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Playing in the Crease


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On a climb of Stowe’s Mount Mansfield in 1818, Captain Alden Partridge observed that between Mansfield and the Sterling massif to the north¿which would eventually comprise Stowe’s Spruce Peak and Smugglers’ Notch ski area¿was “a narrow passage through the mountain, which nature appears to have designed for a road.” According to popular lore, this passage was used to smuggle contraband between Vermont and Canada following the Embargo Act and the War of 1812.

It eventually did become a sustainable road, Vermont Route 108, but had Partridge really been clairvoyant, he would have envisioned the current incarnation of this three-mile strip between Stowe and Jeffersonville: What we have here, captain, is a season-long free winter carnival. A snowed-over road reclaimed by the footloose. An ongoing parade of passion for moving on snow.

The key to the Notch’s winter-sport accessibility is, ironically, the road’s impassability by car. It usually closes with the first snow in early November, when the state puts up wooden barriers just beyond the entrances to Mount Mansfield and the upper parking lot at Smuggs’ with signs that advise: Road Closed. Travel Beyond This Point Illegal.

That the road through Smugglers’ Notch would be closed in winter was never much of a question. It’s too steep for plowing. The highest point, a half-mile section on the Stowe side, is Route 108’s signature feature: a series of four severe switchbacks constricted by massive tumbledown boulders to a width of less than two cars. But damn if it isn’t skiable.

As soon as the first significant snow falls, the players¿cross-country skiers, snowshoers, kids on sleds, snowmobilers, hunters¿gather at the road and branch off into the seriously steep Notch area that surrounds it. On either side of the road, climbers pick and scratch at slabs of ice on sheer cliffs. Skiers rip lines in powder through stands of open hardwoods. Snowmen appear along the shoulders, and dogs form social clubs.

On sunny days¿sometimes as early as November¿the Notch is simply spectacular. Only 20 yards or so uphill of the cars parked at the Stowe-side barrier, the jutting prow of Elephants Head, located on the north or Smugglers’ side, comes into view, followed quickly, as 108 bends left, by the imposing wall of cliffs on the south.

Typically, a crowd forms at the Stowe side. The snow is littered with water bottles, and the barrier here is nearly obscured by ski team warmups¿the University of Vermont, Dartmouth, and Rossignol factory teams seeking any strip of snow that promises early-season skiability. Snowmobilers are here, too. While their oversexed “sleds” are hitting a menacing 75 miles per hour in the mere mile to the start of the turns, they are, in fairness, the ones who are packing out a base. And mostly they’re riding with care; brushbacks of skiers are rare.

Here in the Notch, amid the jumble of boxcar boulders overlaid with traceries of roots supporting crabbed trees, snow obscures the road’s yellow line and 108 seems more like a cross-country freeway trail than a road. Taking advantage of the elevation that pulls in snow well before the local X-C areas open, a friend and I arrive on skate skis.

With pump-handle poling, we scuttle up to the start of the switchbacks and back down, intent on flogging ourselves¿lap after lap¿into skiing shape. With more time, we’d haul up the switchbacks¿the road tops out at 2,200 feet¿and over the other side for the mile-long downhill cruise to Smuggs’, or turn around at the top and brace ourselves for the considerably wilder ride back down the switchbacks, mindful that the wind often scours the turns to a veneer of ice or exposes patches of ski-stopping, skin-shredding pavement.

The carnival lasts through the season. (The road doesn’t open for cars until the snow in the switchbacks melts, usually in May.) But the players change and the venue expands. By Christmas, the cross-country hardcore have left for groomed tracks at just-opened Nordic centers. They’re replaced by climbers whose ice screws, hung on bulging packs, clink like chimes as they walk up the road. When iced up, the slabs above Big Spring form some of the best climbing¿more than three dozen routes¿in the state.

Next to seize this high ground are the skiers, who reach the steep slopes above the Notch from a variety of access points at Stowe and Smuggs’. The skiers come once the snowpack in the woods reaches 60 inches or so¿early January on a good year. The uninitiated gawk at the stream of skiers in downhill and tele gear, visible through the trees on a high traverse before they drop onto the road to pole, skate, and shuffle back to the lifts at Stowe or Smuggs’.

I’m often among them. A passing snowshoer might ask where I’ve been. Where? Nearly everywhere: on still-discernible derelict lines that are out-of-bounds now but used to be on the area’s trail map a half century ago; down watercourses (don’t ask¿I live here and can’t be bought). That long curving scar left by a massive rain-loosened rockslide in the early ’80s? It’s skiable by anyone who can deal with the nasty ledge and ice that stud it. In the Notch, if a line looks like it could be skied, it has been. If it looks like it could be roped into and skied, it probably has been, too.

The sides of the Notch are steep¿35 degrees or more¿right down to the last pitch above the road. They’re steep enough to squeeze you out in a high-speed slither¿no chance to scrub off speed¿through a dense palisade of beech saplings and onto 108. On the last Sunday in March, we erupt wildly from the woods in standard Eastern tree-skiing posture: poles and forearms up in front of faces. We nearly take out a couple on snowshoes.

It’s the coda to a day when the mountain has had its way with us ever since we hiked above the lifts toward the summit, then cut north to find a somewhat discontinuous line of 1,800 vertical feet that’s as hard to locate as it can be to follow.

Make that hard to ski, as well. I’m with Denny Boyle, a regular tree-skiing pal; his college-aged son, Conor; and Dave “Carvin'” Carter, a longtime Stowe partisan of off-trail skiing. A week earlier there had been a brutal crust. There’s still some left, despite a layer of fresh powder. But with spring approaching, except for seams of north-facing snow, the snow’s getting hammered by the sun. The texture changes within yards. Within feet.

With some ledges to air and blown-down hardwoods and bollards of ice to skirt, our bag of backcountry tricks has been opened wide: we make beat-on-the-mountain crust-buster turns, wide tracks, delicate swoops, straddle hops¿nearly everything comes into play.

Conor biffs. Even on fat skis, he falls as if being yanked from below, then catches himself. I yell to him to traverse left. He shortly sees why: as we drop lower, we look back at a 20-foot-long pipe organ of aquamarine ice. Then we look across 108 to more glistening cliffs. There’s a sudden crack, louder than a rifle shot.

“What’s that?” Conor asks.

“That, I think, is the sound of an ice climb disappearing¿hopefully without anyone on board,” I reply.

Shortly, we are back on the road. It’s nearly a mile of poling and skating to get back to the lifts. But we don’t mind the effort; we like 108 just as it is¿closed to cars, open for skiing.