In 1934 the Civilian Conservation Corps sliced a backcountry ski trail on Black Mountain, which hovers over the idyllic hamlet of Jackson, N.H. Still a local favorite backcountry trail, Black has developed into more than an off-piste destination. A year after the CCC finished its work, trails were cut on the opposite side of the peak, served by a surface rope tow lift. Black Mountain Ski Area was born.
One of the only remaining independently owned ski areas in New Hampshire, Black has a storied history. And despite being located just minutes from North Conway, recently named the number one ski village in the East, Black remains far off the radar of valley visitors and locals alike. The area maintains a certain palpable feel of fierce independence, hidden goods, and bucolic atmosphere that can’t be found anywhere else in the state.
In the 1930s there were a smattering of small ski areas in the White Mountains. Most have gone belly up, but Black has managed to endure fluctuating economies and stiff competition, staying in operation consistently since its opening day, when the area was known as Whitney’s, after its owner at that time. It was later rebranded and would forever thereafter go by Black Mountain, its current moniker.
Black was home of the first overhead cable ski lift in the country. This design allowed cables to avoid rust and enhanced the comfort for skiers, who, at the time of initiation paid under three dollars for a lift ticket. Chairlifts, however, had not yet been invented, so Black had a conundrum: how to affix a skier to that overhead cable. Their solution was innovative. Black purchased scores of Sears and Roebuck shovel handles and attached them to the cable. To this day there is a namesake pub, the Shovel Handle Pub, at the base of the hill.
Initially only sporting a 400-foot vertical, Black added a new T-bar lift in 1948, increasing their vert to 700 feet. This addition was in response to increasing competition from other burgeoning post-WWII era ski resorts, like Cranmore Mountain Resort, which were offering bottom-to-top lift service. In 1957 snowmaking was added, followed in subsequent years with new surface lifts, improved lighting for night skiing and an expansion in the number of trails.
In 1965 Black opened its first chairlift, stretching to the top of the 2,830-foot-high peak. The expansion to include the upper mountain yielded a total of 1,100 feet of vertical. Black had finally stepped into the arena of bustling ski areas in the Whites. The Whitneys retired and the baton was passed to a group of local businessmen, who expanded amenities, allowing Black to survive its tough financial times during the 1970s and 1980s. The current owners are John and Andrew Fichera. The original surface lift still operates today as the oldest operating lift in New England.
Off-season maintenance of ski trails usually involves mowing the grass and controlling erosion. Black mows a bit, but in the vein of its roots, relies on a herd of grazing cattle to thin the lawn. In early season, it’s not uncommon to have to dodge a cow patty or two before the snow fills in. Whitney’s Inn, opened in 1936 at the base of the hill, is a barn board structure that still houses guests today. The ski lodge at Black is like stepping back in time, with post-and-beam construction and a simple, rustic feel.
Black does, however, have a bit of a reputation for doing things its own way. It often closes during the week, is for unknown reasons excluded from the local radio station’s Ski and Board Report, and has even been known to ban some locals for trying to redeem gratis ski vouchers. But despite that edgy side, Black remains a repository of outstanding snow and stays untracked for weeks after a storm. It’s truly the best place in New England to find fresh turns. It used to groom with a farm tractor towing a carpet of chains, but now uses modern snowcats, however it still farms powder and lets it sit, undisturbed after a big dump. And its terrain speaks for itself.
There are steep glades, cliffs to drop and a myriad of easier terrain for skiers of all stripes. Today Black has 45 trails, five lifts, and 80 percent snowmaking, making it one of the most reliable stashes in the area. And one where, despite its location and uphill capacity, you’re likely to schuss many trails without another skier in sight.
But Black’s uphill capacity isn’t limited to lifts. A local ski mountaineer, Andrew Drummond, started an evening, headlamp-illuminated uphill/downhill alpine touring race series, Friday Night Lights. Drummond is quite the maverick and has also developed an alpine touring ski shop at Black. Paired with Friday Night Lights, Black bustles at the end of the work week, where après ski beer flows freely and music erupts from the Lostbo Pub. Kids sled on closed trails while parents hydrate, the lifts dangle over historic ski paths and the cattle roam behind a nearby fence, waiting for their time to nibble.
Black is a special place, served with a wedge of Yankee attitude. It’s endured difficult times, but has remained in operation during eras when other areas folded like origami swans. Generations of diehards have relied on Black for years to provide the best snow and one of the most unique atmospheres in New England. At Black you might see old men skiing in leather boots and wool pants, you may pass Drummond setting a nighttime course with LED lanterns, or you may have to dodge a little cow dung. But no matter what you see, you’ll never forget skiing through the Black’s time warp and the shin-deep blower powder as you glide your way to a truly unforgettable day.
If you go . . .
Black Mountain is located a few miles north of Jackson, N.H. www.blackmt.com. Tickets from $20.99 (really). Call ahead for operating hours, as they vary. 800-475-4669.
Brian Irwin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.