LET’S START AT THE TOP of the mountain, where the Panorama chairlift deposits you in the cold wind amid spindly, snow-powdered pines. You find, looking down, a dazzling view of Lake Winnipesaukee, its vast surface frozen and white. Off to your left is the Panorama Pub, a cabin with an old sled nailed up on the wall and so-so chowder and semi-decent chili on the menu.
The ski runs at Gunstock Mountain Resort, in Gilford, New Hampshire, are not particularly steep or long, and the chairlifts move slowly. But New England’s only county-owned ski mountain is one of its most beloved, drawing a variety of visitors largely from nearby towns. There are the hundreds of schoolchildren who arrive in yellow buses each winter week; the seniors who, after age 70, get free lift tickets; the sledders on the tubing hill; and the RVers who populate Gunstock’s wooded campground, even on the coldest weekends. And then there are the lean and hungry affiliates of the Gunstock Nordic Association, a group of cross-country ski racers that includes me, a few other middle-aged strivers, and some high schoolers who formed a rock band called Don’t Kiss My Sister.
Gunstock is not Aspen. It is, rather, a place to ski — or snowboard or fat bike — after school or work, and it’s far removed from the chic upscaling and lavish lodge remodeling that has pervaded ski resorts in New England and elsewhere in recent decades. To many locals, among them my across-the-street neighbor Charlie Townsend, the no-frills vibe is a point of pride. “People come up from Massachusetts and they ask me, ‘What’s up with the bathrooms at Gunstock?’” says Townsend, an arborist and part-time ski instructor at the mountain. “And I’m like, ‘Did you pee in a hole? Did it go down?’”
The roots of Gunstock stretch to the mid-1930s, when crews from the federal Works Progress Administration gathered here to build the first ski trails using handsaws and axes. In 1960, a Gunstock skier, Penny Pitou, won two silver medals at the Olympics. In her foreword to a 2011 history of the ski resort, Pitou wrote about how she grew up next to a racing coach with “a barn full of used skis,” and, with her friends, was “allowed time to relax, lie in the grass, look up at the sky and dream our dreams.”
For all of the resort’s charm, most agree that modernization is needed at Gunstock, which last year grossed $14 million and put a portion of earnings, $247,000, into county coffers. But on the point of who should guide that future, a battle is now gripping Belknap County.
On one side is a powerful contingent of local politicians, all Republicans, led by Norm Silber, a 76-year-old state representative and fierce proponent of small government. As a publicly owned ski area, Gunstock represents the “worst of evils” and “the ever-increasing expansion of government activities into every nook and cranny of our lives,” Silber wrote last year in an essay titled “I Have a Dream.” His essay was published on Granite Grok, a website whose editors have described themselves as “fire-breathing” right wingers, and it stands as a manifesto for the effort to privatize the mountain.
Opposing Silber are a multitude of Belknap County residents who want Gunstock to remain county owned and are willing to place their faith in the resort’s current managers, who’ve recently shaped an expansion plan that could add a trailside hotel, a mountaintop restaurant, and new trails and lifts — all the while endeavoring to retain the spirit of the place.
The two sides are not evenly represented. In January, when Silber urged the New Hampshire Legislature to pass a bill giving the Belknap County delegation dominion over Gunstock’s future, five citizens wrote letters of support to the relevant legislative committee. Over 1,200 letter writers opposed Silber. And yet, in what many see as a fight for the soul of Gunstock, Silber is, arguably, the most likely to succeed in the end.
NORM SILBER IS A MOSTLY RETIRED LAWYER of medium build, with a receding crop of curly gray hair. Even his opponents concede that he is intelligent and well-read, and when he writes letters to The Laconia Daily Sun (this still happens frequently) he seems to take a measure of glee in kicking the hornet’s nest. In 2018, while then Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh was under fire for his college-era treatment of women, Silber wrote that in high school, circa 1960, “I attended a couple of parties at which I actively participated in a game we then called ‘Spin The Bottle.’”
Silber’s call to privatize how Gunstock is run is, in a way, business as usual for Belknap County, where Trump-inflected notions of “liberty” have attained a strong foothold. All 18 of the county’s elected state representatives are now Republicans. Members of this delegation have argued in recent months that Governor Chris Sununu, also a Republican, should be impeached on account of his pro-mask stance. Some have also proposed that New Hampshire secede from the union.
And, yet, here in the shadow of the Belknap Mountains, not even mask mandates inspire more politicized passion than the fight over Gunstock. In recent months, the letters section of the Sun — a newspaper that Silber calls “Pravda on the Lake” — has bristled with diatribes on the future of the ski area. Most are from Silber’s opponents, who fear that if Gunstock were leased, it would go to a large company like Vail Resorts.
Vail now owns 40 ski resorts nationwide, including several in New England. The company has been criticized as being willing to cut skier amenities to maximize profits. As noted in a recent report in the Sun, this winter Vail has been reducing operating hours and cutting back on snowmaking at three New Hampshire ski areas it bought in 2019: Attitash Mountain Resort, Wildcat Mountain, and Crotched Mountain. Last year, amid complaints that Vail had oversold passes to Mount Sunapee — a mountain owned by New Hampshire and leased by the company — Governor Sununu promised he would step in to make things right. (Vail representatives didn’t return an e-mail seeking comment.)
