Entropy happens. And on a drizzly night in May of 2003, it reminded us nothing is permanent when it dismantled New Hampshire’s most cherished icon, the Old Man of the Mountain.
His squinting, flinty countenance, an arrangement of granite ledges left by the retreating Wisconsin Glacier, first gazed out over Franconia Notch at least six millennia ago. A fitting symbol for the stern New Hampshire character, he adorns license plates, postage stamps, and road signs in the Granite State, always looking a little pissed off—at longhairs? Income tax? Climate change? No one saw him go, sometime between midnight and 2 a.m. New Hampshire learned of its loss as day broke. Mourners left flowers near the scree field where their old friend lay lost in a meaningless jumble.
Even without the Man, Franconia Notch remains, for my money, the most dramatically scenic of all the beautiful White Mountain notches. Steep, treeless, wind-scoured walls soar skyward on either side of its deep declivity. The Flume, a spectacular torrent, plunges off the East wall. Even the interstate system, which normally goes wherever it wants, respectfully narrows to two lanes.
But it’s dark—around 11 on a Friday night—as we drive through from north to south on our way to Loon Mountain from Burlington. The lofty view is invisible. And while the conversation in our Audi is sometimes lofty, it more often tends to moronic humor. Three guys from Vermont on a weekend foray to the northern Whites. We’ll ski the Notch’s two gateway resorts, Loon at the south end, Cannon at the north end. Loon, with its full complement of slopeside amenities, plus those of its sister villages, Lincoln and Woodstock, will be our HQ.
Our rooms in the Mountain Club are shipshape, with prowlike corner windows affording maximum view of the east end of the Loon base and the surrounding mountains. The only catch: This is the spring of 2015, a.k.a. the spring that froze to death, and in the morning when we step through sliding glass doors onto the slope outside, a frigid gale greets us. No worries, we’re dressed for it, and none of us is going to be the first to wimp out.
The gondola’s down, natch. But the forbidding weather only makes the day more beautiful. The rising sun lights up blue, white, and gold White Mountain vistas in all directions. The snow creaks and squawks beneath our boots. And the skiing turns out to be shockingly fantastic.
No one is more surprised than we are. As we ride the East Basin chair, the wind-whipped moguls on Dipper have a nasty, rain-crusted sheen. Turns out, the ominously shiny crust is eggshell thin. Beneath it, boot-top fluff, sucked dry by the cold. Above it, another few inches of overnight windblown, filling the troughs. We stick a toe in cautiously, then charge it with giddy disbelief. Our reward for braving the elements is waist shots accompanied by only the faintest tinkling of skittering ice shards. Looks like boilerplate, skis like pow. Only in the East.
The knock against Loon is that it’s too crowded. We see why. The terrain is diverse and interesting, the views are beautiful, and the valley is packed with lodges, shops, and restaurants. No wonder the Boston masses, two hours away, love it to death. Solution: Don’t ski there on busy days. And don’t forget about it on weekends like this, when no one’s there.
Après, we enjoy some foosball upstairs in the Octagon Lodge bar, then drinks back at the room, then dinner at the Common Man, a Lincoln-Woodstock landmark.
Sunday it’s colder still, and the Notch’s beauty is on full display as we head back north in bright morning sun. Cannon—gnarly, state-owned, keep-it- real Cannon, with its historic tram—is where the Old Man would have made his turns. Its skiers are known to be a tougher, hardier lot. On a day like this, they’d better be. We head straight for the summit and my favorite trail, Upper Ravine—a narrow, snaking groomer that begs for super-G speed. Its blind fallaway corners are as much fun as ever, but the cold drives us to the steep lower slopes, where we try to stay warm in the bumps below the Zoomer chair.
Later, back at the summit, we stop to warm up in the tram terminus, elevation 4,000 feet. On the wall is a vintage poster of local boy Bode Miller, way back in his Nordica/Fischer days, running slalom. Remember the ski area of your youth? The one you still know every square inch of? For Miller, it’s Cannon. He’d ride the tram, the legend goes, then race it to the bottom.
As his phenomenal World Cup career nears its end, maybe the locals will see Bode skiing here again. He might not believe the changes over at Mittersill, the long-dormant resort adjacent to, and now part of, Cannon. Reinvented and reopened in 2011 as a kind of lift-served backcountry experience, Mittersill now also boasts a first-class race venue on its lower slopes. Cannon just gets cooler.
We stop early, finally stymied by the cold. Cannon skiers are tough, but not stupid, and on a day like this plenty of them have retired to the Cannonball Pub, sipping cocoas and beers, weighing the possibility of another run. We run into Herb and Ron Lahout. Their dad—speaking of old and revered mountain men—is Joe Lahout, and the store his family founded in nearby Littleton in 1920 is the Cannon of ski shops, as much museum as shop, historic photos and vintage gear adorning its walls, shelves packed with thrifty-Yankee bargains. Joe still lives upstairs.
As we head home, the Whites behind us, the Greens ahead, the car is quieter than it was Friday night. I wish we had time to stop at Lahout’s. It’d be the perfect coda to our shut-up-and-ski Franconia Notch weekend. Another time. We’ll be back.
>> The Common Man, near Loon, is famous for free cheese and crackers while you wait. And you will wait—the place is popular for its big portions and lively ambience.
>> The Mountain Club at Loon is the only slopeside lodging at either Cannon or Loon. It has a restaurant and bar all near the bottom of the gondola and Octagon Lodge at the far end of the base.
>> At Loon, check out the new South Mountain trails, which have relieved some of Loon’s overcrowding. At Cannon, the Tramway liftline is rarely open, but if it is, and you’re good enough, it’s a belt notch any Eastern skier should envy. Also make tracks down the historic Taft Slalom, a relic of early Eastern racing, and take time for a tour of the New England Ski Museum, right at the base of the Tram.