So a couple of naturalists are up at the Rabbit's Nest, a tiny shack below the Nose, on Mount Mansfield, Vermont's highest peak. It is summer. They're studying the Bicknell's thrush, a rare songbird that prefers to nest above 3,000 feet. Ears peeled for its flute-like call, they begin to notice a sawing sound. Huh? They set off through a dense tangle of fir and spruce. After a while, they come across Christian Strong, who is limbing one of his favorite secret slots through the woods. The bust made the local paper the following week.
Strong told me this story as we rode Stowe's high-speed FourRunner quad chair up Mansfield's flank. The quad shoots skiers so quickly up the mountain's 2,150-vertical-foot rise, leaving them just below the Nose, that there isn't much time for yarn-spinning. It's one of the most efficient vert-delivery systems in North America, a virtual elevator to the steepest, most sustained, and most direct fall lines in the East—and to a clandestine matrix of portals and powder stashes in the woods that rival lines in the West.
Toothy and a little googly-eyed, with a slightly battered, cynical air, Strong brings to mind the Paul Giamatti character in Sideways, except the expertise is birch glades and deep snow rather than wine. I'd asked about the Rabbit's Nest, and Strong, in the time-honored Stowe tradition of revealing nothing of such whereabouts, had deflected by tattling on himself. (His sentence, in lieu of a fine, was some hard time doing maintenance on the Long Trail, which runs the length of Vermont.)
Strong is a Stowe native who'd recently hung out a surreptitious shingle as a guide. "Ski With a Local!!!!" his business card read, with a photo of him tit-deep in a sunlit powder field that didn't look like anything I'd ever come across in Vermont. He is one of the last of the old guard—a holdover from the 1980s when farmers and tycoons, dirt bags and Bognerites all celebrated a mutual love for sliding over snow at the greatest mountain in the East. When I set out to find the ski bum scene there last winter, he was the first person I called.
I knew Strong like most people did, as the garrulous former bartender at the Shed, the longstanding pub on Mountain Road that served as the locals' favorite watering hole for more than four decades. His father, Ken, opened the Shed in 1965, on the site of an old cider-mill. Ken, you might say, was the founder of Stowe après ski. In 2011, the Strongs lost their lease. The landlord, an out-of-towner, found a more upscale tenant. That was it for the Shed—and another blow to Stowe's recondite dirtbag scene.
Since then, Strong, 42, had gone through a bit of an identity crisis. He'd been scraping together a living doing some landscaping and woodworking. I'd come to know some hearty souls his age or older who got out almost every day, but I'd been wondering what had happened to the next generation of ski bums. One 30-something friend of mine, who works in a ski shop in town, referred to the vibe as a "weakening heartbeat."
Strong had his theories, chief among them a dearth of jobs and a prohibitive cost of living—the usual ski-town bugbears. The mountain company—owned by the too-big-to-fail insurance giant AIG, until its sale, last winter, to Vail Resorts—mainly employed non-skiing South Americans on seasonal visas for its service jobs. And of course, the rent was too damn high, if you could even find a place to rent. "All those apartments with four dudes, each working two jobs as, like, bartenders and instructors, those places are getting bought up and knocked down or rebuilt for second or third homes," says Strong. Another bellwether: the venerable ski-bum race, which had been held every Tuesday for decades. "No one hangs out at the finish and drinks beer," he says. "It's more like a retirees' race. It's dwindled from a party scene to a controlled not-party scene."
"Strong was one of the last of the old guard—a ski bum holdover from the 1980s when farmers and tycoons, dirt bags and Bognerites all celebrated a mutual love for sliding over snow at the greatest mountain in the East."
Strong and I were doing a few runs together, on a bulletproof midweek winter's day. We were on Mansfield, which faces Spruce Peak, the gentler, tamer area across the valley that is anchored by a new resort. (A gondola connects the two.) Together, they comprise about 500 acres of trails.
