First consider the tip: "It's great. It's better than anything at North or South." Then consider the source: Waitsfield's Dickie Hall, one-time Alpine instructor who freed his heels more than two decades ago and never looked¿better make that locked¿back. Founder of the North American Telemark Organization (NATO), a guiding and instruction operation, the peripatetic tele guru speaks with authority on the backcountry, especially when it's in his backyard.
He's talking about the Slide Brook drainage, the 2,000-acre wedge of land between Sugarbush's two major mountains and distinct trail systems, Lincoln Peak and, to the north, Mount Ellen. Now a lift runs across it¿the Slide Brook Express, the one-of-a-kind sideways lift that connects the two areas. Practiced eyes look down from the lift and see good ski lines along the watercourses below. And Sugarbush isn't being coy and concealing the good stuff: "The Wild Slide," blares an inset on the trail map referring to Slide Brook. "Guided Tour Access Only. No Lift Service."
Well, no lift service back up,that is. Slide Brook is easily accessible from the top of the old North Lynx triple, on the Lincoln side of the divide. That's where Sugarbush starts guiding it, and where we take off. With an offer of new terrain, I've had no trouble recruiting frequent woods-skiing partner Stephanie McConaughy, a UVM psych professor.
She asks about my choice of skis. I'm thinking of the Correctol commercial¿"sometimes I get irregular so I take something I can trust"¿because I'm anticipating some seriously irregular turns. The fickle, now-you-ski-it-now-you-don't winter has served up some early March powder. It's fine grained and uncorned, but sun could soften it quickly to body-slamming glop. We decide to go big: fat Dynastar Bigs mounted with free-heel cables.
From the lift, we go immediately¿and characteristically¿astray. The liftie hasn't a clue. But after a couple of misdirected thrusts into the woods¿Nah, they wouldn't take clients into something this narrow, I think¿we're on track. The clue to this is a sign that reads Please be advised that these lands are owned by Sugarbush Resort and portions have been designated as necessary wildlife habitat for black bear by the State of Vermont. This designation is based on the fact that the Slide Brook Basin contains beech trees, which are an important source of food for bears during the fall. Bears also use the area during spring and summer.
We're on a small ridge, and the trees are reasonably tight, though the slope angle is slight so speed is not an issue. No, it's the trees that have our attention. To visualize them, take a cucumber, peel it, and striate it lengthwise with the tines of a fork. The ursine version? Take a beech or a tasty young birch and start raking about eight feet up the trunk. The claw marks are pointed at the end and wider than a pencil eraser.
We don't have to claw our way through brush, or do much route-finding, for that matter. Sugarbush has laced up the route, wrapping multicolored neon surveyor's tape around selected trees. It's overwrapped, as we see it, making it a bit like connect-the-dots skiing. But the slope's still gentle, and the skiing is what I call slithery¿playing fast and loose (or slower) with the trees.
Popping out onto the broad swath under the Slide Brook Express quad is as shocking for us as it is, apparently, for the sole lift rider. The cover's so thin that we do a heaving triple-jump from ice patch to patch to get across without shucking skis. The woods are even more open now, as we've dropped below the subalpine spruce zone. The surveyors' tape remains, and the pitch is barely blue. So what of the Wild Slide? We find the Brook to be almost perfect terrain for acquiring off-piste tree-skiing skills.
(I'll later learn from Craig Spear, the chief guide for Slide Brook, that there is a more obscure and somewwhat steeper line skier's left of where we were, and an even more difficult line beyond that, though sketchy snow and the wind-hammered remains of Hurricane Floyd left both unskiable for the season. These shots must be the reason behind the fine-print warning on Slide Brook's trail-map description: "Terrain and conditions are similar to those found on double-black-diamond ski trails.")
A dogleg on and off an old logging road puts us in the good stuff, the mature open hardwoods that comprise northern Vermont's claim to skiing eminence on a national scale. I flop onto the snow and extract my slope meter. The pitch is steeper but still in the higher 20-degree range. (A flight of stairs is a steepish 37 degrees.) Even in early afternoon, the snow hasn't rotted out. We arc riotously right down to the brook, pause briefly to eat and drink a little, and then finish the way I like¿with a mile of easy skating and poling along a logging road to my car at a turnout on German Flats Road.
We're some 1,600 vertical feet lower than where we started and thoroughly satisfied. Could it be better? We won't know until we try the more difficult lines that were closed. And are there still other ways in, offering more vertical and steeper pitches? Anyone who can read a topo map can make an educated guess. Better look carefully, though. As Hall says, "Nestled in the hills are a series of steep ledges you better know about. Better have a topo. The Brook is not readily accessible." But that, of course, is another story.