Smuggler's Notch, VT 4/22/01

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Smuggler's Notch, VT 4/22/01

Postby Matt Duffy » Tue Apr 24, 2001 8:10 pm

It ended with a bang. I mean, a big, thunderous boom that made my heart skip and my stomach uneasy. An event transpired on Sunday evening that will forever be clear in my mind & likely give me nightmares for many days to come. I will never forget what happened on closing day at Smugglers' Notch in 2001. It fell at the heels of the longest stretch of warm & sunny days yet this spring.

Bright, brilliant sun was the rule for the last 8 days of lift operation. Warm temperatures gave us incredible spring corn every day. Not a single cloud appeared on 6 of those days. One of the other two saw some light clouds in the afternoon and closing day actually had more clouds than sun. But that day was the warmest of them all – at 10:30am the bank thermometer in Jeffersonville read 71 degrees! That last day (4/22) was icing on the cake. A spectacular end to a gorgeous week!

I got up there for 7 of those final 8 days – call it a long last hurrah at the end of the best season in 3 decades, possibly ever at Smuggs. 434 inches of snow fell up there this year, and it stayed. No January thaw, or anything resembling a meltdown. There was a short bit of rain somewhere in the middle, but it only solidified the deep, deep snowpack and made an incredible base under the 200 or so inches of snow that had yet to fall. 115 inches fell in March alone!

And yes, there is still a lot of snow up there. A few random bare spots appeared in the final week; uncovered was some dirt & grass on the most heavily traveled steeps. The ledges on Madonna Liftline, which are never covered in an average year, finally showed themselves after being buried deep for months on end. On Saturday, 4/21, it was still open from top to bottom. Another indicator of just how epic this season has been: The snowpack on Route 108 is still higher than the guardrails as of April 22nd!

The 21st had perhaps the nicest weather. Temerature was close to 60, very little wind breezing, and up in the deep blue sky a blinding, baking sun shining down on mountains & skiers alike. Madonna 1 and Sterling lifts both ran all day. Tired from the previous day & night activities, I was a late sleeper at the bright hour of noon. Up at the mountain soon after, I made it a point to ski those lines that normally have small windows of opportunity in a typical mid-winter. Unlike Friday, 4/20 with JimB, the Survey Chutes were perfect walls of spring mush. Shadows or no, perfect spring cream-corn was the universal snow surface everywhere I skied; such as Madonna Liftline, Hoser's & more.

On closing day, Whitney & I bumped into Kor in the early afternoon. We were skiing our way back to the upper parking lot for a beverage while Kor & his friend contemplated making another run. Their plan was to have left the mountain much earlier, but they were having so much fun, they couldn’t leave. Being so comfortable in such little clothing on skis will do that. And the snow cover was still better than it usually ever gets. It was smooth, creamy corn & I wasn’t about to leave either. They headed back for another run while we took a quick break...

We arrived to the Jeffersonville social scene in the parking lot. Reggae music, lawn chairs, people playing frisbee, the smell of barbeques, and a warm breeze greeted us along with a dozen or so friends. We soon went back for more skiing as a horde of smiling corn mashers. Brian brought his video camera and his wife (Marianne) took turns shooting Steve, Deb, Kim, “Hokey”, Charlie, Jody, Lou, Jeff, Doug, Whitney & myself as one by one, we descended. We pounded some super-explosive spring bumps. Left trenches in the hyper-carvin’ smoothie slopes. Danced delirious & happy through trees with spewing white corn-tails curling behind us each. And we cheered each other on. It was a group of varied ability, all for one and one for all. We encouraged & coached, hooted & hollered, and shared an energy, a living enthusiasm that spreads like wildfire.

4 O’clock was approaching all too soon. The group decision was to pull off into the woods on the last run. At a place just out of view from a trail with a makeshift bench and a home-made “balcony” that sports a fantastic view of the notch proper. It sits above a large cliff where stunning views fall away from your feet & leave you breathless. A place known to locals as "Acid Drop".

Charlie & I had other ideas...

We wanted the last one to be something to remember. One last lift served exploration deep into the bowels of the notch. A twenty minute hike would get us there - the starting point of some 100+ runs for me this season. We went and got in deep. To a place neither of us had ever been, our last run was to be yet another uncovering of what surely would be buried treasure...

