Middlebury, Vt.

Life in the middle of Vermont.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Coming Home to Ski Snowy Vermont

State’s resorts deliver the same magic they did 40 years ago

By Gregory Dennis
For Vermont Ski & Ride

Mad River Glen: A fine old museum.

Sugarbush: Perpetually underestimated.

Stowe: Still the Beast of the East.

Since I returned to Vermont after living in California for 27 years, these are some of the quick impressions I’ve formed of three classic Green Mountain resorts.

Like thousands of other children of the Fifties and Sixties, I first fell in love with Vermont because my family skied here.

For many winters we would drive from western New York State and take up residence for a week at Beckridge, the Mad River Valley’s first overnight ski lodge (now nicely redone as the Featherbed Inn). Otto and Elsie Becker and her sister, Dorothy, fed table-groaning quantities of breakfast and dinner. In between, my family of four would head off to spend the day skiing at Mad River, Sugarbush, Stowe or Glen Ellen.

It was a time when Sno-Cats were rare and groomers were just people who took care of dogs. Every mogul seemed the size of a VW Bug, and Sugarbush’s freezing tin-can of a gondola was the ultimate in on-mountain transportation.

Peter Estin had imported his Austrian corps of instructors to the ‘Bush (“Bend zee knees, 2 dollars, please”). Stowe and Mad River proudly featured single chairs and heavy green wool blankets to keep skiers warm on the way up. Soon some guy named Stein was mambo-ing through Sugarbush’s Glade -- which was still a glade in those days -- and drawing huge crowds every Sunday to watch him do a single flip. Blink and you missed it.

When it came time for me to choose a college in 1970, it was the skiing that brought me to Middlebury. Without a car, I confined most of my turns to the Snow Bowl. There were no trails on the Bowl’s back side and precious little snowmaking. But this was well before climate change and it snowed a lot. I’d tromp downtown to Ted’s Mobil and catch a ride with whomever was headed up to the Bowl. The conditions were good-to-excellent.

After moving “temporarily” to California in 1977, I ended up staying for nearly three decades. All that Vermont skiing was just a memory.

When I did find my way to the slopes out west, it was usually on a snowboard rather than on skis, at some giant resort like Mammoth or Snowbird – 4,000 feet of vertical, tons of fun, way better powder. But a lot less soul.

Coming Home

Two years ago, I finally came to my senses and moved back to the Green Mountains. I quickly concluded that for Vermont skiing, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Sure, some things have changed. Bed-and-breakfast inns are now more common than dairy farms. Although the shaped-ski revolution brought me back to skiing, but there are days at Stowe or Sugarbush when boarding is the only way to go. The T-bars that once hauled us up Tranquilizer (Sugarbush’s old bunny slope) are probably servicing skiers in Iran by now. Many resorts now boast about their tree skiing. Thirty years ago, skiing in the trees was either physically impossible or reason to get your lift ticket pulled.

Yet so much of the old Vermont magic remains.

In the Mad River Valley, for example, the views along Route 100 remain bucolic. Waitsfield and Warren still don’t have much of a downtown, for which we can be thankful.

Sugarbush has held on to the old base lodge at the bottom of the Valley House chair. In fact, so far as I can tell, it has the same chairlifts on the cable of the Valley House lift. And at Mad River, the absurdly funky Basebox remains at the heart of the mountain. The only thing missing is yodel music played over a bad P.A. system

MRG: Still Stubborn, Still Single

Ah, Mad River. It is one of the miracles of modern skiing that the place still exists in the same form. If it weren’t for the sheer obstinacy of first Betsy Pratt and now the co-op owners, the place would have been turned into another Killington years ago. Or, at least it would have more than two snowmaking guns.

What other area would be crazy and stubborn enough to retain the single chair – and when the single just got too old, decide to replace it with another single? There is something wonderfully contrary, irascibly Vermont about that decision. And let’s not even get in to the snowboarding issue…

Say what you want about MRG’s museum-quality infrastructure: The place can still rock, and not just when the Starline Rhythm Boys crank it up in the Basebox lounge at the end of the day.

For my money, one of the best top-to-bottom runs anywhere is Chute to Glades to Grand Canyon. And if there’s powder to be found south of Jay Peak, you can find it at Mad River. But you may have to kidnap a local and force him to show you where in the trees it can be found.

Not all of Mad River’s deep stuff is in the woods, of course. One snowy February day last winter (maybe the only snowy day last February), my brother Kevin and I bagged first tracks down Catamount and Lynx. One side was blown clear to ice and rock. On the other side, we pounded through three-foot drifts, hooting all the way.

