Way-below-zero option

19th January 1996 at 00:00
David Henderson's ski trip hit New England, USA as the thermometer dropped to - 40 degrees. But once acclimatised, the group had to admit that the icy conditions provided an excellent skiing experience.

Cold? It was positively arctic as the new year chill from the frozen wastes of the north swept in through the New England state of Vermont, blanketing the countryside in feet of snow and plunging temperatures off the thermometer. If the black bears that inhabit the heavily-wooded hillsides gave up hibernating and developed a passion for skiing, they too would have been sure to opt for thermals, mittens and cosy hats.

A presenter on the local radio station at Killington reviewed the freezing outlook on the first morning of Strathallan School's nine-day trip. "I suppose," he inquired of the weatherman, "it is not going to be a 'I don't want to wear my hat because it will mess up my hair' day?" "Nope," replied the jovial forecaster, obviously revelling in his moment. "Stay warm out there, " he advised.

"Put everything on," was the recommendation from Graeme Longmuir, master in charge of the party from the Perthshire independent school. Yet all the clothing in their suitcases was barely enough to exclude the chill as the Weather Channel, compulsory TV viewing in United States ski resorts, warmed (if that's the word) to its warnings of temperatures "way below zero".

Curiously, as Britain is coming to terms with Celsius, our friends across the Atlantic are doggedly hanging on to Fahrenheit. What did way below zero mean in real temperatures?

"It's gonna be 40 below," the climatic soothsayer stressed, by now itching to bring news of the impending "Classic storm of 1996", as it was billed, which was about to bring further feet of snow and chaos to New York and other east-coast cities. It missed most of Vermont and New Hampshire.

One of the Strathallan girls, no slouch on these matters, reckoned that -40 on both scales were rough equivalents. Who was to argue when it was that cold? Even the locals admitted it was a bit on the brisk side, although their pipes do not burst in the spring thaw. The cold is a way of life in the New England states, although they do not always get the winters skiers want. That is why they have invested heavily in artificial snow. With skiing mountains that rise to only some 4,000 feet (yes, they still count in feet over there), snow is less reliable.

They do things differently in the US ski resorts. Lift operators, for example, take a pride in their task. They are there to serve skiers, help them along and "have a good one". They offer advice, scribbling on the noticeboards by their lifts. "40 mph winds at the top - push off and duck," advised one operator, barely visible under his scarf and cagoule.

Staying warm for the Strathallan pupils that first morning meant rushing to the shop at the base Snowshed station to buy $3 handwarmers, those mysterious sachets of chemicals, about the size of tea-bags, that emit heat for up to eight hours and tuck snugly into ski gloves. Normal ski gloves failed to prevent numbing fingertips. Pupils disappeared under their blanket of ski wear, including specially purchased ski masks that left no trace of exposed skin.

The one consolation, and what a consolation, is that the skiing and the quality of the snow is unsurpassed this winter in New England. The base is deep; fresh snow is replenishing the top and the ubiquitious and noisy snow-blowers are constantly at work, producing even more white stuff for the season's pistes. Killington has 43 miles of piste under the blower.

The extremes of early January, while not unexpected, are still uncommon, according to Mike Clifford, marketing co-ordinator at Killington and the man who feeds the Ski Club of Great Britain with its snow depth information for teletext services. There's a claim to fame.

The resort is the largest skiing area on the east coast with 165 miles of trail and this season will host around 2,500 British pupils, mostly in warmer March and April. It has been targeting the UK market for the past four years and is steadily building its appeal through several tour operators. Strathallan booked with Crystal, a leading adult ski operator in Britain, which is now venturing seriously into the schools' market. Next year, it will offer skiing for schools at six New England centres, in addition to its programme in Canada and Europe.

Having talked with party leaders, Mr Clifford maintains the attraction of Killington is broad based. "We speak the language, almost. Leaders tell me they think everything is so well organised. We have fast lifts and long trails and we organise our lines (lift queues to traditional European skiers). I believe they feel people in the States are very friendly and very helpful."

One of the resort's strongest sales points, Mr Clifford says, is that you can ski from the top of the six linked mountains that comprise the resort without feeling the trails are only for advanced skiers. "There's always an easier route down. Our trails are well groomed and well marked and you have to make an effort to get lost," he continued.

Their ski school also comes with a reputation for fun teaching in groups of no more than eight, he added.

Fortunately for the Strathallan party, the freezing temperatures did not last throughout their visit, although the mercury never rose above zero - on either scale.

For Graeme Longmuir, an experienced European trip organiser, everything worked out smoothly on his first venture to the States. His verdict is that it is high quality and good value for money and he would go again some time in the future.

But there is no question it is more expensive to fly to the States than to the Alps and school prices reflect that fact. Add at least Pounds 100 to your peak season price for the Alps. However, you set that against one or two days' more skiing and the sense of doing something different, according to Mr Longmuir. He echoed most of Mr Clifford's views about the good points, praising the orderly lift lines, the friendliness of the lift operators and the quality of the trails. "It is genuinely a good ski experience and there is enough for any standard of skier," he said.

Fifteen-year-old Catherine Gdula found the skiing "really good with lots of varied trails and slopes to choose from". People were very friendly. Her main complaint was unrelated to the slopes. "After skiing there is not a lot to do. You could not even go to the nightspot to have a pizza. You have to be 21," she moaned. Drink laws in the US are strictly enforced.

Others backed her up. "There is no resort centre," 18-year-old Struan Cochrane pointed out, while 16-year-old Neil Grosset claimed: "There is absolutely nothing to do for people of our age."

Killington is not so much a village but a long, raking road with a string of hotels and restaurants designed for easy car access.

The skiing itself is only accessible by bus for most visitors. Like much of the States, it is not pedestrian friendly with virtually nowhere to shop or browse in the European apr s-ski tradition. That may appeal to some group leaders who want a tightly-controlled party within a hotel base, but it did not go down well with the older Strathallan pupils.

Mike Clifford replies that with thoughtful planning, including coach transport, it is possible to put on an evening programme to suit most. In addition, several of the hotels used by Crystal do have swimming pools, jacuzzis and hot tubs to fill the hours before dinner.

For groups with more limited skiing ability than Strathallan, Lincoln village, also three hours' drive from Boston, may be a better bet. Loon Mountain, a mile or so outside the village, which suffers the same weaknesses as Killington, is a more compact area with attractive tree-lined trails in familiar well-groomed condition. Again, it boasts easy routes from the top, along with steeper terrain, and a longest run of 2.5 miles.

Loon shares the touches that make skiing in the US an appealing prospect - roving "ambassadors" to help skiers with information and problems, paper hankies at the foot of the lifts, chatty lift attendants, helpful ski hire staff and an all-American steam train that links the short distance between the two base stations.

From Lincoln, it is possible to ski Bretton Woods, a small ski area 24 miles north, with spectacular views over to Mount Washington. All runs can be graded blue and it is a perfect base for beginners and early intermediates and indeed for any teaching. It is also uncrowded.

The Strathallan trip was booked through Crystal Schools, Crystal House, Arlington Road, Surbiton, Surrey KT6 6BW. Tel: 0181 241 5151

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