A long, high traverse into undiscovered country put us far above & beyond the Bloom chute. What we entered was a long, winding gash in the forest down into the steep fireswamps lurking below. It swept us through shadows cast by a high, rocky sidewall looming on our left. A curling chasm that emptied out below a giant cliff band. Here was a wide steep with occasional trees and a slope that dropped out of view. Water trickled down from the bare cliffs above us, giving evidence of giant icefalls fallen some time ago. Trees were wretched and mangled as far as we could see. Some of them brutally snapped off a few feet from the snow with fresh looking, splintered insides exposed. Chunks of ice the size of filing cabinets were strewn about, aqua blue and out of place amongst the otherwise earth-toned, tilted maze of ledge, trees, and snow. Obvious were the paths of destruction left behind larger ice formations that fell & wreaked havoc beyond the scope of our vision.

Once or twice we heard that daunting sound from across the notch. Icefalls on the shoulders of rugged Mansfield cliffs were breaking off and falling. Sounds echoed of battling pirate ships; firing away in vicious blasts of thunder. We watched in awe as we caught a look at one wilting & tumbling a thousand feet or more; breaking apart on the way down the cliffs and raining cannon balls below.

Above us though, on this side of the notch, the ice had already fallen from that peaceful looking cliff. It was a wild, yet tranquil scene where chaos had already passed through. We were surveyers of damage like that left behind an earthquake, a tidal wave from just yesterday, a recent tornado or other such things in places where danger has recently pounced.

It was not without caution that we probed deeper into this wicked unknown. We skied toward what was left of slope below us until it became apparent we were above yet another dramatic cliff formation. From here we traversed slightly upward through some debris until another gully presented itself. Careful study of the terrain above revealed no apparent danger within this corridor of the wild labyrinth.

We stayed with it until it, too, cliffed out below us. This was legitimate no-fall zone. Sliding fast and tumbling out into hundreds of feet of air would be the only possible result of such a mistake on this spillway. Red alert. As was the case before, a meticulous & strategic traverse led us out and around the danger zone. Hearts were pumping fast all the while.

To an opening above even still another expansive balcony of cliff zone. This would only be yellow alert, as the pitch was not all that steep (maybe high 20's) above the drop off. However, we were arriving into parts of this spooky mountain maze where icefalls became more & more frequently placed all around. Some fallen, some intact with trickling, sometimes gushing water flowing underneath. It was here we took a break to rest & enjoy the view. It was more than we expected, but both of us were thoroughly enjoying every minute of this fierce journey. Lunatics??? Nawwww...

While resting out of harm's way, right there in our faces on the other side of 108 was the Hellbrook trail. Anything to climbers right of Hellbrook (Easy Gully, Jeff' Slide, etc) was not visible to us. The mountain we were on blocked the view. This should give, to those familiar with the area, a rough estimate of just how far beyond the Birthday Bowls Charlie & I were....

Although it had been a while since the last icefall crashed across the way, we turned away from what looked like the easiest way around the cliffs we were immediately above. Getting to that crook between ledge bands would have meant a long, slow traverse under quite a hefty ice formation with no where to hide should it let go. An exploritory probe the other way revealed only one other way down. It would be a long fall with death resulting. So we went up.

Off with the skis and toward the edge of the big balcony above us. Blocks of ice were scattered about like garbage in a landfill. Trees were down all over the place. In other words, we hiked upward through the same type of stuff we navigated through the entire way thus far. It was an arduous task, yet still the whole adventure was thrilling enough to keep out any thoughts of regret or negativity. We saw things that I've only read about, and ventured into places I never thought I'd see. And this is not far from my own back yard!

We postholed up a route that snaked around through the life-sized maze of trouble that potentially waited at every turn. A lot of manuvering to stay out of possible paths of falling ice, a lot of sweat and a lot of grit brought us to one last cliff band most of the way back up the mountain. This was the first situation that put us in a place were we had no choice but to traverse under immense, glowing-aqua colored ice formations. Or maybe not....

The cliff was about 100 feet wide, with ice all across the top, except in the middle. The middle of this ice curtain had already let go, the debris was littered in it's wake. Lots of smaller chunks of ice lay in the ruins behind a huge one that was nearly the size of a car. It was just sitting there, half sunken into the snow like a meteor in it's crater. We hiked up directly above it, under the exposed rock the ice once occupied. We guessed about half the ice from this cliff had fallen, leaving about one quarter on either side of us. As we aproached, it appeared, at least to Charlie, as if the rock might be of a pitch we could climb. I had doubts, but it was worth checking out to avoid getting underneath the hulking bulges of ice that remained.

