Bless me Ullr for I have sinned, it has been nearly 40 years since my last visit to the Ski Capital of the East. I skied Stowe as a teenager in 1971, about six weeks removed from breaking my right arm in a bit of schoolyard tomfoolery. I have to confess I never got off Spruce Peak.
Hoping to lessen the risk of re-injury my parents restricted my terrain options during that family trip to the “easier” hill at Stowe. On the long car ride back home to Virginia I listened with envy as my older brothers regaled us with tales of adventure on the big mountain. Over the years my lack of first hand experience with the legendary front four expert runs of Stowe’s Mount Mansfield (Goat, Starr, National, Liftline) left a glaring void in my Eastern skier’s resume.
During early January, 2010 I finally made a return to this Eastern snowriders Mecca for two days of rugged skiing. This time accompanied by my steeps-seeking 19 year old son Vince who was not about to let me duck the famed black diamonds. Our goal was to sample Stowe’s entire ski domain: Mount Mansfield (vertical drop ~2100’) home to some of the steepest expert slopes and longest uninterrupted intermediate cruisers in the East, and Spruce Peak (vertical drop ~1500”) the surprisingly interesting secondary mountain and site of amazing new base area developments.
We started our first day at Stowe by parking at the revitalized Spruce Peak Base Area. The crowds were light for our midweek visit and we utilized convenient changing rooms to gear-up for an overcast and breezy day on the slopes. The spectacular three story, post and beam Spruce Camp Base Lodge has as much WOW factor as anything at Vail or Deer Valley. Next door is the equally swanky, six story, 139 room Stowe Mountain Lodge. These slopeside luxury structures anchor Stowe’s ambitions as a 21st century ski destination. But as day visitors Vince and I also appreciated the new Over Easy 12 passenger gondola providing a quick transfer from the glitz of Spruce Camp to the timeless ski terrain of Mount Mansfield.
Although Stowe’s lifts top out a few hundred feet below the summit, the true peak of Mount Mansfield is the highest in Vermont at 4395’. Smuggler’s Notch (the mountain gap, not the ski area) separates the Mansfield terrain from Spruce Peak (~3400’) like an Eastern Yosemite Valley. This awesome geography can make its own weather. While disembarking from the Over Easy gondola we learned that two of Mansfield’s major lifts, the Fourrunner Express Quad chairlift (vertical 2055’) and the Stowe 8 Passenger Gondola (vertical 2100’) were closed on wind hold. Not to be deterred, we opted to explore runs off the Lookout Double (vertical 1750’) and Mountain Triple (vertical 1170’) chairlifts. They serve tremendous terrain that Vince and I enjoyed exploring for much of the next two days.
We started by skiing a bunch of well covered intermediate runs like Lord, Ridgeview, Sunset, and Gulch on the lookers left flank of Mansfield. Then we moved closer to the true Mount Mansfield fall line on black diamond runs like Hayride and Middle Lookout. When we finally skied National, one of the famous front four double black diamonds spilling down the heart of the mountain, it did not disappoint. Leading the way Vince didn’t flinch, but the initial headwall was steep enough to inspire me to wipe my goggles and tighten my boot buckles before entering. Later, after lunch we skied more challenging runs off the Lookout double until I got Vince to take a breather with me on a three mile long green circle trail to the base of the Toll House double chair.
Late in the afternoon we got a cell call to make some runs on Spruce Peak with Josh Matta. He’s a friend and PSIA level 3 instructor we met while skiing in the mid-Atlantic region. A 26 year old Pittsburgh transplant by way of Snowbird, Utah, Josh is infectiously affable instructor with the Stowe Ski and Snowboard School.
After a busy day of instructing Josh was itching to freeski and in one hour we made a half dozen fast and furious runs with him off the Sunny Spruce Express Quad chairlift (vertical 865’). All I can tell you is that he showed us a side of Spruce Peak that was steeper and deeper than we ever imagined, while generously sharing a depth of ski knowledge that Vince soaked up like a sponge. If you visit Stowe and want a top instructor Josh Matta will teach you skills, inspire you to raise your game, and show you a good time, all in one lesson.
We began our second day at Stowe by parking next to the spartan Mount Mansfield Base Lodge. The upper mountain wind hold was still on, so we again focused on the terrain served by the trusty Lookout Double chair. I could not help, but notice the two worlds of Stowe, Spruce Peak to pamper the upscale guest and Mount Mansfield to challenge the heck out of gutsy diehards. The young, hardcore, highly skilled skiers and riders operating out of the Mansfield Base Lodge and swarming throughout the steep glades on either side of the Lookout Double chair clearly reflected the renowned black diamond lure of this resort.
At 11:30 am the wind hold was lifted on the Stowe 8 person Gondola (vertical 2100’). It serves a renowned upper intermediate section of Stowe that is so fun it attracts those from both of Stowe’s worlds, aspiring guests and speed loving diehards. Vince and I immediately jumped on the gondola to sample lengthy, world class groomers like Perry Merrill, Gondolier, and Cliff Trail. We also skied the single black diamond Chin Clip and eventually took part of Cliff Trail and Nosedive Glades to catch the lower half of double black diamond Goat trail. Narrow and peppered with SUV sized boulders to ensure no loss of focus, Goat slices through some of Mansfield’s steepest terrain. We never got to see Upper Goat, but I’m guessing to ski the full length of this trail would be one serious kick in the pants.
We shared one of the gondola rides with a big, athletic Stowe instructor named Miket and his middle aged pupil. We talked about the bad a$$ front four trails at Stowe and the chutzpah of the early 20th century pioneers who cut them and skied them on lumbering, archaic equipment; men like Perry Merrill and Charlie Lord. Vince and I marveled at their modern day equivalents who now amp-up the difficulty factor bombing gnarly woods beside and above these steeps. The precipitous topography of Stowe abides. All of us should take comfort in that, knowing it remains a Mecca for those who seek the highest level of skiing and riding challenge in the East. Shoosh!
When we finally stopped for lunch in the Mansfield Base Lodge it was nearly 2 pm. In the spirit of the Mansfield crowd we dined on sandwiches we had brown-bagged for ourselves. After lunch my old legs were fried. Vince gamely tackled the wind blown double black diamond Starr while I opted for Hayride. Then I talked him into a sentimental trip back across the Over Easy transfer gondola to ski some final runs from the summit of Spruce Peak (elevation 3390’).
This was the Spruce Peak terrain I had enjoyed when I was about Vince’s age so many years before. This was where they threw old Army surplus ponchos on me that I gladly clutched heading up a cold and interminably long chairlift ride in 1971. So much has changed; so much has remained the same. The runs up here like Smugglers, Whirlaway and Sterling are still great blues and easy blacks full of curves, compressions and character, but now they’re accessed in six minutes by the speedy Sensation Express Quad (vertical 1454’). It felt good and proper to come full circle at Stowe with my son by my side, two pilgrims riding last chair into the dimming January twilight.
Husband, father and retired civilian employee of the Department of Navy, Jim Kenney is a D.C. area native and has been skiing recreationally since 1967. Jim's ski reporting garnered the 2009 West Virginia Division of Tourism's Stars of the Industry Award for Best Web/Internet/E-Magazine Article.
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