Hometown Hills: Cranmore Is More

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North Conway, N.H., is a place East Coast shoppers know about. It bills itself as "The Outlet Capital of New England," boasting an 80-store strip beckoning your plastic. It's also a place skiers know about¿as that ornery bumper-to-bumper Route 16 bottleneck that eventually delivers them to the big mountains north of town. But it's also home to much more¿specifically Mt. Cranmore, one of the most legendary, neighborly and least expensive ski areas in the Northeast.

About the legendary part. It began with Hannes Schneider, the pioneering skimeister from St. Anton, Austria, who came to America in 1939 to teach skiing at the behest of North Conway banker and Mt. Cranmore owner Harvey Dow Gibson. Hannes taught and lived here for 16 years. His son Herbie¿now 75 and a Mt. Cranmore icon who locals fondly call "Zip"¿can still ski the pants off anyone half his age. The area's Austrian roots sprout up annually for the Meister Cup, a two-day snow celebration of Austria vs. U.S., including races, technique demonstrations and banquets that draw thousands of fans festively dressed in historic garb.

Not that Mt. Cranmore is any St. Anton. In fact, many skiers scarcely even notice the 192-acre resort that looms behind North Conway's factory outlet storefronts as they plug slowly along Main Street en route to Black Mountain, Wildcat or Attitash Bear Peak. No matter. Locals are proud to tell you that Mt. Cranmore is still the oldest, continually operated ski area in the U.S.

As for being neighborly, when I plunked down for a cup of morning coffee at the Cranmore Pub, a half dozen locals were at the next table making plans for Karen's Day¿an annual ski commemoration to honor a local 5-year-old who died suddenly in 1989. Last year, more than 400 showed up at the resort for the eighth annual event, with proceeds benefiting local schools. People are like that here. It's a middle-class place, and the majority of jobs are tourism-related; business owners comprise only 10 percent of the population. Says Peter Pinkham, local realtor and former owner of The North Conway Mt. Inn, "It's not easy making a living here. Wages aren't much, so people work harder. But people don't come here to make money. They come for the outdoor lifestyle."

As for being affordable, where else can you ski in these parts for $29 all day, every day, weekends and holidays included? Compare that to $48 weekend lift tickets at Attitash Bear Peak or $46 at Wildcat and the savings become even more evident.

This relative value has not gone unnoticed within the ski industry. Les Otten snapped up Cranmore in 1996 during the American Skiing Company's resort-buying rampage. Problem was the U.S. Justice Department felt that ASC's purchase of Attitash, Waterville Valley and Cranmore¿in addition to its ownership of numerous other New England resorts¿reeked of trade restraint and ordered ASC to divest itself of Waterville and Mt. Cranmore in February 1996. Hence, North Conway, which saw Otten bring the mountain out of bankruptcy and quickly pump $3 million into the area, went into a funk. It was a marginal snow year at Mt. Cranmore, and as a result skier visits fell. To make matters worse, with the heady infusion of new capital, the area had misaligned its position in the marketplace¿from family area to destination resort¿and that backfired as well. Locals and families stayed away in droves.

Then the White Knight arrived. Booth Creek Holdings' George Gillett, who as owner of Vail in the Eighties skyrocketed that resort into industry dominance, took up the gauntlet in the spring of 1996 and went about making Mt. Cranmore better at what it was already good at¿providing great skiing for local skiers. Gillett implemented a popular new pricing plan, dropping lift tickets to $29 from $39 the previous year. A new Magic Carpet beginner's area, complete with "snow toys," such as snowbikes, to help newcomers master carving skkills, was also added. Skier visits rose 6 percent to 71,000 in a matter of two years.

Despite the million-dollar improvements, in New England at least, the bottom line is: How does the resort ski? Judy Kennedy and her husband, Dan, moved to North Conway from Boston two years ago. "I wouldn't ski anywhere else," she says. "Cranmore is a town mountain in the best sense. It has great people and something for everyone."

The best skiing, if you like it Eastern-gritty, is on the north side, where Hannes and Herbie cut the trails by hand. Ski Meister, Rattlesnake, Kandahar, Hurricane and Arlberg are not only a slice of skiing's history, they're bonafide swoopers¿wide in spots, narrow in others¿and high-octane cruisers that meander, zip and zap with challenges and surprises to delight from beginning to end. The lower mountain's south side is primarily beginner terrain. Don't miss the Bandit shortcut back to the base, or you'll be faced with an interminable traverse to the quad.

Dividing the north and south sides are Middle Slope and Competition Hill, steep racing trails that everyone from the Mountain Meisters to Boston's cops uses to settle bets. For bonafide glade skiing, head to Black Forest, Pipeline and Treemeister. And if your knees are up to it, take a slide on Koessler, Cranmore's toughest run. It's ungroomed and always moguled, but its south-facing bumps are usually soft.

At the top of the mountain is Meister Hut, where the cozy Tyrolian ambiance will have you convinced that the hut was transplanted from the Arlberg. There are historic photos of Hannes on the job, early snowpacking crews and Red "Hot Rod" Holmes' amazing vintage-Forties grooming machine.

The combination of good-old-days nostalgia and the new full-steam-ahead ownership makes for a unique ski experience that is at once intriguing and welcoming. Says Adam Hirshan, editor of the Conway Daily Sun, "The community is happy. Cranmore can now protect its niche as a beloved place for families¿as well as a fun place for others."