In January, the Belknap County delegation met in Laconia to discuss Gunstock. The sidewalks outside were lined with protesters bearing placards that read, “Gunstock: Ours not yours!” One of the activists, retired preschool teacher Kathy Dahll, wore four of her laminated ‘70s-era Gunstock season passes pinned to her scarf, like ribbons on a general’s uniform. “Gunstock is a nice family area,” she said, “and it’s a nice seniors’ area, and every time I go up there, I’m in awe of the view.”
Inside, I spotted Alex DeLuca, a Gunstock lift attendant and grocery store cashier, shifting impatiently on his feet as he awaited the meeting’s start. DeLuca attends nearly all public meetings concerning the ski area, and he effusively details every one of his ski outings on the Friends of Gunstock Facebook page. “Some amazing turns for day 48,” he wrote recently. “Got some great runs.”
Silber doesn’t seem particularly interested in great runs, though. Gunstock is an “out-of-control commercial business,” he says, that pays a “ridiculously low” land tax of less than $7,000 per year for its 1,840 acres. If Belknap County leased Gunstock to a commercial ski resort operator, “a private business would not have such a luxury,” he says. “Thus, the county, the town of Gilford, and the local school board would benefit from the increased revenues.” Silber maintains that a private operator would pay $245,400 in annual property taxes, plus a portion of their earnings, as determined in lease negotiations.
In his quest to privatize Gunstock, Silber has sought to reshape the Gunstock Area Commission, a five-member body appointed by the county delegation. The commission guides mountain policy while leaving the resort’s day-to-day management to its roughly 50 year-round employees.
Until recently, the Gunstock Area Commission was firmly in favor of managing the ski resort as they long had. Then Silber and his fellow delegates voted Peter Ness onto the commission. Ness, a tax lawyer and Gunstock ski instructor, would prove to be an ally in the fight for change.
In 2021, Silber began asking the commission for documents detailing Gunstock’s financial management. His requests came as the ski area was ramping up for the proposed expansion, and they were fine-grained. “He asked for things that would take county staff hours and hours to gather,” says Brian Gallagher, then the chair of the commission. “He wanted to know the salaries and benefits of each employee, and he’d communicate only through legal letters.” Silber says he was stonewalled — that the commission kept certain public records secret.
Meanwhile, things got uglier as Silber’s commission foes hired a lawyer, Tom Quarles, to look into the slope-side behavior of Ness, the new commissioner. Among the claims in the resulting report, which would be entered into the public record, was that Ness was not rehired as a ski instructor after the 2019-2020 season because he “repeatedly interfered with Gunstock ski instructors and their lessons.” The report said he often asked, “Do you know who I am?” and then identified himself as a Gunstock Area Commission member — and that one instructor was reduced to tears because she feared she’d be fired. (Ness vigorously denies the allegations as unsubstantiated, anonymous, and false hearsay.)
Members of the commission sought to unseat Ness from their group, but the delegation declined to do so. Meanwhile, in November, delegation chair Michael Sylvia argued that the report on Ness was defamatory, and also insinuated that the three Gunstock commissioners who launched the report raised “possible questions of criminal activity” on their part. Sylvia began pushing to have the three commissioners removed.
More than 2,000 Belknap County residents soon signed a petition opposing the removal, but, at the November delegation meeting, Sylvia denied comment from the public. “My only agenda,” he said, “is open and transparent operation of a county asset.”
“We were up against an assembly of lies and falsehoods,” says Gallagher, “and it broke me down.” On January 12, Gallagher, who is 69, resigned from the commission, saying that the strife over Gunstock was threatening his health. Suddenly, the commission was deadlocked 2-2. The fate of the ski area was in the balance, and all eyes were on Silber.
When I was able to get Silber on the phone, we spoke for nearly two hours. I learned a few things — that he grew up in Tampa; that his father, a Polish emigre, ran a furniture shop; that he honed his political ideology while reading the conservative economist Milton Friedman as a student at Tulane University.
With me, Silber’s tone is so amiable that I am inclined to invite him out for a ski, but when I mention the sport, Silber speaks flatly. “If I tried, I’d break bones,” he says. “I’m into guns. I shoot clay and paper targets.”
“Oh, really?” I say. “How many guns do you have?”
“More than one,” he says, then moves on.
Silber tells me that a handful of nearby restaurant owners have contacted him, complaining that Gunstock enjoys “an unfair advantage” — its property tax break. Asked for the names of the businesses, he says, “I would prefer to not identify them.”
“What if you gave them my number so they could call me?” I ask.
“I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing that,” Silber says.
