Sean Wallace is well north of 30, but he skis like he's 16, which is to say he doesn't seem to give much thought to the possibility of misfortune. "Ride behind Wally long enough, and you're pretty much guaranteed some action. That's what head patroller John Worth told me when I mentioned I was going out with Wallace. "We usually give him at least one toboggan ride a year.
Wallace wears a homemade Evel Knievel costume on the slopes, which I thought was pretty silly until he pushed off from the summit of Burke Mountain and quite nearly straight-lined the whole damn thing. "Remember Snake Canyon! he yelled as he dropped in, his voice riding high in the cold air as his skis hissed over the hardpack and his cape popped and snapped in his wake.
Burke Mountain is not large. It stands only 3,267 feet tall, and offers a respectable 2,000 vertical feet of lift-accessed terrain. It's located just outside the town of East Burke, Vermont, deep in a region known as the Northeast Kingdom. The Kingdom is best described as hyper-rural: Farming and logging are still viable employment opportunities, and you're more likely to see a moose on the road than a Mercedes. It's not particularly difficult to get to East Burke; then again, it's not particularly easy. Visitors from almost any major metropolitan area will pass numerous ski resorts along the way, each larger, more flush with amenities, and certainly better marketed.
But all this ignores one simple fact: Burke Mountain is home to some of the finest tree skiing in the Northeast. Depending on the conditions, my mood, and the length of the lift lines, I could be compelled to scratch "some of from that sentence. Because while it's true that there's only so much one can do with 2,000 feet of vert, it's also true that Burke locals—led by patrollers—have done it. Many of the mountain's choicest lines run uninterrupted for a solid thousand vertical feet. To anyone accustomed to piecing together long tree runs—300 vert, traverse, 200 vert, catwalk, et cetera—Burke is an anomaly with leg-burn.
It's also empty. I hit Burke on a cold, 10-inch day in late February. Granted, it was midweek, but as anyone who's ever skied Stowe or Sugarloaf in 10 inches of midweek fresh can attest, it's remarkable how many people can find an excuse to miss work. Even so, Burke was a ghost mountain. Not only was there no line for the sole main-mountain quad, but during many of our rides we could see no one ahead or behind. Empty, the chairs swung in the breeze. "Jesus. It's kind of spooky, said my friend Dirk, and indeed it was. It was also incredible: We skied the glades all day—marked and mapped glades, at that—and saw maybe a half-dozen other skiers in the trees.
Of course, what's good for freshies is not always good for the longevity of ski resorts. And so it goes with Burke—which has been through bankruptcy so many times, general manager Dick Andross isn't sure about the number (three or four, he thinks). The latest bankruptcy resulted in the purchase of the resort by the Burke Mountain Academy in 2000. Andross was hired from Cannon, New Hampshire, arriving in October to find a staff that consisted of himself and two maintenance workers. At most mountains, in most communities, it would have been a death knell, but Andross implemented a sales drive that sold 2,300 season passes in two months—raising the funds needed to run the lifts, fuel the groomers, and hire a staff. Since that particular Hail Mary, pass sales have slowed, but not by much, and Andross is heartened. "This is a community that wants to support the mountain. Do we need a longer-term solution? Of course. And we're working on it.
Anyone even vaguely familiar with the ski industry knows he's talking about development, although Andross claims Burke's situation is unique. "We're not in the area of traditional ski-area marketing—of grow, grow, grow, he says. "We need another 15,000 skier-visits a year, and we can get that without drastiically changing the mountain. Andross believes that the secret to a solvent Burke Mountain lies in taking its perceived disadvantages—location, lack of development—and flipping them on their proverbial ear. LOCATION! LACK OF DEVELOPMENT! Hey, that sounds pretty good.
But that's not now. Burke Mountain is the provenance of, as far as I can tell, Sean Wallace, BMA racers, tots, and locals in blue jeans—in approximately that order. Actually, I'll add one more to that list: me. And it's not narcissism that makes me say this, but the simple fact that Burke so lacks pretension and is often so empty, it seems there for the taking. Which is not a bad feeling, not a bad feeling at all.