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Berkshire Bounty - Ski Mag

Berkshire Bounty

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Big-name U.S. ski towns tend to aggressively tout their historical ties. Aspenites talk boastfully about their town's late-1800s silver-mining lore and its locus as the site of the first North American World Alpine Championships (1950). Telluride trumpets its Butch Cassidy and the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang roots. Stowe locals refer to their home as the cradle of U.S. skiing and promote the fact that Stowe was settled back in 1793.

Then there's unassuming, largely unknown Williamstown, Mass. By the time the first settlers straggled into Stowe, Williamstown already was a thriving village and home to prestigious Williams College, considered one of the top small liberal arts colleges in the East.

Towering above Williamstown, indeed all of Berkshire County, is 3,491-foot Mt. Greylock, the tallest peak in Massachusetts. Skiing began on Greylock's historic Thunderbolt Racing Trail—a CCC project—in 1934. In the mid-Thirties, thousands of spectators rode ski trains to nearby Pittsfield and gathered along the trail to watch race luminaries like Dick Durrance compete in the U.S. Eastern Amateur Ski Association Championships, America's premier downhill ski event.

Mt. Greylock has also served as a literary inspiration. Herman Melville, who wrote Moby Dick at his home in nearby Pittsfield, is said to have described the mountain as looking like a great whale. He reportedly celebrated the completion of the landmark book on Greylock's summit.

There aren't many ski towns that can trace their roots to pre-Revolutionary War days—Williamstown was settled in 1750—and certainly none besides Williamstown with an original copy of the Declaration of Independence (housed in the Williams College Library).

Despite its bucolic setting in the rolling Berkshires, Williamstown is strategically located between two of the East's megalopolises. A three-hour drive from both Boston and New York and an hour from Albany, "Williamstown is easy to escape without getting on a plane," says local ski magnate Brian Fairbank, CEO of the company which owns Jiminy Peak and Brodie, the two major ski areas serving Williamstown. But most locals don't want to escape. Especially during summer, when the cultural spigot flows nightly with world-class events such as the music festival at Tanglewood, dance at Jacob's Pillow, and the Williamstown Theater and Film and Jazz festivals.

Just below Williamstown's sophisticated sheen courses an athletic mountain spirit—with somewhat smaller but no less engaging challenges than its better-known neighbors just north of the border in Vermont (it's little more than an hour to Mt. Snow and Stratton).

But right in their backyard, Williams-town residents have a trove of top-notch mountain biking, hiking, climbing, flyfishing and, of course, skiing. Twenty minutes away are two 1,100-plus vertical-foot mountains, Brodie and Jiminy Peak. Brodie is an older day area; Jiminy Peak is a weekend destination resort with a small village and lots of condo lodging. Both offer nightskiing and are seldom busy during the week. Cross-country skiers can pick between trails at Mt. Prospect or two Williams-owned nordic centers: one at the Taconic Golf Club and another at Hopkins Forest. (Yes, the college has its own 2,500-acre forest, a short walk from campus.) And there's first-rate backcountry skiing on Thunderbolt at Mt. Greylock and on Petersburg Pass at Mt. Prospect, where the now-defunct Petersburg Pass ski area existed into the Seventies. The hike to Mt. Greylock's summit is a chest-heaving two-hour slog, and the descent is sinuous, running through forest and over rock rubbed raw by glaciers.

"It's easy to get caught up in winter culture here," says Scott Lewis, the director of the Williams College Outing Club and the pied piper of outdoor sports at the college. Williams Alpine Ski Team Coach Ed Grees agrees and estimates that 25 percent of the student body is involved in some sort of ski program.

Mountain culture in Williamstown is a ar-round affair. One of the most anticipated Williams events is Mountain Day. On an unannounced day each fall, it is ushered in by a ringing of the campus chapel bell. The chimes signify immediate class dismissal, at which time tradition calls for students and faculty to hike to the top of Mt. Greylock. Typically, more than 600 members of the Williams community summit the peak on Mountain Day.

Williamstown is manicured and stately, a classic New England village right off a Norman Rockwell canvas. (That's not surprising since Rockwell painted just up the road in Stockbridge, where his home has been turned into a beautiful museum.) Williamstown's downtown is neat, friendly and packed with local flavor. A stroll down Spring Street provides a glimpse of Williamstown proper. At the far end is the "new" Hopkins Furniture and Undertakings Store. Folks refer to it as the "new" store since the "old" one across the street was destroyed by fire—in 1892.

Set a spell in Roger St. Pierre's three-chair barber shop, and you'll feel as if you're in Mayberry. St. Pierre claims "everybody in town shows up sooner or later," and true to his word, St. Pierre seems to clip the head of every male in town, which he's been doing for 30 years now. The day I visited, he trimmed three generations: Ryan Mahew, a 2001 Wil-liams graduate; Keith Davis, chairman of the Williamstown Planning Board; and Wes Davis, second grader and Keith's son.

