I arrive in Jackson, N.H. - Wildcat's quaint hometown - on a Friday afternoon. It's a mild early-spring day, and as the alpenglow colors the Presidential range, its pinky orange radiance warms me. As I do every time I'm in the area, I take a wistful spin past what was once my family's beloved ski house - still there, still adorable. And as always, I leave a note in the door. ("If you ever want to sell....) I pause on the steps, looking down on Jackson, remembering how we used to call it Whoville. Its trim buildings are dots way below me. Behind them, the mountains, including Wildcat.
I grew up a Jackson skier, so I know what's in store for me the next day. Wildcat is an unspoiled, underexploited exception in an era of resort excess and creature comforts. Strict White Mountain National Forest laws prevent its owners from undertaking any slopeside development, so the closest lodging remains 10 miles away. But in the end, that's what makes the place special, with its varied terrain, abundant challenge and incredible scenery unmarred by trophy homes and commercial clutter.
I've skied Wildcat with buddies on powder days and raced down its face on cold days when the snow was hard and fast. I've sunned on its deck and gazed at its trails from across the notch in Tuckerman Ravine. But it's been a while, and I'm anxious to see if, like my family's old ski house, it still makes my heart race.
I arrive in time for first tracks Saturday morning. Though I'm just days removed from a powder-choked Jackson Hole trip, I'm thrilled to feel the sun on my face and to be able to look out at the vista. The sky is that azure-to-periwinkle blue that you only see on crystal clear days amid epic mountains like the Tetons or the Presidentials. I see that the trails are mostly groomed today - they look perfect. It's warm enough that I don't need an extra layer, cool enough to keep the spring snow firm.
I hop the quad - possibly the best thing ever to happen to Wildcat - and soar to the top, a six-minute ride to 2,100 feet of vertical. I head immediately to Polecat, which remains one of America's best beginner trails. It runs top-to-bottom, tracing a crooked path down the northern perimeter of the area. As I wind my way down, the amazing views of Mt. Washington - right into the heart of Tuckerman Ravine - change constantly. Like a lot of trails at Wildcat, Polecat plays with nature instead of plowing through it. I pass rock shoals, evergreen thickets and glades of slender birches, stopping here and there to gaze across at the snow-capped "Rockpile, the Northeast's highest and wildest mountain. As I glide back to the quad, where the line moves at warp speed, I marvel at the genius of Polecat - a beginner trail that even experts can enjoy again and again.
On the chair, I join three other skiers, and when I look down at their feet, I have to smile. The man next to me - Emir, who lives one town over from me in southern Massachusetts - wears ancient Olins. I'm relieved to see he doesn't have safety straps. His skis seem to stretch on forever - 205 cm at least - with no evidence of any sidecut.
"They're long and straight, and they ski well, he says. "Perfect for Wildcat. His wife, equipped with up-to-date shaped skis, shakes her head and laughs. "He's a traditionalist. Always will be.
The love that Wildcat inspires in traditionalists like Emir might be its greatest strength. But also its biggest challenge.
I head for some steeper stuff, carving my way down Lynx (Upper and Lower). It's a classic New England trail, with twists and plunges that keep you on your toes, yet it's never death-defying. It has bail-out options and stretches of pure cruising that are just plain sweet.
Next up, I head to the south side of the mountain and ski the historic Wildcat Trail, one of the earliest ski trails in the U.S., carved out by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933. Its heritage and its pitch mind me of Wildcat's reputation as a hardcore, expert's mountain. But when I think of the rest of the mountain, I wonder whether that reputation is still entirely accurate. Sure, the weather can be extreme in the Pinkham Notch neighborhood, and the surrounding mountains are not to be trifled with, and Wildcat's trails remain narrower than those at other resorts. At the same time, though, there's terrain for every taste. In addition to Polecat, which gives novices an opportunity to experience the summit views and top-to-bottom runs, there's a dedicated beginner area on the south side of the area, where learners can feel as if they have their own mountain, complete with lifts, varied terrain and even a tunnel to ski through. The steeper middle mountain trails are quite manageable for carving hard and showing off under the lift. There are the nice, woodsy intermediate trails meandering throughout the mountain. And there are the secret trails to which only locals can find the entrances. Basically, Wildcat has a little of everything for every ability.
