Back East - Ski Mag

Back East

All Stuck up on her Rocky Mountain Vistas and Sierra Snowpack, yet vaguely unfulfilled, a Massachusetts girl ventures back to her roots for a reality check. Face-shredding tree lines, short runs, bitter cold, and unvanquishable Eastern stoke? The perfect antidote to western ennui.
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Back East_ TOUt

By Heather Hansman

By my second run of the day at Mad River Glen I am bleeding from the face. Merely a flesh wound, sure, but it’s enough that I can see my lip swelling beyond the edge of my goggles.

That morning, standing in line for the single chair, Eamon Duane asked me if I liked tree skiing. “Yeah, of course,” I said. Duane, who coaches the local freeskiing team and has cut trails on the mountain of both the legal and the not-so-much variety, knows Mad River’s every gully and drop. He took me to a dense zipperline called the 20th Hole. I could barely see the trees for all the trees as I followed him through impossibly narrow gaps and windows. And, at one point, I zigged when I should have zagged and got punched in the mouth by a branch.

I had kind of asked for it. I had come looking for a Vermont beat-down because I was starting to worry that I had become an asshole. I’m probably not that different from you (aside from the a-hole part), because my life, or at least my ski life, has been a bit of a stereotype. Grow up digging your edges into the blue ice of the East Coast. Decide you can do better. Move West. Then move West-er, looking for bigger mountains, better snow, radder lines. You can tick off the names of people who have done what I did—Chris Davenport, Jackie Passo, T.J. and Dex. (You know... Aspen Extreme?) It’s ski-bum manifest destiny. In a Subaru wagon instead of a covered one.

But somewhere before I hit the Pacific I became jaded and shitty. Unsatisfied. I’d thought the Rockies or the Cascades would fulfill some kind of long-held dream, but instead I felt there was never enough snow, never enough steepness. Winter storm warnings stopped getting me all tingly. And more and more it seemed like the really zealous skiers I knew were the ones scraping cold, icy laps back in New Hampshire. So, in the teeth of winter, I flew East—back to New England, where I’d fallen in love with skiing in the first place.

Mad river glen is A bit of a lob if you want to talk about the kind of thick-skulled dedication to skiing that epitomizes New England. It touts it in those humblebraggy “SKI IT IF YOU CAN” bumper stickers, which are more of an endorsement of the bearer’s tenacity than his skiing skills. To hit the curveball, I drove to Wachusett Mountain, in suburban Massachusetts, on a nose-hair-freezing Tuesday evening. The weak February sun was sinking as I rolled into the lodge, and after-school skiing was in full swing. Hormonal tweenage girls spritzed cucumber-melon body spray in the bathroom while the boys they were trying to impress flicked fries at each other, and I was rocketed back to the ski-club trips of my own adolescence.

But I didn’t come to ski with middle-schoolers. Wachusett (whose jingle, “Mountain skiing, minutes awayyyyy,” must be seared into the memory of everyone who grew up, as I did, in the Boston area) is home to the biggest night-skiing league in the country. It’s bigger than Jackson Hole’s famed Margarita Cup league, bigger than the Olympian-studded Park City series. Four nights a week, nine weeks a year, racers show up from suburban Connecticut and southern Vermont to run dual GS. It’s part old college racers, part people who just want an excuse to ski, a few 50-year-olds looking for love. Pretty decent burgers and massive nachos. “It’s 35 seconds of skiing, four hours of talking about it,” says Dave Crowley, the mountain’s COO.

In the Coppertop Bar, Crowley, whose family has run the mountain since 1969, hands me a beer and tells me I should have come on a Thursday, when his team races. Tuesday is the fast night, when the serious racers show up, but Thursday is the party night, and the people who have been racing since the beginning (no one’s sure when it started—’80? ’81?) come Thursday to rage. There are rivalries that have been in existence longer than I’ve been alive. Crowley has been battling his siblings for decades.

On the hill, under the glint of the lights, it is bitterly cold, in the negative teens. My eyes tear up behind my goggles on the lift, but at the top of the course, the racers strip to GS suits and shit-talk each other. One woman loads up her kid, who is too young to ski with poles, with her down coat. He pizzas to the finish to meet her.

Back in the bar, Bob Pentland, who has been the race director for 18 years, announces the results, and racers clamor like kids to check their times. Some of the racers, like Martha Hanright, who usually cleans up the women’s division, have been doing this for decades. “Tuesday night was my night out when my kids were little,” she says. “I would bring them my medals.”

