Memories at 635 Feet

Memories at 635 Feet

N.B. - This is the first in a series of posts from team members and friends of Alps & Meters, recalling their fondest skiing memories. Readers can submit their stories to be featured in this recurring series. First up: Alps & Meters founder, Lou Joseph.

As the autumn leaves of New England fall from the trees and the air cools,  my mind inevitably begins searching for signs of the coming winter.

 Phone calls with friends in the Rockies and the Alps are inquisitive and probe on topics such as early season conditions, mountain openings, and predictions about where this year’s snowfall will be the deepest.  However, as my mind races forward in anticipation of those first days on the mountain, I find myself reminiscing about winters past.  It seems that skiing down memory lane has always been a means of magically transferring the best trips, best runs, and best experiences to the coming winter, soon to arrive on our doorstep.  

Perhaps not surprisingly, the annual pre-winter review of my ski albums seem to focus upon adventures taken to far away places with massive vertical and steep terrain.   However, my own personal journey in skiing, as for many, started much, much earlier and was a family affair whose archives seem to have unfortunately, been suffocated by the travels of my 20’s and 30’s.   Pulled in one part by curiosity and the other part by nostalgia, I recently sat down with a few family ski albums and in doing so, rediscovered one of the areas (a hill actually), where my love of skiing was born and where the purity of the experience stood as tall as those far away ski, exotic ski destinations that had consumed my post university years.

The Aiguille du Midi of Chamonix, France is 12,065 feet tall, commands some of the steepest terrain skiable in the French Alps, and is 3,500 miles from Alps & Meters’ office locations in Vermont and Massachusetts.  I skied in Chamonix a few years ago with a French guide and close friend and regard the trip as an indelible check mark against my bucket list of alpine adventures.  In contrast, my home town ski destination, Blue Hills Ski Area, is a mere 309 feet tall, was 14 miles from my childhood home, and despite trails with names such as Upper and Lower Chute, is a beginner’s paradise of low angle corduroy from top to bottom.  I learned to ski at Blue Hills and during a flip through our family photo album I felt a surge to revisit and rekindle those long-lost memories in effort to see if a 309 foot hill of hard pack could compared to those glamorous, far flung trips to powder havens around the world.

With the flick of an album page, our white station wagon was pulling into a muddy lot with my twin brother and I sitting looking out of the rear window in the old jump seat that faced backwards.

Blue Hill Ski Area, situated in Canton, Massachusetts, USA, has been providing lift serviced skiing for over half a century.  The ski area itself is located south of Boston on the western face of Great Blue Hill, and sits adjacent to one of Massachusetts’ major highway thoroughfares, Route 128.  Because of its accessible location for many surrounding towns and communities, Blue Hills has always found itself at the center of ski programs for families and kids of all ages.  Those programs still run today and its where, more than 30 years ago, my mother carted my twin brother and I to learn how to slide down the mountain on snow.

Truth be told, prior to assistance from a series of photos, my time spent at Blue Hills was difficult to remember.  Although I was aware that the hill is what inspired a few of my winter “firsts” – my first chair lift ride, first descent, first slalomed gates, and the first time I wore Hawaiian garb for spring ski – it took a faded photo or two to recreate the scene, sounds, and scents of both the place and time in my minds eye.  But with the flick of an album page, our white station wagon was pulling into a muddy lot with my twin brother and I sitting looking out of the rear window in the old jump seat that faced backwards.

I recall having my ski boots on as I shouldered my skis like a grown-up and trudged up a small, low angled dirt path to the gingerbread house-like lodge at the base of Big Blue, the main trail of the area. The entire scene, both in album pictures and more vivid memories, was wonderfully analog…no high-tech gear or machinery in sight.  Likely because of the dramatic financial constraints facing small community ski hills, the stripped down, bare bones nature of the place brought into focus the simplicity of that era, that place, and my first ski experience.  

Untraveled at the time, I did not recognized the lack of amenities…no omelet chef or salad bar, no high speed quad, and no rushing herds pressing or packing into a cable car. Continuing to gaze at a few album pictures, I both recognized and felt that there was a truth in the simplicity on display.  Whether it was the low-fi equipment, the rickety double chair lift, the lack of apps tracking vertical and weather conditions, I come to realize that there was virtually nothing to distract one from the purpose of the place – skiing.  

While I perused our family albums further, I noticed that while Blue Hill lacked the typical diversions offered by today’s mega resorts (mascots, water parks, and real estate), the atmosphere was not short on smiles.  Literally every page and every picture of that Blue Hills Ski album from the 80’s was full of ear-to-ear grins, laughter, and what appeared to be good times.  From this perspective, what I had originally considered as “analog” would be much better described as vintage.  The word vintage is better suited and connected to the complete goodness captured in that series of faded photos; good times, good people, and the sheer carefree nature of it all.  Vintage is more befitting because it rings with the notion that such a time and experience was one of a kind and not to be repeated despite how much I might long for its return.

With falling snow in the USA and Europe, excitement for the coming winter is amplified by constant phone calls and e-mails with skiing friends who have already received their first batches of snow or captured the fun of an opening day somewhere far west of Alps & Meters’ offices in Boston and Vermont.  So I sit, with my albums channeling good times and good turns.  And, while I can practically hear the hoots and hollers from the photographs taken during trips past, there is an old but new album now edging its way into my mind and memory banks.  Amidst the destination adventure of Chamonix, Jackson Hole, Park City, Aspen, and other renowned mountain towns, now also I see, hear, and smell the beautiful simplicity of the 309-foot hill where I learned to ski.