Williamstown is tightly intertwined with its namesake college. Instead of being isolated on a separate campus, the Williams complex sandwiches the town. Its academic buildings and dorms are on the north side. Its athletic facilities and golf course (one of the finer 18-hole collegiate layouts in the U.S.), on the south. Moreover, the college is an active real-estate player, continuously purchasing commercial and residential parcels. Many of the older Victorians are slated to give way to more college facilities. To the dismay of many, that has driven residential development out of the town core, separating much of the population from the downtown area.

While many Williams alumni return to Williamstown to retire after making their marks elsewhere, until the mid-Nineties there was little in the way of economic opportunity for the upwardly mobile student body. Now, thanks in part to one of its own, 29-year-old Williams grad Bo Peabody, there is an emerging high-tech industry in the area.

As an undergraduate at Williams in 1992, Peabody co-founded, with economics professor Richard Sabot, Tripod.com, a personal publishing website. It was acquired in 1998 by Lycos for $58 million, turning Peabody and his partners into rich men. Many who helped build the company stayed in the area and propagated new firms, which has created a rising new techno class and begun rejuvenating neighboring North Adams, a mill town that fell on hard times as manufacturing jobs left the Northeast. These businesses, as well as other new tech-oriented firms, have helped fund the development of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MassMoCA) in North Adams. In addition to a unique museum that showcases works too large for most conventional facilities, the 13-acre, 27-building complex houses a core of tech businesses in a campus cloaked under a 100-year-old redbrick mill façade.

Perhaps no place embodies Williamstown's ski culture more than the Mt. Greylock Ski Club. Its small, member-operated area at the bottom of Mt. Greylock's western flank has been a home to northwestern Massachusetts skiers since 1937. It has two ropetows that climb about 300 feet and no snowmaking. The grooming fleet is a single, tiny Sixties-vintage snowcat, so conditions are largely as you find them. Fallen branches and limbs are removed when members stop to do so. Amenities are rudimentary—make that nonexistent. The ramshackle clubhouse looks like it saw its last renovation in the late Fifties. Old ski posters and decorations adorn the walls. Three wood stoves supply heat, and two solar-powered lamps provide light. Relief facilities are of the unheated outhouse variety. And when you come skiing here for the day, there's no leaving early. The last half-mile stretch of rutted, unpaved road leading to the club is one-car wide with no shoulders. It's one-way up until 2:30 p.m. and one-way down from then on.

One benefit the area does offer its members is lots of skiing at cheap prices. Season passes are $120—for the entire family. The main rope-tow runs at a rapid clip of 1,100 feet per minute—about as fast as a high-speed chairlift. In an utterly charming throwback to days gone by, the club has a dispensation from the Massachusetts Tramway Board to use rope grippers, hinged contraptions that are worn tethered to the body, becoming personal tow handles. Most members also have custom-made leather glove protectors to keep friction from wearing through as they grip the rope with one hand and flip the gripper around the rope with the other. It takes one full limb-ripping ride to get the hang of it.

In the Fifties, the club was booming with 1,000 members. Today, with Jiminy and Brodie providing bigger, more modern facilities nearby, membership has dwindled to 30 families and 150 individuals. Or more accurately, one big family. When I visited last spring, I expected to leave by lunch and didn't bring any food with me to the brown-bag only lodge. The atmosphere and camaraderie were so intoxicating I remained late into the day, my stomach growling as the small gang of local skiers broke for a late lunch. I was ready to say good-bye when club member Bill Ziermer said, "I've got some extra hot dogs I can throw on the grill if you want to stay." Then Jeff Strait tossed me his big bag of chips and said, "Dig in," and Mary Merselis shoveled me a handful of M&Ms. That's Williamstown hospitality.

Research assistance by Seth Pietras. oves supply heat, and two solar-powered lamps provide light. Relief facilities are of the unheated outhouse variety. And when you come skiing here for the day, there's no leaving early. The last half-mile stretch of rutted, unpaved road leading to the club is one-car wide with no shoulders. It's one-way up until 2:30 p.m. and one-way down from then on.

One benefit the area does offer its members is lots of skiing at cheap prices. Season passes are $120—for the entire family. The main rope-tow runs at a rapid clip of 1,100 feet per minute—about as fast as a high-speed chairlift. In an utterly charming throwback to days gone by, the club has a dispensation from the Massachusetts Tramway Board to use rope grippers, hinged contraptions that are worn tethered to the body, becoming personal tow handles. Most members also have custom-made leather glove protectors to keep friction from wearing through as they grip the rope with one hand and flip the gripper around the rope with the other. It takes one full limb-ripping ride to get the hang of it.

In the Fifties, the club was booming with 1,000 members. Today, with Jiminy and Brodie providing bigger, more modern facilities nearby, membership has dwindled to 30 families and 150 individuals. Or more accurately, one big family. When I visited last spring, I expected to leave by lunch and didn't bring any food with me to the brown-bag only lodge. The atmosphere and camaraderie were so intoxicating I remained late into the day, my stomach growling as the small gang of local skiers broke for a late lunch. I was ready to say good-bye when club member Bill Ziermer said, "I've got some extra hot dogs I can throw on the grill if you want to stay." Then Jeff Strait tossed me his big bag of chips and said, "Dig in," and Mary Merselis shoveled me a handful of M&Ms. That's Williamstown hospitality.

Research assistance by Seth Pietras.

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