paradise steeps

Steeps, Glades, and Gliders

The story behind Sugarbush’s varied terrain.

Chris Davenport was luxuriating in a flood of afternoon sun outside the Gate House at Lincoln Peak. Arguably the country’s preeminent ski mountaineer, known for conquering perilous and remote descents from Antarctica to the Alps, Davenport had just spent a warm March day exploring the jumble of varied terrain that is Sugarbush. He had started at Mt. Ellen on the steep right side of Upper FIS and through the day had gradually migrated off-trail to the tight, technical slivers of snow that descend like capillaries through the trees from the informally named Church, an off-trail area between Paradise and Castlerock Run.

Now sipping on an après-ski brew, he was reclining in a peaceful eddy of pure contentment. The experience, he said, had been “total adventure skiing,” and while it had not quite been pioneering some scare-you-silly couloir on an uncharted peak, it had been a unique pleasure. The variations in pitches and fall lines, the precise turning required, the enhanced sense of speed when skiing in the tight quarters of the Vermont woods—even a globe-circling ski mountaineer could find something extravagantly satisfying in that.

“Total adventure skiing” comes in many forms, and over the course of more than a half century of existence, Sugarbush adventure has been repeatedly reimagined and reinvented. Many of the greatest skiers in history, Davenport included, have come to Sugarbush to add their stamp of identity on a terrain package that many consider the most complete and well rounded in the East.

Prominent among them is Stein Eriksen. The Norwegian gold medalist at the 1952 Olympics and icon of classical skiing elegance came to Sugarbush as the ski school director in the early 1960s, just a few years after Damon and Sara Gadd, along with Jack Murphy, had started the ski area. Eriksen was impressed by what he saw, but he was also a bit flummoxed by the mountain’s quirky character. “There weren’t many runs in the fall line,” he remembers of a layout that featured narrow runs rolling and snaking down the contours of the mountain’s complex topography.

Eriksen offhandedly mentioned this peculiarity to a stranger he met on a gondola ride shortly after arriving at Sugarbush, only to discover that he was speaking to—and possibly offending—one of his new bosses, Murphy. But Murphy appreciated Stein’s input, and the cutting of Stein’s Run would be the eventual outcome of that initial encounter. Wide, straight, steep, and unerringly true to the fall line, Stein’s quickly became recognized as one of the great mogul trails in North America.

Ironically, however, the Stein era was also a time that saw the ushering in of one of the funkiest trail networks in America, with little regard for fall-line orthodoxy. According to Stein, one of his hand-chosen assistants, an Italian instructor, liked to spend his off-hours rummaging around for skiable lines far to skier’s left of the gondola, which in those days ran above Organgrinder to the top of Lincoln Peak. Poking around for strips of skiable snow in this steep and unusually rumpled and rocky terrain wasn’t necessarily Stein’s idea of a good time, but his assistant loved it. Those explorations were part of the early evolution of Castlerock skiing.

Castlerock Run, Lift Line, Rumble, Middle Earth—they became, by the mid-1960s, renowned nationally as emblematic of technical Eastern skiing. Narrow, bumpy, precipitously steep in places, twisting, tilted off-camber, spilling over knuckles of rock, canted on varying exposures—in short, just crazily helter-skelter—these were trails that from their inception were simultaneously enthralling and maddening to expert skiers. And they remain so—trails so consistent in their inconsistency that it is possible to make a whole descent without ever executing the same turn style or shape twice.

No one knows Castlerock’s eccentricities better than Sugarbush’s own John Egan, a progenitor of the extreme-skiing movement of the 1980s. Egan first came to the Mad River Valley in 1976 to work in a local lodge, and he had heard a lot about the singular experience of doing battle with the terrain enigmas that Castlerock presented. He remembers his first run down Rumble vividly: “There was three feet of heavy snow, and the trail just dropped out from under you. On a run like Rumble, there are obstacles in your way, even on the best powder day. Right there, I made it one of my goals to master that area.”

Egan made Lift Line—virtual backcountry skiing right beneath the lift—a personal training ground for what would become a successful career as a ski-movie star. When he was invited by a Warren Miller film crew to make his first trip to Europe at the beginning of the 1980s—to Verbier, Switzerland—he felt uniquely prepared for the daunting big-mountain complexities he would take on. “I wasn’t afraid,” he says. “I’d encountered it all at Castlerock. You need at least 300 different turns in your repertoire.”

But, of course, steep and technically demanding terrain is not all there is to Sugarbush. Great cruising runs like Elbow at Mt. Ellen or the Snowball–Spring Fling combo at Lincoln Peak complement the gnarlier stuff like Castlerock and Upper FIS quite nicely, providing the steep stuff with gentler, intermediate companionship.

And “gentle” needn’t be a code word for “blah.” While these trails are essentially about navigation at a smooth and leisurely pace, they have also played host to skiers pushing the envelope of speed and its attendant technical exigencies—skiing that might scare the daylights out of the intermediates the trails were designed for.

Start with Elbow, long a favorite training run for prospective ski-racing greats at nearby Green Mountain Valley School. Elbow’s stepped-down changes in pitch have for years challenged racers-in-training to recalibrate and readjust their balance and turn shape while trying to maintain fluidity and race speed. Running gates on Elbow was at least partly responsible for honing the skills of such future Olympians as A.J. Kitt and Daron Rahlves.

Snowball and Spring Fling can also claim a direct connection to ski-racing history. In 1997, the King of the Mountain downhill series—featuring such Olympic gold medalists as Austria’s Franz Klammer, Switzerland’s Pirmin Zurbriggen, and the United States’s Bill Johnson—came to Sugarbush. Snowball and Spring Fling, that classic cruising run, became recast as a high-speed downhill course.

On a bluebird day in early February, more than 2,000 race fans surrounded the finish area to watch the legends of the sport do their high-speed thing. At times exceeding seventy mph and launching off a man-made jump at the bottom—soaring right over a sponsor’s SUV in the process—the racers got from the start, at the Valley House chair summit, to the finish in less than fifty-five seconds. (Please—do not try this on your next Sugarbush visit …) A year later, while racing in the same event, former Olympian Doug Lewis, a Mad River Valley resident, careened into a frightening, windmilling crash about halfway down Spring Fling, luckily surviving unscathed. Kind of cool, really, that such intermediate runs have been able to put some of the greatest racers in history to a stern test.

Put another way, steepness alone doesn’t define the nuances of adventure woven into Sugarbush’s varied terrain. Consider Upper Jester, the gentle run descending from the Lincoln Peak summit. While barely railroad grade in pitch, it makes up for lack of steepness with the route-finding puzzle presented by its zigzagging course back and forth across the fall line (apologies to Stein).

Calculating Jester’s hairpins correctly, accurately judging the apex of each turn and the angles of entry and exit, can be a mental exercise comparable to charting the variables in a quadratic equation. Hit the line just right, and a crisp, parabolic arc through each bend is the reward. Miss the line, and speed-killing skids are the penalty. The line-finding conundrum is the same for all Jester skiers, experts and less experienced skiers alike.

Nothing, however, characterizes adventure at present-day Sugarbush more definitively than foraging off-trail for tasty, untracked lines. “The secret stashes change all the time, depending on the sun, the snow, the wind, and the weather,” says Egan. “But there is always something out there in the trees.” And nowhere is that truer than in the 2,000-acre expanse of Slide Brook that forms a giant bowl beneath the long ridge connecting Castlerock Peak and Mt. Ellen.

While technically in-bounds, this is wild country; in fact, Sugarbush is required by the state of Vermont to take several measures to mitigate impacts on what is known to be active bear habitat. No cut trails, no snowmaking or grooming, no development, no nothing, really—just 2,000 acres of true wilderness, all accessible from the top of the North Lynx lift. Better yet, Slide Brook can be off-trail skiing for everyman, with what Egan calls “entry-level tree skiing” for those just testing the off-trail waters, while still offering the kind of gnarly lines that expert explorers lust after. “I can’t believe this exists in the East,” says Sugarbush President Win Smith.

“You get in there and realize you’ve got total solitude,” Smith says. “Sometimes, I have to stop, pause for a big breath, look around, and say, ‘Wow, this is a magical place.’”

A magical place. While extremists like Davenport and Egan and the world’s greatest ski racers can find in Sugarbush a mountain able to produce an electrifying adrenaline buzz, ultimately skiing here is mainly and soulfully about being here. It is about being in-country—in the woods, in the snow, in the mountains, in the land of the black bear, in nature’s backyard. Whether you’re pursuing hairball off-trail challenges, executing cleanly carved turns with a Stein-like elegance, or seeking a profoundly personal connection with the serenity of the woodsy outback, Sugarbush skiing is Eastern skiing in its most complete and gratifying form.Historic skiing photo

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