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Whaleback ski area making a comeback

Whaleback is counting on the crowds to return when the 30-trail ski area opens for the season on Dec. 26.

whaleback ski area

Whaleback is counting on the crowds to return when the 30-trail ski area opens for the season on Dec. 26.

The Whale is coming back.

Closed three times in its history, Whaleback is the small Enfield, N.H., ski area along Interstate 89 in the Upper Valley seeing new life thanks to grass-roots support.

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After rough financial waters left it shuttered in March, the nonprofit Upper Valley Snow Sports Foundation is leading the way for the 30-trail feeder hill with a solitary chairlift to open the day after Christmas.

The foundation first raised $100,000 to enter into a lease for the bank-owned property, and also reached a goal of selling $85,000 worth of season passes.

Donations ranged from a 9-year-old girl giving $25 to $10,000 individual gifts.

whaleback ski area

Whaleback has a youth-oriented focus with its Alpine and freestyle skiing programs.

According to UVSSF chairman John Schiffman of Hanover, N.H., the board believes if the community has pride in its ownership, it will be more supportive, appreciative, and believe it’s going to be different.

“This really is a community ski area,” he said. “It is not a destination resort.”

In a two-state region that’s nurtured a wealth of Olympians and US Ski Team members, Whaleback has a youth-oriented focus in its Alpine and freestyle programs while also looking to hook families with affordable lift tickets to make skiing and snowboarding lifetime pursuits. Surrounding schools send about 500 kids to an after-school ski and snowboard program. Winter vacation camps add to the mix. Whaleback also has its developmental Core and Mini Core Teams designed for skiers and snowboarders with competitive ambitions and also serves as a training ground for ski clubs such as Ford Sayre and Kimball Union Academy. Area recreation departments use the hill.

The mountain has night skiing, a tradition dating to the mid-1980s. Thanks to it, nearly 200 locals participate in a robust Thursday night adult race league.

According to Schiffman, Whaleback is a venue that will build skiers.

“You need training sites, learning sites,” he said.

Whaleback opened in 1955 as Snowcrest with a 1,000-foot Poma surface lift. Renamed Whaleback in 1968, the mountain has weathered its share of owners. It was closed in 1990-92, and then from 2001-05 before being purchased by Whaleback Mountain LLC, which included Tunbridge, Vt.-bred Olympic mogul skier Evan Dybvig and skate park owners Dylan Goodspeed and Frank Sparrow.

Those owners embraced the action sports movement. But after operating for eight seasons, the area closed in March, saddled with more than a $1 million debt. Earlier this year, the Randolph National Bank of Vermont foreclosed on the hill. An August auction failed to draw bidders, and the bank offered the reserve price of $848,000.

The UVSSF was created to reopen Whaleback, negotiated a lease with the bank, and has aspirations to buy the hill in the spring. The foundation reached into the community for donations, support, and also held various fund-raising events.

The big picture is raising $2 million to make the purchase and upgrade Whaleback’s infrastructure, including the snowmaking system.

Dick Harris, a ski industry veteran with a generation of experience, including 20 years at the Balsams in northern New Hampshire, is the area’s general manager.

“Whaleback is very much part of the culture here,” he said. “Families depend on it.”

Initial projects include deferred maintenance on the lighting, snowmaking network, and lodge.

Future desires include a surface lift accessing some of the racing slopes, Nordic skiing (with lights and snowmaking) terrain, and maybe a ski jump.

Enthusiastically, a couple of former owners are on board. Goodspeed is working in mountain operations, while Dybvig has signed on to coach freestylers.

“Dylan will give us some insights on idiosyncrasies we will probably face,” said Harris. “This is a matter of knowing where the pitfalls are and how to avoid them. Evan is involved in the freestyle camp and program for kids who want to improve skill levels in freestyle and aerials.”

The hill plans to host several regional competitions for young athletes, too.

Whaleback’s backbone is volunteers. Last Saturday, about 20 people showed up to cut brush. More trail days are planned. Harris is receiving e-mails from people who grew up skiing there and want to get involved. One came from a student studying abroad in Australia looking to help in “the winter camps, kitchen, snow or lift operations, the office, or any other department” during winter break.

“As a local, I grew up on this mountain and learned how to ski on it many years ago, and would be honored to help make this mountain run,” he wrote.

Located among the rolling hills and forests some 130 miles north of Boston, Whaleback is a beloved 700-vertical-feet, intermediate-level feeder hill. It’s serviced by a 1968-installed, 2,500-foot-long Poma double chairlift, rope tow, and magic carpet.

Whaleback primarily draws skiers and riders from both sides of the Connecticut River. A maritime theme is prevalent with trail names such as Jawbone, Blow Hole, Spout, and Dorsal. Day lift tickets peak at $40, with many options lowering hill access to $20 or less. More than 5,000 winter visitors purchase a lift ticket annually.

The nonprofit model is new for Whaleback. There are longstanding nonprofit owned and operated ski areas in New England, such as Cochran’s, the country’s first 501 (c)(3) ski area, in Richmond, Vt., and the Jackson Ski Touring Foundation in Jackson, N.H.

“The reason our board believes that it will work is because this is a community that recognizes the value of a sustainable winter sports program,” said Schiffman.

With an experienced ski area operator in Harris, a board confident in raising the capital and community support, Whaleback has Dec. 26 as its scheduled opening date.

“This is going to rely on a lot of hard work,” said Schiffman. “There are multiple risks in running any ski area today. I think we have a group who can address it and move this forward.”

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