Into the Belly of the Best
|Into the Breach: One of Stowe's glade runs (Chuck Waskuch/courtesy, Stowe Mountain Resort)|
The terrain at Stowe is so good that the area's alpine pioneers would endure the hike up just to ski back down. The mountain stats illustrate why such an exhausting notion was actually so inspired: the present-day resort is built around 4,393-foot Mount Mansfield, the state's tallest peak, which affords 2,360 feet of vertical at pitches that reach up to 37 degrees. The resort itself is spread out across two main mountains; Mansfield hosts everything from double-black bump runs to groomed cruisers to scenic, meandering greens, while across the road the south-facing slopes of Spruce Peak are ideal for beginners, intermediates, and families. The number of runs and total acreage (48 and 485, respectively) may seem modest when compared to mammoth western resorts, but factor in the glade skiing, the epic east-facing slopes off the Chin (reachable only after a 35-minute grunt to the summit of Mansfield), and the expansive backcountry surrounding the resort itself, and Stowe is truly the Beast of the East.
And that Friday morning, the Beast, she was frigid. The mercury clung stubbornly at zero degrees as I struggled into my boots in the timber lodge at the base of Mount Mansfield, built by the Civilian Conservation Corpsthe same folks responsible for cutting the first runs back in 1933. For a resort that's seven decades strong, Stowe remains refreshingly low-frill. The modest lodgewhich houses a rental shop, pub, cafeteria, pro shop, and welcome centeris all there is. Given that most western resorts can drown in alternative pursuits from rock-climbing walls to virtual-reality arcade games, the dearth of add-ons at Stowe focuses you toward one central pursuit: alpine mayhem.
I warmed up on a few blue cruisers off the Mountain Triple, speed-inducing runs with groomed surfaces and lips that let you pull a bit of air, before hooking up with Jeff Wise, Stowe's Communications Director, an affable skier-turned-snowboarder with a black goatee, an intimate knowledge of the mountain, and eyes that glinted with the knowledge that he may have the best job in the world. Seldom a day passed, he told me, when he wasn't on the mountain.
With temps hovering just above freezing, the sun becomes your greatest ally, and we spent that morning using it as our guide, tackling runs off the FourRunner Quad like the double-black straight shot known as the Lift Line. Then, as the sun sank below the western ridge of the mountain, we looped over to the small group of runs serviced by the efficient, body-warming eight-person gondola. We took a few runs down steady blue groomers like Perry Merrill and the Gondolier before a much-deserved lunch at the summit-perched Cliff House Restaurant.
Vermont has been in Jeff's blood from the first time he made a weekend trek from Long Island to Stowe. That first trip immediately became a winter-weekend pilgrimage, fostering a several-year addiction for which there was only one cure: overindulgence. He's lived in Stowe now for over a decade, working as a tour guide for a Vermont cycling outfitter before migrating into full-time employ with the resort.
"You know tomorrow's supposed to be in the 30s," Jeff said with a glint of personal pride. "Just wait. You'll see people out here skiing without hats. It's been so cold these last few weeks, people will think spring has arrived. And they'll all be smiling."
After a refreshing lunch at one of the most scenic spots in the region, we said farewell. Duty forced Jeff off the mountain, back to the desk for an afternoon of sending emails. I undertook a blitz of my own, tearing down the blues and blacks branching off the gondola. Stowe has no midway station, no easy mid-mountain lift back up to the top, so you're committed to skiing the entire length, which can make for a truly punishing series of runs on the afternoon of your first day.
My legs turning to Jello, the shadows of early dusk swallowing the mountain, I lined up for one final descent, hoping my quads could take it, and that Jeff's prediction about the next day would prove prophetic.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication