Stowe, VT – Mention Vermont,
and you’re likely to conjure up pastoral /images of white church steeples,
clapboard houses, steam rising from boilers in maple sugar shacks, narrow
and winding dirt farm roads, and incandescent fall foliage. Skiers and snowboarders
will likely also envision narrow, old-school New England trails, as well as
broad intermediate boulevards begging to be skied at speed, descending like
white ribbons from the spine of the state’s gentle and relatively modest Green
Stowe is all of these.
The village of Stowe is everything Vermont.
The Stowe Congregational Church in the center of the village
provides the requisite white church steeple. This is no prefabricated “resort
village,” but rather a sheep- farming town turned ski area. It’s no resort
concoction – this is the real deal.
Traditional wood-sided New England houses dot the bucolic landscape.
Many area maple groves sport sap lines running from tree to tree and, naturally,
every place from Shaw’s General Store to a gas station is willing to sell
you an assortment of maple products. Leave Vermont Routes 100 or 108 and
you’ll find a spider’s web of narrow roads laid out not by highway planners,
but by early herds of sheep and cattle.
Skiers and snowboarders, however, know Stowe best for one reason:
the mountain. At 4,395 feet, Mount Mansfield is Vermont’s highest peak, and
the slopes and trails of Stowe Mountain Resort cascade down two faces of Mansfield
and the south side of Spruce Peak, located immediately across the street.
Although the lifts don’t reach Mansfield’s summit – they top out at a much
lower 3,640 feet – the terrain above the lifts is the steep and forbidding
playground of northern Vermont’s extreme backcountry enthusiasts who are willing
to hike to earn their turns.
Squint a little bit, and Mount Mansfield looks like a sleeping
man’s head, hence the names of the mountain’s various sections: The Forehead,
The Nose, The Chin, and the Adam’s Apple. It’s a long, broad ridge, which
from the Nose to the Chin is topped by a forbidding cliff band. Additionally,
the mountain curves gradually throughout this portion from a northern exposure
at the Nose, to an easterly exposure at the Chin.
The ski terrain on Mansfield is divided accordingly. The Four Runner,
a high-speed detachable quad chairlift ascends the Nose, while several other
lifts attain lesser elevations to climber’s left of the quad. In a separate,
yet connected pod of skiing, the Gondola tops out just below the cliffs of
Click on the image above to open a full-size Stowe
Mansfield’s geography naturally creates what is arguably one
of the best ski mountains in New England. Both the Four Runner and the gondola
service over 2,000 vertical feet of sustained fall-line skiing in a single
shot. From the quad, the famed "Front Four" Goat, National,
Starr and Liftline offer a variety of some of the most challenging
skiing in the East. From the gondola, Perry Merrill and Gondolier each deliver
nearly two miles of nonstop intermediate cruising. At the far eastern end
of Mt. Mansfield’s lift-served terrain, the Toll House Double chair lifts
skiers over a mile-long pod of easy green learning terrain, beautifully separated
from the traffic on the rest of the mountain. In between it all, some of the
East’s best tree skiing exists in the form of both marked glades and hidden
local stashes. Above the lifts, backcountry classics like The Kitchen Wall,
The Hourglass, and Hellbrook await those who dare climb to reach them. All
are covered by a copious annual average of 260 inches of natural snow that
falls as storm systems cross the flat lowlands of the Champlain Valley and
dump their load of moisture as the clouds collide with Mansfield.
Across Route 108, and connected by a short, free shuttle bus
ride, Spruce Peak is the headquarters of the resort’s ski school. With over
1,800 vertical feet, by itself Spruce would be one of the tallest ski areas
in Vermont, but with Spruce’s sunny exposure all of the attention focused
on Mansfield, it’s often the perfect place to get away from both the crowds
and the cold. It’s a haven of old-style New England skiing, with narrow trails
snaking down double fall-lines. Nothing on Spruce will scare anyone silly,
but some portions of Main Street and Smugglers are steeper than their blue
square designation would suggest. From the summit of Spruce, the sometimes
open, sometimes closed Snuffy’s trail connects skiers with Smugglers Notch
Resort, a symbol of Stowe’s quirky relationship with its neighbor at the other
end of the Notch.
