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How Sugarbush is Evolving in the Age of IKON

Everything changes. Vermont's Sugarbush is no stranger to that concept. So when Alterra Mountain Company bought the resort late last year, the locals let out a collective sigh. What would this mean for their beloved ski mecca, “the Vermontiest of Vermont ski resorts?” Turns out, change isn’t always to be feared.

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Winters are hard on Vermont’s beautiful old barns. Heavy snow means good times for skiers, but it’s hell on century-old structural timbers, and in 2020 we lost more than a couple, including my favorite, the Orton Barn, a five-story giant on Route 2 near Montpelier that just couldn’t quite make it through its 109th Vermont winter.

So it was a relief to see, as I enjoyed the bucolic drive to Sugarbush last season before the shutdown, that all the old beauties of the Mad River Valley had survived. Beloved by photographers and still known by the names of Valley farm families—Hartshorn, Bragg, Neill, Joslin—these weather-beaten barns have become enduring visual icons of the Valley, often pictured on snowy Vermont mornings, ski trails in the background—images evoking both the Valley’s agricultural past and tourist-powered present.

Some are carefully conserved and converted to event spaces or country inns, but others are satisfyingly redolent of fresh manure, still working farms. The ski boom that took place in Vermont coincided almost exactly with the demise of the state’s dairy industry. And plenty of hill farmers considered themselves fortunate if they could get a good price for their land from skiers and second-home owners.

But something weird happened in the Mad River Valley. In the go-go days of ski area expansion, while other Vermont towns were cashing in but selling their souls in the process, the Valley somehow survived with its sense of place intact. The ’70s and ’80s saw a brief flurry of shag-carpet condoization up near the base area, and cookie-cutter trophy homes pimpled the landscape here and there. But not enough to ruin the place.

That’s how, to my mind—and I’m open to debate—Sugarbush has become, of all Vermont’s ski resorts, the Vermontiest. With those barns, covered bridges, open fields, rushing river, ancient stone walls, and expansive, unspoiled vistas, it’s just the darn prettiest.

The resort itself has passed through many hands, from independent, to conglomerate, back to independent, and now back to conglomerate, joining Steamboat, Mammoth, and other iconic resorts under the Alterra/Ikon banner. Win Smith, who last fall announced that after 18 years he was selling the Bush to Alterra, has been a Sugarbush skier for far longer than he was an owner.

“I started coming here in college, back in ’69, and today you come down into the little village of Warren, and it has barely changed. Back then the Warren Store [which he eventually bought] had a gas pump in front, and the Pitcher Inn [the tasteful, white-clapboard boutique hotel he built across the street from the store] wasn’t there, but that’s it.”

The Bragg Farm, 50-some miles from Sugarbush, is famous for its 100-percent pure maple syrup. Photo: Courtesy of Sugarbush/Sandy Macys

The story goes that Sugarbush founders Damon Gadd and Jack Murphy flew all over New England scouting for the next best place to put a ski area. They knew each other from skiing at Mad River Glen, the Valley’s original ski area, founded by famous ski-industry pioneer Roland Palmedo in 1947. As it happened, the place they chose was right next door.

From the beginning, and to this day, Sugarbush and Mad River Glen were yin and yang. Palmedo, part of the founding group at Stowe, grew sick of the growing tourist scene there, with its “plush and sophisticated gimmicks.” His new ski area would be a shut-up-and-ski kind of place: tough terrain, rugged high-elevation weather, zero slopeside development.

Gadd’s Sugarbush would be a far less austere experience. That started with the terrain Gadd and Murphy chose—mellower than the north-facing rough-and-tumble of Mad River, and east-facing to soak up the morning sunlight and take in the beautiful views of the valley. Another differentiator was Sugarbush’s signature lift. Its first-in-the-nation gondola offered a cushy, convivial ride to the summit, rather than a lonesome, exposed ride on the Single Chair.

The Single, though, still hard at work today, proved more practical because the gondola, like an overheated Fiat on a Brenner Pass switchback, just blew up one day. The engine, where the fire started, was at the summit, and on the morning of Dec. 16, 1972, Vermont woke up to see 100- foot flames and ink-black smoke billowing from the rooftop of the Green Mountains.

Hot doggin' at the 'Bush. Photo: Courtesy of Sugarbush

But more than lifts or terrain, what defined Sugarbush skiers was their embrace of the good life. Just as important as the skiing was the partying, the food, the sexy girls, the fashion. The Bush in its day was drop-dead glamorous and more than a little scandalous. In that brief era before jet travel made trips to Aspen and Sun Valley accessible, New York’s social set made intensely rural Warren, Vt., their winter playground, many of them learning to stem christie from ski school director Stein Eriksen.

