Northeast welcomes back no-frills skiing

This winter is a hot season for small resorts in New England, as skiers and snowboarders return to once-dormant slopes.

Whaleback Mountain sits at the bottom of a dead-end dirt road. There are no gourmet cafes or condos, not even a boutique, at the bottom of this slope - just a view of Interstate 89.

But after sitting dormant for several years, this one-lift operation is reopening for the 2006 ski season - something of a gift to the local community. A sign beckons from the road: "The Whale is Back."

Such no-frills slopes are gaining newfound appreciation across the Northeast, evoking the simpler days of winter sport, when farmers set up rope tows in their backyards for the neighbors. They may not have heated chairlift seats or après-ski massages, but the promise of no crowds and cheap tickets is calling skiers and snowboarders just the same.

Hundreds of such places had shut down over the past half-century - 569 by one estimate - as big resorts reigned from central Vermont to the slopes of Maine.

But with day passes at the "majors" creeping up to $70 apiece, families who've skied for generations feel priced out. Factor in high gasoline prices and "a lot of these [smaller] areas are starting to come back," says Jeremy Davis, a meteorologist who runs the New England Lost Ski Areas Project, a website that chronicles the region's ski history.

At least 10 areas have reopened in the past several years, he estimates.

Many of them, like Whaleback, are coming back with a twist. Evan Dybvig, a retired Olympian and co-owner of Whaleback Mountain, hopes it becomes a destination for action sport enthusiasts. This spring, the group will build a sports center adjacent to the lodge for inline skating and skateboarding year-round. "We need to have a fairly niche identity," says Mr. Dybvig, "and bigger resorts can't do that. They have to appeal to a mass market."

At Granite Gorge, which a local family reopened in 2003, tubing is advertised as heavily as skiing, and weekday passes, at $18, are among the lowest in the region. At Crotched Mountain in Bennington, N.H., which reopened three seasons ago, slopes stay open until 3 a.m. on weekends.

Christopher Bradford, director of sales and marketing at Crotched Mountain, says smaller places can compete with big resorts because snowboarding and terrain parks, now rising in popularity, don't require high altitudes. "Snowboarding really doesn't demand a large vertical drop," he says.

New England was introduced to alpine skiing in the 1930s, and small areas were thriving by the 1960s, says Jeff Leich, executive director of the New England Ski Museum. But the 1970s - with the energy crisis, a spike in insurance rates, and a slew of bad winters - saw the demise of many small areas and many were forced to close by the '80s.

Now, some of the same factors that killed small ski resorts are saving them. With gasoline prices so high, people value proximity over panache - an irony not lost on Mr. Leich. "I was just telling someone it felt like 1980 again."

While last month was the warmest January in 112 years, a warm spell is no longer a death sentence for the small places, because most have invested in snowmaking equipment.

It's not that Mr. Davis doesn't like the resorts, but there is something about the rustic charm that drives this meteorologist to more than just running a website. "You are not going to get in 100 runs at a Whaleback ... but you don't feel like part of a cattle herd getting on the chairlift either," he says. "There's a lot more camaraderie."

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