Mansfield is the gorilla of the East, a moody, muscular beast. Its proximity to Lake Champlain makes it the occasional beneficiary of a Wasatchian lake effect; clippers dump unforetold depths on its leeward face, where the ski lifts happen to be. The show ponies are the so-called Front Four, the sheer, often humped-up drops down the face—the elevator-shaft crux of "Starr," a proto-Corbet's, the narrow flume of "Goat." These runs are flanked by the undulating boulevards of "Nosedive" and "Hayride"—Hobackian on a powder day—which are in turn skirted by surprisingly navigable glades. Further north is another gondola—THE gondy—a gateway not only to inbounds way-wenders like "Chin Clip," but also to acres of sidecountry forest and the bootpack to the summit of Mansfield, from whence many wonders unfurl. That morning with Strong, a re-freeze had turned the woods and the Front Four to coral reef, so we super-G'ed it on the groomers. There's talk, real unpopular around town, of the new Vail overlords introducing a speed limit. They might as well rope off the woods.
The first ski-bum wave came in the '60s, drafting off back-to-landers who flocked to Vermont. Consider Jake Jakespeare, a Jersey boy who arrived in 1966, waited tables at the Stowe Flake, then signed on with the ski patrol. The Black Knights, as they were called, were commanded by a crew-cut disciplinarian named Hal Wilhelm, aka the Kaiser, an embodiment of the old-school Stowe of Sepp Ruschp. Crazy Jake, known for his silver aluminum skull cap and his penchant for pulling front flips, didn't last on the patrol for more than a couple of years, but became a representative of the hot-dogger era, which managed to make in-roads even to the icy shadows of Mount Mansfield.
Stowe's beginnings were humble. The Civilian Conservation Corps got it started out of an old logging camp. The first run, the "Bruce Trail," was cut in 1934. (Once a racecourse, the Bruce, no longer on the map, is now a narrow, stumpy unpatrolled track that is as Euro a tour as you'll find in the East—connecting to a healthy pole-and-skate along some Nordic trails and then to the front stoop of the Matterhorn, the default après ski depot.) One day I skied the trail behind a meat wholesaler, an every-day up-and-down skier whose ski pants (circa 1976) had a full tear along the rear seam. There was nothing ironic about his ancient Smith pom-pom hat. A friend, pointing him out, said, "He's got a hundred-foot of boat on Nantucket—if you count 'em all up."
Yet almost from the start, Stowe strived to be posh—a rugged lady in a fur coat. During and after the Second World War, it became a stronghold for the be-sweatered WASP aristocracy of Boston and New York, protective of their ersatz Austrian ski hills. (Most of the inns and hotels were "restricted," meaning off-limits to Jews.) That, thankfully, has changed, but the sense of the resort as a place for people of means has not. Vermonters call it Gold Town or $towe.
And yet it's not all third-homers. The ski bums and hard-asses still find a way. They live in Burlington, or down in Waterbury, or find cabins in the woods up north. I see them here and there—blowing by me on the traverse to Angel Food, or pounding happy-hour PBRs down at the Den, the bar in a corner of the old Mansfield base lodge, or while I'm skinning on a sub-zero afternoon with some friends, along a backcountry ridge known as Skytop. (We'd stopped in a grove of old gnarled birch to layer up and partake of our fancy array of energy bars and water bottles, and a guy in tight faded jeans and a Bruins sweatshirt, skull cap, and no gloves, football-player build, hammered past without saying hello.)
"'The woods are just as dark and cold as they were a hundred years ago,' a patrolman told me. This was a day after a missing snowboarder had been found frozen to death in the woods after dark, not far from the top of the gondola."
I have some history here, too. My brother lives near the center of town, and I've been coming to Stowe every year for 15 years. He moved up from New York City after the birth of his first kid, to escape the rat race and pursue a healthier life outdoors: another middle-aged flatlander with some city money. He has a nice house and a good scene of working professionals, hockey dads, and modest trustafarians, most of them avid skiers. He sells real estate. There are contractors, stock traders, sock manufacturers, taxi drivers, video editors, restaurateurs. You get in line with him at the Quad, and it's how-ya-doing to everyone in the maze. It's like skiing with Joe Biden.
