Vermont's Best White Powder
A FIVE-MOUNTAIN SKI ODYSSEY
Undeterred by the late afternoon's failing light on Sugarbush North's "Cliffs" trail, we skied down through the deep, light powder. It was an exciting end to a full day of Vermont skiing.
With intersession approaching, many students are getting ready to head for the slopes where they will spend hundreds of dollars and help boost the Vermont economy. Equipped only with our ski equipment, a car and a tireless sense of adventure, two of us skied as many of Vermont's top ski areas as possible in one day.
Leaving Cambridge at 5:30 a.m. and returning at 10 p.m., we stopped at Mount Snow, Stratton, Okemo, Killington and Sugarbush. We logged more than 300 miles, ate in three different McDonalds and listened to the best FM radio Vermont has to offer.
Traveling from area to area only one thing remained consistent: development. Here a condo, there a condo--each mountain is adding real estate to its list of profit-making activities. But the building boom isn't only at the bottom of the mountain. Every area has been expanding lift facilities, cutting new trails, and increasing snowmaking capacity.
With the latest improvements of Vermont's ski areas, and the drought out West, Eastern skiing has never been better.
Pulling off the interstate and driving through small villages with tourist gift shops which advertised "General Store items," seemed a fitting start to a day in Vermont. We arrived at Mount Snow just in time to catch the 9:00 a.m. lift opening.
Mount Snow has the advantage of being less than three hours from Boston. It's close enough for a day trip, but far enough to persuade you to stay for a few days. Bought out by the Killington Corporation in 1977, Mount Snow has been undergoing a tremendous expansion. With the annexation last year of the nearby Carinthia ski area, and some clever trail cutting this summer, Mount Snow has added another 18 trails--all of which are skiable from the main lifts and the unique skis-on gondola.
The summit lifts were closed because of high winds, so we took an easy run from the mid-station. The trail "One More Time," an intermediate trail without any serious pitch, was fine for a first run but lacked the excitement of a more challenging and steep slope.
On the whole, Mount Snow is a great mountain for intermediate skiers. Only 13 of their 75 trails are rated expert. But those 13 have fairly steep pitches, and the "Ripcord" trail can hold its own against any other area's expert slopes.
Mount Snow is trying to get in on the action as a mountain for college kids. For years Killington has been the primary destination for college students, but other mountains are slowly moving in on Killington's valued market share. Mount Snow has begun a series of college ski weeks which provide extensive after-ski activities. From hacky-sack marathons to Hawaiian dance parties, the new ski weeks are trying to create an atmosphere to encourage students to stay longer and return sooner.
The real advantage of Mount Snow lies in its central base area, which allows skiers of all different abilities to meet easily for lunch and at the end of the day. This is also the case at Stratton and Okemo. Sugarbush and Killington, on the other hand, have more spread-out arrangements which make meeting up with friends of different skiing abilities slightly more difficult. Of course, for those who get tired of Mount Snow's offerings, Stratton is only a half-hour drive to the north.
In the who-can-overdevelop-the-base-area-the-most department, Stratton Mountain wins hands down. After putting in hundreds of new condos and a hotel adjoining the base lodge, Stratton has now added the ultimate in ski area chic: Stratton Village.
Stratton is a beautiful-people-only resort. The new village, with the requisite quaint architecture and gourmet shop also boasts clothes boutiques from Bogner and CB sports. It has a certain European flavor; one almost expects fur-clad women to stroll by with their poodles in tow.
Some people complete on the ski slope and others prefer competing on the ski line. The fashion conciousness that pervades Stratton makes clear that the mountain is preferred by the latter. It's not that Stratton doesn't have some first-rate trails and a second-to-none junior racing program, it's just that a great number of the skiers care about the clothes they wear, and they'll notice yours as well.
Although Stratton's parking lot was fairly crowded for a midweek morning, once on the lifts, the crowds disappeared. From the top we took what Stratton has advertised as its "challenging new Liftline trail." It's actually the same as last year's Liftline except they cut down some of the trees in the middle and made the whole run less difficult.
Like the skiers, the trails at Stratton are exceptionally well-groomed, and Liftline was no exception. The snow was carefully packed to provide a great packed-powder surface. Even on days when other mountains are icy, Stratton's trail groomers are able to scrape up a frozen granular surface.