A lot of people grow up skiing at Wachusett or similar hills in the East. There are 88 operational ski resorts in New England and another 51 in New York. Between them they account for more than 13 million skier visits per year. That’s a quarter of all American skier visits—more than in any other part of the country except the Rockies, which despite having far fewer resorts (New Hampshire and Colorado, for example, have about the same number) logs 30 percent more visits. Wachusett does about 400,000 skier visits, but it’s more the exception than the rule. Scattered across New England are other low-budge local mountains trying to carry on the history of the scrappy local ski hill.

You pass by Whaleback in a flash along I-89. It’s one lift and a webbed fistful of runs on the road to Sugarbush or Stowe. It’s short but steep, and all the elevation spills back into the parking lot, which is really just a dirt strip parallel to the highway.

Whaleback feels like the platonic ideal of a local ski hill. It smells like fryer grease, old wood, and wet socks, and there are boot bags shoved under every table in the lodge. Places like this are where people become skiers—Olympic freeskier Julia Krass grew up here—and Whaleback is trying to keep it that way. School groups ski here almost every afternoon, and there’s a long-standing Thursday Night Race League.

But running a small ski area is a thin-margined business, and because of that the hill has been through a lot of incarnations, trying to find a financial mod- el that can support affordable skiing for locals. The most recent one, in place since October of 2013, is as a nonprofit—The Upper Valley Snow Sports Foundation—and it’s leaning hard on the local community. Dick Harris, the former general manager, says that for every seven dollars they spend to keep the mountain open they make six. They’re almost there, he says, but they still cross fingers for solvency, and they have a million-dollar list of upgrades they want to make. “If I could just get people to pull off the highway and night- ski for a couple of hours on their way to Killington on Friday, I think we’d be set.”

It’s Saturday, and the Core Team, the mountain’s freeskiing team, is running a mogul comp right under the lift. I ride the double chair with patroller Janis Albrecht and then follow her into the trees and through the park before we end up at the bottom of the bump course. Parents cook waffles and moose steaks on tailgate grills as kids wrestle in the snow and hit a mini kicker. I can see the appeal of doing that every weekend, of having a hill in your backyard.

At the bottom, Evan Dybvig is announcing the comp, wearing a stuffed whale on his head. Dybvig, a two-time Olympic mogul skier, owned Whaleback in its last life, from 2004 to 2013. He wanted to make it a year-round action-sports center, and he had good traction with skiers, but after eight years he and his co-owners couldn’t manage their debt, and Whaleback closed. The UVSSF bought it from the bank—“We walked in the door after the auction and offered $300,000,” Harris says—and has spent the past year trying to find a way to thread the needle and turn a profit.

Despite the letdown, Dybvig is still here. He runs the Core Team and is invested in the mountain because he thinks it’s crucial. “There’s a lot of heart in this,” he says. “The mountains that make up the core of the ski industry are overlooked and underappreciated.”

Skiers are basically junkies, and they know it. Dybvig and the rest of the people fighting for Whaleback are just trying to share the high—to inspire the kind of lifelong addiction to skiing that makes people irrationally chase snowfall and burn money in search of turns.

For me, that obsessiveness clicked into place in the most iconic of places: New Hampshire’s Tuckerman Ravine. One Christmas my dad—in what might have been a self-oriented move to secure a backcountry ski partner—gave me a telemark setup and told me we were going to Tuck’s. The legendary bowl on the east face of Mount Washington has been the proving ground of New England skiing since the 19-teens, when guys like Toni Matt and Dick Durrance, who would go on to shape American skiing, launched themselves over the headwall. My father decided I needed to claim my piece of that heritage, or something like that, so he helped me cut my skins in the parking lot, under the dome light in his car, and we slowly made our way up the Sherburne Trail and into the bowl, getting tangled up in our kick turns, slipping on icy patches. I can still feel how much my knees jackhammered as I struggled to step back into those cable bindings after the hike up, but by the end of my first headwall descent I’d decided that backcountry skiing was basically all I wanted to ever do.

To see if it still hit me the same way, after the grandiose verticality of the Rockies and the Sierra, I asked my dad if he would go back with me. We pulled into the Pinkham Notch parking lot on a clear morning and could barely find a spot. Backcountry skiing has changed since I left a decade ago. The Vermont Backcountry Alliance, for instance, is one of a handful of relatively new Northeastern nonprofits that advocate for trail building and recreational land use, and, even in February long before the typical Tuck’s season, a flood of people were headed for the Ravine, alliance members surely among them.

