I’ve skied nearly all of the resorts in the Mid-Atlantic. I’ve skied out West, big resorts in New England, in Canada and in the French Alps. All of the mountains have been great in different ways. However, I always end up comparing everything to Stratton Mountain in Vermont. For someone like me who loves long and steep groomed trails, Stratton can’t be beat. The Southern Vermont resort has 90 trails, four terrain parks, a half-pipe, a super half-pipe and a vertical drop of over 2,000 feet. It has four main skiing areas -; the main face near the lodge, the Ursa section with all of the bear named slopes, the South facing Sub Bowl area and the North Facing and colder Snow Bowl section.
My wife, Karen, and I hadn’t been up to Stratton in four years as we explored other mountains. We used to go thereeach March for several years in a row, taking advantage of their amazingly inexpensive, mid-week lift/lodging packages. In March of 2006, we returned and brought a couple of friends for three days of skiing.
On our first day I couldn’t believe how great the mountain looked. Two inches of snow had fallen overnight and 90 percent of the mountain was open. 2006, like 2007, left a lot to be desired for east coast resorts. Warm weather, an abundance of rain and a lack of snow meant that many resorts were only partially open or had closed early for the season. The management at Stratton decided early in the season not to rely on natural snow and fire up the snow guns every chance they had. Thus, while other ski mountains were covered in brown, Stratton shined white.
Karen and I boarded the Gondola as the smell of waffles filled the air. The Waffle Haus, at the entrance to the lift, served freshly made waffles dipped in chocolate or glazed in sugar syrup. Mike and Julia wouldn’t be arriving until after lunch. This gave Karen and me an opportunity to hit the expert terrain right away.
The high speed eight-passenger gondola goes from the base to the summit in about four minutes. We clunked out of the car, onto the snow and stepped into our skis. Under clear blue skies, we carved through the fresh powder down the steep and winding Upper Tamarack slope. At the bottom, I looked at Karen and knew she wanted to do the run a few more times. We boarded the high speed lift and raced down the slope twice more. We moved onto the Sunbowl area to try a couple of the blue runs before the afternoon sun heated the snow into mush. The main run, Sunrise Supertrail, wasn’t open and the lower part had been converted into a Mega Half-Pipe for the US Open Snowboarding Championships. The sides of the half pipe were so high they blocked out the sun as you rode the adjacent chair lift.
We made a few leisurely runs down intermediate trails Lower Downeaster and Gentle Ben and then headed for our second favorite slope on the mountain -; Polar Bear. Polar Bear is similar to nearby Tamarack in that it is steep and curvy. Polar Bear, however, is wider and has several drop-offs where it looks like you’re going to ski off a cliff. You hit the drop-offs in a slight turn and you’ll catch some air before landing mid-turn leaning back into the hill. What a blast! The new high speed Ursa Express lift made it easy to squeeze in two runs before having to return to base to meet up with Mike and Julia.
We found our friends just arriving, loaded down with boot bags and skis. As they got themselves together, the tempting aroma from the Waffle Haus called to me like sirens singing to ancient mariners. Karen, for some strange reason beyond all comprehension, doesn’t like waffles. She also hates donuts. So she stayed and helped our friends while I feasted on a sugar glazed waffle and a hot chocolate. Ahhhh!
We all rode to the top of the mountain and showed Julia the longer beginner trails in the West Meadow section. Julia had just started skiing the previous month and was a bit nervous. After a few runs, however, she was ready to try an intermediate run. We moved to the other side of the mountain and skied the long, wide cruiser Black Bear, which, surprisingly, is a blue run. The afternoon went quickly. With only minutes left in the day, Karen and Julia returned to easier terrain and Mike and I whizzed down a couple of the steeps.
Mike and I rejoined our wives near the lodge at a few minutes after 4 p.m. and then trudged over to the Welcome Center to check into our rooms. We each had condos at the Long Trail House, a short walk from the lifts and the main village. Stratton has a central village, much like Snowshoe, Tremblant and the other Intrawest properties. The village has a variety of shops and restaurants and is bounded by the slopes on one side and accommodations on the other. The Long Trail house also had an indoor swimming pool and outdoor hot tubs, which we availed ourselves of each night.
The next day we awoke to find four inches of fresh powder. Julia wanted to work on her technique on the lower greens until lunchtime. Thus, Mike joined Karen and me on our favorite slope to start the day -; Upper Kidderbrook. This straight and very wide trail is one of the longest black runs on the mountain. Most of the grade is more like an intermediate slope. However, it has several steep drop-offs that give it an expert rating. I love the openness of the slope and the view of the surrounding mountains.
