A reported three to four feet of white gold was dumped on Wildcat’s slopes during the last full week of October. With countless skiers and riders hiking to the summit for epic October powder descents, Wildcat decided on Wednesday, in the midst of a power outage, to give the weekend a shot. A dedicated and hard working management team began working the telephones from their homes to assemble a crew for bare bones weekend operations four weeks in advanced of the scheduled opening day. Wildcat pulled it out and was the first ski area in the east and the third in the nation to open for skiing and riding on Friday October 28, 2005.
Previously scheduled meetings at work had me tied to my desk while hundreds of East Coast skiers made first lift serviced tracks at Wildcat on Friday. Reports of epic bottomless powder at higher elevations began circulating the net Friday evening. I knew I would get mine on Saturday and I anxiously got my gear ready only to experience any skier’s worst nightmare that morning. After packing the car, I flicked the switch and the engine would not turn. Spending the better part of Saturday morning obtaining and installing a new battery, I knew I missed out on two of the best days of the season, in October no less!
Nothing could keep me from the slopes of Wildcat the following day and I anxiously sped away from home early Sunday morning. Too anxiously perhaps as my dedication to the first chair had me approaching the lift an hour early. Adjusting clocks for Daylight Savings Time is usually an activity reserved for the off season; though an essential activity for timely arrival at ski areas during early October openings. I was not alone in my excitement and forgetfulness as over 50 additional skiers soon formed a lift line awaiting the rope to drop at the Tomcat Triple. Ski patrol mercifully gave the nod 15 minutes early at a quarter of nine and loading commenced.
Ascending the Tomcat Triple for my first lift serviced run of the 2005-2006 ski season was exciting. The coverage was impressive for October and having resulted from only two storms. Lower slopes were mostly packed down with minimal grooming and occasional patches of thin cover. Water bars were well filled in throughout most of the trails as seen from overhead. Trees were caked and glistening in surreal white at mid-mountain but leaves covered the snow in places reminding us that Winter is still yet to arrive despite the tasty appetizer we have been offered. A stream ran down the middle of the Catacomb Glades reminding everyone that the snow cover was temporary and unseen melting was already occurring from the bottom up as the ground is still unfrozen despite the think coating of snow.
The Tomcat Triple Chairlift is an often overlooked gem on a mountain serviced top to bottom by a fast High Speed Quad covering over two thousand vertical feet. The Tomcat Triple Chairlift services a very respectable fifteen hundred feet of vertical and all but Wildcat’s upper most trails. The ride is relatively quick for a fixed grip and still services most of the best terrain on the mountain. It is this author’s opinion that Wildcat made a tremendous blunder when choosing to install the High Speed Quad top to bottom. The Tomcat Chair Lift would have been the ideal location for a high speed lift that would be less prone to wind holds and cold rides while still accessing most of Wildcat’s great terrain and vertical. A second fixed grip lift replacing the long since removed Riblet Double would have been more than adequate to cover demand for occasional trips to the summit. The design I suggest was originally in place when Wildcat’s summit was serviced by the now defunct gondola and worked well for the mountain prior to the installation of the High Speed Quad.
Sliding down the unload ramp of the Tomcat Triple, I quickly readjusted to sliding on snow. Having earned turns twice in the past week, I was fortunate to not require much time to reacquainted myself with the art of the turn. I made my way towards Upper Catapult before being stopped in my tracks under the Quad lift line by the sight of Mount Washington across the Notch. Majestic as ever, the summit of Mount Washington was covered in a glistening white under a dome of early morning dark blue. The ravines and above tree line locales of Mount Washington all sported ample coverage for October. All but the bowls, slides, and gullies of the various Ravines looked to be in full mid-winter form.
After catching a few weird edges, I felt the muscle memory kicking into high gear. Staying skiers right on Upper Catapult, I noticed the trail beginning to fall away to my right dumping into Middle Catapult which I knew to contain all natural snow and likely lots of excellent soft packed powder bumps. Not normally a good idea to tackle a bump run first thing on any ski day, let alone the first lift serviced day of the season! But the snow was too good and I was already turning it on. The trail fell away to skier’s right. More tentative folks looked on from above the lip as I charged right into the goods. Working my way through the deliciously soft and well formed moguls, I tracked across the trail to skier’s left in anticipation of the steepest drop off on the trail. Bailing out to skier’s right following the drop, it quickly became evident that I was sucking wind and hardly in mid-season form despite mid-season conditions!
