Ascutney Rises

Travel East
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What's one to do when a rogue storm drops 12-16 inches on a much anticipated spring weekend? OK, besides grin. Do you shrug off the guilt and park the little ones in day care? Ditch the spouse at the ski school desk, muttering a vow to enter that 12-step program tomorrow?

None of the above, if you're savvy enough to have chosen Ascutney Mountain Resort for your weekend getaway. Best known as a family mountain-if known at all-Ascutney always lurked at the edge of the New England skier's consciousness as that place on the east edge of Vermont, off by itself in the Connecticut River Valley. Then it abruptly raised its profile last season, quite literally, by installing a new high-speed quad, the North Peak Express, which carries skiers almost 300 feet higher up Mt. Ascutney and opens up a half-dozen black diamond trails.

Somehow, the difference between 1,500 vertical feet and 1,800 vertical feet is enough to pique one's interest. I had also heard that Ascutney had drastically ramped up its snowmaking capability, boosting coverage by some 50 percent. The total outlay, for lift, snowmaking and other upgrades: $8 million. All this fueled my desire to take the road less traveled and make my way to Brownsville, Vt.

And so I arrive with my wife, Tricia, one snowy Friday evening in March. The clouds have lifted, and the stars are just gaining the upper hand in the evening sky as we check in at Ascutney's tidy and compact slopeside village. Resisting the temptation of Brown's Tavern-with its moderately priced pub fare and prime views of the base area's skating pond and ever-popular tubing hill-we venture off-campus to explore. In short order, we stumble onto the first of the weekend's many pleasant surprises.

A few miles down a country road, just short of nowhere, a flock of vehicles noses up to the Skunk Hollow Tavern like moths to a flame. Inside the white colonial building, a legion of Ascutney loyalists and down-to-earth locals dance to live blues in the ground-floor bar. Upstairs, under the spell of a fine Merlot, we revel in chef Carlos' eclectic menu. The atmosphere is relaxing, occasionally flavored by the whines of Ski-Doos and Arctic Cats pulling up in the back lot.The next morning, I'm up with the snowbirds, opting for a quick double-shot and a muffin at Murphy's of Vermont, the resort's country store, a hundred yards from our door. Barely pausing to say hello to Murphy-the resident pooch, it turns out-I'm easily on pace for first chair.

"Show me the powder!" I am tempted to shout when I meet my guide, Julia Brennan, Ascutney's director of skiing. Reading my mind, she smiles broadly, but then knocks my diastolic pressure down a few points. "The snow was pretty wet yesterday, but it should be well-groomed," she says cheerfully; then adds, "And the fresh snow in the glades isn't going anywhere."

Not yet on "Ascutney time," I'm tempted to protest Brennan's "no hurries, no worries" attitude. Instead, I smile, shake hands with her husband, Steve, and call my wife to suggest she skip the lesson and join us instead.

Despite the recent expansion, Ascutney remains modest in size. But it's one of those rare places that offers a little something for everyone. First-timers and families will want to start on the Novice Triple, which services a segregated 10-acre learning park. "It's perfect because you don't have to look over your shoulder for faster traffic," Brennan notes.

We beeline to the quad, the crowning jewel of the resort's recent renaissance. Once somewhat spartan, Ascutney has flourished under the ownership of Steve and Susan Plausteiner. They have pumped in $8 million over five years, allowing Ascutney to stand tall among its south-central Vermont rivals. It boasts of snowmaking coverage (95 percent) equal to that of nearby Okemo (15 miles west). "We can ski things we only used to look at," Brennan says.

Staring down the mountain, I eye the powdery bumps on Blind Faith. But Brennan, a bit older and a lot wer, takes the lead down the only intermediate route from the new summit. Reluctantly, I fall in behind and finish off her tracks, etched in perfect corduroy. It's not the Powder Eights, but by the time we stop, I'm not complaining.After pointing out a kid favorite, Cabin Chute (named for the old hiking trail shelter on it), Brennan gives me the local's lowdown on the place. "Ascutney is small enough that you feel like you can always catch up to your kids, and you always bump into people who you know," says the mother of two. "But, it skis like a big mountain, so people don't lose interest as they get a little better."

We wend our way down the mountain, and I reflexively slip off on my own to a connecting trail, in search of added pitch and unbroken snow. Mix-and-match trail segments are part of the Ascutney experience and one reason the resort's 56 trails ski exponentially bigger. But today, below mid-mountain, the snow is an eastern version of Sierra Cement. I bail, somewhat humbler.

