In the midst of my first Vermont winter, I fell in love with a mountain. My affection now borders on obsession.
I was new to months of guaranteed snow, and found out about skiing’s best kept secret – Sugarbush’s First-Timer to Life-Timer program. At under $300 it would be a decent deal for just the three mornings of group instruction that serve as the program’s foundation. But this price includes a Premium Season Pass. Sugarbush believes that if you learn to ski at their mountain you will forever come back, so they lure you in with a bargain.
For three consecutive mornings over a particularly cold Christmas break, my wife and I learned to ski at age forty-one. We skied the rest of the season having paid only $600 between us. That deal allowed us to afford lessons for our kids, as only adults are eligible for the First-Timer program.
Unable to stay upright on his skis long enough for the bunny slope, my youngest son grew frustrated in his lessons and unleashed on his instructors all the misery of an unhappy and cold six-year-old. So, they gave him another set of hand warmers – a little gesture that was not then tacked onto our bill. They plied him with free hot chocolate and snacks. They did not upcharge us for the one-on-one attention he needed during his first two “group” lessons. They kept him happy enough to return for a third day when it finally all clicked. It was clear that his empowered smile was all the payment they required for the extra attention they gave.
Upon completion of the First-Timer program we were given cardboard moose antlers to wear and told to smile. This would be our season pass ID photo. At age forty-one I look absurd with those antlers atop my head, but I am grinning like a kid. One glance and you can see the excitement in my eyes.
I was smitten.
For better or for worse.
Not every moment of this new romance has been wonderful. The mountain I love has abused me and broken my heart.
The winter before we learned to ski, we tried to learn to snowboard. With one lesson behind me, I was successfully making turns until I caught my heel edge and obliterated my wrist. Both bones badly broken, I was the recipient of some of the most thoughtful medical care I have ever received.
Sugarbush has its own medical facility, a branch of The University of Vermont, where my wrist was x-rayed, set (twice), and splinted well enough to let me finish Christmas vacation sledding with my boys. That last detail was the best gift I got that year.
The doctor who treated me was remarkable, masterfully adjusting the bones back into place. When he checked the second x-ray, he asked me if he could try to set my wrist again. “I think I can do better,” he said. A week later, at home in New Jersey, the hand specialist explained that his second effort likely saved me from surgery, allowing the injury to heal in a cast, cutting down the time before I could get back on the snow.
My instructor took the afternoon off to help me get my car home – an ordeal in our first winter that involved snow chains I could no longer put on my car with only one hand. The resort helped me coordinate payment with my insurance company. I got a lovely handwritten card in the mail from ski patrol along with a complimentary lift ticket.
I felt a whole community working to help me through my first skiing injury. Broken and battered, I only had love in my heart for that mountain.
Everything a love should be.
Sugarbush has amenities that rival any resort. It has high-speed quads that keep lift lines to a minimum, quality restaurants, talented instructors, and a remarkably friendly staff. It has state-of-the-art snowmaking machines, quality rental gear, and the best Belgian waffles I have ever tasted.
Still, it is not the amenities that bring me back. It is the mountain itself. It is the mountain’s beauty that creates the landscape of my dreams.
I dream of freshly groomed corduroy on wide open trails like Snowball and Lower Waterfall, the way those groves catch the early morning light. I dream of quick glimmers of the silvery bark of the trees on Sleeper as I glide over the powder dropped by a winter storm. I dream of the glassy sheen of snow softening in the sunshine on a bluebird day, carving easy turns down Pushover with my boys. I dream of the expansive views from the top of Lincoln Peak, that recognition of how small we all are as the wind whips over the top of the world, and the perfect meandering trip down Jester. I dream of the whispering swish of fresh snow on Ripcord, and the icy east coast grate of Spring Fling on a “bad” day, which of course it never is.
There are no bad days when you are in love.
Beautiful in white.
I long for Sugarbush the way I long for my family when I am away from them. I track potential snow storms more carefully than I track my retirement account. I check the snow report even on weeks I know it is impossible to make the six-and-a-half hour drive to the mountain.
I have always understood the beauty of the mountains. I have hiked them now for decades since I first found them as a college freshman fleeing the flatlands in search of something I thought I might find more easily among the hills.
Still, I had never known how beautiful they could be until the first day I saw them dressed all in white.