Photos by Marc Guido
Six warm, snowless months have passed. The leaves have fallen from the trees, and the first stretches of cold weather have come to the northeastern United States. On the Internet, ski-related chat rooms, message boards and listservs are busy with the buzz of the dawning winter season. Ski swaps, pre-season shop sales, ski shows and films have made their season debuts, pumping skiers with excitement about the upcoming season with prospects of using new gear on new snow. Ski rags arrive in the mail with their gear and resort reviews that make you drool. The first flakes fly, but it will be at least another month before any significant base accumulates in the woods. Thanks to modern technology, though, early season sliding can happen with just a few cold days, and New England is no exception to that rule.
The second weekend of November of 2003 ushered in a stretch of cold weather that enabled many resorts to commence snowmaking operations. Woodbury, Connecticut was the first to open in the eastern U.S. with one run and one lift on Sunday, November 9th. In Quebec, Mont-Saint-Sauveur opened with two trails and 600 feet of vertical on the same day, and Mont-Saint-Bruno opened for night skiing. One day later, Killington, the eastern giant that had in the past prided itself by being the first in the East to open, kicked off the season with a noontime debut. For the second year in a row they offered top-to-bottom skiing across a whopping 1,700 feet of vertical with eight “trail segments” spanning three miles of skiing. That same day Killington’s sister mountain in Maine, Sunday River, opened with a half dozen trails.
Ribbons of white rise above the bare Vermont landscape
With the onset of cold weather and the possibility of making the first turns of the season, there are a few pre-skiing rituals that must take place. First, the skis need work, a tune-up to take the rust off and sharpen the edges sharpened and wax the bases. The winter gear is pulled from storage, as the kayaking gear is packed up for the winter. Ski pants, helmet, neck gaitor and gloves are retrieved. The helmet was without ear flaps and vent plugs since the last time it was used during the warmth of spring skiing, while new boots were purchased at an end-of-season sale. They had to be worn for a few hours in the living room. When the autumnal daylight becomes short, the pre-skiing workout moves into the fitness center. No matter how much time is spent spinning, lifting, squatting and pressing there will still be sore muscles after the first day of skiing.
By Thursday, November 13, 2003, Okemo had started up their lifts. It was time.
I am not one to wait until the first natural accumulation of snow falls to ski. I have no qualms about driving over five hours to get to snow. With winter tires on the Subaru, the rocket box on the roof and a full tank of gas in the car, my husband and I head to Vermont, like we do every year before Thanksgiving.
Many resorts do not open until Thanksgiving, which is typically the ‘start’ of the ski season. Even for the resorts that open earlier, many of their employees do not start until Thanksgiving weekend. Killington and Okemo, however, are two Vermont resorts that pride themselves on a large snowmaking capacity for an opening day as early as weather conditions allow. They are both also located within a few hours of major East Coast population centers, easily accessible by many for a day trip or a nice weekend out of the city. For us, they are both about five hours away, a drive that is acceptable to those of us who must ski when there is no snow closer to home.
Although Killington and Okemo are just a 25-minute drive from each other, they are very different places and offer dramatically different skiing experiences. Leading up to their first weekend of operation, they each had seven days of cold weather to lay the first white ribbons upon their brown mountains. On Friday night, we were Vermont-bound.
The compressors were roaring when we pulled up to Okemo to check into our condo. Out the back door, a manmade snowstorm was in full force. The symphony of snowguns resounded all night long.
In the morning the sun was bright and the wind blowing as temperatures hovered in the upper 20s. If the manmade snowstorm from the previous night had extended to our condo, we would be able to simply exit the back door, click into our skis and glide to the lift just 150 feet away. Even with green grass still separating our abode from the F1Poma, the walking was easy in anticipation of the first turns of the season. The F1 provided our first glide uphill to the nearest open chairlift, the Sachem quad.
Opening weekend doesn’t mean a lack of cover at Okemo.
The first run down Lower World Cup was just enough to remind the legs of what they are supposed to do. We boarded the Northstar Express quad and were whisked to 3,344’ for our first top-to-bottom runs covering about 1,700 vertical feet. Okemo is known for long, smooth cruisers. The four ways down to lifts were all groomed smooth and fast. The surfaces were firm, yet edgeable most of the day, though traffic rendered them to extra-slick in the afternoon. Those who didn’t receive their pre-season ski tune suffered greatly while skittering down the icy trails. Sapphire had the softest surface, yet it was the least exciting blue square cruiser of the bunch. Adjacent Timberline sported death cookies and ice chunks, but the narrow, undulating terrain was much more exciting. Both of those trails lead down to the Green Ridge triple.
On the south side, Defiance – rated as a black diamond at Okemo – was softer than the others thanks to nearly all-day sunshine. World Cup, also sporting a black diamond designation, was perfectly covered for high speed, big radius turns down to the Northstar Express Quad. Lower World Cup lost most of its edgeable surface by mid-day, but straight-lining the icy spots on the tame terrain was plenty of fun thanks to nearly non-existent crowds. The base was sufficiently thick in most places, though a few inevitable holes and rocks were easy to miss. The ski patrol did a good job of marking the hazards of early season with bamboo.