That's why Donna Schuler and her husband, Ron, made a vow before marrying that they'd raise their kids on skis at Wildcat. Both grew up as Massachusetts residents and Wildcat weekenders. They watched other resorts upgrade as Wildcat remained about the same. And they agreed there was no place better to bring their own children.
"There isn't another mountain like this, Donna says. "It's still got the old-fashioned ski trails that make you ski the fall line all the time. It's got the scenery, which is simply amazing. And it's got the quad, which means there are almost never any lines. All of us regulars talk about it at happy hour. We love our mountain. It might need a little TLC, but we realize that part of what draws us here is the casualness, the relaxed feeling. We want improvements, but we don't want to mess with those trails or that feel.
Wildcat does plan some improvements. Work is being done to double the amount of gladed terrain. And while the base lodge is decidedly retro and the door to the rental shop needs paint, the rental fleet is pristine (they recently hired one of the valley's top tuners and managers), and the lifts run like clockwork. There are only two snowcats in the grooming fleet, but the grooming team knows how to use them.
The mountain's management would like to do more, but as one of the few independently owned ski areas around, Wildcat must scratch and claw to win its market share, says its general manager, Tom Caughey. "There are chain-store resorts putting very low-priced season passes on the market. Fewer people are buying lift tickets at different areas because of that, and that makes it harder for us to attract skiers, because we don't have a multimountain ticket.
Still, Caughey's confident that there's a place in the ski world for areas like Wildcat. "People too often assume you need trailside lodging and you need those amenities to make a ski day great, he said. "But avid skiers looking for challenge, beauty and a real alpine experience will find Wildcat.
People like me. Just as I'm drawn to places like Jackson Hole, I'll always have a fondness for Wildcat in all its unspoiled beauty. It was about 50 years ago that four skiers in Tuckerman looked over, admired the slopes across the notch and hatched a plan to develop them. It wasn't easy then, and it isn't easy now. But things worth preserving often find a way of taking care of themselves.
SIGNPOST: Wildcat Mountain
Vitals: 2,112 feet vertical feet; 225 skiable acres; 47 trails; 200 annual inches; four lifts, including one high-speed quad. Lift tickets: adult weekend/holiday $59; junior (6—12) $39; teen (13—18) $49; senior (65 and over $29).
Lodging: While the nearest lodging is 10 miles away in either Jackson Gorham, that doesn't mean there's a lack of choices. Choose the Christmas Farm Inn in Jackson for creature comforts like a spa and gourmet dining coupled with a family feel ($139-$669; 800-443-5837; wildcattavern.com). For breakfast, it should be illegal to visit the Jackson area without stopping at Yesterdays, right next to the Wildcat Tavern in the village.
Après-Ski: The base lodge at Wildcat may be old, but it still rocks après. Look for bands, DJs and promotions. Heading out, choose the Wildcat Tavern in Jackson (see above) to mingle with locals, the Shannon Door Pub for some Irish fun or Delaney's Hole in the Wall on Route 16 in North Conway for rowdy crowds.
Don't Miss: Take a SnowCoach Tour up the Mt. Washington Auto Road to the top of Mt. Washington. The Auto Road base is about two minutes from Wildcat (603-466-2333; skiwildcat.com. Jackson Chamber of Commerce: 800-866-3334; christmasfarminn.com).
Dining: The Wildcat Tavern is legendary for its après scene and local open-mike Hoot Night, but tucked behind the bar area is a fine restaurant with an affordable yet impeccable wine list, creative nightly specials and first-rate service (Route 16A Jackson Village, 800.228.4245; mt-washington.com).
Getting There: From Boston (about 3 hours): Take I-95 north to Portsmouth, N.H., then Spaulding Turnpike/Route 16 north. Wildcat is just north of North Conway.
Information: 603-466-3326; 888-754-9453; jacksonnh.com