Snow & Ice: Working Those Winter Assets
31 Dec, 2010By: Juli Anne Patty
Winter takes many forms, and all across the country, America's cities and communities make the most of their version of the season. In the upper Midwest, no one is scared off by the cold. In fact, they've created a hundred ways to celebrate it, as well as a few ways to bring the winter fun indoors. In America's majestic mountains and vast wildernesses, winter promises adventure, excitement and fun. But above all, communities everywhere have made certain that no matter what your winter sport, you can find the perfect place to play.
Winter in New England can be a fickle thing, at first picturesque, like a fireplace-lit postcard image, but the arrival of one of the region's famous Nor'easters can change everything. But not to worry: No matter what winter has up her sleeve, New Englanders have a plan, even on the East Coast's most unpredictable sports event course, Mount Washington.
Perhaps the most famous is example is New Hampshire's Mount Washington, New England's highest peak and the subject of many an exciting winter weather story, from record 211 mile-per-hour winds to 40 below temperatures. In the summer, the mountain is home to one of the world's fiercest and most competitive mountain races, the 7.6 mile, extraordinarily steep Mount Washington Road Race. Even in June, participants are warned to be prepared with winter gear like hats and gloves.
But Mount Washington sports are certainly not limited to the summer. In surrounding Mount Washington Valley, you'll find locations for almost any snow and ice sport, including seven Alpine ski resorts and six Nordic (cross-country) ski and snowshoe centers. In all, Mount Washington valley offers 250 Alpine trails and 450 km of cross county trails for classical and skate skiing as well as the town of North Conway, voted among the "coolest ski towns" by Men's Journal.
With more than 7,500 beds to accommodate events of any size, Mount Washington Valley also offers guests a few ways to warm up when the snow sports are done, such as over 70 dining options more than 200 famous-brand outlet stores, boutiques, antique and craft stores all offering tax-free shopping.
Three hours due east, and you'll find yourself hip-deep in snow and in the midst of the Green Mountain Adventure Racing Association's (GMARA) MVP Health Care Frigid Infliction. Held each winter at various locations in Vermont-"We have to keep our racers on their toes," says GMARA president Chris Yager-the 2011 Infliction will take place this February on Bolton Valley Resort's 5,000 acres. Which of those acres? No one but Yager and his group of dedicated all-volunteer organizers knows. They've been known to pick up participants at the "start" of the race, load them onto a bus and drive them 45 minutes away just to keep the adventure and the excitement alive.
Racers can count on only one thing: an exciting challenge. The MVP Health Care Frigid Infliction is a ten-hour adventure race for teams of two or three, featuring several winter disciplines, including skiing, snowshoeing and Tyrolean traverse, crossing free space between two high points on a rope, as well as requiring athletes to continually navigate.
Winter, of course, isn't the GMARA's only competitive season.
"We've been putting on summer adventure races for years, but then we started getting requests for a winter race," says Yager. "Low and behold, it's become one of the biggest winter adventure races in the nation."
Yager says race entry, a first-come, first-serve system, is competitive. In its 4th year in 2011, the Infliction will draw teams from all over the country to Bolton Valley Resort's frosty back country.
"We chose Bolton Valley Resort for several reasons," says Yager. "It's close, has a good network of ski trails, and it offers hundreds of acres of forest on the side of a mountain, allowing us to truly get racers off the trail an into territory they would never see otherwise."
Michigan is a state familiar with winter, and Mount Pleasant, Michigan, is one city that takes a dual approach to the cold. In addition to celebrating the season with festivals and outdoor recreational activities, Central Michigan also eases the winter weather by investing in a number of first-class indoor facilities, allowing just about any sports event to be played there all year long.
This combination approach to creating exciting sports events year round is no accident; in Mount Pleasant, it's a mission. The Mount Pleasant Sports and Entertainment Commission formed in 2009 with the goal of helping sports event planners as well as visitors get everything they want out of every event.
"We help from the beginning states to the very end," says Chris Rowley, executive director, Mount Pleasant Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. "We're really excited to have the Commission up and running."
One of the Commission's most exciting new facilities to promote will be the new Central Michigan University (CMU) Events Center. Construction of the Center, which includes the McGuirk Arena and Kulhavi Court, began in Sept. 2009 and is scheduled to be completed in December 2010.
"We're very excited to have the new Events Center," says Rowley. "Mount Pleasant is conveniently located in the center of Michigan, making it a first-class Events Center perfect for serving the whole region."
The arena, part of the original structure, was redesigned with upgraded seating for 5,300 as well as a 12,000-square-foot practice facility. Connected to the CMU student activities center, the Events Center offers access to pool, basketball and volleyball courts, and indoor track and meeting space.
But don't let any of this convince you that Mount Pleasant doesn't enjoy its winter or its winter sports.
"Our parks and recreation department provides great cross country skiing, and we enjoy great alpine skiing at Snow Snake Resort just a half an hour north," says Rowley.