"It's winter when the town sees each other," says Strong, which was another way of saying the ski hill is the closest thing there is to a commons. But admission is expensive. You have to have either some money, a mountain-related job, a racing connection, or a scam. A sociological survey of the lift line, once you exclude the tourists during the holiday crush and the local kids in the racing suits, turns up a lot of middle-aged dudes in really nice gear. It's become a fancy spot, a Yankee twist on Sun Valley or Jackson Hole. The comforts and enticements of AIG's big new lodge at the Spruce base have brought in the kind of people who would not have been caught dead (or may actually have been found dead) huddling in wool blankets on the old, slow blue-ice single chair that made getting up the Front Four as formidable as getting down. From the patrol's headquarters atop the Quad last winter, you could see the cranes looming over the makings of an immense Yellowstone-Club-caliber mansion near the Spruce base—17 million bucks was the rumored cost. Strong and a couple of friends had recently built a two-story winding cherry-wood staircase for such a house. This, too, made the local paper.
The AIG build-out at Stowe of the last decade has only made this round of gentrification more acute. It's also altered the flow of bodies. On weekends and holidays, the quad opens at 7:30 a.m. For years, a lunatic could get there at dawn and get the goods, but by last season, the masses had caught on, and the place was packed before eight. There were a few days when it took hours for cars to travel the last mile or two to the resort. The parking lots filled up early and some people who'd traveled up, booked rooms, rented gear, and bought tickets ($124 a day, on weekends) had no choice but to bail without making so much as a turn. That's enough to make someone want to quit skiing altogether. (It's anyone's guess how Vail will change the calculus. The fact that an Epic Pass now costs half as much as the old Stowe season pass would suggest an influx of even more skiers and cars.)
But it's still the north country, and the mountain itself hasn't changed. A good winter gale or Arctic clearout can thin a crowd, boy. "The woods are just as dark and cold as they were a hundred years ago," a patrolman told me. This was a day after a missing snowboarder had been found frozen to death in the woods after dark, not far from the top of the gondola. There are more people than ever venturing into the bush, many of them without a clue. "There's a lot of work we do that people don't see," the patrolman said. "They think this is Disneyland."
"He led us past some glades I'd never been able to find, the sun cathedraling through spires of birch. Clumps of new snow bedecked the bark and moss."
Stowe is the only major ski area in the East where the lift doesn't take you to the top. The lifts end 700 vertical feet below the summit, to keep the top wild for hikers and lichen. There are 200 acres of Arctic tundra on the ridgeline. This makes for unrivalled lift-accessed backcountry terrain. (The ridge's profile resembles that of a man's head, in recline. Hence, from south to north: Forehead, Nose, Chin, Adam's Apple.) The 45-minute bootpack from the top of the gondy to the Chin, the highest point, gets you commanding views of the White Mountains, the Adirondacks, and Lake Champlain, when the sky is clear, and access to two alpine chutes, Profanity and the Hourglass, which drop you into an eerie moonscape of rimed-up spruce ghost dwarves. You can skin south along the ridge and drop into the Rock Garden, a boulder labyrinth, or the steep-and-deep playground of the Kitchen Wall, a leeward snow trap. You can also drop over the other side, west toward the lake. Best know your way (read: dark, cold). Or you can skip the lift altogether and go skinning in the surrounding peaks and ridges of Mansfield State Park, hacking the Nordic trails for an approach.
Below the Chin last winter, with my teenage son and a local friend I'll call B (I protect my sources), a day after a storm, I eased through the pillowy waist of the Hourglass, mashed some turns in the apron, and then bobbed over a boulder drop to see a Japanese family, standing ski-less and knee-deep on the flats, pointing a couple of cameras at me. This was still a ways from the top of the lift. We could hear cheers going up, a quarter mile or so south. Turned out the boys from Meathead Films, the TGR of the East, were hucking a cliff near the Kitchen Wall, above where the boarder was found. The Japanese had the wrong guy. We tacked farther north, away from the paparazzi. A lone skinner, having lost his way in the ghost dwarves, hollered up to us, and we directed him back toward the gondola and kept going. Another storm seemed to be blowing in. To the north, Jay Peak had a golden-hour glow. We poked our way into the tight confines of Hell Brook, a classic, dicey route that, to the dismay of my knees, had already been butterknifed by some boarders. Wandering off in search of fresher snow led to dense thickets and hidden drops. Wrong turns have dire consequences. The Meathead crew triggered a deadly slide back here some years ago. I'd also heard a story about a kid who once got lost and went over a cliff, flying right over the heads of some ascending ice climbers. Eventually, Hell Brook spit us out into the Notch, the narrow pass between Stowe and Smuggs.
