On a bright spring afternoon this past April, I skinned up the slopes of Mount Mansfield to meet Fred Lavenberg, a talkative 57-year-old with a trim gray beard who oversees the mountaintop transmitter owned by WCAX TV. I’d sought him out to discuss what is perhaps his most peculiar duty: monitoring Mansfield’s storied snow stake.
Given its critical role for local skiers, the stake is a surprisingly modest piece of engineering. A 144-inch-tall two-by-four painted industrial orange, it stands in a leeward hollow just below Mansfield’s summit cone. I’d become interested in the snow stake after rumors circulated that the 2008 snowpack at its base was the second-deepest in recorded history. And the more I looked into the history and lore of the stake, the more I found myself engaging with a culture of dedicated stakeheads.
“I’ve been tracking the stake since 1986, and posting on it since ’95,” says Wesley Wright, an IT specialist at the University of Vermont and founder of SkiVT-L, a local skiing listserv that’s been active since 1988. “I might be a little obsessed.” After he sent me four different metrics to prove that the April snowpack was not, after all, the second-deepest on record, I had to agree. (That honor goes to 1996, when the depth reached 135 inches. The most snow, 149 inches, fell in 1969.)
But it’s more than obsessive number crunching that keeps Eastern skiers focused on the stake. According to Wright, the stake is an indicator for regional conditions and helps skiers decide when it’s safe to enter the woods. “We have a 40-inch rule. When there’s 40 inches at the stake, we hit the trees.”
Lavenberg greeted me at the door of the transmitter building. He was wearing a flannel shirt, faded jeans, and well-worn running shoes. He started his job with WCAX on August 16, 1977, the day Elvis died. We sat at his desk and flipped through folders full of stake readings: daily, monthly, and cumulative snowfall. “The stake has been here for 50 years,” Lavenberg said, grinning. “And someone has taken a reading every day at 4 p.m.” He leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms. “That is the value of the stake.”
The original stake was installed in the late ’50s. “No one who knows exactly when is still alive,” chuckles Ted Teffner, who installed the current stake in ’66 as part of a monitoring program for the National Weather Service. At the time, it was Teffner’s job to read the stake—a job he took very seriously. “You don’t want to be the guy who let the weather bureau down.”
Even after speaking with Lavenberg, Teffner, and Wright, I wasn’t convinced that the stake mattered to anyone beyond a small circle of stake geeks who believe that a season can be defined by a glorified ruler. But not long after, I was on the phone with a friend in Maine. I mentioned that I’d skinned Mansfield. Before I could even tell him why, he cut in: “How much snow was at the stake?”