EARLY VERMONT SKI MEMORIES
Although the history of skiing in Stowe dates back to the beginning
of the 20th century, the town began its transformation from agriculture
to tourism much earlier than that. A cool summer respite from sweltering
East Coast cities, the Mansfield House (now the Green Mountain Inn) debuted
in 1850, the Summit House on the Nose of Mount Mansfield opened atop the Toll
Road in 1858, and the grand 200-room Mt. Mansfield Hotel opened in the village
in 1863. All were built to accommodate the burgeoning summer tourist trade.
It wasn’t until 1914 that Dartmouth College librarian Nathaniel Goodrich completed
the first recorded descent of Mt. Mansfield on skis. By 1921, the Stowe Winter
Carnival was born, featuring ski races and ski jumping.
Charlie Lord and state highway engineer Abner Coleman supervised
a Civilian Conservation Corps crew in the construction of Mount Mansfield’s
trail system, many elements of which are still in use today both inside (Nose
Dive and Chin Clip, for example) and outside of the current resort boundaries
(backcountry favorites such as The Bruce Trail, The Steeple, The Teardrop,
and others come to mind). The first lift was installed in 1937, a 1,000-foot
rope tow operated by a Cadillac engine on the Toll House slopes. “Skimeister”
trains brought hundreds of winter visitors to Stowe from New York and Boston,
via the nearby station in the town of Waterbury. The increasing crowds provided
the impetus for the installation of Stowe’s single chairlift in 1940, one
of the nation’s first and at the time, the longest and highest such lift in
the world. It followed the same line that the resort’s Four Runner quad chair
Development continued throughout the years at the hands of insurance
magnate Cornelius Vander Starr and Sepp Ruschp, an Austrian invited in 1936
by Roland Palmedo to form the local ski school. Palmedo shortly thereafter
went on to help found nearby Mad River Glen. Starr began investing in the
mountain’s lifts and real estate until, by 1950, he had purchased and combined
all of the mountain’s five separate businesses under one corporation: the
Mount Mansfield Company.
A SOMETIMES CONTENTIOUS RELATIONSHIP
Starr’s legacy, American International Group, Inc. (AIG), still
owns the Mount Mansfield Company (dba Stowe Mountain Resort), its only holding
within the snowsports industry. Even though Stowe’s line item lies far down
the parent company’s balance sheet, Stowe is fortunate to have the luxury
of AIG’s deep pockets as the largest underwriter of commercial and industrial
insurance in the United States. Don’t expect AIG to simply write a big check
to cover any losses at Stowe, though insurance companies are by their nature
fiscally conservative companies, and AIG expects Stowe Mountain Resort to
maintain its own bottom line.
Somehow, despite their huge financial resources, the mountain
company has through the years not expanded far into the local lodging, dining,
and retail scene. Sit down with any ski resort mogul, and inevitably the conversation
will include "yield management," a term referring to the entire
revenue stream generated by a skier visit. In addition to lift tickets, the
yield includes food, beverage, retail sales, lodging, and perhaps alternative
activities such as cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, snow tubing, etc.
The Four Runner Quad rises precipitously to greet the
With the exception of on-mountain dining, base lodge ski shops,
and limited rooms at the slopeside Inn at the Mountain and Condominiums, the
Mt. Mansfield Company’s visitor yield is limited to lift ticket sales. The
rest of the town’s 65 lodges, 70 restaurants, and over 100 shops and boutiques
are all independently owned. With such a large number of guests at the party,
it’s sometimes hard to get everyone to adopt the same point of view. Goals
and strategies often compete with one another. The relationship between the
Stowe Area Association and the mountain company has not always been healthy,
and degenerated somewhat when the ski area announced plans to expand with
$220 million project anchored to a slopeside village complete with dining,
shopping and lodging.