Earlier we'd been bashing around in the woods just south of the area boundary and also down a tight hiking trail between the Quad and the gondola, in the company of Gordon Dixon, a 54-year-old builder in town. From New Jersey ("My family is five generations of ice farmers"), he attended the University of Vermont, where he met his wife. They settled in Stowe. (She works in the touring center, which is how he got his pass). Dixon was on tele skis. Each time we bushwhacked our way to some presumed clearing, he uttered the standard bark-eater's preface: "It should open up." It's all relative. By the third run, recalcitrant branches had scarred up Dixon's mug with bloody cuts. "Bizarre gardening accident," one of us said. But sometimes it really does open up. On a lower gradient, we found ourselves in well-spaced birch, not a track anywhere. Cold, but not dark. Pretty deep, too. A bit of unlikely Japan.
Super Sunday at Rim Rocks, a popular tavern in a mini-mall along Mountain Road. The presence on the menu of Heady Topper, the prized Vermont IPA (Alchemist, its brewer, recently opened a brewery up the road), made up for the preponderance of patrons wearing Patriots jerseys. Ken Strong was there wearing a name-tag; the owners have given him a part-time gig as a greeter. Jay Bowen, a contractor, Stöckli rep, and all-around Stowe ambassador, who once skied Mansfield for nine months straight, stopped in to say hi to the guys. Another guy walked up and introduced himself as Alex Stein, owner of the Edelweiss deli, also up the road: killer chili. Stein, it turns out, is the populizer, if not the inventor, of the Frisbee dog, as in the practice of teaching a dog to catch a disc. In 1974, he smuggled his dog, Ashley Whippet, into Dodger Stadium, during a major-league game and ran onto the field to demonstrate for eight minutes, much to the delight of broadcaster Joe Garagiola. "Here I am, a Jewish guy from Ohio, and I wind up on Wide World of Sports." My brother Bidened his away around the room. Here are your Green Mountain ski bums, deep into middle age.
The next morning, my son and I met Noah Labow, 37 and in his seventh year as head coach of the freeskiing teams at UVM and the Green Mountain Academy, and a kind of den dad to the "Notion" gang of itinerant East Coast rippers. "I'm here most mornings. One of the 80 hard-core people standing in line," he says. Originally from Blairstown, New Jersey, he went to Johnson State College, on the other side of the Notch—perhaps the biggest source of fresh talent in the local terrain parks and the Mansfield woods. He'd lived in Summit County, Colorado, and coached up in Maine at Carrabassett, at Sugarloaf—he'd also appeared on "American Ninja Warrior"—but he'd since settled, with his wife, in Morrisville, up the road from Stowe, in an old farmhouse on a couple acres. "Stowe is too expensive," he said. "Unless you get, like, a sweet caretaker's job. But here in town and really the whole area, you have amazing restaurants, craft brewers, cheesemakers, bakers—lots of artsy, creative, entrepreneurial young couples doing cool stuff."
There was about half a foot of fresh snow, on top of some of the leftovers of one of the winter's best storms. He led us past some glades I'd never been able to find, the sun cathedraling through spires of birch. Clumps of new snow bedecked the bark and moss. Japow! My brother had been referring for years to a spot called Chinese Banana, and we soon found ourselves there, except it turned out it was called Johnny's Banana—I'd heard him wrong. My son, pogo'ing through giant boulders and frozen waterfalls, caught Labow's eye and seemed suddenly to be enticed by the idea of a Green Mountain college education. I found myself in a gully wider than my skis and opened the throttle a bit. By gum, it'd opened up.
After we skied down to the Smugglers' road, we hoofed it back toward the resort. Now and then, skiers came out of the woods and waved to Labow. By the parking lot, Labow said he was going to meet some friends, to hit some chutes off the shoulder of Spruce Peak, an area I'd eyed from afar and heard about often but never skied. I wondered if we could come along, but Labow said, "It's kind of a local thing," and then split.