Next, Brennan chooses Snowdance, which at first blush appears to be any mountain's favorite intermediate cruiser. But at Ascutney-where the Plausteiner's have brought state-of-the-art grooming to classic untrammeled terrain-blue squares take on many different shapes. This time the trail dips sharply, following the natural contours of the mountain like an Olympic downhill. Reminding myself near the bottom that this is Vermont, not Snowbasin, Utah, I throw in a couple of speed-check turns before we hit the lift corrals.

There we add Ascutney's ski school director, Chris Sailor, to our group. Brennan gives him the green light to "study the flora" and help me find some unblemished powder. For starters, we drop into Neverglade, one of two new double-blacks opened up by The North Peak Express. It's already past 10, but we each find a fresh shot through well-spaced trees and laugh all the way to the lift. There, a grand total of 12 people impede our progress. "Every once in a while a liftline forms here," Sailor deadpans.

Soon we fall into a pleasant routine: Ski hard; stop to praise the sun and the snow; ski hard some more. Up high, Sailor and I hunt and peck feathery powder while our partners cruise the groomed. At mid-mountain, we regroup to indulge in what is rapidly turning into a corn fest.

Over lunch, Tricia and I peer down from our porch at the heart-warming sight of children and parents sandwiched on the Novice Triple. Liberated at the top of the gentle Little Eagle trail, the kids arc turns around oversized figurines of Frosty the Snowman and Cheddar the Mouse. The sun shines powerfully and all seems right in the world. Everything, that is, but our energy levels.

Cycling on the quad has done a job on our own quads. Tricia's finished for the day, and it's all I can do to push myself out the door. Once outside, my spirits rise as Brennan's assessment, "that you always bump into people you know," proves true. I run into the one local family I know, and I'm introduced to a group of Ascutney regulars with kids 8 to 12. Kids who race with the Ascutney Ski Club. Kids who rip. Kids who are about to give me their version of the mountain tour.

First, we're bumping on Blind Faith, airing off every catwalk. Then we straight-line a cruiser just long enough to get to the knee-high crud on Ledges, a little elbow that's worth skiing just because "there's an awesome jump" where it rejoins Sidewinder. Soon, the kids call out for a run on the famed Cabin Chute, and I jump at the chance to ski a trail that's a rite of passage for Ascutney kids.

Ascutney is often compared to the quintessential family resort, Smugglers' Notch in northern Vermont, and the analogy is apt. From its award-winning daycare to a mascot (Cheddar the Mouse) whom the kids simply swoon over, Ascutney has a way of meeting the needs of parents and children. Perhaps this isn't surprising, since members of the Plausteiner family-six of whom hold key management positions-take their cues from having their own kids around the resort.

"Our kids were skiing the entire mountain at 4, so we knew it was possible," says CEO Steve Plausteiner of the resort's Mini-Olympian program, which puts 4- to 6-year-olds on the slopes for age-appropriate instruction with a focus on fun.

Likewise, "Cheddar's Happy Hour"-an Ascutney institution-is the Plausteiner's answer to every parent's après-ski dream. Saturdays, the resort supervises children up to age 10 from 5 to 8 p.m. While you slip off to do the boring things grown-ups do, they play games, wrestle Cheddar and wind down with pizza and a movie. "We knew the value of these programs through our own experience," says Plausteiner's wife, Susan.

The Plausteiners say their next step is a golf course to shore up off-season business. A Robert Trent Jones Jr. layout isalready in the pipeline; the first tee will be an easy 9-iron from the ski-in/ski-out village.

As I look down at the rolling meadows that would hold the course, a storm races across the valley like a Yankee Clipper. It's five minutes before trail-sweep; time to abandon ship and man the hot tub. If kids are instinctively drawn to manmade structures in the woods-as they are to the old hut on Cabin Chute-they have an even greater attraction to swimming pools. Ascutney's Sports & Fitness Center doesn't disappoint, with an Olympic-size pool and a hot tub strategically positioned so that parents can soak and supervise simultaneously.

After a swim and a quick peek into the Monadnock Room, where a half-dozen squealing kids are limboing with Cheddar, Tricia and I venture out for sight-seeing, heading to historic Windsor. Signs on I-91 proudly proclaim Windsor the "Birthplace of Vermont," for this is where the state's Constitution was signed in 1777. Less well known is that Windsor, located five miles from Brownsville in the Connecticut River Valley between New Hampshire and Vermont, was once the Silicon Valley equivalent of the Industrial Revolution. Both the Constitution House and the surprisingly compelling American Precision Museum are closed by the time we hit town, but the Windsor Station Restaurant, housed in a handsomely restored railroad depot, more than makes up for it with warm popovers, generous portions of prime rib and a killer "Death by Chocolate" dessert.

