HENNIKER, N.H. — A feeder hill gets people hooked on skiing.
That’s what’s been happening for nearly 50 years at Pats Peak.
Ask Bertie Holland, a Winchester, Mass., native who came to work at the Peak in 1981 and has been snowsports school director since 1989. She’s seen third and fourth generations of families there, and now teaches her young grandchildren.
“We’ve gone from being a tiny, tucked-in-the-woods family ski area to a modern one with things like computers and snowmaking,” she said. “But we’ve always been a family-oriented area. We can’t compete with bigger mountains. Our focus is to make lifetime skiers.”
Pats Peak is a family-owned operation that opened Jan. 5, 1963, after the four 20-something entrepreneurial Patenaude brothers — Joe, David, Wayne, and Stuart — cut and created the trails on the wooded hill near the Contoocook River.
Family history says David bought the land because he wanted a little ski area with a J-bar and rope tow. The Yankee-proud brothers even pressed ahead after consulting former Dartmouth and Olympic skier-turned-ski area designer Sel Hannah, who thought the hill was a bad place for a ski area.
Over time, the brothers sold out to each other. Now Wayne and his wife, Sally, own the 23-trail, 10-lift ski area with a scant 710 vertical feet and a trio of beginner areas, three terrain parks, snow tubing, and night skiing.
“They are risk takers,” said Kris Blomback, 46, who has been general manager since 1995. “They zig when everybody else zags.”
During last season’s dismal winter, the area tallied 160,000 skier visits, down from 200,000 the previous season. Drawing skiers and riders largely from southern New Hampshire and the North Shore of Massachusetts, Pats exudes its learn-to mantra by accommodating about 8,000 students from 110 schools during its five-week after-school program.
Approximately 90 minutes from Boston, skiers coming to the predominantly day-trip area will notice some $500,000 in infrastructure improvements, including an upgraded arrival area. They’ll soon find a big air bag for aerial tricks, while around back the new Backdraft trail provides another beginner way from the summit. The first Women’s Burton Learn to Ride Center in the state is on tap, with new terrain and lifts planned for the future.
Management has taken baby steps over a half-century. But not every step works. Snowbiking is relatively flat, and a GPS tracking system to record the day’s vertical and such, introduced a few years ago, was a bust, according to Blomback.
Chalk it up to trial and error.
Blomback tells of when skiers drove from Boston to Pats Peak and upon arrival went through an equipment rental quagmire in a 2,400-square-foot ski shop with no bathrooms and only one cashier. Then in unfamiliar clunky ski boots and carrying skis and poles, walked up two flights of stairs to the slopes.
The rental area was renovated in 2003 to a 10,000-square-foot space complete with four lines and two bathrooms. This season, a magic carpet lift was installed outside the shop so newbies can ride it to the snow.
“We like to take the negatives and turn them into positives,” said Blomback.
In an industry where snowmaking is all-important, Blomback has no snowmaking budget.
“When I first started here, I asked the owner about snowmaking and grooming budgets,” Blomback said. “He said, ‘What are you going to do? Put out a substandard product? Do what you have to do.’ ”
Pats Peak hums with Saturday night’s pay one price deal, and its 12th annual Diversity Day Jan. 21 will turn white slopes into a neighborhood of color. The innovative event attracts lots of urban youth, including those in Boston’s Youth Enrichment Services programs.
There’s also competition, community, and camaraderie. The adult corporate race league has grown from one night and 10 teams in 1989 to four nights and more than 70 teams.
Bobby Cochran, a Keene-area physician and member of the “Skiing Cochrans,” has been a staple for some 20 years.
“Once it’s in your blood, it’s hard to get it out,” said the 1972 Olympian. “Racing at night is almost magical. I’ve been at work all day, slogging away, and this just brings me back.”
The Pats Peak Ski Club delivered Olympians Pam Fletcher and Holly Flanders, while the hill hosted the 1974 US National Slalom Championships. Some 21 high schools train here.
Hometown girl Kristen Ulmer skied here from second grade through high school, before becoming a US Ski Team member and big mountain pro skier with incredible global Alpine achievements, including the first female descent of Wyoming’s 13,770-foot Grand Teton.
“Pats Peak was the catalyst that got me obsessed with skiing,” she said from her Park City, Utah, home. “Even to this day when I go back I find the [double black diamond] Hurricane to be a nice challenge. I’ve skied the world and still get a thrill there.”
Ulmer, who returns to Pats Peak in January for a women’s ski clinic, remembers childhood days of hanging out in the lodge and eating more cookies than skiing.
“Pats Peak is up there with meatloaf and mac and cheese; a comfort area, a comfort food,” she said.
And all about family.
“We joke we’re the world’s largest day-care facility,” said Blomback.
Well, maybe at least around a small college town with nary a traffic light off I-89.