skier in the air

The Rock is a Hard Place

Welcome to the most eccentric (but beloved) trail networks in the world of skiing and snowboarding.

Just when you thought you had the basics of turning a ski figured out, you encounter the riddle that is Castlerock, where the four main trails that form its soul and substance—Castlerock Run, Lift Line, Rumble, and Middle Earth—are so technically complex that virtually every turn is like its own unique dance step. The pressuring of the ski is different, the edge angle is different, the radius, body position, pole plant, and so on. Cue the music: imagine linking the bossa nova with break dancing and jitterbugging and crip walking in rapid-fire succession.

You can throw in a bit of ballet, too, as the rhythmic variation imposed by pockets of powder, rocky protuberances, and crusty moguls requires a surefooted nimbleness. And with the ’Rock’s slightly eastern exposure, the snow texture—the dance floor—is constantly being reinvented by the effects of morning sun and afternoon shadow. What worked on your first run might fail miserably later in the day, and vice versa.

Skiers who manage to maintain elegance and fluidity on Castlerock terrain, guys like Sugarbush’s own John Egan, are so light on their feet as to seem to barely touch the ground. But even Egan would concede that you never really master Castlerock skiing. You can love it like you love a favorite dance partner, but when you dance with the ’Rock, you are always the follower. It is forever exerting its authority, insisting on taking the lead.

Castlerock skiing first came into being at the end of the 1950s, almost as an afterthought, after the development of the main body of Sugarbush terrain from the Lincoln Peak summit. Castlerock was a high saddle flanked by granite buttresses that stood out defiantly from the rest of the ridgeline—a muscular bit of mountain landscape raising its middle finger, geologically, toward any attempt to be tamed with ski trails. It seemed to be saying, Don’t mess with me.

After finally taking on the challenge, the developers found that they had to play a trail-building game according to the ’Rock’s rules. The usual trail-clearing method of sawing down trees, bulldozing over rough lumps, and cutting a trail more or less down the fall line simply wouldn’t work. The terrain idiosyncrasies—the rock in the ’Rock, the jumble of oblique pitches, the irregular rolls, the sudden, steep drop-offs—conspired as a curmudgeonly force of natural resistance every step of the way.

When the development mission was finally accomplished, the result was one of the most eccentric and unconventional trail networks in the world of skiing.

If you want the rare sensation of skiing through a tunnel of trees, there is sliver-thin Rumble, with the tree canopy gathering together overhead from both sides of the trail and at times blotting out the sky. Skiing the serpentine spillway of moguls that is Middle Earth renders a feeling of being trapped in a sort of revolving door. Around each bend, you might expect and hope for the trail to ease off, with your quad muscles reduced to gelatin by the trail’s incessant bumpiness. Instead, another cluster of tightly packed, peculiarly dysmorphic moguls lies ahead, and the door takes another turn. The trail just goes on and on.

Even the lift ride up sometimes offers surprises, including the illusion of a possible head-on collision as you come face-to-face with a human projectile—Egan, perhaps—flying toward you over Lift Line’s rocky headwall at Tower 11. A crash landing on your lap might seem possible, and even sensible, given that the alternative of landing on the slope below—an amalgam of rock, evergreen debris, ice, corrugated muck, and other surfaces of undetermined composition—appears to invite disaster.

John Egan has skied some of the most extreme terrain in the world, where the slightest false move or flutter of nerves can mean death or catastrophic injury. It is on Castlerock where he developed the technical skill and confidence to take on anything any mountain anywhere could

throw at him. “I had encountered it all at Castlerock,” he says. “You need at least 300 turns in your repertoire.”

It has been said that the ’Rock is emblematic of traditional eastern skiing, a throwback to the first man-made trails of the 1930s. Unlike more modern trails—straight and wide, like Ripcord, or Stein’s Run, or Spring Fling—those old trails were narrow, winding, and often off-camber. The men who cut the trails by hand more or less followed paths of least resistance, according to the contours of the mountainside.

And to a degree, so it is with Castlerock, but calling the ’Rock an anachronism is only partly true; it has a touch of haute moderne in its character, too, as a natural terrain park of manifold freeskiing possibilities. Rummaging in the trees, going airborne, executing all sorts of trickery—this large and singular patch of mountain turf triggers nouveau creativity and imagination. Castlerock is simultaneously old school and new school and enigmatically one of a kind, with at least a thousand different options on its dance card.

Sugarbush Chief Recreation Officer John Egan on Castlerock's Lift Line.
Sugarbush Chief Recreation Officer John Egan on Castlerock’s Lift Line.
Castlerock chair.
Castlerock chair.

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