Celebrating its 60th year of business in 2009, Snow Snake offers seven lifts, serving 10 runs and provides numerous terrain features and a snow tubing park on 43 acres.
For a taste of the true Mount Pleasant winter spirit, though, head up to the Freeze Fest at the Soaring Eagle Casino and Resort. A two day event that draws hundreds of top winter sports competitors, Freeze Fest hosts a variety of winter action sports, including in 2010, the American Motorcyclist Association (AMA) Racing Ice Race Grand Championships, the Might Midwest Snowboard Camp and the United States of America Snowboard Association (USASA) Rail Jam and Freeze Fest's own rail jam.
The Western United States, with its imposing mountain ranges and prodigious snowfall (except for the desert), is likely America's most legendary location for winter sports. Nestled in the northern Rocky Mountains you'll find one of America's best kept winter sports secrets: Whitefish, Montana.
"Whitefish is one of the country's oldest ski resorts, started in 1947 at the behest of people who already lived here, and that means a lot for the culture," says Donnie Clapp, public relations manager, Whitefish Mountain Resort. "Whitefish is not a town built around a ski resort. The resort is part of the community, and it's a very laid back community."
Whitefish Mountain Resort is actually one of the ten largest ski areas in the U.S. by acreage,comparable to ski meccas like Breckenridge in Colorado.
"We have about 3000 acres and 2500 vertical feet," says Clapp. "But what's really unique is that we're a 360 degree sort of mountain. Instead of one big face you can ski, we have one peak and you can ski any of the faces."
Easily accessible by commercial airline or Amtrak-Whitefish has the busiest Amtrak stop between Chicago and Seattle-Whitefish is still one of winter sports' hidden gems. "We have way fewer visits than any other resort our size," says Clapp. "We have 250,000 to 300,000 skier visits per year, where resorts like Breckenridge do closer to 2 million skier visits."
What that means for both recreational athletes and sports event competitors is freedom from some of winter sports' biggest challenges: crowded and over-skied slopes. At Whitefish, conditions are pristine and every athlete has room to move, to adventure and to enjoy.
The United States Telemark Ski Association (USTSA) agrees, making Whitefish the home of the 2011 Regional Telemark Sprint Classic this February.
Telemark skiing, also known as "free heel skiing" or "freeheeling," is a version of skiing in which the athlete's heels are free of the skis.
"I'd say there is larger percentage of people skiing telemark skis here than anywhere else I've seen," says Clapp. "We're very into freeheeling here in Whitefish, and the result is a lot of support for the event and the team."
Thanks to the vast acreage and impressive inclines at Whitefish, the resort is also a popular location for ski mountaineering.
"Ski mountaineering has been big for a long time in Europe, but has just started to take off in the States. Like telemark skiing, we also have a huge community of people here who hike the mountain instead of lift riding, which is the basis of ski mountaineering," says Clapp.
During the 2011 Whitefish Whiteout, a United States Ski Mountaineering Association Mountaineering (USSMA) race, Whitefish will welcome both pros and amateurs on the course, who will gain about 4000 vertical feet during the course of the race, taking as little as an hour for winning pros and as much as three or more hours for amateurs.
Several hours south in the Tetons, ski mountaineering has another big community.
"A lot of people in Jackson Hole take advantage of the excellent back country skiing we have here, and so ski mountaineering has a lot of support in the area," says Andy Williams, special events/summer trails, Grand Targhee Resort. "It's a fast endurance race with 5000 vertical feet of climbing, including part of our mountain called Peaked Mountain where the runs are generally only accessed by cat skiing."
Grand Targhee is also doing its part to increase ski mountaineering's popularity, scheduling its race at 10 a.m., unlike many ski mountaineering races, which are held early in the morning before the slopes open.
"The average person skiing in Jackson probably doesn't realize there's a race that day, and to me it just didn't make sense to start that early," says Williams. "So I talked to the director of this series of races, and we decided to do a later start, so people could actually watch. It's so cool that we can show people how challenging the sport is and help it grow."
Looking for the last word in winter? How about an event in Alaska? That's right, the land of winter sports, and they know exactly how to make a winter event shine.
If you're imagining a land of stillness and silence, you've got Alaska all wrong. Each winter, they host the World Ice Art championships; the Yukon Quest, a highly popular thousand-mile sled dog race; the Arctic Man Ski and SnoGo Classic, a combination snowmobile-and-ski race.
"We're not as accessible, and the flight time takes longer than other locations, but we always tell people, Alaska has a mystique," says Helen Renfrew, director of meetings and conventions, Fairbanks Convention and Visitors Bureau. "Whether you want to be all by yourself on cross country skis watching the Northern Lightsor be at the ice art festival surrounded by crystal clear two story sculptures, or go to North Pole and see Santa, you can do it here. We do winter well."
And with over 3800 year-round rooms, over 150,000 square feet of meeting space and arts, cultural, historical and entertainment options to compel any personality, Alaska's second largest city is ready for your next event.