Enter Hank Lunde.
AIG brought in Lunde, a former mountain manager at Killington,
to run things at Stowe. Lunde immediately took a different tack in dealing
with the local community, tearing down fences built by his predecessor. "The
biggest change was Hank Lunde coming to run the resort," said Kirt Zimmer,
Stowe Mountain Resort’s public relations manager. "The first thing he
did when he got here was to meet with 27 different organizations, and instead
of telling them what we were going to do, he asked, ‘What’s your vision of
Stowe Mountain Resort? What can we do that would work for you as a community?’
We’re a member of the Stowe Area Association, whereas for a period under Gary
(Lunde’s predecessor) we weren’t. I think it’s a pretty good vibe."
The master plan has now been approved. The next step is to begin
applying individually for the construction permits for all the pieces.
"Our snowmaking system is pretty antiquated," conceded
Zimmer, "so they want to get to that right away." Other components
of the master plan include a lift and new trails in the area between the Four Runner
quad and the existing gondola, and a transfer gondola lift between Mansfield
THE BEAUTY’S IN THE EXPLORATION
That transfer lift will be welcome, because it presently requires
some dedication to click out of your bindings and board the shuttle bus between
Mansfield and Spruce. Families will often therefore choose to stay at one
or the other for the day. For this visit, I chose to spend the majority of
my time on Mt. Mansfield.
2001-2002 had been a difficult snow year in the Northeast, and
the time of my visit was no exception. Challenged by repeated freeze/thaw
cycles and meager snowfall, many resorts would have found it difficult to
create a palatable ski surface.
The Cliff House sits at the top of Stowe’s gondola.
Not so at Stowe. I started my day warming up with laps on the
resort’s cozy 8-passenger gondola, carving high-speed arcs in perfect corduroy
on Perry Merrill and Gondolier, runs long enough to make my thighs scream
for mercy by the time I reached the base. Over under the quad, classics like
the steep, extremely narrow upper Goat with its marked double fall-line and
the steeper (but wider) Starr remained closed, as was the upper headwall of
National. Much of Liftline had been groomed flat, but lower Goat revealed
the most perfectly shaped and timed bump line that I stumbled onto all season.
Many of Stowe’s gems are best found through exploration, and
it was by working my way a little to the left, or at other times a little
to the right, that I found myself alone on those beautiful bumps covering
lower Goat. For those who wish to explore even further, many of the local
stashes at Stowe have become common knowledge, yet I was still surprised that
the single-file line of people exiting the trail network to enter Angel Food,
one of the more popular tree skiing lines. While the main line was tracked
out by the masses, though, few had ventured a hundred feet or so further out,
and it was there that by some miracle we found untracked shin-deep pow. We
whooped with pleasure as each opportunity opened between the trees, allowing
a tumbling, high-speed cascade through the Vermont hardwoods as the terrain
ducked and punched through a series of steps in a long, grand staircase.
LODGING IN STOWE
In 1946, there were 24
THE QUEEN CITY ALTERNATIVE
The fun in exploring Stowe continues off the mountain as well.
The eight mile-long Mountain Road, a.k.a. Vermont Route 108, connects the
ski area with the center of town, and along its entire length are strung numerous
inns, restaurants, boutiques, and watering holes. The hulking Mount Mansfield
looms above all.
For après-ski, The Matterhorn is the most famous game
in town with suds galore and pizza or sushi to hold you over until dinner.
Other options include the Rusty Nail, which often brings nationally known
musical acts to town, and The Shed, with its own microbrewery. If it’s purely
local company you’re looking for, and it’s powder stash info that you covet,
try Ladies Invited or The Backyard Tavern – you’re likely to be the only tourists
sharing suds with the local color.
With some 70 restaurants to choose from, you won’t go hungry.
