Saturday, January 10, 2009

Cannon’s plans to reopen the old Mittersill resort

From the current issue of Appalachia, and the fruit of a much smaller post written two years ago...

Cannon Mountain is spacious, uncrowded, and reliant on a local clientele—an unusual set of circumstances for a New Hampshire ski resort. To purists, it is a skiing Shangri-La—and for those who crave off-piste terrain without a strenuous ascent, the state-run resort adjoins the defunct Mittersill ski area. Using the Cannon lifts, skiers can trek across the mountain’s northern ridge to a patchwork of winding, deserted trails and then loop back to catch the Cannon lifts at the base.

But led by Commissioner George Bald of the New Hampshire Department for Resources and Economic Development (DRED), Cannon is considering expansion into the neighboring area. Facing criticism from conservative state legislators, who laud the 1998 leasing of Mt. Sunapee, New Hampshire’s other state-owned resort, to private operators, these officials hope to increase attendance and revenue for the ailing resort. In 2007, thanks to excellent snowfall, Cannon ran in the black for the first time since 2002. To backcountry skiers, conservationists, and a small bird named the Bicknell’s Thrush, the alteration of the historic and ecologically sensitive Mittersill landscape demands scrutiny. What is the proper balance between recreation and conservation?

Cannon was among the first American mountains that ski pioneers colonized. They cut the Taft Slalom Trail, the country’s first racing trail, in 1933. Five years later, the resort opened its aerial tramway (replaced in 1980), infusing the mountain with a European flavor. Being state-owned, Cannon is free of slopeside condos and most non-ski related activities, and it lacks the commercial tackiness that pervades comparable resorts at Loon and Waterville Valley.

These days, most of Cannon’s cachet comes from its association with Bode Miller, Franconia native and bad boy of the US ski team, who grew up on its slopes. Furthermore, the views might be as good as the skiing. The massive eastern cliff face (the northeast’s only true “big wall”) forms the western side of Franconia Notch, and lifts on the upper half of the mountain provide a fantastic panorama of Franconia Ridge. On the “front five,” the steep trails visible from Route 93, skiers plunge toward frozen Profile Lake. The only resort in New England with comparable scenery is Wildcat.

Mittersill has less scenic grandeur but a formidable pedigree. The founder was an Austrian émigré, Baron Hubert von Pantz, whose family made a fortune in iron mining. The baron was a lively aristocrat with an oversized ego; in his 1986 memoir, No Risk, No Fun!, he thanked “the disappearing species of waiters, barmen, maitres d’hotel, concierges, chauffeurs, barbers, and others who with their expert professionalism helped make that [carefree and glamorous] life even easier to enjoy.” A bon vivant, he admitted being “indebted to all the ladies whose favors I enjoyed throughout my young manhood. Without their kind cooperation this period would have been pretty arid.”

In 1935, the baron had bought Schloss Mittersill, a castle in the Austrian Tyrol, transforming it into a base for hunting and skiing. Shortly after the Anschluss, Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria, the German SS confiscated the castle and the baron, like the Von Trapps of The Sound of Music, fled first to Switzerland and then to America to escape conscription.

The tram on Cannon attracted the baron to Franconia. After buying 550 adjacent acres, he opened the Mittersill resort in 1945. Though possessing only a small T-bar known as the “alpine lift,” Mittersill did boast a striking base hotel. Complete with overhanging eaves, stained pine wood, and decorative shields painted on the shutters, the lodge’s design was loosely based on the baron’s Schloss Mittersill in Austria. Indeed, the baron made a post-World War II visit in 1950 to examine his European property, which suffered damage from research by a Nazi doctor trying to justify their ideology of racial superiority. The baron restored the old club, and today, Schloss Mittersill is a Christian study center.

Though small, the American Mittersill exuded glamour. The baron and his wife entertained various European royalty, including the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Patti Page was a regular, and Bob Hope visited, though he preferred golf to skiing.

Mittersill was the first American resort to sell slopeside condos and develop an alpine-style “village,” which may be its true legacy to American skiing. Nancy Drourr, now Director of Development at the Brimmer and May School in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, grew up skiing at Mittersill in its heyday. “It was idyllic,” she told me. “We had great instructors—Austrian Olympic skiers, Paul and Paula Valar. She was the first person I ever saw doing freestyle—eight months pregnant and doing flips.” As for the baron and his wife, “he’d walk around in lederhosen, and she’d wear a long skirt. They’d make sure we weren’t misbehaving.”

The baron sold the resort in 1969, and the new owners added a double chairlift and expanded to nine trails, increasing vertical elevation to 1400 feet. The terrain was challenging for such a small resort. Mittersill’s heyday was short-lived, however, for by 1978, the ski area had closed. It could not compete with Cannon Mountain, itself small compared to the best-known resorts in New England. Over the past couple of decades, the lodge has served as a center for the surrounding condos and time-shares.

During this time, the forest has encroached on the old trails, which were never wide, and the old lift towers, still holding up a rusty cable, felt slightly macabre when I skied through. The abandoned trail complex has an aura of mystery and loneliness, especially in the long shadows of the late afternoon. Still, skiers have made an effort to keep the paths free of dangerous snags. On the trek across the ridge from Cannon, someone has left a chair where the view opens up, and on clear weekend days, this satellite peak can take on a carnival atmosphere. Fresh powder does not last long at Mittersill.

