Planning the perfect ski day, whatever the conditions, from downhill to cross-country to backcountry
I have had great days, plenty of them, stitched into an embroidery of memory spanning a half century of skiing in the Mad River Valley. I can remember an early-November storm—two feet of new snow and all of Sugarbush an untracked, unmogul-ed field of dreams, populated by just a handful of local skiers turned euphoric by the miracle of an out-of-the-box weather event.
Or a New Year’s morning, with post-midnight revelers still asleep, when the wind had deposited three feet of new snow on the left side of Organgrinder—a day when I got first tracks with two friends, rode the empty Heaven’s Gate lift back to the top, and had only our own tracks to cross on our second run. Or a spring day when a ground fog slithered over the snow surface in whorls of gray paisley, creating the surreal illusion of powder skiing in ten inches of fog instead of snow.
Days like that are freakish phenomena arriving out of the blue, as matters of meteorological dumb luck. They are rare threads of memory embellishing decades of possibility.
In between, however, are the many, many days of everyday skiing—satisfying and sometimes exquisitely so, but not necessarily vivid enough to produce long-lasting wows that forever color memory. The great days are easy. But how’s a guy supposed to make the most of all those tweener days? I sometimes log a seasonal total of 100 or more on-snow days, and they aren’t all punctuated by exclamation points of crazy good weather or snow.
Maybe it’s a little cold; maybe it’s little warm. Cloudy, sunny, snowy, windy, or, God forbid, wet—who knows? Maybe the snow is crusty, slushy, sunbaked, bumpy, powdery, hard-packed, or all funked up in a grab bag of snow mutations. Snow and weather dovetail in a movable, ever-changing feast. What’s a skier to do?
The answer comes in a guiding principle at the heart of everyday skiing: make the most of the snow conditions on any given day, or at any given time of day. In that regard, I take the ecumenical approach favored by many of my Mad River Valley brethren: all kinds of skiing are welcomed into the mix. To illustrate the point, I introduce as Exhibit A my good friend Gary Kessler. Gary, who lives in Fayston, maintains a stockpile of eight pairs of skis to cover all Valley skiing possibilities. (“I used to have ten pairs,” says Gary, betraying the guilt of an inveterate gear-aholic. “But I got rid of two pairs last winter. I guess I am cutting down.”)
Why so many skis? In a valley with two major downhill ski areas encompassing thousands of skiable acres, two cross-country areas with close to 100 kilometers of groomed trails, and a virtually limitless backcountry, a gear variety pack opens many doors. The possibilities: powder skis, carving skis, telemark skis, cross-country skate skis, classic cross-country skis, alpine touring (or randonnée) skis, off-track touring skis—whatever is needed for whatever conditions might be in the offing. And throw in snowboards, of course, too.
Among the variables someone like Gary factors into his daily what-to-do, where-to-go decision: downhill, uphill, flat, time of year, time of day, slope exposure, snow depth, recent snowfall history, temperature, grooming, time available, energy level. What works on one day, or at one time of day, or for a particular type of snow, might not work so well in another situation.
I am not so extravagant in my gear cache; I have a mere six pairs of skis to choose from. (I think the only skis not represented in Gary’s or my portfolio are 250-centimeter jumping skis, since there is no ski jump in the Mad River Valley, other than the one built for the Gelandesprung Championship at Mt. Ellen each winter.) I start with a basic template—on most days, my go-to plan is to head to Sugarbush first thing in the morning, then move on to other snowbound forms of fun from there. It is a template from which I might stray occasionally, especially in the spring sugaring season, when winter relinquishes its frigid grip and the melt-freeze cycle of late March and April takes over. At that time of year, late morning is the power hour, when the frozen, overnight snow softens to a velvety corn before turning to a thick mush. But snow on the lift-serviced mountain is almost always—almost
always—best first thing in the morning.
After an overnight storm, of course, the morning lift opening provides entry into untracked euphoria; dawdle for not very long, and scribbles of other skiers’ tracks are everywhere, blemishing the powder-morning perfection at the start of the day. In a word (or a favorite powder trail name)—Paradise! Soft, fat skis are the tool of choice. I might take them to the more lightly traveled Mt. Ellen, where Tumbler and Hammerhead, protected from the wind, hold the new snow beautifully. On your average, powdery weekday morning, I can usually fly solo, tumbling and hammerheading more or less all by my lonesome.
