Warren, VT – It was giving me a headache …
and heartache, too.
The raindrops rolled off the roof of the Sugarbush
Inn and struck the ground outside the porch door of my room, creating an unyielding
drone that comforted my soul no more than the piercing screech of fingernails
on a blackboard. I grew increasingly weary of the sound. It mocked me, laughing
at my cruel twist of fortune.
Tuning the room’s television set to the Weather
Channel, a massive blob of weather radar green – and even still, more depressing
colors as well – sat firm over Central Vermont. I turned on my weather radio,
which delivered the same sobering news. What was worse, the temperature was
forecast to plummet overnight, most assuredly turning the rain-soaked ski
trails into the same rock-hard porcelain as a bride’s prized wedding gifts.
I drifted into a fitful sleep, comforted only by the small consolation that
the cold air might arrive before the moisture ran out. The forecast had included
the possibility of an inch or two of snow as the storm was scheduled to depart.
“Oh, great … dust on crust,” I muttered. Finally, in the wee hours of the
new day, I settled into a slumber.
SOME DAYS ARE JUST BETTER THAN OTHERS
Sugarbush’s Lincoln Peak.
Opening my sleep-encrusted eyes and noticing daylight
outside shining through the panes of my bedroom window, I rose and peeled
back the curtains. “Aww, for cryin’ out loud!” I exclaimed, although no one
else was there to hear me complain. I had to squint to find the faintest
trace of new snow, and a single step outside the porch door confirmed my worst
fears. The remaining snowpack that had survived the night’s deluge was rock
hard. On top of everything, the wind howled like the whistle of a teakettle.
I didn’t call the wind Maria. Instead, I chose more appropriate names not
fit to print here.
“There’s no such thing as a bad day of skiing,”
I told myself, somehow feeling guilty for being so negative. “Some days are
just better than others. When the going gets tough, the tough get going.
Now, get a move on it!”
Nonetheless, I didn’t exactly speed through the
Sugarbush Inn’s extensive breakfast buffet. Some eggs, too many strips of
thick hickory-smoked bacon, and a few buttermilk pancakes drizzled with Vermont
maple syrup were likely to be the highlight of my day. I washed it down with
more than one glass of orange juice. The pungent smell of dark coffee made
me linger further still. Why should I be in a hurry to do some vertical ice
Let’s be honest here: this February soaking was
not normal. Sugarbush Resort is one of New England’s winners in the snowfall
department, but the winter of 2001-2002 frustrated skiers and ski resort operators
alike. Booting up in Sugarbush’s homey Gate House Lodge on a quiet Monday
morning, not even the locals deemed the situation worthy of dragging themselves
out of bed. The place was nearly deserted. I then first heard the word:
nearly a foot of new snow up top. No, it’s not possible. Could it be? Really?
Nah … why get my hopes up for nothing? Then again, it was perilously
close to the freezing mark as I had driven into the Mad River Valley the night
Swinging in the stiff wind on the Super Bravo
Express Quad, trying hopelessly to cover every inch of exposed flesh as the
mercury in the thermometer struggled to reach positive numbers, I wasn’t paying
attention to what was going on around me. Those traces of fresh snow were
slowly becoming more than traces. By the time I reached the top of the lift,
I had barely poked above the rain-snow line. Here, there was a world of difference.
A couple of inches, yes … but still not nearly a foot.
Understanding that I was going to have to stay
up high to get anything good, yet further knowing that I had to go down
first to get to it, my teeth rattled on refrozen corduroy as I worked my way
down Downspout toward the Heaven’s Gate chair, my planned route to greener
… err, make that whiter … pastures. The soles of my feet first tingled from
the vibration, then progressively went completely numb. It was with no small
sigh of relief that I reached the Heaven’s Gate lift, reaching clear up to
Lincoln Peak’s nearly 4,000-foot summit.
But no, it wasn’t happening this morning. Heaven’s
Gate was on wind hold. Fate continued to mock me.
Frustrated further, it seemed that none of nature’s
benevolence would shine upon me this day when I arrived at the Castlerock
Chair, my second attempt to gain altitude. Castlerock, thankfully, was running.
Castlerock’s narrow runs hide in the trees on the opposing
Click on the image to open a full-size trail map
For those unfamiliar with this veteran terrain,
Castlerock is a true expert’s paradise. First cut in 1958, the trails of
Castlerock really rock. They tumble and spill down – and sometimes across
– the fall line. Rumble is barely 15 feet wide, and features rock ledges,
frozen waterfalls, and all other manner of natural obstacle in the traditional
New England sense. Liftline puts nearly all other liftline trails to shame;
this is no flat, groomed boulevard. Middle Earth and Castlerock Run, while
gentler than the others, are still no walk in the park.
Until the 2001-2002 winter season, the cranky
original double chair still chugged up into this expert enclave. Now, however,
a new double chair had been installed, albeit with the same oddly generous
spacing between chairs. It was Sugarbush’s consolation to Castlerock’s loyal
following, who were vocal in their opposition to any lift replacement that
would put more skiers and snowboarders per hour atop their beloved shrine.
On this lift ride, unlike my ascent of the Super
Bravo, I was paying attention. It was undeniable as the occasional believer
poured down Liftline. It really had snowed the night before. I hadn’t gained
much elevation on the Castlerock Chair before the snow deepened dramatically.
By the time I reached the summit shack, elevation 3,812 feet, there was an
honest-to-goodness 8 inches of new snow on the ground.
I, along with the other two or three diehards
on the summit, could barely contain my glee. I quickly locked and loaded
my boot buckles, slipped my gloves through my pole straps, and surveyed the
situation. Judging the prevailing wind direction, I opted to push off down
Castlerock Run. It was a fortuitous decision, indeed.
Knee-deep fluff had blown in on this side of the
mountain. Sheltered from the winds that scoured the opposite side of the
hill, I would scarcely have believed it had I not been there myself. I bounded
seemingly endlessly down Castlerock’s magic carpet, yelling aloud at how good
it felt. I chased one other skier down the tumbling fall line, and when he
finally pulled to a stop at the Troll Road junction, we shared the joy of
the day’s discovery. Was I still sleeping back at the Sugarbush Inn? Was
I dreaming, or was this in fact a reality? I pinched myself, just to be sure.
What started as one of the worst days of my season had suddenly become one
of the best.
NEW OWNERS FACING OLD CHALLENGES
Left to right, Lincoln Peak and Mt. Ellen, with Slide
Staying above the rain/snow line
I had to stay up high this day, and Sugarbush’s
layout is perfectly suited to such endeavors. The resort is actually divided
into two separate mountains, Lincoln Peak (née Sugarbush South) and Mount
Ellen (née Sugarbush North, née Glen Ellen), that are linked by either a shuttle
bus or the Slide Brook Express Quad, one of New England’s freakiest lift rides
thanks to the chair’s blazing speed and its lengthy track that takes you both
up – and down – the walls of a vast drainage. The Slide Brook lift departs
from either the Lincoln Peak area or Mount Ellen at mid-mountain, traversing
a ravine reserved for guided tours of the steep, wooded backcountry that spill
onto German Flats Road to a waiting shuttle bus.
The Lincoln Peak area is shaped like a broad oriental
fan. The Valley House Double chair, the Super Bravo Express Quad, and the
Gatehouse Express Quad both service lower terrain and also provide access
to the upper mountain lifts: the Heaven’s Gate Triple, the Castlerock Double,
and the North Lynx Triple. The Spring Fling Triple, and the novice Village
Double, service only lower mountain terrain and round out the Lincoln Peak
Mount Ellen, on the other hand, is tall and narrow.
The succession of the Green Mountain Quad, the North Ridge Express Quad, and
the Summit Quad provide a solid 2,650 vertical feet of fall line skiing.
The Inverness Quad partially ascends a ridge line to climber’s right that,
if summited, would look down into Mad River Glen. The Sunshine Double serves
as Mount Ellen’s novice lift to round out the uphill transport over here.
Why three lifts to access one New England summit?
The new owners of Sugarbush have the same question in mind.
In March of 2001, four local investors, including
the former Sugarbush vice president of finance, formed Summit Ventures and
bought the resort from American Skiing Company and out from under the latter
firm’s mountain of suffocating debt in September of that year. One of ASC’s
first projects when it bought Sugarbush was to realign the North Ridge Express
Quad, forcing one to ride the series of three. One of Summit Ventures’ first
priorities is to put it back.