But times changed. Stein left for Snowmass, the jet set jetted West, and after Damon and his wife Sarah Gadd sold out in 1977, Sugarbush endured a series of ineffectual owners. The Bush had lost its glamour, but not its soul. A couple decades of economic malaise does wonders for putting the brakes on rampant development. Meanwhile, Mad River Valley residents—including its famously colorful tribes of freethinking, back-to-the-garden counterculturists—learned to get along without relying on tourism.

“We’re obviously a tourist town,” says Eric Friedman, longtime Mad River Glen communications director, who now runs the Chamber of Commerce. “But we’re not all T-shirt shops and high-end restaurants. Not that we don’t have that stuff, but we’re not dependent on it. It never ceases to amaze me what people do for a living here. There’s a lady in Warren who makes cat videos. Just that: videos for cat people.”

So by 1994, when struggling Sugarbush was folded into the fast-expanding empire of Les Otten’s American Ski Co., the Valley was no company town. If the locals saw Otten as a threat to their bucolic home, and they did, they would rise to the challenge.

The view from the Heaven's Gate triple chair on Mt. Ellen. Photo: Courtesy of Sugarbush/John Atkinson

Related: Gourmet To-Go in the Mad River Valley

Everyone gets along in the Valley. So Mad River skiers won’t admit out loud that they think Sugarbush skiers are pampered tourists. Sugarbush skiers, meanwhile, might only gripe among themselves that Mad River Glen skiers are reverse snobs, no more authentic for all the tatters in their skiwear. I’ve always felt like something in between, a Sugarbush North skier, which is what we called the Mt. Ellen part of Sugarbush when I skied there in college.

Mt. Ellen is the former Glen Ellen ski area, which was absorbed by Sugarbush in 1978 and was connected to the Lincoln Peak slopes by the two-mile Slidebrook Express lift during Otten’s time. In the early ’80s, we counted on North for two things: cheap student passes ($199—even a Harris Hall cafeteria dishwasher could scrape that up) and great spring skiing on the high-elevation, north-facing FIS trail.

North/Ellen, which has Vermont’s highest vert, was my first big-mountain experience, and I adored it. The signature run, FIS, is far from a perfect trail, though. It’s satisfyingly steep, but the way it was cut is regrettable—way too wide for a Vermont summit trail. Winter winds and freeze-thaws render it a clean-scoured sheet of ice for most of the year. We’d avoid it, sticking to Black Diamond, Exterminator, and Bravo.

But like magic, spring sunshine would unlock FIS’s beauty. For a time, before management shifted late-season service over to Lincoln Peak, it was the coolest spring skiing scene in the East. Out came the coolers, grills, and bikinis, lining the snow at the bottom of the summit pitch. Soft slushy corn bumps made heroes of us all, cheered on by the crowd at the bottom. I was awed by the sheer skill and creativity of the partying. Classic Sugarbush.

Playing in Sugarbush's six-acre, 50-feature Riemergasse terrain park. Photo: Courtesy of Sugarbush/Jeb Wallace-Brodeur

The real problem at North—Mt. Ellen, that is— was its long, flat, boring runout. You’d get stuck cycling the summit lift because if you gave into temptation and skied those great trails just below it, it took two lifts and forever to get back to the top. Today Mt. Ellen bears one happy reminder of Otten’s tenure: The North Ridge Express Quad eliminated the runout, whisking skiers from the bottom of Tumbler, Cliffs, and Hammerhead right to the top of Bravo and Exterminator, vastly improving the way Mt. Ellen skis.

In truth, Otten got shit done. For starters, water. Like a lot of high-elevation Vermont ski areas, Sugarbush couldn’t sustainably rely on Mad River tributaries. Otten audaciously went for the main artery, the Mad River itself, way down at the bottom of the valley. You can see the pond from Route 100, down behind Kenyon’s Convenience. ASC also overhauled the lift infrastructure, making long-overdue improvements that any skier could love.

But there was a wonderful tension between Otten and the locals. They didn’t trust him, didn’t want the kind of slopeside development ASC was famous for, and just as Mad River Glen skiers wanted to keep their beloved Single just the way it was, Sugarbush skiers sure as hell didn’t want a high-speed lift on their beloved Castlerock terrain.

For all the investments ASC made, the payoff would be real estate sales, and Otten planned to build a slopeside condo hotel similar to the Grand Summits of Sunday River and Killington. Local resistance was fierce, the permitting process arduous, and Otten’s empire collapsed before he could break ground. When Smith and his group took over in 2001, they not only got Sugarbush for a good price, but inherited Otten’s hardwon permits.

“The Grand Summit model worked well in Sunday River, but locals here didn’t like the idea at all,” says Smith. “Les finally got the permit, but by then he wasn’t able to finance it, so we inherited his permit and were able to amend it to our needs, so it was a lot easier.”

Easier, but not easy. “Initially there was a lot of skepticism. Who’s this New York investment banker coming in? They weren’t going to take our word for anything, they were going to wait and see what we would do. It took years to prove that we were invested in the community, not just Sugarbush.”

