The resorts that time forgot
Searching for snowboarding at New England's Lost ski areas.
From the top of the High Pond Mountain ski area, green hills and the silhouette of mountains anchor the horizon. A winding run of ungroomed slush lies before us, with no sound, save the windy rustling of branches breaking the silence. No clatter of lifts, no chatter of skiers and boarders getting ready for another run, not even the schush of other people making their way down the slope.
Jesse Loomis, photographer Shem Roose, area local Ryan Grace and I are at High Pond for a late-spring session. Only thing is we're here 25 years after the small area closed up shop. One of 114 abandoned or closed ski areas in Vermont that the New England Lost Ski Areas Project has catalogued, High Pond is part of a history that includes 593 areas in New England alone. NELSAP is an online archive of lost ski resorts, the aggregation of historical data, photos and interviews about areas that have gone out of business, burned down, been abandoned or otherwise left to the wayside.
According to NELSAP interviews with High Pond locals, this area, tucked into the hills down several dirt roads outside of Brandon VT, was founded by the patronage of wealthy backer W. Douglas Burden, who according to Bill Jenkins, head of the High Pond ski school, "purchased this 900-acre property to have a private ski resort for his wealthy New York City friends."
It's not a shabby set up and pretty remarkable that it has withstood the battering of 20-plus Vermont winters. The first artifact we came across was an old snowcat, its wood and metal track sinking into the ground. Next, we found the T-bar building: still intact despite a stream of spring runoff flooding its bottom floor. The lift itself was solid, metal cables dotted with wooden T-bars, running up rusted towers all the way to the top of the hill. Grace, a Rutland-area skier that's befriended High Pond's current caretaker, says the diesel engine that powered the T-bar was running up to a few years ago and all it'd need to cough back to life is "a new head gasket."
One of hundreds around the North East, High Pond was an area where tickets were cheap ($5.00 in 1973) and kids could be dropped off for the day worry free. "These areas taught countless to ski that otherwise may not have," says Jeremy Davis, who founded NELSAP in 1998 as a college project. "Basically, these were safe, fun, inexpensive places where people seemed to know everybody there. They were a real community asset."
Setting our boots to a pruned-out strip where skiers used to be whisked uphill, a steep hike delivered us to the "peak." There, the hulk of the bullwheel was complimented by a lift shack that Loomis identified as a home for Porcupine, based on the mountain of scat inside. To the skiers left was the "race," a trail that once served as a ski race course. To the right was a wider, mellower run.
Dropping in underneath the oxidized cables and towers of the T-bar with nothing but the scrapping sound of broken branches was surreal to say the least. Dipping to the left, we set up a small booter next to the race course start shack and punted a few straight airs next to the adopted home/toilet of another porcupine. Further down, the run pitched steeply, offering a few fast and deep slush carves before a detour into the woods lead us to a gullied natural halfpipe. Before we knew it we were back at the base of the T-bar.
We finished our tour with a visit to High Ponds' "Alpine Restaurant." Topped with a crisscrossing gable, this euro-style, log-beam building felt like a slice of Austria. The well-preserved interior was still furnished with loungy, barn-board furniture and even a faded 80s Olympic poster on the wall. Here more than on the vacant runs or under the rusting T-bar, you could imagine skiers from the 1950s-80s, huddling in front of a heater, hot cocoa or just as likely rum, cupped in their hands, congregating in the alpine stoke of a rural Vermont ski getaway and believing authentically in the High Pond slogan: "Not one of the biggest, but one of the best."
The reasons behind 500-plus resorts shutting down are as diverse as the areas themselves. Davis lists rising insurance prices, real estate development and New England's notoriously unreliable winter weather as a few. The biggest reason, Davis suggests, was competition from the larger resorts with snowmaking, grooming and all the accoutrements of modern skiing.
New England is dotted with these relics, time capsules from an era before snowboarding as we know it; when skiing was a simpler, family and community-oriented act. This was long before ski areas ballooned into "resorts," driven by real estate development and the advent of the high-speed quad. Snowboarding's own history goes way deeper than double corks or Rolling Stone covers and in many ways it's built on the rootsy DIY type of skiing that developed, one rope tow and T-bar at a time, in the woods of the North East.
The relationship from there is a story most snowboarders should be familiar with: the "fad" of snowboarding injected the ski business with enough capital to keep it from sinking in the '80s. Ironically, Davis thinks that could have been enough to save some of the lost ski resorts, but it was a few decades late.
"I believe that if snowboarding had come along earlier in the 60s, many of these areas would not have closed," says Davis. "Small ski areas in the 200-400 vertical foot range would have been perfect for halfpipes and terrain parks and that could have kept them afloat."
Most of the areas listed on NELSAP's website are open for exploration, though High Pond and a few others are on private property and getting permission to shred is a necessary courtesy to keeping doors open for future skiers and boarders. So do yourself a favor if you end up out East anytime soon: once you've lapped the park, ridden the lift or swiped the season pass enough times, take a trip off the trail map and into the past. Go get lost.