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What’s the Rush?

Mt Washington Train

The highest peak in New England is Mt Washington. It's an incredible place in winter, but a circus during the rest of the year. There's a steam engine that takes tourists to the summit. You can also drive your car or motorcycle all the way to the top on a paved road and buy pizza or hot dogs in a cafeteria overlooking the mountains of the Presidential range. It's an abomination.

The same story is repeated on many other peaks across New England where ski runs slice through forest ecosystems reducing majestic mounts to amusement parks. You need to hike over Jay Peak, Killington, Wildcat, Canon, Sunapee, Bromley, Bolton, Madona, Pico, or Stratton in spring, summer or fall to truly appreciate how a ski resort mars a mountain and destroys its majesty and wildness.

Madonna Peak Ski Run

Imagine you've been hiking all day, relishing in a splendor of lush green forest and the cleansing challenge of a climb, only to pop out of the woods at the foot of a chair lift, looming over you like a giant bug, straight from the set of War of the Worlds.

Seriously, why the rush to the top?

There was a time in the not to distant past when  the only way to the top of the high peaks was walking and ski runs were less invasive. Skiers had to climb up a mountain first before they could zoom down it. Thunderbolt Ski Trail on Mt Greylock was such a run not long ago, and Tuckerman Ravine on Mt Washington is one of the few remaining in New England today.

Skiing on Tuckerman Ravine

What have we really gained by scarring a mountain to get to the top faster? The memory of a view fades quickly, but the memories of a challenging journey to a summit remain imprinted in my mind forever.

12 comments

  1. I agree entirely. The fact that the Long Trail traverses no fewer than 9 ski resorts (only one of VT's 4000 footers is undeveloped) has always seemed a bit weak to me. Same with Maine's second highest mountain being a side trail from the AT because of the major ski resort on top.

    However, after reading Guy and Laura Waterman's Forest And Crag (highly recommended) I'm relieved that not more mountains suffered the same fate. It seems carriage roads were the preferred method of getting up mountains long before hiking became the popular style.

    I know the Bigelows barely escaped a ski resort, and I can't remember exactly if Katahdin did too. Sure, there's a lot of money in ski resorts (Maine and Vermont could certainly use more of that), but there's a lot less soul. Even if there's no view from the top without a chairlift cut, I'm happier with the quiet summits.

  2. Amen. What is really gained for such a loss.

  3. What is gained is a greater audience for those incredible mountain views. And the more people who appreciate and love the views, the more who will love the mountains themselves. The more who love the mountains, the more who will decide to take care of them, now and for the future.

    Ski lifts have taken me to many many mountains that I would never have climbed. It takes time, it takes gear, it takes conditioning. Wonderful if you have all those things – lots of mountains out there that you'll have to yourself. But for those who don't – what's wrong with being carried up for a weekend? I don't know a single skier who isn't agog at the beauty of the scenery while riding the chairlift. We all stop here and there on the way down to take in the views and marvel at the wildness and splendor.

    I don't see that this is bad for a mountain. Nor do I understand the problem with having a bite of pizza atop Mt Washington. There's plenty of that mountain that is still wild and rugged and difficult to access. Why not let people love Mt Washington as they are able?

  4. I don't want to start an argument, so Phil if you want to cut this post feel free.

    Kate, I agree that getting more people into nature is a good thing. I wish more folks would– that would mean more trails, more volunteers to maintain the trails, more funding for trail maintenance, and so on. There are issues, though.

    First, when you bring lots of people to a mountaintop, there will be environmental damage. Even without the paved-over summits (like Mt Washington), you don't have to look hard to find rocks barren of lichens and mosses, bare dirt patches where there used to be sedge. This was much more of a problem in the 60's and 70's before Leave No Trace education and summit caretakers came into vogue, but it's still there. The plant life on New England summits is quite rare, easy to kill, and takes a long time to grow back. Clearing the mountain top and putting a fire tower or road in place doesn't help those plants much.

    Second, where do you draw the line? Should every major mountain have a chairlift or road to the top? How would you decide which should and which shouldn't? Without a lot of dedicated conservationists we would have a lot more ski resorts in the area: Camel's Hump and the Bigelows for sure, several more most likely. When you see a ski resort from another mountain, it sure doesn't look normal. I guess it would if every mountain you could see had those big clearcuts down them.