In the morning on non-powder days—the great majority of days—swaths of fresh corduroy left by overnight groomers are still largely unsullied by the sliding urgency of ski edges. Carving skis are the tool of choice. In the latter days of my skiing life, I am finding the leisurely pleasure of engaging an angled, carving edge with a smoothly groomed surface to be increasingly and incredibly soul satisfying. The ski-on-corduroy sound alone, like the muted fluttering of a card in the spokes of a spinning bicycle wheel, is a form of musical inspiration. On a clear day, I’ll start on sun-bathed Birch Run, then move over to Snowball and still-shadowed Spring Fling, with its boulevard-wide, on-the-fall-line, north-facing pitch. There I can roll my edges over through big, loopy, wide-radius turns, pushing the accelerator with as much gusto as my aging legs dare to entertain.
Even on a busy weekend, the first hour or two on the mountain is never crowded, and in the age of high-speed, detachable lifts, what was once a full day of skiing can be jammed into a couple of hours. In the usual absence of any early-morning lift line, I can spin through five or six laps an hour on Super Bravo, a turnover rate that might slow a little only if I mix in bumpier favorites like Lixi’s Twist or Domino. By the time the rest of humanity makes its way to the mountain later in the morning, I can have close to 20,000 vertical feet under my belt. I’m ready to shift skiing gears, usually to cross-country skating.
Time out for a little background. I have been downhill skiing since I was seven and only came to cross-country skiing—skate skiing in particular—later in life. I quickly became hooked. For fifteen years, I have been working and teaching skiing at Ole’s Cross Country Center, based at the Warren–Sugarbush Airport, across the valley from the ski mountain. I am a skating apostle, and I want to spread the gospel.
And so . . . together, downhill and cross-country skiing fuse for me in a harmonic balance—yin and yang, sweet and savory, mortise and tenon. Here’s an important truth within that balance: when the snow is great for downhill skiing, it is often too soft for good skate skiing, and when conditions are too hard and slippery for good downhill skiing, the skating can be fantastic. Perfect.
Another truth, and the reason I usually downhill ski before heading to Ole’s: given the enormous difference in skier traffic (up to 8,000 skiers on a busy day at Sugarbush; maybe 300 on the busiest day at Ole’s), the snow at Ole’s usually stays fresher longer. What’s more, snow on the flatter cross-country terrain doesn’t get scratched off and pushed downhill by sharp metal ski edges or snowboards. It stays in place for most or all of the day. No need to rush to Ole’s early in the morning to be assured of agreeable conditions.
After completing a morning session at Sugarbush, I am likely to stop by the Warren Store for a sandwich on the great French bread that the team in the bakery makes daily. I am a glutton for the Smoke on the Water—smoked salmon and Boursin with capers and red onions—but I like the Number Six, too, which combines roast turkey with cranberry mayo. Fortifying stuff before heading five minutes up the road to Ole’s.
A quick change of gear reminds me of two more truths: cross-country equipment is blessedly light and comfortable compared with downhill skis and boots. My entire skating setup—skis, bindings, boots, and poles—weighs not much more than a single downhill boot. And cross-country skiing is one of the best ways to stay warm on a cold winter day; sustaining an average heart rate of 120 beats or more per minute, my body becomes a cardiovascular furnace. I shed the thicker layers of insulation needed to withstand the chill of lift riding and downhill skiing, and dress myself in lighter stuff to lessen the chance of overheating.
At Ole’s, I am likely to run into other members of the ecumenical congregation—friends like Audrey Huffman (a Sugarbush employee who designs this magazine) or Mike and Joanie Kavanaugh, who all are multi-ski devotees. Their daily game plans are often similar to mine, though possibly rearranged by personal preferences. Audrey likes to swap back and forth between telemark and skate skis, while Joanie and Mike rank skating above all other forms of sliding on snow. Joanie’s take on a perfect day (or perfect afternoon): “skate skiing on a bluebird day with no wind and fresh snow.” You can’t beat that.