Photo: Courtesy of Sugarbush/John Atkinson

As a North skier I still feel like a trespasser at fancy Lincoln Peak. Looking up from the base area, which Smith transformed with a luxury hotel and comfortable new lodges, it’s easy to see what Gadd saw in it as he flew overhead, scouting for the next great place to put a ski area: a broad bowl of East-facing slopes, soaking up the morning sun, steep at the top, where they descend from a long North-South ridgeline of the Greens.

Today, the speedy Super Bravo quad is the main artery out of the base. At the terminus, mid-mountain, turn left and hit the south-end trails—I could spend all day on Stein’s, The Mall, Twist, and Moonshine—or turn right, hop on Heaven’s Gate, and tangle with the summit blacks: Paradise, Ripcord, Organgrinder, and Spillsville. All great stuff, but in a strong year for natural snow, you’ll want to head still further north, to the Rock.

Castlerock lives up to the hype. What are the coolest lifts in the East? I go for the classics: the Single at Mad River, the Cannon Tram, Lookout at Stowe, Madonna 1 at Smuggs. The Castlerock double surely belongs in the pantheon of charmingly inefficient lifts accessing killer terrain. Its chairs are spaced so widely it throws off your rhythm—you shuffle out to the load spot, wait, get talking to the liftie, wait some more, and by the time your chair arrives it surprises you. I long thought the chairs were so widely spaced because the drive needed coddling, but it’s just a conscious choice: fewer chairs, more room on the slopes.

As for the terrain it accesses, not only is it uncrowded, which is a joy itself, it’s just uncommonly charismatic. Not especially steep, just ornery and interesting, ledgey, narrow, and winding.

Winter Vermont road to Sugarbush
A rolling country road en route to Sugarbush; that’s Lift Line, off the Castlerock double, in the distance. Photo: Courtesy of Sugarbush/John Atkinson

But more than lifts or terrain, what defined Sugarbush skiers was their embrace of the good life. The 'Bush ints day was drop-dead glamorous and more than a little scandalous.

As Gadd and Murphy flew over the Valley scouting for ski terrain, a young farm kid named Randy Graves may well have noticed their plane in the sky. By that day in the late ’50s, Graves’s family had been farming for three generations in Waitsfield Common, a hamlet on the eastern slopes of the Valley. But little Randy may have been too busy to notice, hustling through his farm chores so he could go skiing at Mad River, where his dad ran the T-bar.

“Everybody skied back then, rich or poor,” Graves recalls. “It wasn’t a class thing at all.”

Perhaps no one is better positioned than Graves to appreciate the arc of ski history in the Valley. In an alternate reality, he might have become a farmer himself, but skiing had different plans for him. College racing led to coaching at Al Hobart’s Green Mountain Valley School, then to a career at Rossignol—whose U.S. operations were then based in Burlington—as U.S. product manager with a $35,000 travel and entertainment budget.

Just a “woodchuck” farm kid from Vermont, he sometimes couldn’t believe his luck: “We’d be on some gorgeous mountaintop at sunrise, in Chile or New Zealand or the Alps, and just look around and shake our heads: ‘This is our office. We are so effing lucky.’”

Now Graves serves on the Warren select board, and he confirms my suspicion—that it’s not just luck but thoughtful zoning and strong public support for green space that has kept the Valley beautiful.

And if the rules are tough, it’s because that’s how the locals like it. “I always joke that I live in the People’s Republic of East Warren. Going back to the ’60s, you had some wicked hippies moving into town, but they included some really bright and well-educated people who always had this appreciation for what’s special about this place and the foresight to know what they didn’t want.”

And Graves sees a new generation of tourists who tread with a lighter footprint.

“The Millenials that come up these days are not the McMansion types. They do the beer pilgrimage—from Lawson’s to the Alchemist to Hill Farmstead—and they ski or mountain bike and then go back home.”

Morning tracks on Paradise, a classic, widely spaced gladed run. Photo: Courtesy of Sugarbush/Hans Jonathan Von Briesen

Those back-to-the-land hippies may have seemed silly to “real” Vermonters back in the day, but today no one laughs at the local food movement, which is their legacy. The new agriculture of Mad River Valley might not be what saves the beautiful old barns, but it can put the fertile Mad River Valley soil back to work and reconnect the Valley with its past. It’s important work, and any good-willed tourists with a love for the Valley and an appreciation for its Vermont beauty can lend their support by seeking out and buying the meat, veggies, berries, and cheeses produced locally.

As for the future of Sugarbush, Smith thinks Alterra is a “really good fit” as the next owner, sufficiently capitalized to keep Sugarbush vital, particularly, he notes, as climate change threatens to put more demands on its snowmaking capacity.

Alterra no doubt appreciates what it’s got, but even if it wanted to screw it up, it’s probably too late. The Mad River Valley locals sure know how good they’ve got it, and they aren’t going to let anyone mess with it.

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