Snowmaking at Oak Hill ‘game-changer’ for skiers

Helen Ockenden, of Hanover, N.H., skis the Snow Making Loop at Oak Hill Outdoor Center in Hanover on Thursday, March 21, 2024. The outdoor center’s snowmaking operation started this year on a three-kilometer trail, offering more reliable and consistent snow cover amid unpredictable winters. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Helen Ockenden, of Hanover, N.H., skis the Snow Making Loop at Oak Hill Outdoor Center in Hanover on Thursday, March 21, 2024. The outdoor center’s snowmaking operation started this year on a three-kilometer trail, offering more reliable and consistent snow cover amid unpredictable winters. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News / Report For America photographs — Alex Driehaus

Olivia Moehl, of Hanover, N.H., skis on the Snow Making Loop at Oak Hill Outdoor Center in Hanover on Thursday, March 21, 2024. The new ski trail is “a pretty phenomenal resource,” Moehl said. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Olivia Moehl, of Hanover, N.H., skis on the Snow Making Loop at Oak Hill Outdoor Center in Hanover on Thursday, March 21, 2024. The new ski trail is “a pretty phenomenal resource,” Moehl said. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News / Report For America — Alex Driehaus

Betsey Geraghty, of West Fairlee, Vt., skis the Snow Making Loop at Oak Hill Outdoor Center in Hanover, N.H., on Thursday, March 21, 2024. Geraghty, who has been skiing at Oak Hill since the 90s, tries to ski every day in the winter when snow cover allows and said that the outdoor center’s new trail has helped to extend her season. “It’s a huge upgrade,” she said of the changes, especially the addition of a warming hut. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Betsey Geraghty, of West Fairlee, Vt., skis the Snow Making Loop at Oak Hill Outdoor Center in Hanover, N.H., on Thursday, March 21, 2024. Geraghty, who has been skiing at Oak Hill since the 90s, tries to ski every day in the winter when snow cover allows and said that the outdoor center’s new trail has helped to extend her season. “It’s a huge upgrade,” she said of the changes, especially the addition of a warming hut. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

By CHRISTINA DOLAN

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 03-22-2024 8:00 PM

HANOVER — New Hampshire had its warmest winter on record this year, but cross-country skiers in the Upper Valley have enjoyed snow-covered trails into March thanks to recent upgrades at the Oak Hill Outdoor Center.

For the first time in its history, more than 3 kilometers of Oak Hill’s trails are now served by artificial snowmaking. This weekend’s snowstorm may even provide a season-extending boost to the snow pack.

The $5.2 million improvement project is the result of a collaboration between Dartmouth College, the Hanover Improvement Society and the nonprofit Friends of Oak Hill, which was formed last spring to help raise funds for the project.

“Climate change has made snowmaking an imperative,” Friends of Oak Hill Chairman Peter Milliken, of Norwich, said in a interview.

Miliken and his wife, Ashley, have long been involved in the Ford Sayre Nordic Skiing program as coaches and program coordinators. In 2015, he began to fear that a lack of reliable snow was becoming an existential threat to youth Nordic programs, recreational skiing and collegiate racing alike.

Milliken and other community members reached out to Dartmouth, asking to collaborate on a solution. The College and the Friends of Oak Hill shared the costs of the project equally, and after some delays due to this past summer’s flooding, the new snowmaking system went online in January.

“It’s been a game-changer,” Ford Sayre Head Nordic Coach Hillary McNamee said.

McNamee and two high school skiers had the course almost to themselves on Wednesday afternoon. On a white strip of snow surrounded by brown grass, the skiers worked on climbing drills as McNamee coached them on their technique. “It’s nice to have a relaxed time to conso lidate learning,” she said.

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The snowmaking has been a boon to athletes’ morale, as well, allowing skiers to train close to home instead of driving the 90 minutes to use the Craftsbury (Vt.) Outdoor Center’s Nordic trails, which also are served by snowmaking.

“Having snow at Oak Hill has been incredible,” Dartmouth Assistant Nordic Coach Callie Young said in a telephone interview. She was especially happy that Dartmouth was able to host its Winter Carnival ski races at Oak Hill in February, which allowed friends and family to come out and watch.

In addition to snowmaking, trail improvements created a 3.3-km course that now meets International Ski and Snowboard Federation (FIS) standards, allowing Oak Hill to host FIS sanctioned races. In 2025, Dartmouth will host the NCAA skiing championships.

Oak Hill’s upgrades will not just benefit racers.

Ongoing work seeks to improve the accessibility of the trails, beef up the instructional and event offerings, and allow for night-time skiing with added lighting.

“Oak Hill is not an easy course,” Milliken said. It’s hilly, for one thing, and learning to control speed on the descents is important. “We’re looking at little ways to make the course easier and more accessible,” Milliken said.

He wants everyone looking to be active outdoors in the winter to feel welcome at Oak Hill.

Former Norwich resident Courtney Keep, who now lives in Mt. Desert Island, Maine, enjoyed the trails during a visit this week.

“The best skiing is between 9 and 11 a.m.,” she said on Wednesday. “There’s beautiful corduroy and no set tracks.”

Wednesday afternoon, though, she wasn’t at Oak Hill to ski. After a hip replacement in October, the 63-year-old doesn’t trust the soft afternoon snow.

Instead, Keep was there to walk the stairs up to the ski jump.

“There are 188 steps,” she said.

She knows the exact number because last week, they were covered in snow, so with one hand holding the railing and the other the shovel, she cleared each step.

“You can see the whole course from the top of the jump,” she said. “It’s beautiful.”

The public can buy a day or season pass to use the system, and equipment rentals are available on site. There is no charge for Dartmouth students to use the center. For those with a demonstrated financial need, Oak Hill will offer free tickets next year. Eligibility is determined by enrollment in certain state and federal assistance programs, and an application may be found on the center’s website.

An adult day pass is $20, and a season pass is $160, with reduced rates for children and seniors.

The center sold 540 season passes this year, a number that “exceeded our expectations,” Friends of Oak Hill board member Matt Rightmire said. Those sales reflect “the willingness of the UV Nordic community to support a project that had been talked about for decades and has finally been done,” he added.

Oak Hill organizers also are looking toward green season improvements, Milliken said. The center is in the early stages of working with a New Hampshire-based mountain bike trail designer.

“It will only get better,” Milliken said.

This Sunday, March 24, Oak Hill will host a “last hurrah” celebratory relay race to close out the season. Of course if natural snow permits, the closing date may be extended. Visit the Oak Hill Outdoor Center’s website for trail conditions and an operating schedule.

Christina Dolan can be reached at cdolan@vnews.com or 603-727-3208.