I might join Audrey or the Kavanaughs on the Deer Run trail, five miles of blissful skating terrain rolling gently through woods and farm fields, with expansive views of Sugarbush, Mad River Glen, and Camel’s Hump as a backdrop. As Joanie rightly says, “What makes a perfect ski day is the company you’re with.”
Not everybody abides by my perfect-ski-day formula. For example, my friend Rob Rosen likes to flip my daily plan; I’ll often see him arrive early in the morning at Ole’s with his alpine boots slung over his shoulder, intending to head for Sugarbush later in the day after about fifteen kilometers of skating.
Jon Jamieson, another guy with more skis than he knows what to do with, also prefers the cross-country-first approach. “It’s great to get the snow at Ole’s when it’s fresh,” he says, because there is something almost intoxicatingly special about laying the edge of a skating ski onto untracked corduroy. After that, he is likely to head for Mt. Ellen, where, equipped with alpine-touring gear and climbing skins, he’ll ride the lift to hike the long ridgeline to Lincoln Peak, then ski down to Castlerock Pub for a well-earned beer.
Every once in a while, he’ll switch it up by starting (as early as 5 a.m.) or ending the day with a hike up on skis to the Mt. Ellen summit, followed, of course, by a fast descent. “Mt. Ellen is the one with the payoff, because it has the killer views,” he says. “Sunsets over the Adirondacks are stunning.”
I am not one to follow Jamieson’s lead and ski down after dark with a head lamp. But like Jamieson, I am always thinking of the day’s final decision: where to go for après-ski. I’ve had a few memorable moments on that front, too—playing skittles many years ago in the basement of the Tucker Hill Lodge, dancing deep into the evening on the roof of the former, and sorely missed, Blue Tooth, basking in spring warmth on the great second-floor deck of the Mt. Ellen base lodge.
But these days, when the afternoon sun is bright and warm, I might gather with friends on the stone terraces at the Lincoln Peak base, for noshing on food and beverage director Gerry Nooney’s scrumptious pizza
while indulging in one or two of the fabulous brews concocted by my neighbor, Sean Lawson. Lawson’s Finest Liquids is developing a national reputation, and for good reason. If a die-hard wine lover like me can take a liking to Sean’s well-tempered beer, he must be doing something right.
Then it is off in the evening alpenglow to the comforts of home and the furry welcome of my faithful canine sidekick, Trombone. At that point, exhaustion and the Lawson’s I’ve savored will likely drive me very early to bed. There I will drift quickly into the unconscious, flitting across a starry dreamscape of memorable ski days yet to come.
A DAY WITH THE BIG DOG
Sugarbush president Win Smith has had his share of dreamy ski days. After all, he logs as many as 130 ski days in the season—plenty of opportunity for good things to happen. But when asked to recall one day in particular, he thinks back to a morning when eight to ten inches of new snow covered Castlerock’s Middle Earth after a rare overnight grooming job had left the subsurface deliciously bump-free. The result was Elysian flotation down what can be one of the resort’s most jaw-rattling runs.
Last winter, Smith recorded 116 days on the mountain. He is not a multiple-choice skier like so many other Mad River Valley residents. Although cross-country skating remains a must-do on his bucket list, lift-serviced downhill skiing is his thing.
He likes to get to the mountain early, before the lifts begin spinning, “to get a sense of what the day is going to be,” then devises a game plan accordingly. The Valley House area is a favorite morning playground, where fast cruisers on Snowball and Spring Fling provide unblemished grooming and sunrise views to the east. However, “if Stein’s has been groomed and has powder, that’s definitely my first choice.”
Still, he will sometimes start on the sunny side of the mountain, enjoying Sleeper—like so many kids do—as a sun-mottled natural terrain park of rolls, fall-offs, and jumps. “There are so many good options,” says Smith. “I don’t want to become a creature of habit.”
That’s why you might also find him at Mt. Ellen on Hammerhead or Tumbler—or rummaging around in the woods alongside. The absence of skier traffic at Mt. Ellen may not be good for business, but for someone who loves skiing as much as Smith does, it is chicken soup for the soul. But a steep trail like Stein’s or Middle Earth with fresh powder after fresh grooming—that’s something truly special, dessert topped with sweet whipped cream. And you’re bound to get a few runs like that every year if you spend as much time on the mountain as Smith does.