This story originally appeared the September 2015 (44.1) issue of POWDER. PHOTO: Brian Mohr
I really have to take a leak but the timing is all wrong. The slope is too steep and the trees are too thick. Plus, I think we're lost. My partner and I are in the Notch, an out-of-bounds zone between Stowe Mountain Resort and Smugglers' Notch, conducting a very New England exercise. We're searching for a hidden stash during what some people in Vermont have called "the perfect winter." The trees are so dense and the lines so convoluted that dozens of people lose their way back here every season—even, apparently, longtime locals. "I gotta be honest, I'm completely lost right now," says my partner Greg Petrics, who's been skiing Stowe for eight years. "Let's hike up a ways before we get cliffed-out."
Earlier that morning, I was driving I-89 south to Stowe, one of six ski areas within an hour's drive of Burlington, Vermont. Though its parent company, AIG, went bankrupt in 2008 (which resulted in AIG receiving, and then repaying, a federal bailout of $85 billion), the resort survived the recession and has since picked up where it left off—by prioritizing off-hill development, including a $500-million plan to build lodging, shopping, and, for 2016, an adventure center.
Less than four miles away is a more down-home rebuke to Stowe. At Smugglers' Notch, the lifts remain slow and lift tickets relatively affordable—just $70 (versus $108 at Stowe). Together, the two ski areas represent the wide spectrum of personalities found in New England skiing. Between them is a zone that combines the best of both areas. You just have to know where to go, which, in this rugged and undisclosed terrain, is not easy.
Last winter was rough for the usual powerhouses out West (read about the devastating winter there on page 48). Mount Baker, Washington, suspended operations on March 9 due to lack of snow. Colorado ended the ski season with just 69 percent of its normal snowfall, making it the third worst winter in 30 years. On the East Coast, however, Boston saw its heaviest snowfall ever with more than 100 cumulative inches. City folk struggled with the dumps, but up north, resorts like Jay Peak dominated with 373 inches total. That was more than Alta (324 inches) and Jackson Hole (316 inches). At Stowe, the biggest factor last season was consistent below-freezing temperatures, meaning the snow stayed great long after storms.
While Stowe maintains its reputation for high-end luxury, Petrics, 32, embodies the salty core of locals that look beyond the $865 private lessons and 480-person performing arts center, and embrace the mountain for its myriad terrain. Located on Mount Mansfield—Vermont's highest peak at 4,393 feet—Stowe accesses 485-plus skiable acres by gondola and eight high-speed quads. Classic groomers like Gondolier and Lord make full use of the resort's 2,360-foot vertical drop.
While riding the gondola, Petrics looks to the south and points out Nose Dive. It's one of the original ski trails cut in 1934 during the Great Depression by the Civilian Conservation Corp as a means for economic stimulus, which triggered the creation of Stowe. To the east, Petrics indicates different lines off the Chin of Mansfield, including Rock Garden and Slayer. That was where we were heading. It hadn't snowed in over a week, though Petrics was confident we'd find something fresh.
Exiting the gondola, we walk passed the Waffle Cabin—serving delicious Belgian sugar waffles for $4.25—shoulder our skis, and start up the bootpack. Uncharacteristic for Vermont off-piste, the hike to the Chin enters an open alpine zone. In the large expanse of alpine vegetation in Vermont, rare shrub species take over the ridge, while cliff faces tower above.
After 30 minutes, we look down a semi-steep line of pillows and drops. The zone is practically untouched. Petrics drops in first, advising me to stick close to his tracks—Rock Garden earns its name for a reason.
As we reenter classic New England glades from the alpine zone, Petrics shows me 15-foot drops that locals cleared in the late 1990s and 2000s. The Green Mountains require trimming to make runs or cliffs skiable. In recent years, skiers have gone to resorts like Stowe during the summer to cut promising features, a risky task that, in these protected forests, can lead to $5,000 fines and jail time, not to mention the destruction of precious natural habitat.
Between Stowe and Smuggs' runs four miles of Vermont's Route 108. The stretch connecting the two resorts winds so intensely with the contours of the mountain that it is closed off entirely during the winter. This is the Notch, the no-man's land between the two resorts that includes some of the state's most challenging terrain.
At 43, Stowe diehard Chuck Waskuch has navigated the area for over 25 years. He was around in the 1990s, when some of the chutes were gaining their first descents from pioneers of the East Coast ski scene like Mark Courville.
"It's the real deal. You definitely need to be careful," says Waskuch. "There used to be a way these mountains got skied. You used to start with the stuff that's closest to the resort, then ski farther out into the Notch every day. But now everyone just races out there."
Petrics wanted to bring me to a steep chute that was hidden enough to guarantee fresh snow and would later lead to Route 108 for our exit. From a narrow trail we cut north for 10 minutes, which became 20 minutes, and then 40, backtracking and then re-backtracking.
For 500 feet, we discover patches of open snow in sudden zones where skiers came in throughout the summer to do some "maintenance." We eventually find our way down to Route 108, from where we look back on the maze we just navigated. The view includes a cliff face 100 feet tall, making it clear why Petrics was so adamant about finding the right way down.
On the other side of the Notch, three mountains echo Grateful Dead's "Sugaree" as skiers wait in the lift lines of Smugglers' Notch. "If you're looking for a golf course, this isn't your place, but if you want to ski, you can do that here," says a local standing next to me.
Smugglers' history derives from renegades that used the mountain's dense forest and cavern systems to run alcohol from Canada to the U.S. during Prohibition. The resort started to take off in the 1950s when Sterling Mountain caught the eyes of Cambridge businessmen and opened Smugglers' Notch Ski Ways. In 1963, the resort expanded to neighboring Madonna and Morse mountains. Since then, not much has changed at the family-oriented resort, only slightly lower in trails (78) than Stowe (116). Chairs like the Madonna I and Sterling Lift, which were erected in the 1960s, are still—slowly—bringing the same old skiers to the same old runs.
At the base of Madonna I, I meet Hugh Johnson, the Smugglers' Notch snow reporter. Johnson might be the happiest guy on the mountain, though it's hard to compare in this crowd. The entire way up the lift he waves at skiers below, giving short hellos, while explaining each person's nickname. At the top we greet a red-haired liftie who's brushing off the landing ramp, as Johnson yells, "Hey, Lucky Charms, how are ya?"
We ski Shakedown Glade, named after the Grateful Dead hit, and pass a sign so regularly stolen that the mountain rubs grease on the back to deter potential thefts. Avoiding these more heavily trafficked areas, Johnson takes me to an area called C+, which has eluded trail maps. The trail is classic East Coast—alternating flatter sections to let the skis rip, with short chutes to get technical.
Johnson and I load the Madonna II lift to access a sparsely skied stash on Morse Mountain. After 20 minutes of hiking we click into our skis and begin traversing a second trail even farther. The path is narrow, calling for precise turns until it opens up, allowing more interpretation between steep trees. Even after a week since the last snow, our tracks are the first. Here, we don't have to worry about sudden cliffs. Just point the skis down and enjoy the ride. These are the spots a local thinks about, sizing you up before bringing you to their secret that's lasted over the years.
In usual East Coast fashion, as the day closes a gloomy sky starts puking a mix of snow and rain. Standing in line for our last run, I strike a conversation with a woman of 50 years. She tells me the day before she was showing Johnson a few new runs. This woman has been skiing the Stowe/Smugglers' Notch area as long as she can remember, and her love of skiing has taken her to far-flung places in South America. Every year, though, Vermont brings her back home. "For today," she says, "I'm just happy to be riding the lifts, skiing here."