After a wobbly kneed run out on Lower Catapult, I began questioning my open-to-close ambitions which included a skin to the summit despite the closed High Speed Quad. Another ride up the Tomcat Triple had me dropping into Middle Catapult again for more excellent bumps followed by the run out on Upper Panther to Alleycat in variable natural snow conditions. Spying folks properly warmed up dropping into Feline under the Tomcat Triple, I knew it was on. Feline is reminiscent of a less steep but more narrow Red Line at Magic Mountain in Vermont. The trail was well bumped by the time I found my way into its narrow confines and began my steep descent to the chorus of cheers from above. I was blown away by the coverage and quality of the snow covering some rather nasty and normally exposed rocks and drops. I quickly find myself winded but kept pounding down the trail with admirable poise for my fifth run of the season! Near the bottom of the trail, I spied a huge cliff begging to be hucked. After stopping above the cliff to take careful measurement of take off and landing areas, I questioned the sanity of dropping a cliff on my first day of lift serviced skiing of the year. Further, the more than eight foot drop was larger than I am used to taking and a fall would be rather unforgiving with a large sized boulder in the fall zone. You only live once right? I stepped up hill a few paces to generate some speed and hit it, nailing the landing flawlessly to hoots and hollers from above. Just below the cliff, Feline dumps out into Middle Lynx where I looked back up Feline and exclaimed “that much fun should NOT be legal in October!” Apparently, it is.
After hitting up Middle Catapult again, I dropped Feline once more with less fluidity and grace. With legs throbbing, I hacked my way down to the cliff and gave it another huck, nailing the landing but suffering from a binding ejection simultaneously. An admirable attempt that I simply could not resist in October! From there I tracked down Middle Lynx to Catanary which sported natural snow and the occasional interesting water bar crossing. Catanary dumped out into Lower Catanary with its excellent bumps in front of an audience lined up for the Tomcat Triple which averaged five to seven minute wait times during the pre-lunch peak hour.
Deciding it was time for lunch, I headed into the lodge and switched gears. After refueling and resting, I decided it was prime time to see what Wildcat’s summit offered. I headed out to my car and switched boots and skis to my touring rig. Applying skins to my skis at the top of the Tomcat Triple earned me some curious looks which was amusing. Most summit bound skiers and boarders were booting up the Polecat trail which was littered with dozens of boot tracks; a sure sign no fresh snow was likely remaining at the summit, especially considering the groomed nature of the Upper trails. Wildcat did the smart and prudent thing by machine grooming the upper trails despite not having the summit open in an attempt to preserve the snow pack until their opening in late November. I quickly ascended the Upper Polecat trail to take in the full spectacle of Mount Washington from the summit of Wildcat Mountain.
Amazing views were had off the front side and back side of Wildcat Mountain. By the time I earned my summit, the clouds hovering over Wildcat Mountain had burned off to a true bluebird afternoon. Mount Washington appeared ever so stately and mild mannered despite the harsh winds and mid-winter conditions. The moderate temperatures of the mid to lower mountain took a plunge at the summit and I took cover behind the old gondola building for a snack and hydration. Views off the backside towards the hills of the North Conway area were magnificent. A few tracks went off the backside down the Wildcat Valley trail to likely greener pastures. After a few quick photo opportunities, I exited stage left and pointed the sticks towards Upper Wildcat.
Originally cut by the CCC in 1933, the Wildcat Trail was one of the finest and fastest Class A racing trails during the formative years of North American ski racing. It would be 25 more years before the Wildcat Trail could be skied top to bottom with lift access via a two passenger gondola built in 1958. While I was given an assist by the Tomcat Triple, I earned my run from the top of Upper Wildcat the old fashion way just like they did back in the 1930s-1950s. The reward for my efforts was plentiful natural snow packed down into perfect packed powder conditions that most skiers dream about. While the trail has been substantially widened and re-graded, the trail retains a wild flavor of the early CCC trails with a turny rhythm that follows the natural contours of the mountain. Still a New England classic after all these years.
Returning to the lodge via the Lower Wildcat trail, I was completely spent and ready to call it a day with a run total only in the single digits. Earning my turns has taught me a lesson long forgotten by most folks riding the lifts in the modern skiing era: quality is better than quantity almost any day of the season. Especially in October!