We arrived at the top to find just a couple of tracks in the snow. Thus, we had the rare opportunity to cut our own fresh tracks. We skied side by side in unison. Halfway down we stopped and looked back at our serpentine trails in the snow. The Kidderbrook lift was closed, as is often the case on weekdays. Just before thee last drop-off I stopped and told Mike to take the remainder of the slope at full speed and shoot past the base of the un-open lift and into the narrow beginner run Lower Kidderbrook. The lower tree-lined section has numerous flat spots that require pushing along with your poles -; unless you’ve built up some speed and momentum. Karen zoomed by as I talked to Mike. Then we each tucked and followed -; zooming through the woods. The run dumps out in the Sunbowl area.
After a couple of more trips down Kidderbrook and the very steep trails on the Snow Bowl side, we caught up with Julia at noon. She was having fun on the green slopes but wanted to take a lesson. The school had a deal for three people taking a lesson together. So Karen, Mike and I also signed up for an afternoon mini-group lesson. We grabbed a bite at the Bear Bottom Pub and returned for our lessons at 1:30. Julia wandered over to the group lesson area while Karen, Mike and I met up with our instructor. We introduced ourselves and I immediately forgot the instructor’s name. His nametag was smudged so that wasn’t any help. He took us up on the Gondola to a couple of blue slopes on the Snow Bowl side of the mountain to evaluate our skiing.
We did a few “follow the leader” drills and then he mostly focused on teaching us to use the outside edge of our uphill skis to carve the turns. Mike had the least amount of skiing experience -; just half a season on the east coast and a couple of ski trips as a teenager in Minnesota. Throughout the lesson, the instructor praised Mike. “See how Mike is carving.” “Do it just like Mike.” “Notice how Mike stays balanced through the turns?” I wanted to pummel my friend with snowballs!
After the lesson, we rejoined Julia at the entrance to the Gondola. Once again I succumbed to the power of the Waffle Haus. Mike and Julia also partook of the wondrous waffles while Karen eschewed what she referred to as sickly sweet.
Julia’s lesson made a very noticeable improvement to her skiing. She easily negotiated the intermediate slopes and the four of us finished the day skiing together.
On our final day at Stratton, nearly every trail was groomed to a perfect corduroy finish. Under bright blue skies, we took Julia over to the Sunbowl to warm up in the 25 degree weather. Karen and I had to leave early for the day at 1 p.m. because of the eight hour drive home. Mike and Julia would be staying until the end of the day as they had recently moved to Pennsylvania, only 4 hours away. After lazily cruising down the sunny slopes, Karen and I split off to race down Polar Bear and the adjacent expert runs while Mike stayed with his wife.
We met back up at 11:30 a.m. and split again to boy-boy, girl-girl. Karen and Julia headed to the blue slopes over in the Snow Bowl. Mike and I attacked the black slopes on the main face for my last ninety minutes of skiing. Karen generally skis a little slower than me. So I take my time or wait a short while for her to catch up at the bottom of a trail. Mike, Mr. Perfect Skier (hrrrmmmmppphhhh!), was skiing at my speed. We flew down the slopes full-out, zipping right back onto each lift -; barely slowing down. We laughed and laughed and laughed like school kids from the rush of adrenaline. Mike kept saying with a wide grin. “Wow! That was REALLY fast!” And then we would do another slope even faster, trying to get in as many runs before I had to leave.
But alas, the clock struck 1:00 and we met up with Karen and Julia. We all did one final run together on the lower half of the mountain. The skiing was so good that it broke my heart to leave. Tears welled up in my eyes as I said goodbye to our friends and goodbye to Stratton.
I consoled myself with a waffle.
For more info visit www.stratton.com. Midweek ski and stay packages start at $149 per person for two nights lodging and a three day lift ticket. Other ski/stay packages begin at $99 per person per night.
Matthew Graham is a skier as well as a hang glider and paraglider pilot, SCUBA diver, cavern diver, equestrian, polo player, sailor, hiker, biker, rock climber, paddler, and skater. He's also yoga teacher and certified personal trainer and has dabbled in just about every other sport, even stunt car driving and bull riding! He has written for the Washington Post, Washingtonian Magazine, USA Weekend Magazine, Hooked on the Outdoors, Richmond Magazine, Chesapeake Life Magazine, Metro Sports, American Fitness, Blue Ridge Outdoors, Recreation News and numerous other outdoor and travel publications.