We take the same route up. He’s faster than I am on the flats, but I’m steadier in the steep spots, more solid on my skis after years in steeper mountains. We climb the Sherburne Trail—the main egress for the past 80 years—up to the bottom of the headwall, then turn and head toward Hillman’s Highway, the filled-in diagonal slash to the looker’s left of the main bowl. The snow is stupid deep for New Hampshire in February, and we get soft turns on the way down, looking out across the valley to Wildcat Mountain. I decide that it’s both hard and easy to go back. Scale is a real thing. So is snowfall. But there’s something to be said for a sense of place.

Louise LintiLhac knows what that feels like. After a bunch of years in Crested Butte and a stint on the Freeskiing World Tour, including a fifth place overall in 2012, she moved home to Vermont. She and her husband, Dana Allan, a Mainer, spend a lot of their time and mental energy trying to find steep lines and deep snow. They ski in movies made by Meathead Films, the Vermont-based ski-film company, and they just got back from a killer trip to northern Quebec’s Chic-Chocs. But they also kind of love shitty skiing—seem to thrive on finding adventure, or just a few nicely linked turns, in unlikely places. Allan tells me I need to come back for fast-grass season in the fall. Fast-grass season, if you have not heard of it, is the time of year right around the first frost when you can ski the fine layer of ice that coats the grass before it snows. It’s a New England specialty. Just don’t turn.

Their story starts to sound familiar because I hear versions of it across the region. While I nurse my facial wounds and sip soup in General Stark’s Pub at Mad River Glen, Eamon Duane tells me he moved back to Vermont in 2011 sort of by accident after a long stint in Squaw. He came home to help with a family construction project and fell back in love with the mountains and the community. More people than I thought move West and then migrate back, salmon-style, to where they were spawned. Everywhere, people are territorial about their mountains, but here the feeling seems more ingrained. Almost no one moves to New England for the mountains, but they do come home. Maybe that’s why everyone calls it “back East,” even if they grew up in California.

As I ask people about why they left or why they stayed—and really about why they love skiing—the answers come in pieces. It could be the people, or the turns that don’t come easy, or the feeling that you’re onto something no one else quite under- stands. They like the salty realness of New England. They’re not oblivious. Many know what it’s like to be Interlodged in Little Cottonwood or make tits-deep turns in Telluride powder. But they seem stoked in a way that I’m not. “I missed the nooks and crannies of New England,” John Hoogenboom, another MRG freeskiing coach, told me when I asked him why he’d moved home to Vermont from Utah.

We scour those crannies, he, Duane, and I, spinning laps off of the single until I start to feel glad the lift ride is so long. It’s been a fat late winter in Vermont, and the typically scratchy Paradise Cliffs are filled in. So we hunt for pockets of powder, powersliding down iced-over cliff bands, hop-turning around trees. I get hung up, snagged, and twisted in places where they duck and wiggle through, flu- id and smooth. The mountains here are different, and so are the ways you move through them. There are fewer places where you can just let gravity take over, and even there you have to be a little brave or a little stupid. My muscles have lost the quick-twitch memory of New England tree skiing.

Powder panic looks different across the country, and we are in the throes of it here. But I have a hunch these guys would still be thwacking through these trees, finding increasingly tight lines regard- less of the conditions. There’s something to be said for the psychology of being appreciative, about being stoked when it snows instead of disappointed when it doesn’t. Maybe that’s part of what East Coast skiing teaches you. When it sucks, it sucks, but you go anyway—to Wachusett every Tuesday, or up into the gullies of the Whites. And when it’s good, it’s really good, and you are hyperaware of it.

On my last day East, I skin up the gut of Mount Mansfield, Vermont’s highest peak. It’s been a few days since the last storm and the trail up from parking is well tracked. But as we climb higher the tracks thin out, and by the time we reach the saddle there are none. We drop over the back side, toward Stowe, into ancient deciduous forest where we get the kind of floaty, deep turns I thought existed only in the Japan of my dreams.

I am probably still an asshole, but I am gasping for breath and giggling, floored by how good it is.

I drive south that evening, stopping at a general store for dinner, passing snow-piled fields and the lovely dark and deep woods I grew up in as another storm begins. I’m heading back to the Western mountains that pulled me away, and I’m fighting the urge to turn the car around and stay. 

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