— by Beatrice Burack

Hanover, NH 3/13/24

Flooding. Wildfires. Power outages. These impacts of climate change keep us up at night because they can catch us by surprise. They can change our lives in an instant, without warning.

But there are other changes too—changes too slow or subtle to perceive in an instant or even in a year, but that we will look back on and note with chagrin how they’ve changed our lives. This is the case with skiing in New Hampshire.

Changes to the ski industry mirror the changes to our lives and culture caused by climate change more generally, and Granite Staters’ reactions to them provide a window into the stakes of climate change—and our potential to do something about it.

The wealthy and well-funded hang on the longest

Since the birth of New Hampshire skiing about a century ago, over 172 ski areas have been shuttered. These weren’t the big corporate resorts. They were mom and pop ski tows like Russel’s Slope in Kearsarge and the Contoocook Ski Tow.

Many pressures combined to force these areas out of business—changes to lift technology, demographics, insurance—but the availability of snow has always been a factor as well.

For ski areas and nordic centers with the means to invest in rapidly advancing snowmaking technology, this has often made all the difference.

Pats Peak in Henniker gets by despite its southern location because it has a $5 million snowmaking system.

Great Glen Trails, which had a rocky start to its opening season in 1994, installed snowmaking the following year and has been using it to plug gaps during snowless winters ever since.

But The Vets, a nonprofit downhill facility run by Franklin’s Outing Club, did not have any snowmaking until it received a government grant for two snow guns last year. While The Vets is hanging on, it can only keep its 230 vertical feet of skiing open for roughly two months out of the year.

Scarcity fuels exclusivity

Losing places like The Vets isn’t just about losing skiing. It’s about losing places where Granite Staters have gone for generations to spend time outside, together, in the cold winter months.

It’s also about losing opportunities for less wealthy or well-connected people to ski. At The Vets, parents can ski for $15 on a weeknight with their kids after work. There’s a donation room with free gear for outing club members to take. Some days, you can ski for free too. You don’t need a $1,000 Epic Pass or the ability to drive two hours north to a big resort.

Losing smaller ski areas makes it harder for people to get into the sport. That’s a problem for a ski industry that, according to New England Ski Museum Director Tim Whiton, has been struggling for years to expand its audience.

The pandemic brought a major boom to ski resorts as more people searched for outdoor activities. Still, skiing remains an exclusive sport that struggles to bring in new blood.

While many skiers dream of spending their days at bigger mountains like Loon, Sunapee, or Wildcat, local areas create a critical pipeline to these places, training young skiers who will eventually be willing to travel greater distances to ski.

Without those smaller, less expensive local areas, it’s just plain tougher to get into the sport.

Taking what you can get