Mountains Of Fun
There’s nothing like a steep slope and some fresh powder to get the adrenalin pumping. Jane Labous hurtles down the hills of New Hampshire...
“Let’s rock this baby!” I holler (a last attempt, I fear, to disguise my panic at the sight of the dizzyingly steep hill in front of me). I know I can get down this... Well, kind of...
Phil the snowboard dude (baggy pants, goatee beard - you’re either a skier or a snowboarder and he’s every inch a boarder), Conrad the ski-nut ( think Justin Timberlake lookalike in goggles) and I launch ourselves off the top of Oblivion. Which is a blue run, according to Conrad, and not all that hard. It may not be for him, I point out, a ski pro who’s been coming down these hills for eleven years, but it’s scaring me, bloody hell, it’s scaring me, the virgin skier, with all of one day’s practice. But then I do it and it’s fun, incredible; what an extraordinary feeling to get yourself down a mountain you’d never even contemplate climbing up.
“You’ve got to get some longer skis,” nags Conrad when we arrive breathless at the bottom and I’m feeling like the coolest cat in town. He’s looking despairingly at my trainer skis – all thirty centimetres of them... They’re great to learn on, but he’s right, they need changing if I’m ever going to hold my own up there up at the summit with the top cats. I take it as a compliment – if a local thinks I need grown-up skis, I must be getting somewhere.
Because here in New Hampshire everyone lives and breathes skiing. There’s pure, concentrated snow running through these people’s veins. Couples get married on skis, children are born on skis. I bet women would give birth on skis if they could. They’re mad about it, fanatical even; hence the obsessive gleam of excitement that enters a New Englander’s eyes at the mention of fresh powder. When it starts snowing they give you big smiles and throw covetous looks out of the window; you can see them secretly planning to get the day off work (a powder day, not a sickie) and escape to the slopes in time to ski while the powder is ungroomed.
I can already see why. Fresh powder is soft as saccarin sugar, feathery, ethereal. When it falls knee deep your skis are hidden and you drift quietly downwards, footless, weightless, caught in time. This magic, this miracle, happens on our last morning. We wake to nine inches of snowfall. The mood in the hotel breakfast room is elated and expectant. At half past eight we’re gliding gently downhill into the morning sunlight, part of a new, muffled, pristine world that has appeared during the night. The glittering slopes are surreal, crowded yet dreamily silent, interrupted only by the echoes of delighted laughter as the skiers play. Children wallow, flat on their backs in the dusty white flakes. From the lift we watch as a flurry of couples waltz downhill, arms entwined, their skis perfectly in time, for all the world as though they are dancing in some great white ballroom, music floating from the sky.
This ski thing is addictive. You can feel yourself getting the bug, obsessing about that next slope, thinking about blue, red, black runs when you’re drifting off to sleep at night, muscles heavy with exhaustion. I spent the first morning writhing on my backside, trying to stand up with two great pieces of metal strapped to my feet. But then after lunch, when I suddenly found I could stand up, I began to think that perhaps, just maybe, I might be able to do it. And I was right. Get through that first horrific day, when you wonder why anyone skis, why everyone’s smiling and why everyone – even the six year-old - can ski but you, and you’ll suddenly, totally, entirely get it. There’ll be a point where you feel that parallel turn in your skis and you find that rhythm and you look ahead at the gorgeous stretch of snow in front of you and there, you have it, you get it, you’re gliding across the snow and... YOU LOVE IT! And that’s when it’s dangerous because that’s when you start thinking, what on earth am I going to do when I have to go home to Britain where I CAN’T SKI...
And then of course there’s the nosh. Ski, eat, sleep... ski, eat, sleep, that’s the routine. And New England has the good, old-fashioned feed you need at the end of a long day burning those calories. We eat and eat and, well, um, eat. Giant cookies, carrot muffins, homemade blueberry bread from the local shop; cheese fajitas, mashed potato, massive hunks of sirloin steak; clam chowder in bread bowls, turkey clubs, enormous potato crisps; cheesecakes, chocolate cakes, cookie cakes, crab cakes – there’s no end to it, this is what skiing does to you, this is what New Hampshire does to you. ‘Where’s the food’ is the only question in your mind when you come off that slope into the lodge. And the lodges have a laid-back north American atmosphere you won’t find elsewhere – everyone’s smiling, there’s no heirarchy, no-one’s trying too hard. “Enjoying yourself?” is the exchange between strangers, drawn together by the rush and the fun of it all. They don’t wait for an answer because they know it could only be, well obviously... In the lodge we drink pints of steaming hot chocolate; winceably sweet, it races through our bodies, a concentrated sugar high.
You know you’re getting the New Hampshire vibe when the final thing on your mind at night is making sure you have a good breakfast so that you can ski ski ski all day the next day. Because this place will make you want to stay. When the sun comes out and the snow is bright white and the air is crisp as a green apple, cutting the skin and bringing your cheeks out in roses; when the trees crackle with the cold and the slopes are bathed in sunshine, sparkling gold beneath a summer blue sky – that’s when New Hampshire grabs you and holds you in its thrall, stretching out its snowy fingers until there you are, eyes gleaming, feeling that powder take hold of your heart.
This article was first published in Real Magazine, in 2006