No Glen Ellen – but High Speeds

I know this is old news to most people, but for me, one of the biggest changes in the Valley’s skiing is the high-speed quads at what used to be called Glen Ellen (now the northern, Mt. Ellen portion of Sugarbush). The old Glen Ellen had its strengths -- but a quick trip to the summit was not among them.

With no snowmaking back then, FIS was a true test even for the best experts. Devil’s Elbow (now Elbow) was a rollicking old-style trail of twist and turns, not the snowmaker-friendly boulevard it is now.

But getting to these gems was not half the fun. It involved two excruciatingly slow chairlift rides. Often we would ski numbly off the summit chair into a cold western gale, thinking of little more than getting to the base lodge so we could save what was left of our fingers and toes.

These days Mt. Ellen is a fine place to cruise on a spring day. But for my tastes the real action is, at it always has been, down south at Lincoln Peak, the “old” and true Sugarbush.

Why do the multitudes still pass up this place?

It averages a respectable 250 inches of snow. There are solid bump runs all over the mountain, and with good cover, there’s as much challenge for experts off Castlerock as on Stowe’s fabled Front Four. Old favorites like Jester and Snowball have been enhanced by snowmaking, and the grooming is consistently good.

There are now plenty of hidden little tree runs. And the several owners over the years have had the good sense to leave most of the Valley House trails alone. The Mall, Twist and Moonshine ski as tough today as they did 40 years ago. The resort even gets a couple “green” points for running its grooming machines on biodiesel as one small way to reduce greenhouse emissions.

Yet for many skiers, Sugarbush remains a mountain they have been meaning to ski -- but they just haven’t gotten to it yet. And given the resort’s location, getting there can be an issue. You’ve gotta be OK with two-lane roads and the occasional frost heave.

Certainly Sugarbush deserves far more skier traffic than it gets. Perhaps the debut of a spiffy new base lodge and two sit-down restaurants will draw more people to this fine mountain. In the meantime, you can find me roaring down Organgrinder or struggling through Spillsville, happy that the crowds went somewhere else.

Stoked about Stowe

With Mad River and Sugarbush less than 50 minutes from my front door, I’ve had little reason to wander farther in the past two years. But out-of-state visitors have occasionally lured me to some other haunts of my youth.

Of these, Stowe is the most impressive compared to how I remembered it. I knew the Front Four (Goat, Starr, National and Liftline) as supremely difficult runs. And just thinking of those creaky old chairs lumbering up Mt. Mansfield has always given me the chills.

Now the mountain offers many more options. High-speed lifts make the once lengthy trip to the Mansfield summit much more pleasant. Perhaps this winter I’ll even take the new transfer lift over to the greatly improved Spruce Peak. Along the way I’ll reminisce about how we used to ski over to Smuggler’s Notch/Mt. Madonna in the Sixties. A lift ticket from Stowe was good for a wild ride up Smuggs’ bucking and unpredictable Poma lift, from which we would ski back over to Spruce.

It must be said that Mansfield’s Front Four aren’t what they once were. And that’s a good thing. Upper National truly did feature icy bumps the size of VW’s. Liftline could be treacherous at the top and just plain boring on the bottom half. These days, better snowmaking and grooming have made both of these runs consistently fun.

Starr and Goat, of course, remain among the gnarliest runs in the East. Neither was open when I visited Stowe last year. This season I hope to find out just how gnarly they remain.

Another big discovery at Stowe was Hayride. I returned to its steep, rolling pitches over and over again, finishing out each day on cruisers off the triple chair – Lord, North Slope, even the old Standard.

My days at Stowe proved it’s worth spending the extra travel time to ski more of Vermont. Sugarbush and Mad River will always have first claim on my heart. But this winter I’ll be wandering farther afield

I want to spend a couple days exploring Killington. As a day of skiing there last year confirmed for me, Killington has grown to giant size and utilizes its snowmaking and expansive terrain to the max. I’m hoping to get back to Jay Peak. I was there on a frosty January weekend, and now I know why some skiers call the Green Mountain Flyer quad the Green Mountain Freezer. Even in frigid early winter, though, Jay’s terrific tree skiing made the northward trek well worth it. I plan to return when the temps are above 10. One day soon I’ll sample Smuggs again. And I’ll spend a day at Pico, to see if Giantkiller is as imposing as I remember it.

It’s great to be back home.

- 30 -


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice piece. Skied Stow for the first time ever this year: Snowstorm. Skied Killington for the first time in 20+ years. Blizzard. Heading back up to Stow in late March and I hope the weather is nicer. Despite the brutal conditions I liked it. Killington is exactly the way I remembered it. To big. It's easy to end up a couple of miles away from your intended destination if you miss a turn off and such.
Keep on skiing!

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