The Summit Lodge at 3344’ was open for lunch, and views revealed snowmaking operations in progress at Mount Snow and Stratton in the distance, with views of the cozy town of Ludlow directly below. After a quick and delicious bowl of Hungarian Mushroom soup that appeared on the abbreviated lunch menu along with such choices as a fresh fruit salad and the usual burgers, fries and chili, we went back out into the sunshine to ski the rotation of four routes totaling nearly five miles on 64 acres. Never was there a wait to board any of the three chairlifts. There were not a lot of people skiing Okemo on their first Saturday, but those who were delighted in the first skiing of the season.
When our legs were sufficiently fatigued from many laps on the mountain, we skied back toward the condo as far as the snow would reach and walked the last few steps on the green grass. The sun was shining on the deck, so we unstacked the deck chairs and toasted the first day of skiing with the sun shining on our faces. When the sun dipped behind the mountain, we headed to the Sitting Bull Lounge just a couple dozen yards from the condo for more après-ski beverages and snacks.
Quaint Ludlow offers many choices amongst restaurants, motels and ski shops at the base of Okemo Mountain. During mid-winter it is bustling with people and traffic, but it was very sleepy on this early November Saturday night. We were looking for a bit of entertainment, so north to Killington we went.
The Killington Access Road was showing some activity. A number of cars were parked in front of each of the restaurants lining the several-mile stretch from Vermont Route 100 to the resort’s Snowshed Base Lodge, but by no means were any of the usual suspects “packed.” The Wobbly Barn had a full parking lot near the road and people were beginning to congregate at the Pickle Barrel for a show by Entrain. It was apparent that the skiing season had begun, and the infamous Killington regulars were getting primed for the season’s first Saturday night of partying.
Killington’s trails sport a new white coat during
Our laid-back group from northern and central New York State would typically venture to the Outback to see local musical legend Rick Redington and his band The Luv Machine, but that night they were playing 10 miles up route 100 in Pittsfield, a quaint Vermont hamlet where many Killington employees reside. The Clear River Tavern is the only happening place there, so we decided to go where the locals go and headed to “The Clear” for eats, drinks, good music and a game of pool. They had everything to keep us entertained and even offered reasonably-priced rooms for guests who may have had too much to drink. We met some Killington employees there, including some ski patrollers and a snowmaker, as well as local radio legend Spider Glen. It was the opening day of Vermont’s deer hunting season, and the bar’s peculiar mix included many still sporting their blaze orange from the day’s adventures. The crowd was easily as entertaining as the band, and we were glad to have avoided the Killington Access Road in favor of a colorful evening of regular Vermont folks and good music.
We stayed at the High Ridge Condominiums at Killington. The resort unfortunately lacks any convenient slopeside lodging, and while High Ridge is nice and quiet it’s more than a mile to the lifts. Although they offer shuttle buses to the slopes, we opted instead to drive up to the Killington Base Lodge on Sunday morning.
The parking lot was full by 10:00, but we were early enough to score a parking spot that did not require a long hike or a shuttle bus. Others were not so lucky, but Killington did run shuttles from the Snowshed and Vale parking lots further down on the road. The privileged and lazy can pay $15 to park in the first bay, but those spots were already full. I am a skier with two working legs. I can walk. The walk to the base lodge is always a good warm-up for the day and gets the blood moving.
The line for the K1 gondola extended into the maze for most of the day, but the eight-person cabins eat the queue quickly. The Sunday sun was shining upon dozens of people at the peak while they attached their boots to their boards. The K1 drops up to 8 people about every 15 seconds upon the summit, which can really create a crowd. The views from 4,200 feet are stunning, and on this day encompassed every mountain range within 200 miles. Mount Washington and the Presidential Range were completely white with natural snowfall, and New York State’s Adirondacks had been hit by a storm three days earlier. The slides on Giant Mountain were easy to spot.
We glided around the bend of Great Northern and traversed to the funnel that leads to the resort’s Glades area. The choices of the day were East Glade or Rime to the Glades Triple Chair, or continue on Great Northern over to Snowden. Since terrain was limited, we figured that we would ski the first trail we got to and move on from there in a logical fashion, so under the guns on lower East Glade we went. Big, soft bumps were bathed in a manmade snowstorm coming in from skier’s left. This was already more fun than the smooth highways that we skied the day before, and there was significantly more snow on the surface to add to our enjoyment of the irregular terrain.
Gliding above the landscape aboard the Glades Triple chairlift, the view below was beguiling. We were amazed by the sheer number of people descending the resort’s Rime trail at once. This is urban skiing. For most at Killington this is not a bother, for much of the mountain’s clientele hail from the largest and most crowded eastern cities and their metropolitan sprawl. Interestingly, much of Okemo’s clientele travels to Vermont from Connecticut, the wooded suburbs. The Okemo experience could be easily described as “suburban skiing” with its wide-open, well-groomed cruising boulevards. The suburban skiing was safe, sterile and predictable, as Okemo has been sanitized to please the people who like that kind of atmosphere, the suburbanites with 2.3 kids. Killington, on the other hand, was “urban skiing” with its tight bumps and fast sliders all moving in a large mass, not unlike midtown Manhattan at lunch hour.