In the meantime, Cannon has not sat on its plans for expansion, first outlined in its 1998 Master Development Plan. Presciently, the resort bought the old Mittersill property and now lacks only the sliver between the Hardscrabble Trail and the top of Mittersill, which is owned by the Forest Service. As this piece of land, about 100 acres large, controls access from the larger resort to the top of the smaller, it is critical to redevelopment. Its fate will be determined by the outcome of a land deal between the Forest Service and the state, which has proposed giving up 230 acres of land surrounding the Appalachian Trail in Sentinel Mountain State Forest in exchange. According to John Devivo, Cannon’s General Manager, a combination of operating funds and bonded capital funds will pay for the restoration of the Mittersill slopes. Via email, he added, “Mittersill will not be run or managed as a separate identity but as simply another lift and trail pod at Cannon Mountain, though offered in a much ‘rougher’ state than its other terrain.”

An earlier version of this plan ran afoul of USFS officials due to its possible impact on the Bicknell’s Thrush, most easily identified by its complex, burry, four-part song. Named for an American amateur ornithologist who observed the bird in the Catskills in the late nineteenth century, the bird was identified as a separate species from the Gray-cheeked Thrush only in 1995. It winters in the Antilles but returns in the summer to breed in the spruce-fir forest. The bird favors disturbed habitats such as fir waves and ridgelines. Acid rain has plagued the bird, and global warming has begun to shrink habitat that is sufficiently cool for breeding. In the White Mountains, the AMC has begun an annual survey to observe whether the thrush is shifting to nest at higher elevations.

Concerns about the thrush have influenced plans for expansion at Whiteface Mountain in the Adirondacks. In 2004, The Olympic Regional Development Agency (ORDA) declared its intent to develop the Tree Island Pod, a series of trails expanding Whiteface’s terrain by nearly 40%. By 2006, however, it had prepared an environmental impact assessment amending its plan, and since then, in tandem with groups such as the Audubon Society and New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, it has sought ways to minimize pressures on the thrush.

Conservation biologists at the Vermont Institute of Natural Science (VINS) assisted ORDA, using data collected over ten years at Stowe and Stratton ski areas in Vermont. The VINS team did not find that the thrush population at those areas had suffered; nevertheless, in a 2004 report, it made several recommendations to mitigate potential impacts. These included halting construction during the breeding season (May 15-August 1) and moving the proposed trails away from exposed and disturbed terrain. Once construction was completed, they advised maintaining undergrowth in glades, discouraging skiers from cutting their own trails, and continuing surveys to monitor the thrush.

DRED and officials at Cannon are aware of the environmental sensitivity of their own project. Luckily for them, Mittersill’s northeastern orientation means that redevelopment will occur on the mountainside away from most windstorm disturbance. “We’ll be working actively with the Audubon Society to monitor the species' habitat,” wrote Devivo, “and have agreed to sign a Memorandum of Understanding that prohibits us from creating any net loss of its habitat in the area to be exchanged (if the deal succeeds).” Regarding the expansion of facilities, “a retrofit or replacement of the existing double chair, parking lot upgrades, a small base facility, associated lift ops and patrol structures, and very small-scale snowmaking facilities are planned…[We are] flexible at this point, and growth in that area may take shape over the next 5-10 years, and is largely dependent on the land exchange.”

In short, Cannon plans to restore Mittersill to its extent when closed in 1978. Beyond existing trails, no development will take place above 2500 feet. In a proposed revision to the Master Development Plan, DRED suggests managing the area as “intermediate advanced terrain with a backcountry feel”—implying that most crowds will remain on the existing trails. Cannon has already opened up a small beginner’s area, Tuckerbrook, that was once part of Mittersill. In my experience, this pod is relatively uncrowded. The resort also includes the derelict Mittersill trails in its trail map, piquing skier interest.

Mittersill aficionados diverge in their opinions on the proposed Cannon expansion, as I discovered through my inquiries at, a popular site for backcountry enthusiasts. Rob Means, of Melrose, Massachusetts, began skiing at Cannon in 1968. “If they keep the original character and take advantage of all the tight glades by simplifying access and exit—well, that's great,” he wrote. Mike Gaughan, of Bristol, Connecticut, who has also skied Cannon since childhood, responded in kind. “If anything it will be a shot in the arm to a struggling ski area. As much as I hate to say it, Cannon needs a little development to remain relevant…Snowmaking and grooming have degraded of late; perhaps the income generated by additional skier visits resulting from the opening of Mittersill will allow for better services.”

Still, the redevelopment of Mittersill’s quiet and evocative terrain will be a loss for the adventurous and self-reliant spirit that makes off-piste skiing so compelling. Stephen Jevons of Claremont, New Hampshire, who avows planning his life around skiing, summed up these sentiments. “It pains me to think of that area becoming part of Cannon proper. Mittersill offers…secret glades and chutes cut into and around the trails. Opening this area will take away the uniqueness [and from] a growing dynamic of ski culture, which is ungroomed, unmanicured runs. It is one of the few areas in New Hampshire to offer competition to the glades and untamed terrain of Mad River Glen and Stowe. A true loss of a gem…at my favorite New Hampshire resort.”


Taylor said...

I hope they hurry up with this whole expansion thing, but yes it is a loss of a gem.

Anonymous said...

Sunapee ambassador says....just pray they don't privatize, if the ski pimps get it the mittersill grooming reports will astound.