Ski East: Going Over The Top

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"This is so cool," said my 10-year-old daughter Heather as we crossed the border from Smugglers' Notch into Stowe territory. "Now we've skied six areas this year." Added her 8-year-old sister Jenna:"And the backcountry."

Backcountry!? "No man's land" would have been a more accurate description.

We had just cruised over the ridge top from Smugglers', where we were staying, and were heading down the Sterling Trail to Stowe's Spruce Peak complex. The link is currently the only in-bounds terrain connection between competing resorts in the U.S.

Europeans, with ski circuses connecting a half-dozen or more resorts via crevasse-strewn terrain, would laugh at the notion of us having been in the backcountry. The two trails connecting Stowe and Smugglers' are marked with green circles and require more in the way of conditioning than ski skills; parts of the traverse are so flat we needed to herringbone and skate. Still, the 15-minute jaunt has joined two very different worlds.

It's hard to imagine two resorts as close physically-and as far apart spiritually-as Stowe and Smugglers'. Stowe is the most stately of Eastern resorts, with a rich history of storied steeps and an even richer clientele. Like a wealthy tough-love parent, its owner, the giant insurance company AIG, makes it earn its way, but it never lacks for much of anything money can buy. It has a state-of-the-art gondola and a speedy top-to-bottom quad.

Smugglers' Notch, on the other hand, is an underdog grinding it out with stalwart, standard-speed double chairs. It has achieved success with smart programming, clever packaging, butler-sharp service and a keen focus on its middle-class family niche.

The one aspect both resorts do share is first-rate skiing. Stowe, of course, has better terrain and more of it, notably the storied Front Four and the rambling sapphires called Gondolier and Perry Merrill. But Smugs has plenty of tight, twisty steeps and better glade skiing than most of the major southern Vermont resorts.

While diplomacy kept tongues secure, it seems that Stowe was the obstinate partner in keeping the border closed. There was little real fear of losing customers to each other, yet Stowe felt it was giving up more than it was getting. Now, with conglomerates closing in all around the Northeast and promoting their multi-mountain experiences, losing some ticket sales was apparently a palatable exchange for adding another mountain to the Stowe experience.

Before you start thinking about criss-crossing with impunity, know that the interconnect program is designed to provide a taste of the once-forbidden fruit-not an entire meal. While anyone with a ticket can take one run daily at the other resort (tickets are punched), full roaming privileges are granted only to those with multi-day tickets. And even then you're permitted only a single day at the other resort.

But one of the nicest benefits about the interconnect is that so many people can enjoy it in so many different ways. When I skied to Stowe with my kids, we took advantage of our two-day tickets and spent a couple of hours cruising the Spruce blues with plenty of elbow room and no liftline on the aging but serviceable Big Spruce Double. That same afternoon, Smugs was maxing out with long liftlines.

Another day, I headed to Stowe with some hard-charging friends, and we ripped it up on Mansfield before sitting down to a gourmet lunch at the Cliff House in the gondola summit terminal. You don't get that kind of food at Smugs.

Even my wife, Linda, who decidedly prefers après-ski to the actual act of skiing, found the interconnect appealing. She skied to Stowe with us on one trip, traded her ski pants and boots for streetwear and hopped the shuttle into town for a few hours of shopping. An unanticipated bonus: She was limited to buying items that would fit in our backpacks for the trip back to Smugs.

The most unlikely fans of the interconnect were a couple of Stowe patrollers I foundd enjoying a cheeseburger-and-chips lunch at Smugglers' Top of the Notch beanery. "The interconnect has been great for us," one of the patrollers explained. "We're stationed at the top of Spruce Peak, and we can eat here and get back faster than if we ate at our base. The view is better, too."

Not since the Notch was used for smuggling-back in revolutionary times and during Prohibition-has there been as grateful a set of border crossers.

Timely Decisions
Don't wait until late in the day to experience the interconnect. It only takes about 15 minutes to ski between the resorts, but tack on at least another 45 minutes for the ski down and ride back up at Smugglers'. Count on spending more time on busy days when liftlines can be tedious and chair rides slow.

Smugglers' skiers heading to Stowe should be aware that skiing down to the Spruce Lodge means two lift rides to get back to Smugs. Allow at least an hour for the run and rides.

If you want to experience the "real" Stowe and make turns on Mansfield, you need to take a shuttle bus from the Spruce base. If you hit it just right, it's only a 5-minute ride over, but you can wait 20 minutes or more for a shuttle. We lazed over a late lunch one afternoon at Stowe and tried to squeeze in two more Mansfield runs. We barely made the last lift back to Smugs. In a pinch, taxi service is available but the "ouch" on your wallet is about $60.