The Stowe Area Association even publishes a separate book of restaurant menus
in town. For breakfast, consider the thick buttermilk pancakes served with
Maine blueberries and pure Vermont maple syrup at The Gables Inn. At lunch,
you’re likely to be on the mountain, where Jose’s Cantina at the Midway Lodge,
just above the base of the gondola, serves up spicy Mexican fare. At the top
of the gondola lies the Cliff House, Stowe Mountain Resort’s fine-dining option
that is also open into the evening for dinner following a nighttime ride up
the lift. While the lunch menu is topped by a bouillabaisse and a shrimp and
spinach risotto, sandwiches such as a grilled lamb with caramelized apples,
Vermont fontina and grilled olive bread, or even a grilled angus burger are
In town, it’s hard to list the delicacies that await. Feeling
adventurous? Try the caribou scaloppini at Mr. Pickwick’s, part of the 1066
Ye Olde England Inne, and wash it down with one of their 150 beers and ales
– together with the authentic Swiss cheese fondue at the Restaurant Swisspot
in the center of town, it represented the culinary highlight of my visit to
WHERE BETTER THAN IN STOWE?
Stop at the blinker in the center of Stowe, and it’s hard to
miss a large, white clapboard structure built in the classic New England meetinghouse
tradition. Built in 1818, the Old Town Hall is undergoing a transformation.
By the summer of 2002, it will be the new home of the Vermont Ski Museum.
Formerly housed in a barn behind an inn in Brandon, Vermont,
the Vermont Ski Museum will fit right in with the culture, ski history and
visibility of Stowe. The museum will tell the story of skiing in Vermont through
both permanent and changing displays. An open two-story museum space will
occupy the core of the building, providing space for changing displays, presentations
and events. Around the circumference of the building, on two levels, visitors
will walk through a permanent exhibit that follows the time line of Vermont
skiing. A resource room will be available for review of archival materials,
complete with Internet access to linked websites of related interest to the
museum, and a museum shop will also offer items of historical significance
The community involvement behind the rebirth of the Vermont
Ski Museum is invigorating. Much of the $1.2 million needed to renovate the
building and reopen the museum was raised from the community via a capital
campaign, and $250,000 of key support came from the owners of the Alpine Shop,
a snowsports retailer in nearby South Burlington.
The Vermont Ski Museum will add a unique option to an already
diverse list of activities available to Stowe visitors. Edson Hill Manor,
the Trapp Family Lodge, the Stowe Mountain Resort offer an interconnected
cross-country trail network totaling more than 150km of groomed and 100km
of backcountry trails. Snowshoers may enjoy the Stowe Recreation Path, which
parallels the West Branch River and the Mountain Road for 5.3 miles, or hardier
shoers may complete an ascent of Mt. Hunger, overlooking Stowe in the Worcester
Mountain Range to the east of the village. Nine businesses in town rent snowshoes,
many more sell them, and the Stoweflake is a Tubbs Discovery Center, showcasing
the product of Stowe’s very own snowshoe manufacturer.
Those looking for a more relaxing day during their stay may
also enjoy Stoweflake’s Spa, Salon & Sports Club, complete with spa treatments
that include Swedish massage, various body wraps, aromatherapy, deep tissue
massage, Shiatsu and LaStone therapy. A fully-equipped fitness center is on-site
featuring personalized training, yoga, a weight room, indoor pool, sauna,
squash/racquetball, and a Jacuzzi, as well as a full-service salon.
For a family event, tours of the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream
factory are offered in nearby Waterbury, or travel north to Cabot to see how
Vermont cheese is made at the Cabot Creamery. Several area outfitters also
offer snowmobile tours.
Somehow, though, it’s all about the mountain. Mount Mansfield
is the glue that holds the Stowe experience together. With the diversity between
the mountain and the town, Stowe presently offers an experience that’s becoming
increasingly unique within the ski industry. It’s also the diversity that
ensures the charm of a visit to Stowe.