DIFFERENT PLACES, DIFFERENT EXPERIENCES
Back to the base for another lap at Killington.
Snowguns blazing on Bunny Buster.
Playing “Where’s Waldo?” at Killington.
As a country girl from central New York who had escaped the city to find an easy-going lifestyle in a less crowded, more natural environment, I had a little trouble with each experience. The suburbs were nice, safe and comfortable, but became a bit boring after just a few runs. The crowds of the city, however, were very annoying and took some of the pleasure out of skiing by placing me into a defensive posture too often. My blood pressure rose due to near-collisions in the flats, not because I was skiing hard in the bumps. To avoid much of the crowd we headed to the manmade snowstorm, where visibility was limited but the fun was not.
Unlike Okemo, the snowguns at Killington were spitting out an artificial snowstorm on open trails. On this sunny day, these snowstorms produced ‘snow-bows’ the spectral equivalent of a frozen rainbow. We found ourselves drawn to the soft, fresh snow that had been etched into white mounds of joy as we noodled our skis around and over them. Moguls are simply fun, exciting and challenging, and when they are soft and fresh they can be sweet and friendly. Killington breeds some excellent bumpers, and excellent bumpers breed exceptional bump lines. Young men with fast moving knees flew by me as I carefully negotiated my own line.
After a run on the very busy and groomed Rime, a thick lift line at the Glades Triple convinced us to head on down Great Northern and over to Snowdon to check out the offerings lower down the mountain. Great Northern channels skiers and boarders across the saddle between Killington Peak and Snowdon, and with the amount of traffic that day this kind of traverse was a dangerous proposition. Just throw in teenage boys on snowboards and you suddenly find yourself in a pinball machine. You must execute some sudden maneuvers to avoid kids haphazardly shooting across the 20 foot-wide corridor as you try to maintain enough speed to continue ahead.
The snow was delightfully bumped from the traffic where Great Northern dumps out onto Snowdon Mountain. The snowguns were blasting on Upper unny Buster, so we opted to ride the Poma surface lift to the top of that trail. Bunny Buster is a gentle and wide trail with lots of good snow being freshly applied this day. Soft ‘beginner bumps’ formed near the bottom of the run. Further down the fall line, snow was also being blown on Mouse Trap, the steepest trail open. The bumps on Mouse Trap were growing with deep trenches from all the traffic.
At the bottom of Mouse Trap, Great Northern, Mouse Trap and Chute all funnel into a frightening intersection above Lower Bunny Buster. Literally all of the traffic coming off the mountain that day had to pass through this funnel to return to the Killington Base Lodge. From the Snowdon quad, it looked like a scene from a Where’s Waldo? book. Killington made enough snow to reach the Snowdon quad as well, which certainly helped alleviate some of the lift lines on the lower mountain.
URBAN OR SUBURBAN?
Killington ran five lifts serving six miles of terrain on 17 “trail segments” during their opening weekend. This actually translates to seven or eight ways to descend to a lift. Okemo had just one mile less skiing and four routes to get down via 13 “trail segments” with lots of room to breathe. The vertical drop of both ski areas was comparable on the limited terrain. Killington’s city crowd was disturbing at some moments, but was worth bearing for turns in soft, fresh, buttery snow.
Come with our camera and explore the opening weekend at Okemo and Killington
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Okemo has very convenient slopeside lodging. Killington does not and requires an early start if you want to park within walking distance. Okemo prides itself on being a family-friendly resort focused on neatly manicured trails that anyone can ski with ease. Killington’s early season is more for the hearty skier looking for a variety of terrain conditions and who is not fazed by crowds and a poor layout of trails that causes bottleneck crowds at intersections.
Killington had a terrain park set up on East Glade. Okemo had a few jumps and rails set up along the sides of the trails. There were not many kids congregating at these spots at Okemo, but at Killington the park on upper East Glade was full of jibbin’ kids and a Canadian freestyle team. Killington offered a more ‘free-style’ experience by allowing the snow to bump up and by providing some nice jumps for the jibbers.
Coverage on both mountains was excellent…in spite of the fickle early-season weather. There was no need for rock skis. Killington left much of its cover in the form of snowmaking whales, whereas Okemo’s snow was more evenly spread across the trails. There were some holes and thin spots at each resort, but the coverage overall was more than sufficient for an opening weekend, and the obstacles were well-marked and clearly avoidable.
Okemo’s lift ticket was priced at $39 and Killington’s was $45. These prices are higher than in previous years, but with the rising cost of energy this is no huge surprise. For early skiing to happen, there is a cost to produce massive amounts of snow that must be reflected in the ticket price. Killington offered early-season ski and stay packages starting at $55, a bargain when turns are limited elsewhere.
The early season offerings in Vermont did not let this die-hard skier down. We enjoyed two full days of long and short turns, firm machine groomed conditions and fresh soft man-made snow, in two very different mountain environments: the city and the suburbs. The sun was shining on both mountains. The early season skiing is O.K.