“We’re most likely in the next couple of years
going to work on the lift structure over at Mt. Ellen,” explained Andrew Lafrenz,
the resort’s communications manager. “The initial plan would be to replace
the Green Mountain Quad and the North Ridge Express with a quad that would
go up to the Glen House. It’s frustrating from a management that we can’t
use what is arguably the best spring skiing and early season skiing in the
country. In the past here, the snowmaking was over at North for the great
early- and late-season skiing. Mt. Ellen was the place to be, and ASC tried
to make a shift in that that wasn’t appropriate. We all as locals hike up
to upper FIS well into May in a lot of years,” Lafrenz reminisced.
Critical to early- and late-season skiing is the
ability to make snow at upper elevations, then transport skiers and snowboarders
to the snow. The contemplated lift realignment will allow guests to upload
to the upper mountain in the morning, and then download from the Glen House
mid-mountain restaurant at the end of the day.
Another Summit Ventures priority is snowmaking.
The new ownership took control just in time for one of the worst snow seasons
in recent memory for New England skiing, and ASC’s decision to cut costs by
not excavating Lincoln Peak’s new snowmaking reservoir to its permitted depth,
after fighting for the permit for years, negatively impacted Sugarbush’s ability
to cover its trails with manmade snow.
“We have a snowmaking pond that’s at 21 million
gallons right now that’s permitted for 63,” Lafrenz lamented. “In a year
like this year when we have the worst drought ever, a 63 million gallon pond
would have been very helpful. ASC dug it to 22 million gallons or 23 just
to save a little money, so we’re going in this summer to dredge it out.
"The pond is a definite for this summer,"
Lafrenz emphasized. "It has to happen."
If they can survive their immediate challenges,
however, the new owners of Sugarbush are holding a sparkling gem. Once glorified
as “Mascara Mountain” after its founding in the 1950s by Damon and Sarah Gadd,
Sugarbush fell somewhat out of the public’s skiing consciousness over the
past decade. Although still enjoyed by the hard core of a local following,
including renowned extreme skier Dan Egan and former Olympic downhiller Doug
Lewis, Sugarbush became ASC’s estranged stepchild after several initial years
of heavy investment.
“ASC had an interesting relationship with us here,”
Lafrenz explained. “When they came in, it was great guns with a huge lift
expansion, but as their empire grew and their interest moved throughout the
country, we saw less and less coming down the pike as far as new initiatives
Throughout the years, Sugarbush however never
lost their greatest asset: the mountain. There are precious few Northeastern
resorts that can boast over 2,600 vertical feet of sustained fall line skiing.
Not many may claim 265 inches of annual natural snowfall. And very, very
few enjoy the charm offered by Vermont’s Mad River Valley.
The Valley is no manufactured ski village. “Sugarbush
Village” was constructed years ago at the base of Lincoln Peak, but it’s still
largely just a group of slopeside condo developments, and the Mad River Valley
is so much more. Sugarbush’s marketing slogan is “Pure Vermont,” the accuracy
of which is verified by the Valley’s bucolic charm. Locals are uniformly
friendly and inviting. Cozy inns beg you to savor an evening cocktail in
front of the fireplace. White clapboard church steeples reach toward the
warm glow of the sun. The smell of wood smoke wafts through the air. The
Valley is understated – it’s hard to look and see a ski town amongst the Vermont
hardwood forest, yet it’s right there before your eyes.
In fact, if it has a downside, it’s that the Valley’s
amenities are strung along several miles of Vermont Route 100 and German Flats
Road, something that just doesn’t happen when the village experience is manufactured.
You won’t find sufficient density here to even support a single stop light.
The town of Waitsfield has a semblance of a town core, and everything is connected
via the free shuttle provided by Valley Transit, rendering a car at Sugarbush
The Heaven’s Gate chair remained on wind hold
all day, taunting me with the figure 8s laid down Ripcord by the morning patrol
trail check. No matter, though, for I was having the time of my life. Exhausted
by the challenge of Castlerock, I moved east to North Lynx Peak and played
on the trio of Birch Run, Morning Star, and Sunrise. Morning Star was lightly
bumped, and it took until mid-afternoon before the sparse crowd truly tracked
up the new snow on the three runs. The base of the North Lynx chair was fortuitously
mere feet above the rain/snow line from the night before.
At the end of the day I headed north on Vermont
100 and out of the Mad River Valley, reassured that my slogan, “There’s no
such thing as a bad day of skiing,” still rang true. Especially at Sugarbush.