TIME PASSES. Each Tuesday and Thursday morning, I go to Gunstock for a ski workout. Our Nordic coach, Nina Gavrylyuk, is a fiftysomething grandmother and a quiet perfectionist who, decades ago, won three Olympic gold medals for the Soviet Union and Russia. She can still outski most high schoolers, and she runs us oldsters through drills — skiing without poles, skiing with only one ski — with a droll forbearance. “Bill, you are doing this drill completely wrong,” she tells me recently, her voice redolent of her native St. Petersburg. She models precisely what to do: “Like this, like this!”
When I meet one afternoon with the acting chair of the Gunstock Area Commission, Gary Kiedaisch, he argues that, if Gunstock were to be privatized, snowmaking and the quality of service would likely be compromised. “Cross-country skiing doesn’t make a lot of money,” says Kiedaisch, once the CEO of Stowe Mountain Resort in Vermont. “It’s important that it’s there. It’s pristine. It’s beautiful. We keep it for the ambiance, but if the mountain were leased, well, you’d have a bean counter setting the priorities.” He adds that he would not want to see condos all over the mountain.
Kiedaisch talks about “restaurants and bars left and right. That feeling you get now when you pull onto the access road? That you’re in a national park? If you want to keep the place like that, it takes care,” he says. “That’s why we’re going to keep fighting.”
On January 21, Kiedaisch’s cause got a serious boost when a local ski legend wrote to the Sun to announce her candidacy for the open commission seat. Heidi Preuss placed fourth in the downhill at the 1980 Olympics after carving her earliest turns at Gunstock. She’s spent most of the past two decades in the finance industry. In a December letter to the Sun, she went after Silber and his allies, arguing, “The goal of the Belknap Delegation is to eliminate Gunstock.”
Preuss is more than happy to humble me on the mountain’s alpine terrain, and as we take a few runs together, she turns around and skis backward each time I fall behind. On the lift, she echoes Kiedaisch’s dark rhetoric. If Gunstock were leased, she predicts, the mountain’s base would be turned into “a miniature Disneyland.”
Later, I call a ski industry expert outside the county, in hopes of getting a more neutral take. Tom Lithgow, who’s spent the past 30 years advising ski areas on capital planning, tells me, “It’s not clear that Vail is even interested in Gunstock. And there’s no mandate that Belknap County would have to pick Vail” as the lessor. “I could see the place being leased by a partnership of folks who live on Lake Winnipesaukee and want to honor the current mission.”
Silber has not voiced any aspirations of finding a particular lessor for Gunstock. His focus has simply seemed to be on disrupting the current leadership. And when I press him to sketch me a picture of a privatized Gunstock, he expresses hope that the ski area could become another Mount Sunapee, the state-owned resort that has, since 2018, been leased by Vail. “Sunapee is the model,” Silber says.
THE DAYS GET LONGER. We get a good dumping of snow. It rains; the snow melts. It snows again. I keep skiing. One afternoon in January, I glide along the Nordic trails through the Gunstock campground and come upon a guy roasting a hot dog over a fire. “Lunch,” he says, with a smile. It occurs to me then that every quadrant of Gunstock — the campground, the tubing hill, the network of trails beneath the quad chairlift named for Penny Pitou — is its own universe, with its own story. All over the mountain, other Gunstockers are honing their love of winter in their own ways, and everyone has personal feelings about Gunstock.
In late January, I learn that another candidate is running for the commission seat vacated by Gallagher when he resigned. David Strang is a 63-year-old emergency room physician and a downhill ski racer. He is also the treasurer of the Belknap County Republicans, and in 2020 he joined 36 others in sending New Hampshire’s secretary of state a letter arguing that New Hampshire should secede and become a “Free and Independent State.” Last fall, at a legislative session in Concord, he testified against vaccine mandates, arguing, “We have the God-given right to say no.”
The candidates addressed the county delegation on January 31, Strang with efficiency and polish, Preuss with apologies that public speaking is not her strong suit. A third candidate, Gilford businessman Doug Lambert, also spoke, but his prospects seemed dim.
On February 22, finally, amid a torrential rainstorm, 17 members of the delegation meet in a long, windowless conference hall to choose the next Gunstock commissioner. The vote is perfunctory and not close: Strang 9, Preuss 4, Lambert 4. The crowd of roughly 60 people registers the tally in grave silence, with one exception. Helen McSheffrey, a retired driver’s education teacher, shouts, “We’ve been screwed!”
“They’re horrible people,” McSheffrey says to me afterward, referencing Silber and delegation chair Michael Sylvia. “They don’t even care about the citizens they represent.”
Strang’s term as Gallagher’s replacement on the commission will last only nine months. But it seems almost certain that Strang and his allies will now redouble their efforts to jettison chair Gary Kiedaisch. Already, they’ve pressed pause on the master plan to improve the mountain, citing environmental concerns.
As I leave the meeting, I find Alex DeLuca, the lift attendant, in the hallway. In the aftermath of the vote, he told Silber “I’ll never vote for you again.” Now, he and I look out into the darkness. The rain is coming down in sheets. For anyone who loves snow, it is a glum sight. “I just hope we still have a ski area next year,” DeLuca says.
Bill Donahue is a writer based in Gilmanton, New Hampshire. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.