huge sections of three 150-year-old maples that border our farm. As soon as the snow melts I’ll have the fun(?) of working up a bunch of firewood to store in the stable for seasoning until next winter.
One thing I’ve noticed on the slopes starting in February is that skiers and boarders seem to be taking a much less serious approach. First, there’s the shedding of layers and layers of mummifying gear, and masks finally come off so you can recognize who it is that’s hailing you in the lift line or sitting next to you on the chair. Then there seems to be a mellowing of the frenetic pace endemic to the first couple of months of the season when it’s all about getting in as much vertical in a day as you can, and seeking out untracked powder to get ahead of everybody else.
And you’ll start to see folks who usually hang ’em up by lunchtime skiing later and later to take advantage of the increasing mid-day warmth, and the fun of late afternoon runs on trails on which the crowds have thinned.
It was about this time of the season when my old skiing buddy at Pleasant Mountain, the late Al Ordway, took great pride in not only making first chair but skiing right up to the closing bell. He even gained fame for packing a peanut butter sandwich in the pocket of his parka so he didn’t have to stop for lunch.
And this part of the year is just prelude to what we know is next: Spring skiing with its warm sun, soft corn and the aroma of burgers grilling on the deck as the memories of frostbite and wind closings fade into the recesses of our minds.
John Christie is a former ski racer and ski area manager and owner, a ski historian and member of the Maine Ski Hall of Fame. He and his son, Josh, write columns on alternating weeks. He can be reached at: