A novice tree skier heads out with John Egan for her first off-trail lesson.
The text came in early on a crisp and sunny morning in April: “John Egan will meet you in two hours to take you skiing in the trees.”
Most skiers reading this would have been thrilled – a chance to spend the morning exploring Sugarbush’s famed off-piste options with extreme-skiing legend John Egan. But for me, an intermediate skier who has rarely ventured off-trail, the prospect was more terrifying than thrilling.
When I met up with him at the base of the Gate House lift, Egan did his best to put my mind at ease, telling me that first we’d test things out and work on my turns on one or two of the groomers. And that even though Sugarbush is known for its rugged, “ridiculously good” lines through the trees, the huge range of its woods terrain, including the 2,000-acre Slide Brook Basin, means that there’s something for every level of tree skier, from someone who has starred in a bunch of Warren Miller films to an intermediate skier who wants to take things to the next level. “We can go in and out of the woods on the side of the trail to test spots. There are lots of little sections on this mountain, which is why it’s so great for people who want to learn,” he said. Skiing in the trees, he told me, is all about attitude. “It’s a mental thing—if you know how to do this on the mountain, then you can do it in the woods. It’s a matter of taking that confidence and applying it to different terrain.”
We headed down Birch Run, working on a variety of turning styles I would need in the woods. Egan had me shift my weight quickly from one ski to the other, lifting the uphill ski for emphasis. He had me do quick hockey-stop turns, and turns where I exaggerated my up-and-down movement, explaining that the faster I moved my body, the more I could control my speed and the slower I’d go. “If I move faster than gravity pulls me, I slow down. If I move slower, I go faster. It’s simple math.” He pulled over to the edge of the trail, by the entrance to Deeper Sleeper. “You’re going to be fine, no problem. We’re going to have a blast,” he said. Then we headed into the woods.
Skiing in the woods at Sugarbush has grown substantially over the past decade or so, with the opening of woods terrain like Eden, Lew’s Line, and Egan’s Woods, and you can now head off-piste from many trails, including (with a backcountry guide) into the Slide Brook Basin. The Basin—which has been designated critical habitat for the black bears that feed off nuts from the beech trees growing there—is open for recreational use in the winter when the bears are hibernating but closed during the seasons when the bears are waking up and actively looking for food. Groups can take their pick of lines through the wilderness from North Lynx down to German Flats Road, where they can get on the Mad Bus to Mt. Ellen or back to Sugarbush.
For Russ Kauff, the director of the Sugarbush Ski & Ride School, the volume of available wooded terrain at Sugarbush, and the ability to easily integrate it into instruction for multiple levels of skiers, is part of what drew him to the mountain. “The adventure component has always been at the center of what we’ve done,” he said. He describes how, when teaching either children or adults, instructors will help them perfect a particular skill on familiar terrain, and then will move into woods with the same pitch to work on the same skill there. “We help you take those turns you were doing really well on the mountain and put them in the woods. That’s how you expand the terrain on which someone can ski,” Kauff said.
With the availability of many levels of off-piste skiing, from gentle slopes to steep chutes and drops worthy of Tuckerman’s or the Alps, from widely spaced trees to tight, spruce-packed woods, many different lesson groups head off the trail. Anyone who wants to practice skiing on ungroomed terrain can take a Max 4 Adventure Workshop. Skiers and riders can also hire a guide to take them into Slide Brook. For the season-long programs, John Egan’s group of Bush Pilots spend much of their time in the woods, as do many of the youth in the Blazers program. Rick Hale, who is one of the instructors for the Mountaineering Blazers program, says skiing in the woods—and being in the woods—is an integral part of the adventure and the skills he tries to impart. Every weekend when the conditions are right, the Mountaineering Blazers head out with backpacks and skins for their skis so they can climb up the hills and reach areas not serviced by lifts. “When the woods skiing is on,” Hale said, “we’re in the woods more often than not.” Aside from teaching kids who love going straight down the hill that they have to slow down (“In the woods, they learn pretty quick that they need to turn,” said Hale), the woods provide a chance for building teamwork and teaching responsibility on the slopes. “When you go in the woods, it’s serious,” said Hale. “We teach people that they need to stay together and keep an eye on each other.”
For Dave Gould, a PSIA-certified instructor who teaches private lessons in alpine and telemark skiing to both children and adults, the extensive territory of the Slide Brook Basin provides an unusual chance for his students to immerse themselves in a mountain environment. “You can see claw marks on the trees from the bears, animal tracks in the snow, and holes from the pileated woodpeckers. Slide Brook should be and is a big part of the whole adventure,” Gould said. Andy LeStage, a longtime Sugarbush skier who is in Bush Pilots with his wife, and whose two children are in the Blazers program, also sees Slide Brook as integral to the mountain’s appeal. “The seclusion of it, the separation from the rest of the resort, the length of the run, and the whole event—Slide Brook is pretty unique,” he said.
Meg Adams, who skied with her family at Sugarbush most weekends this past winter and took lessons with Gould, describes the evolution of her attitude about skiing in the woods, helped along by some skilled coaching. “I started slowly in Eden, which used to look tight and I would stop breathing! Now it looks so open and flat. Dave always asks how we are feeling, if we want to try something new, and talks a little bit about the topography and how to use it to help slow us down or speed us up. Toward the end of the winter I was in the woods in places that were really remarkable. It’s being able to take in the beauty in those woods that is becoming a driving force for me in terms of skiing,” she said.
Extensive knowledge of the mountain and its terrain is essential when skiing in the woods here. Woods terrain, more than any other, said Kauff, “highlights the value of really great coaching. We have people who know this place like the back of their hand, and they know not just where the good stashes are but which one would suit this guest with this skill set on this day and in these conditions.” This knowledge is especially important early in the season, as the snow is just building up to skiable depth in the woods. For Egan and other instructors, figuring out when the woods are safe to ski is an involved process. “My gauge for woods skiing is testing the area with exploratory missions. I take hikes through my favorite areas and test snow depth. Soon these trips start producing a turn here and there and eventually a first run. It is a fool who jumps in after a powder storm without prior knowledge,” he said. But when the snow is right at Sugarbush, there are those who spend all day in and among the trees. As Rick Hale described it, “I’ll be sitting at Castlerock Pub or the Wünderbar après ski, and so many people will tell me, ‘I didn’t ski a trail all day!’”
As we headed into the soft snow of Deeper Sleeper, I watched as Egan made quick, smooth turns that made it seem as if the trees weren’t even there. I tried to follow his line, and used the technique we’d worked on of lifting one ski or another to step over scattered rocks and logs that my ten-year-old son, if he’d been there, might have jumped over or caromed off. We stopped halfway down so Egan could give me some tips. With the more challenging terrain of the woods, I was reverting to my old habit of facing a little sideways rather than down the hill. “The goalie never looks away from the guys with the puck, but he can move left and right. Think of yourself as a goalie, moving laterally left and right to avoid the trees,” he said.
After a few more runs in and out of the trees, we made our way over to the Heaven’s Gate lift, then headed down Ripcord and over into the woods off Downspout. This time, I decided to take my own line rather than trying to follow Egan’s. I remembered his mantra—“You get speed by going down the hill, you give it away by turning”—and concentrated on facing downhill and getting to a point of comfort with the speed I was going before starting the next turn. I took off down through the silent and sun-speckled woods, with no sound other than the wind rustling through the trees and the swish of my skis. Up ahead, I heard Egan whoop. Behind, at my own pace, I felt the same sense of exhilaration. I knew next season I’d be back in Sugarbush’s woods. There was a lot more territory for me to explore.