With a steep pitch and a view that looked far to the north, Liftline is one of the best trails in Vermont. It's not too steep, but it is fun.
In addition to their extensive development at the base, Stratton has also been pouring money into improving their lifts and trails. Having installed more than three new high-speed quad lifts during the past two years, Stratton has managed to cut back considerably on their once large liftlines.
But while other Vermont mountains are scrambling to attract college students, Stratton's attitude seems ambivalent at best. There are no special college ski weeks, and there are few special events catering to the 18-to-25 set.
Five years ago an article on Vermont's top resorts would not have included Okemo, a central Vermont mountain that has since undergone extensive reconstructive surgery.
While other areas have been happy to put their condos at the mountain base, Okemo has built several that are midway up the slope at the top of a chairlift. In the lift department, Okemo has removed the low-capacity pomas and now has three new triples and one new quad chair.
All this development has moved Okemo from the small, family mountain to the large resort category of ski areas. The nice thing about Okemo is that it hasn't lost any of its friendliness.
While Okemo does not have any special college ski weeks like some of the other places, the resort does try to attract students. The only mountain to offer a student discount, Okemo sells mid-week lift tickets for $13.50 (half of the regular $27) to anyone with a valid college ID.
Heading up one of the new summit triples, and then down "World Cup" we were a little disappointed. The night before the sno-cats had ground up the snow into golf ball-sized chunks--not the greatest surface for skiing. But the lower half of the mountain had been spared the sno-cats' wrath and was as good skiing as we would see on any mountain that day.
With all the new improvements, Okemo has definitely made it as a major mountain. Like all Vermont areas, however, it is dwarfed by its northern neighbor Killington.
Killington isn't a mountain; it's a combination six-mountain mega-area, complete with more than 100 trails and 17 lifts. But don't be fooled by its size; bigness doesn't necessarily mean greatness.
The large size can be daunting. When skiing with a group of different-ability skiers, figuring out which of the seven base lodges to meet at for lunch is confusing. Additionally, the grooming at the mountain seemed a little haphazard. While mountain officials would probably claim that they like to let the moguls build up, the trails could have been kept in better shape.
If Stratton caters to the chic and fashion conscious, Killington caters to the single skier who likes to party. With more bars per person than any other ski area, the mountain complex is a college student's dream come true.
While all other areas scramble for a piece of the college skiing pie, it's still Killington that has the largest portion. More than 6000 students have spent one of the last four weeks at Killington's annual skifest. Sponsored by Miller Lite and Chevrolet, the festival has everything from skier obstacle course races to '60s and '70s revival parties. And, whether or not there's anything from the '70s that deserves to be revived, the kids seem to have fun, to drink a lot of beer and to ski a little on the side.
The reason that Killington is so popular among singles and college students has a lot to do with its extensive nightlife. The ski area is only minutes away from Rutland, Vermont's second largest city, and that puts several low-cost eating and lodging facilities within easy reach of budget-conscious skiers.
We arrived at the base of the Snowdon triple chair at 2 p.m., around the time that the sun was beginning to set. From the lift, the trail that ran underneath the chair, "Conclusion," looked like a fun mogul run. That was our first mistake. Our second mistake was skiing down Conclusion, which had bumps that were in all the wrong places. After gracelessly bouncing our way to the bottom, we got in the car and headed north.
Despite the poor run that afternoon, Killington does offer some excellent skiing for all levels. The only problem is that it is so spread out. Experts will be more than challenged at "Bear Mountain," and there is plenty of terrain for beginners as well. Of course, some people might find the commercialized scene and number of bars in the Killington area a draw back. An hour and a half north lies Sugarbush, with fewer bars and singles but an equivalent amount of snow and great trails.
Sugarbush is really two areas, Sugarbush and Sugarbush North, connected only by a shuttle bus. The main area is one of the grandfathers of Vermont skiing. Trails such as "Stein's Run," named after Olympic racer Stein Erikson, are still among the most challenging in Vermont. Although skiers no longer sit on the deck of the Valley House Base Lodge and watch Stein ski his run, spectators will certainly see top-rate skiers and some show-offs who should have stayed on the intermediate trails. Without doubt, Sugarbush is for the serious skier.
