My quest to ski more of the community ski areas this winter took me to Black Mountain last Monday. Most of us think of community ski areas as small ski areas, but Black belies that belief.

A decade ago, Black Mountain was a small ski area, but it was on a big mountain. It’s impossible to tell the whole story of Black Mountain without getting into the history of the Chisholm Ski Club and that entire story would take a lot more space than I have here.

A book by Richard Kent, Word for a Mountain, relates a brief history of the club, how it supported cross country, alpine skiing and jumping at several locations in Rumford, from the 1920s through the 50s before purchasing 450 acres of land on Black Mountain in 1960.

The Chisholm Winter Ski Park included a 2200 foot T-bar, a three level lodge, three main slopes, night skiing, cross country trails and ski jumps. At this and previous locations, the club had hosted Cross Country World Championships, and numerous other Nordic events.

In 1976, Bates College Hosted the NCAA Championships. The alpine events were at Sunday River and the jumping and cross country at Black Mountain. Rumford’s Aurele Legere built a new 55 meter jump for that competition. I worked out of the press headquarters at the Madison, the top motel in the area. Joe Gromelski, who was the first sports editor for the Sunday Edition of the Sun Journal, was director of press relations for Bates and ran the press room.

While Black and the Chisholm Ski Club had a worldwide reputation for hosting top quality Nordic events, the alpine skiing limped along. The T-bar climbed only 500 feet of vertical, not even close to the 1,360-foot summit.

As Roger Arsenault, President and Chairman of the board, explained, “We needed everything. We were in the center of major ski areas and we couldn’t compete. Our season pass was $249 but a student could ski at Sunday River for $199.”

Then, The Libra Foundation came along and Black Mountain became part of the Maine Winter Sports Center. In 2003-2004, a triple chair was installed to carry skiers to the summit, giving Black, at 1,360 feet, the fourth-highest vertical drop in the state. Beginners got a double chair with their own easy trails out of the path of faster skiers, and snowmaking covered the main trails top to bottom. A modern, three story base lodge was built with ticket window, ski and rental shop, offices, ski patrol and ski school on the ground floor; cafeteria, changing area and museum on the second; and lounge on the third floor.

With the new facilities, Black Mountain began to grow as an alpine ski area, but never lost its roots as a competition cross country center. Indeed, the new base lodge has a bridge from the second floor changing area to the slopes that allows cross country racers to continue their course without interference from alpine skiers crossing their path.

The Chisholm Ski Club still plays a major role, and the cross country trails are frequently used for various competitions.

For Maine Winter Sports Center, the goal of developing ski areas and cross country centers was to make skiing available at reasonable costs and Black was part of that campaign, offering a day pass to any skier of any age for $15. Inexpensive season passes were also part of the equation. The promotion helped and Black’s skier visits increased as word got out that not only was it affordable but it was big mountain skiing.

Although things had improved greatly, Black Mountain was not ready to be self-sustaining when, after ten years, officials at the Libra Foundation decided they had been in the ski business long enough and pulled out to explore other philanthropic endeavors.

All of a sudden, Maine Winter Sports Center was on its own, and with Nordic and biathlon centers to operate, it was time to divest of Black Mountain. The good news was that the community could have it at little or no cost. But they did have to find a way to own and operate the area.

A 502-C 3 was formed to take ownership and continue operations, but operating funds had to be raised in a community that had undergone drastic employment and population changes over the past few decades. Still, this hotbed of skiing rose to the challenge and the money was raised.

The community that is Rumford-Mexico and surrounding towns has rallied around their ski area. They turned out to cut new trails, and over the past few years, a group calling themselves the Angry Beavers Glade Builders has created 14 glades with over 600 hours of volunteer labor. Patrol Director John McGrath told me has now been certified as a welder, so he can weld the pipe needed to extend snowmaking down Allagash, a meandering novice-intermediate run off the top. This is a typical attitude of Black Mountain skiers.

They take ownership of their ski area, but they also want to share it, and the value is certainly there. Nowhere else in Maine can you ski 1,360 vertical feet off a modern triple chair for $29 a day. The double chair on the multi-run beginner area serves perfect learning terrain and a terrain park.

Roger Arsenault explained the situation, how they had wired the mountain so they could use airless fan guns for making snow at much less expense, how they were working to keep skiing affordable while still paying the bills.

As for Libra, nothing but praise.

“We will be forever grateful for what they did,” Arsenault said. “Now it’s up to us to build on that base.”

If the attitude I felt from the skiers I met in the patrol shack at the top, or in the base lodge, is any indication, Black Mountain skiers are ready to carry on the tradition of a skiing community. Give it a try.

See you on the slopes.


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