Charlie was actually correct in his assessment. The rock was indeed just mellow-pitched enough to climb... had it been dry. But quite to the contrary, water was trickling & it was quite slippery. He actually stepped onto it, and slipped back down to the snow in his ski boots. I wasn't crazy about the situation now, but certainly wasn't all that nervous. I mean, all the extra work we did earlier to avoid ice was unnecessary in hindsight; nothing ever gave in this would only take us a few seconds to clear.

Nothing to worry about then, I'll just put my skis on and make a fast traverse to the right. No worries. I got mine on before Charlie did, and was just starting my traverse under the ice to the right when suddenly there was a chilling, deadly cracking from the ice on the left. I jerked my head back to see that Charlie was still standing there, not in his skis and he had also jerked around to see the ice.

All this in a fraction of a second - one last deafening crack triggered the real noise. What I saw was a pickup truck sized, blue ice bulge break off and crash down onto the cliffs with the furious nature that only nature can display. It exploded on that cliff as if lightning had struck it down. I can still hear that freakish, powerful, thunderclap of violence in the back of my mind. Charlie could do nothing but watch and pray, as cinderblock chunks of it shot out within 20 feet of where he stood. I was maybe 20 feet safer than he, but my instinct had me looking up, and sure enough, I had moved under the icefall on the right. The earth literally shook, as I could feel vibrations of the ice tearing down the mountainside and I could hear it ripping through the trees as I got the hell outta there in a thumping heartbeat. I was terrified.

Out of harm's way, I listened to the rumbling noise as a freaking giant chunk of ice was still snapping of trees for what seemed like an eternity. I also waited & watched for the friend I left behind. I was around the corner, couldn't see him, and for just a second I feared the worst. I know I abandoned him, but what would you have done? Sorry, Charlie!

I was relieved to hear him answer my yelling his name. We didn't speak a word of it until we arrived at familiar territory some 20 minutes later. It was all serious business until we put our skis back on. Then, there was relief. We talked about it for a minute, laughed a bit, and wormed our way back to one of our favorite chutes that quickly dumps into wide open hardwoods all the way to the road.

The snow was sheer perfection. Sweet, creamed corn splattered wildly with every turn. Our foot was to the floor and we flew out across wide open spaces with big wide, swooping turns. We yelled in jubilation. Screaming down those woods felt very, very satisfying after all we just saw and experienced. And at the late hour of 7pm, we surely were the last ones down the mountain on closing day.

When we got back to the parking lot, I found that Whitney had come back from my place in town to see if I was back yet. She knew Charlie & I were going hiking, and hadn't really started worrying, yet. Anyway, she was not in the parking lot, but she had left a note. It was attached to a Magic Hat #9 and stated, among other things, that she hoped I "had a perfect afternoon". And so ended the last day of lift operation.

Life is good.
Matt Duffy
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Joined: Fri Jul 27, 2007 7:52 pm

Smuggler's Notch, VT 4/22/01

Postby brian o » Wed Apr 25, 2001 8:38 am

incred story!!! i feel the power!!! <BR> <BR>after reading this report---i feel exaustion grasping at me like godzilla rising from the oriental deep! <BR> <BR>outrageous!!! <BR> <BR>brian o
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Smuggler's Notch, VT 4/22/01

Postby Matt Duffy » Thu Apr 26, 2001 9:47 am

Thanks Brian! I still get all prickly when I think about it. I can still vividly see Charlie standing still & entranced as he watched his life come crashing down before his eyes. Agh! Makes me shiver...
Matt Duffy
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Re: Smuggler's Notch, VT 4/22/01

Postby juliamat » Thu May 20, 2010 4:27 am

In 1807, President Thomas Jefferson passed an embargo act forbidding American trade with Great Britain and Canada. This was a severe hardship for northern Vermonters, since Montreal was closer than other markets in the US. Many local people continued illegal trade with Canada, herding cattle and carrying other goods through the Notch. Later, fugitive slaves used the Notch as an escape route to Canada. During the Prohibition years, liquor was smuggled from Canada over the improved road built in 1922. :stir:
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Re: Smuggler's Notch, VT 4/22/01

Postby Tony Crocker » Thu May 20, 2010 12:05 pm

One of Matt Duffy's most memorable stories resuscitated...

I took the liberty of of cleaning up the 28 paragraph indentations that were replaced by <BR><BR> in one of admin's software upgrades(?). :stir:

Too bad we don't hear from him much anymore on these boards.
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