    Third, and I'll stop here: one of the arguments for easier accessibility is for disabled or elderly people. I won't argue against that, because I'll be there someday (although you have to admit the handicap accessibility requirement for the White Mountain Huts is kind of silly). But what's the message you're sending to the younger folks, the ones who you hope get the message that sitting in front of a TV all day isn't a good idea? "Sure, take the easy route up. It's quicker and you won't sweat as much." They see the same views, but they're missing an important element– the challenge.

    I'll stop there because I'm beginning (ahem) to rant. But basically there's more to the "what's the rush" idea than just a few elitist hikers complaining that non-hikers are taking over their mountains. Although I'll admit to a little bit of that, too ;)

  5. Kate – Guthook – a little debate is healthy, especially on a blog. All points of view accepted here.

    Like Guthook, I'm seeing this issue metaphorically too. People these days just want to zoom zoom. I'd encourage them to slow down. They're missing the best part.

  6. Phil, totally agree with this post. The downs are sweeter when you've earned them and you get fitter into the bargain. When you're gulping in oxygen as you summit it seems to increase the intensity of the imprint on your memory.

    This also has nothing to do with the fact that the only time I spent time at a ski resort I spent the entire day lying face first in the snow, falling over every time I tried to get off the lift. It's been free-heel skiing for me ever since!

  7. I hear what you are saying, and to some extent agree. But wanted to present other side of debate. I don't see danger lurking in the form of every mountain having a ski resort, nor in every mountaintop getting paved or stripped of its ecosystem by too many hikers (we should have such problems!) It's easy to fall into a viewpoint of "nature doesn't include humans" and then want to exclude all signs of human activity from our natural surroundings. But we are part of the ecosystem. That said, something utterly destructive like chewing up mountaintops in WVa and spitting them out as tailings that fill in valleys – THAT I am upset about.

    So yes – where do you draw the line? How include as many people as possible in the enjoyment of the wonderful NE mountains, while minimizing impact? And why insist that everyone slow down? Who is to say what is the "right" way to enjoy something? Sometimes we zoom, sometimes we amble….

    thanks for providing the forum, Phil!

  8. Kate,

    I too think it is great to get people out into nature. In general I think we humans are getting to removed from it. However, I copletely disagree with the idea of building conveniences to "enjoy" nature. Honestly, ski lifts, buildings and paved roads only detract the beauty once there. I also don't believe you need a lot of gear to see the beauty nature has to offer.

  9. I don't like the summits of Wachusett, Washington, nor Greylock. If I want to avoid people and buildings and parking lots and radio towers, I hike in other areas.

    I do not think that all mountains need to be pristinely preserved for hikers and peak baggers.

    And I fear that that the same arguments used against ski resorts, auto roads, and summit buildings can be easily extend to hiking trails.

    Do you really want the New England mountains off limits to all human activities, or just the ones you approve of? What it a group wants all summits to return to nature and therefore calls the AT and the Long Trail abominations?

    I don't begrudge skiers, hunters, car riders, thru hikers, train riders, fishermen, mountain bikers, loggers, snowmobilers, UL backpackers, nor trail runners.

    The mountains and forests are theirs as much as they are mine and we need to share.

    I believe that the government has done a decent job of balancing the competing uses.

    I hear echoes of elitism in the idea that walking up a mountain to catch a view is somehow more enjoyable or more "earned" then driving the car or taking the train.

    That said, I daydream about tearing out the the Kanc, so don't expect consistancy from me.

  10. Tom – I was just thinking about you today and how I needed to get back in touch! Great to hear from you. You make some good points, as always. Not a simple debate this.

  11. It's a nice thought, but really a disingenous article. What have we gained in having cars? Well, it's so much nicer walking down to the corner grocer. Oh, you don't have a corner grocer? Tough.

    It was so much nicer when we had to ride horses…

    The fault was having skiers in the first place. I'm a skier but anytime you allow resorts, skiers, families in vans tramping all over things, they are going to bring their technology and their impatience. You should campaign to shut down some of the mountains instead.

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