Sunday morning, the sun is losing the battle to the overcast skies, so we drizzle maple syrup over pancakes and wait for the sinuvial fluid to return to the knees. Soon, Apollo reigns again, and we grab telemark gear for a change of pace, resolving to steer clear of the quad. Finding our edges on the Novice Triple, then moving to the groomed perfection of Buttermilk off the Sunrise Double, we work our way up the Ascutney ladder. Twister, a blue square among green circles, offers just the right challenge, while Screaming Eagle from mid-station wins the prize for elbow room.

But there's something about Ascutney that makes you want to pit yourself against the mountain. So we swap gear and head for the quad.

"I love this," Tricia cries as we ski side-by-side down Upper Snowdance. Indeed, she's made a breakthrough, planting her poles more consistently and assuming a more aggressive body position. She usually shies away from the steeps. But the natural character of Ascutney's terrain, combined with the top-flight grooming, makes it an advanced intermediate's launching pad to expert skiing.

We catch our breath on the side of the trail, and a young woman arcing perfect slalom turns stops nearby. Turns out it's one of Brennan's teenage daughters, who says hello and makes us feel like we're already part of the Ascutney community. In a place like Brownsville-population 900-the mountain serves as a melting pot, she observes, stirred by people's passion for skiing.

"It just has a great feeling," the younger Brennan says with a smile. And at Ascutney, it would seem, that great feeling-like the mountain itself-is on the rise.e their cues from having their own kids around the resort.

"Our kids were skiing the entire mountain at 4, so we knew it was possible," says CEO Steve Plausteiner of the resort's Mini-Olympian program, which puts 4- to 6-year-olds on the slopes for age-appropriate instruction with a focus on fun.

Likewise, "Cheddar's Happy Hour"-an Ascutney institution-is the Plausteiner's answer to every parent's après-ski dream. Saturdays, the resort supervises children up to age 10 from 5 to 8 p.m. While you slip off to do the boring things grown-ups do, they play games, wrestle Cheddar and wind down with pizza and a movie. "We knew the value of these programs through our own experience," says Plausteiner's wife, Susan.

The Plausteiners say their next step is a golf course to shore up off-season business. A Robert Trent Jones Jr. layout isalready in the pipeline; the first tee will be an easy 9-iron from the ski-in/ski-out village.

As I look down at the rolling meadows that would hold the course, a storm races across the valley like a Yankee Clipper. It's five minutes before trail-sweep; time to abandon ship and man the hot tub. If kids are instinctively drawn to manmade structures in the woods-as they are to the old hut on Cabin Chute-they have an even greater attraction to swimming pools. Ascutney's Sports & Fitness Center doesn't disappoint, with an Olympic-size pool and a hot tub strategically positioned so that parents can soak and supervise simultaneously.

After a swim and a quick peek into the Monadnock Room, where a half-dozen squealing kids are limboing with Cheddar, Tricia and I venture out for sight-seeing, heading to historic Windsor. Signs on I-91 proudly proclaim Windsor the "Birthplace of Vermont," for this is where the state's Constitution was signed in 1777. Less well known is that Windsor, located five miles from Brownsville in the Connecticut River Valley between New Hampshire and Vermont, was once the Silicon Valley equivalent of the Industrial Revolution. Both the Constitution House and the surprisingly compelling American Precision Museum are closed by the time we hit town, but the Windsor Station Restaurant, housed in a handsomely restored railroad depot, more than makes up for it with warm popovers, generous portions of prime rib and a killer "Death by Chocolate" dessert.

Sunday morning, the sun is losing the battle to the overcast skies, so we drizzle maple syrup over pancakes and wait for the sinuvial fluid to return to the knees. Soon, Apollo reigns again, and we grab telemark gear for a change of pace, resolving to steer clear of the quad. Finding our edges on the Novice Triple, then moving to the groomed perfection of Buttermilk off the Sunrise Double, we work our way up the Ascutney ladder. Twister, a blue square among green circles, offers just the right challenge, while Screaming Eagle from mid-station wins the prize for elbow room.

But there's something about Ascutney that makes you want to pit yourself against the mountain. So we swap gear and head for the quad.

"I love this," Tricia cries as we ski side-by-side down Upper Snowdance. Indeed, she's made a breakthrough, planting her poles more consistently and assuming a more aggressive body position. She usually shies away from the steeps. But the natural character of Ascutney's terrain, combined with the top-flight grooming, makes it an advanced intermediate's launching pad to expert skiing.

We catch our breath on the side of the trail, and a young woman arcing perfect slalom turns stops nearby. Turns out it's one of Brennan's teenage daughters, who says hello and makes us feel like we're already part of the Ascutney community. In a place like Brownsville-population 900-the mountain serves as a melting pot, she observes, stirred by people's passion for skiing.

"It just has a great feeling," the younger Brennan says with a smile. And at Ascutney, it would seem, that great feeling-like the mountain itself-is on the rise.