From my earliest days on the hill, I was trained that the only way to ski is to be the first one there – a 5 a.m. wake-up call, on the road by 6, in the locker room or base lodge by 8. Grab the first chair for fresh, untracked snow. “It’s the best skiing you’ll get,” early bird proponents say. “Get there as soon as possible. No friends on powder days.”

It’s a philosophy that ski resorts are more than happy to indulge. Sugarloaf even includes “first tracks” privileges with their most expensive season pass; the perk allows passholders to start riding the chair at 7:30 a.m. on Sunday mornings, when the sun is just starting to peek over Burnt Mountain.

And I’m not here to dissuade anyone from the notion that early morning skiing can be great. It can be bone-numbingly cold, and the snow can be teeth-chatteringly hard, but it can deliver first tracks and bragging rights. Not to mention a parking spot that’s within sight of the base lodge, rather than in the next town over.

However, I’d like to write in praise of afternoon skiing.

Like a lot of folks, my internal clock shifted a bit when I hit college age. My mornings got hazier, my alarm was set later. But as a ski industries student at the University of Maine at Farmington, I still spent a huge chunk of my winter skiing. Living only an hour from Sugarloaf, Saddleback and Sunday River (a bit less if no cops were on Route 27) meant the mountains were always calling. After finishing a morning of classes at noon, it was easy to justify a trip to the hill to ride until last chair.

When you’ve spent your entire life skiing mornings, the whole endeavor takes on a different feel late in the day. Rather than joining a convoy of Thule-ed and bumper-stickered cars on the access road, you’re waving to passing cars as you speed uninterrupted to the lodge. The lodge can be crowded, but with departures rather than arrivals.

The conditions can be a mixed bag, with hours of skier traffic logged since trails were last groomed. However, it can be a blessing here in the East. Subzero temperatures can leave slopes rock hard in the predawn hours, with freshly groomed “corduroy” that more closely resembles a Columbus Washboard. By early afternoon, hundreds of skier trips chop the cover into more easily carvable snowpack. The warmth of a New England afternoon helps soften the snow and also aids in skier comfort. It might not seem like much, but 10 extra degrees and the sun high in the sky can do a lot to brighten your spirits. It also changes your perspective on familiar trails, casting light and shadows from the west rather than the east.

There’s also a proper sense of finality that comes with starting late and skiing until last chair. It becomes that much more tempting to push yourself and race the clock, packing in as many runs as possible before the lifts shut down for the day. You see skiers and riders pushing for the lift to open early when you’re in the line for first chair, but I’d wager the begging for “just one more chair” at 4 is even more emphatic. A burger or pint at Sunday River Brewing Company also feels that much more appropriate at twilight than lunchtime.

If you don’t have a season pass, there’s also a financial incentive for afternoon skiing. Many of Maine’s ski areas offer half-day or afternoon tickets. Starting at noon at Sunday River or Sugarloaf drops the price by over $20, and prices at community slopes like Shawnee Peak and Camden Snow Bowl fall by 20 percent after noon. Even Nordic skiers can find similar benefits – my favorite local spot, Pineland, cuts prices by a third after 1 p.m.

This isn’t to discount night skiing, another activity that comes with its own joys and challenges. But planning for a night of skiing doesn’t have the same appeal as a bit of afternoon delight, where you can work in the morning, ski, and be home in time for a family dinner. There’s something about it that feels almost subversive, like you’re getting away with something.

Since graduating college, my schedule has moved back to mostly early morning and first tracks. Still, I maintain a retail schedule that grants me the occasional afternoon off, and I can bag a few of these later days every year. If you’re a die-hard believer in getting the first chair every time, I highly recommend taking a late day every now and then. It’s a great way to see your favorite mountain in a whole new light.

Josh Christie is a freelance writer and lifetime outdoors enthusiast. He shares column space in Outdoors with his father, John Christie. Josh can be contacted at:

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