Middlebury, Vt.

Life in the middle of Vermont.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Middlebury Snow Bowl Is Alive and Well

For skiers, no website is as bittersweet as the one dedicated to the New England Lost Ski Areas Project.

NELSAP chronicles the history of the scores of New England ski areas that have closed their doors over the past 70 years.

There was a ski area in Bristol, for example. The website quotes a 1939 source, ‘Ski Trails in the East and How to Get There’:

"The resort has two trails and several open slopes for practicing. The skiing area is in town and the trails are reached by automobile. A tow located on a hill with two slopes has excellent terrain for novice and intermediate skiers.

“Mountain Top Run, for experts, is 1-1/2 miles long. The area also has two intermediate runs, and facilities for skating and toboganning. A first aid station and a skiing instruction school are nearby.”

Hinesburg, too, had a slope now lost to time, the site says: “The area had a 400-foot rope tow and operated from sometime in the 1960's to around 1972. According to J. Wilson at the Hinesburg Town Hall, the rope tow was run by a 1948 or 1949 car engine and was located on land owned by five families.”

I mention this history not so much for the ski areas that Addison County has lost -- but rather for the one we haven't: the Middlebury College Snow Bowl.
The Bowl is as steeped in history as any lost ski area. Trails were first cut there in 1934, for example, and the fieldstone fireplace in the base lodge was built even before the Neil Starr Shelter itself.

But unlike virtually any other ski area in the world, the Snow Bowl has the support of a well endowed college. The place gives new meaning to the phrase “higher learning” – 2,650 feet higher than sea level, to exact, where the Worth Mountain Chairlift reaches its apex.
Despite a recent brush with extinction – or at least with significant downsizing – the Bowl remains a vital center of community life.

Generations of local skiers have called the place their winter home away from home.

Parents and grandparents know that once the kids have reached a certain ability, they can be safely let loose on the mountain while their elders read a book in the base lodge or chat with friends. And the kids know they easily catch up to their buddies at the Bowl without being too specific about where and when.

This easily found camaraderie is a big reason why adult skiers keep coming back, too. They return even though they can easily get to bigger, better slopes at Mad River and Sugarbush.

But those resorts are also full of people from New Jersey, not New Haven.
The Bowl’s characteristic community feeling is becoming more rare with each passing year.

Over the decades, many New England towns have lost their local ski areas. This season, for examples, has seen the apparent demise of one more, Vermont’s Ascutney Mountain Resort.

The Bowl itself may have narrowly averted this same fate.

When the Great Recession hit a couple of years ago -- at the same time that the old Worth Mountain Chairlift was so old it couldn't pass a safety inspection -- Middlebury College leaders might have wondered if it would fall to them to be the ones to close the Bowl.

How could they possibly justify spending $1.7 million on something as comparatively frivolous as a new chairlift – at the same time they were being forced to close a new dining hall, offer staff and faculty buyouts, and pull out all the stops to avoid devastating layoffs?

Perhaps only a few college administrators and trustees know how they did the juggling.

They certainly made a lot of noise about donors. But I suspect it was the college itself that came up with the cash to reinvigorate Vermont’s third-oldest ski area. They decided to buy a new triple chairlift and keep the Bowl’s central lift -- and perhaps the ski area itself -- in operation.

Our communities are the richer for the college’s efforts. With the opening of the new chair and the 2003 renovation of Starr Shelter, the Bowl has undergone a facelift that will keep the place fresh for years to come.

Amid these improvements, its history still shines through at the place “where college champions compete.”

Four plaques honor national championships won by the college’s women's ski teams, which were coached by such familiar names as Charlie Brush, Terry Aldrich and former Olympian Gordie Eaton. A photo montage shows other college champions and coaches including John Bower, a ski jumper and cross-country racer who, like Eaton, was an Olympian and Middlebury College alumnus.

It's been years now since college champions competed in ski jumping at the Snow Bowl. But if you look hard into the woods, you can still ¬see the outline of where the old ski jump was.

Two-thirds of the way up the sleek new Worth Mountain chair is an overnight shelter for the historic Long Trail. It rises up on the right, just at the end of the spooky section where the chairlift passes beside granite cliffs, largely out of view of any of the ski trails.

Looking east as you creep past the cliffs and imagine making fresh tracks in the untouched snow below, it's easy to believe that you are in fact exploring one of New England's closed, lost ski areas.

But as any holiday-week visitor to our much loved little mountain can assure you, the Bowl is very much alive.

-- 30 --

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