At a time when other mountains were starting to condominiumize, Sugarbush had already built the massive Sugarbush Village near its base. When development time came in the late 1970s, Sugarbush bought neighboring Glen Ellen and renamed it Sugarbush North. After spending a considerable sum to upgrade the northern partner, Sugarbush now has two areas each of which is major on its own.
Arriving only a half-hour before the lifts closed, we quickly got on Sugarbush North's Mountain double chair and then descended the "Cliffs," a reasonably steep trail with the only real powder we'd seen all day. It was a run that doesn't happen every day; surrounded by the few other skiers who had gotten one of the last chairs up, we took our time, appreciating the scenery, the powder and how tired our legs were getting.
Sugarbush, too, has implemented a college ski week program. Sponsored by Orangina and Merrill Lynch, the activities are pretty much the same as at the other mountains. Additionally, Sugarbush attracts many students from nearby colleges such as the University of Vermont.
Although its excellent trails are probably the mountain's main drawing point, the area dining and night life run a close second. Geared more toward yuppies in their late twenties than college students, many of the bars are nonetheless fun for the college set.
Finishing our run at Sugarbush North we headed to the base lodge's bar where a group of college students was awaiting the snow volleyball award ceremonies. To the strains of Pink Floyd, the Grateful Dead and other blasts from the past, the fairly mellow students were sipping $1.50 beers and preparing for the parties that evening.
Heading home we decided not to rate the best or worst of the day. The snow was the best in years, the skiing was exciting and varied; and the people who guided us around the various mountains were a lot of fun. Some of the areas offer more trails for experts, some have better bars and others offer special deals. In general, the college ski festivals have ended, but call around to see if any are still happening.
Skiing is more than a simple winter sport; it's a complete vacation. Combined with the off-trail activity, the rum and cider and the warm nights in a ski lodge, it can be a relaxing way to spend a few days between classes or just for a day trip.
And if skiing only one mountain a day gets boring, try skiing five.
Per Arne Weiner, captain of Harvard's alpine ski team, also contributed to the reporting and skiing for this article. How To Get There
To get to Mount Snow (802 464-3333) take Route 2 West to Interstate 91 North. Get off at Exit 2, Brattleboro, Vermont, and then follow Route 9 West 20 miles to Wilmington. At the stoplight turn right onto Route 100 North. From there it's nine miles to the slopes.
For Stratton (802 297-2200), you should also take Route 2 West to Interstate 91 North to Exit 2 at Brattleboro. Then follow the signs to Route 30 and drive 38 miles north to Bondville. The entrance to Stratton is located in the center of the town. Follow the Stratton Mountain Road (4 miles) to the resort.
Okemo Mountain (802 228-4041) is in Ludlow, Vermont. Take Route 2 West to Interstate 91. Get off at Exit 6 and drive along Route 103 West 25 miles to Ludlow.
To get to Killington (802 422-3333) take Interstate 93 to just south of Concord, New Hampshire. Exit onto Interstate 89 North and follow it to the Rutland Exit in Vermont. Then take U.S. 4 West. Killington is at the junction of U.S. 4 and Vermont 100.
Sugarbush (802 583-2381) is just outside of Waitsfield, Vermont. Take Interstate 93 to Interstate 89, just south of Concord. Get off at Vermont Exit 9, and follow Route 100B South through Moretown, where it joins Route 100, to Waitsfied. From there you take Route 17 one mile to the German Flats Road. Sugarbush North is there, and the main Sugarbush resort lies just a little further on the Sugarbush Access Road.
Comparison shopping Mt. Snow Stratton Okemo Killington Sug arbush Weekend ticket cost $30 $30 $30 $30 $30 Best nightspot Snow Barn Haigs Pot Belly Pub Wobbly Barn The Blue Tooth Price of a hamburger $2.75 $2.50 $2.65 $2.60< Tab>$2.50 Driving time 3 hours 3 1/2 hours 3 1/2 hours 3 3/4 hours 4 hours Number of trails/lifts 75/16 86/10 60/8 100/ 17 68/16 Hardest trail Ripcord World Cup Double Diamond Outer Limits Upper FIS