words: Brendan Hart
photos: Mike Azevedo, Ashley Rosemeyer and Brendan Hart
During the third week of January 2016, Loon Mountain’s slopes had been ceaselessly ringing with the ear-splitting music that only an orchestra of snow guns can generate. For many a Loon Mountain employee this incessant racket served as an ironic reminder of one thing: the pressure was on.
After having such a triumphant inauguration of Whale Watchers in 2015, the bar was set high for the sequel. Because coordinating this unique event depends on ideal weather conditions, not convenience, scheduling it is a complex endeavor. Temps need to reach a certain sustained frigidity before Loon can allocate an army of snow guns to construct the towering mounds, which are dubbed “whales” because of their resemblance to the enormous sea creatures. Frustratingly warm weather patterns had impeded the green flag from being given. Finally, in the second week of January the doppler predicted that a caravan of cold air would nestle over the East Coast. On January 16, Loon advised riders to be on the alert. Two days later, the official date was announced. Whale Watchers would make its second splash on Wednesday, January 20th in what would be one historical hump day. However, this was jeopardized by January 19, which turned out to be a day of unexpected malevolence.
If there were ever a day in New Hampshire to discover if someone wears a toupee it was this past Tuesday. Mother Nature threw a ruthless tantrum, catapulting lethal winds across the state. No Dunkin Donuts was left unbuffeted. On the summit of Mt. Washington gales were brutalizing the landscape at more than 100 mph—comparable to a category three hurricane or (less dramatically) a sneeze. Just down the highway at Loon, the atmosphere was only a little less berserk. Brian Norton, Loon’s terrain park manager, was racked with tension. Through crafty ingenuity and clever snow gun placement, Ken Mack, the mountain’s snowmaking savant, and his team of precip producers had been cultivating a garden of girthy, Titanic-sinking suckers. The whales were shaping up nicely—on if not above par with last year’s bunch. But the horrific, obliterating winds continued to claw at the terrain, throwing everything into a state of incertitude. Would Loon’s frosty leviathans survive the battering of the tyrannical gales?
On the morning of the contest Norton and the park crew adjourned to Blue Ox, the plot of mountain where the snowy giants had been planted. Blue Ox is a dreamy swathe of slope. Wide and snaking, like a steep lazy river of snow. Arguably Loon’s best trail. Sowing the whales on such a spot would secure another epic year for Whale Watchers.
When they reached the trail, it was a grim sight. The wind had demolished the once-great snow mounds, stripping them of all their whalehood. Whale Watchers could not happen without whales.
Going up the Kancamagus Quad, Norton bowed his head in defeat—which is when he saw them. Whales. An entire fleet, clustered on Upper Northstar, the trail that runs beneath the chairlift. The colossal granite walls that flank Upper Northstar had created a windless oasis where snow whales could mature without peril. The granite also added another dynamic to the event. The park staff foisted snow upon the base of the rocks, and a series of wall rides began to form. Whereas these wild whales were not as potbellied as last year’s, their anatomy was smaller, sharper, curvier. Their rolling backs could be easily doubled. They would more than suffice.
A plethora of the most hardy New Englanders played hooky (or possibly even quit their jobs) to partake in the second annual Whale Watchers. After a few tentative first drops, all caution was jettisoned. The Beach Boys twanged down from the loudspeakers, coaxing all participants to embark on a “Surfin’ Safari“. And so they did.
Green Mountain sea dog John Murphy immediately began buttering his way across the monstrosities. Fellow Vermonter Steve Lauder was lofting crails and other such body-contorting grabs down the rollercoaster of a run. Rob Hallowell finessed whopping airs over the beasts. Ian Hart smoothly sailed a colossal front five nose grab off a natural hip, a feature on which Zach Normandin also performed more than a few marvels. Tim McLaughlin and Kyle Dorfman implemented a number of deft hand drags and miller flips down one meaty whale. Ryan Manning tackled the great whites on his Burton Fish, careening through the turns and furtively catching airtime whenever the opportunity presented itself, which was quite often. One of the most impressive spectacles of the day was Tyler L’Heureux charging the course despite his broken his elbow. He didn’t even have it in a cast. It was so admirably daring that you almost didn’t want him to fall. Almost.
Ryan Kittredge and Merrick Joyce, last year’s winner, dominated throughout the day. Merrick, sporting a coon-skin cap, aired and edged his way through the course kicking up plumes of snow, poking grabs, boosting spins, and dashing madly at the wall rides—essentially, a moving exposition of New Hampshire grit. Ryan Kittredge was no less sublime, but where Merrick was calculated and suave, Kittredge handled the whales with riveting unpredictability. When the contest was winding down, and the whales took on a murky glow as the shadows spilled over their tranny, Kittredge scaled to the top of a house-sized granite boulder and strapped in. The drop was season-endingly high and only the smallest fraction of a landing sat below it. Everyone waited for catastrophe, fidgeteding iPhones out of pockets, preparing to Snapchat. With all the precision of shooting womp rats in a T-16, Kittredge pitched himself off the cliff, plummeting into a perfect touchdown, riding away clean and impressively unmangled.
Even after the contest ended, riders were still avidly hiking Upper Northstar, savoring every last mirthful slash on the sprawl of frozen waves. Once competitors were adequately exhausted and ready for après, awards were held at the top of the course, overlooking the well-worn whales. For the second year in a row Merrick Joyce earned himself the coveted Captain Ahab Award, walking away with profuse booty, including another fishing charter with pro-snowboarder-turned-deep sea-fisherman Aaron Diamond.
Whale Watchers had a miraculous second coming. Despite the array of challenges thrown at Loon, competitors once again had more than their fill of fun. A massive hat tip to Ken Mack and Brian Norton, along with their sturdy and dedicated crews, whose expertise and agile thinking produced another uniquely enjoyable affair for New Englanders. Kudos is also owed to the following: Scott McCurdy, an incredibly talented local artist and revered cool dude who transformed blank decks from Lib Tech into rideable, whale-shaped trophies; FV Jah Reel for donating a charter; and, of course, Lib Tech, Volcom, and Crab Grab, for endorsing the one event that allows East Coast snowboarding to be done at its most swashbuckling.
Captain Ahab Award (Overall Ripper): Merrick Joyce