On a spring day in the early 1950s four friends were skiing Tuckerman Ravine. Mack Beal, Brooks Dodge, George Macomber, and Malcolm McLane had connected through skiing and ski racing. Dodge and Macomber had been on the U.S. Ski Team and competed in the Olympics.

As Grace Macomber Bird, George Macomber’s daughter, tells it, that day the four were sitting on the Lunch Rocks and looking across Pinkham Notch at the Wildcat Trail which was cut by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1933. The trail was designed by Charlie Proctor and became a very popular racing trail in the “hike to ski” days. All four men had raced on that trail. Finally one of the men said, “We should make a ski area there!”

And the four men had the diverse backgrounds to make that statement a reality. Beal had interests in forestry and development. Macomber was in charge of his family’s construction business. McLane was a lawyer who could handle the legal aspects. Dodge had intimate knowledge of the Pinkham Notch terrain. The group formed a corporation and obtained financing for the project.

One of the first hurdles was that the land for the potential ski area was within the White Mountain National Forest. At that time no ski areas in the Northeast had been built on federally owned land. The group was successful in obtaining the required approvals for their proposed ski area and negotiated a lease agreement with the National Forest.

Old Wildcat Gondola with Mt Washington in Background
Old Wildcat Gondola with Mt Washington in Background

The plan included two lifts, a 3000 foot long T-Bar and a two passenger Carlevaro and Savio gondola that would go all the way to the summit ridge of Wildcat mountain. The trail layout would incorporate the original Wildcat trail plus add more trails. The trail design took into account the special weather associated with the area. Mount Washington is known for its severe weather especially cold temperatures and high winds! This past weekend was a classic example as Mount Washington made the national news for breaking its own wind chill record. The next stop for all that severe weather is Wildcat mountain! The trails were cut narrower and wound their way down the mountain to reduce the possible wind effects.

Wildcat Ski Area officially opened on January 25, 1958! The Governor of New Hampshire, Lane Dwinell, was there to mark the occasion and christen the gondola which was the first ski gondola in the United States! Regular reader Pat Ostrowski had the answer to last week’s trivia question. He says that by the time he actually went to Wildcat the gondola “was pretty rickety!”

 The original four men who started Wildcat remained in control until 1986. Financial challenges would cause them to sell. Since then Wildcat has gone through several ownership changes. In 2010 Peak resorts purchased it and when Vail acquired Peak in 2019, Wildcat became part of the Epic empire!

Wildcat is one of the ski areas that helped me learn to ski. That was in the late 1960s when I was in college and caught the skiing bug! I have a lot of memories from those days including my first experience trying to ski powder (it didn’t go well!) So when Wildcat became part of the Epic pass, I had to go back and see what had changed.

First, what hadn’t changed are the views! On a nice day Mount Washington looks like you could reach out and touch it! And that view follows you as you ski down most of the trails. No eastern ski area can match that view. Another attribute that hasn’t changed is top-to-bottom you get over 2000 feet of vertical. Much like Stowe you can rack up a lot of vertical feet in a day.

The lift structure has changed. In 1997 a high speed quad basically replaced the gondola as the way for skiers to get to the top. I’m not sure how long the gondola ride took, but it was a lot longer than the 6 minutes of today’s lift. Back when I skied there in the 60s, the lift line on the gondola became prohibitively long on busy weekends. Wildcat added a summit chair in the early 1960s, so our strategy was to get up the gondola early and ski the Catapult summit chair. There was still plenty of skiing to be had and the wait times were much shorter. I remember after the record snowstorm in February of 1969 standing in the lift line for that summit chair and looking down on the heads of people getting on the lift!

Now with the high speed lift you can appreciate the long runs that Wildcat offers. There’s the 2.75 mile Polecat trail which is rated for Beginners, but can be enjoyed by any level skier. Lynx and Catapult are other long rides that dip and dive down the mountain. And of course there’s still the Wildcat trail which is a legitimate expert trail. Last Monday the natural snow moguls at the top were in great shape!