FRANCONIA NOTCH, New Hampshire ??вЂќ The mountain that taught the best skier in the world how to ski arches over Interstate 93 like a massive gate to New Hampshire’s snow-covered North Country
But, when you turn off the exit, drive a few hundred yards to the base lodge, and strap on your skis, you begin to see the mountain that raised skiing’s answer to Larry Bird and Tiger Woods.
Cannon is a skier’s mountain first. According to local legend, the first trails from the top of the 4,186 foot high peak were carved into the evergreens a century ago by releasing huge boulders from the summit. The curving, bouncing paths the rocks took became trails like Upper Cannon and Upper Ravine ??вЂњ natural ski runs that are marked by snow-crusted pine trees and a view that goes all the way to Canada on a clear day.
Two decades ago, when World Champion Bode Miller grew up on the slopes of Cannon Mountain, it wasn’t just a skier’s mountain first. It was a skier’s mountain, period.
Today, improved snowmaking, new lifts, and trail expansions have turned Cannon into a place where families can ski together, with one of the widest ranges of skiing in New England. Snowmaking now supplements New Hampshire’s winter snowfall on 158 of the mountain’s 165 acres, and the first aerial tram in North America has been replaced by two red and yellow trams that whisk skiers to the top of the mountain 70 at a time to keep lift lines short.
Last year the mountain opened a new Brookside area, nine trails for beginners that combine the gentle slope of a training trail with the tree-lined paths of the higher elevations.
But along with the new expansions, the same runs that have challenged skiers for decades still stretch across the mountain’s east side with a deceptively inviting smile. Standing at the top of Gary’s — a trail that separates the intermediate skiers from the beginners — the view of the highway snaking through Franconia Notch is the same as what a young world champion-in-the-making saw when he would spend entire winters at Cannon Mountain.
“I didn’t miss one day when the lifts were open,” Miller recently told a London newspaper of his years growing up on the slopes. “I would be up there when they opened and there when they closed.”
Above the ski rental window in Cannon Mountain’s base lodge is a picture of Miller crouched over, leaning into a right turn with the edges of his skis almost vertical to the powdery snow. The writing scrawled on the top in silver marker is more of a yearbook message than an endorsement. “For the boys at the Cannon Mt. rental shop ??вЂњ Bode Miller USA 2002.”
The “boys” at the rental shop ??вЂњ along with the ???lifties,’ the ruggedly hansom ski patrol director, and the 74-year old local who shovels the walkways at 4 a.m. every morning ??вЂњ are what make the mountain often feel more like a big family or a summer camp than a resort.
“Families come to Cannon Mountain because they see the same people working the lifts year after year,” explains Marketing Director Amy Bassett, who sheepishly admits she has only worked on the mountain for twelve years. “Twelve years is nothing here.”
The locals will tell you that becoming the best skier in the world isn’t just about raw speed. So will the experts.
“Harmony and balance,” explained Jean Claude Killy, the 1968 Olympic skiing legend to the LA Times last month before Miller faced the world championships. “He has got it all together.”
Miller just calls it that “pure” thing.
Reading his words on a white bulletin board full of newspaper clippings posted next to the ticket window, it is easy to wonder whether Miller is talking about his skiing or the mountain where he learned how to ski.
And while families laugh, teenagers pant out of breath, and couples warm their hands by a large stone fireplace after coming in off the slopes, you realize that maybe a ???normal’ mountain in New Hampshire isn’t such an unlikely place to produce a world champion after all.