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Ski Resort Life

Kingdom’s Finest: Jay Peak

A Jay Peak skier is tough, as impervious to cold as a Spartan to pain. Vermonters want their kids to grow up skiing here because afterwards, any other mountain is cake.

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The fourth Saturday of Jay Peak’s eight-Week-Program approaches, along with a forecast predicting wind chill temperatures to top off around -25. Fahrenheit. I’m down south near Cape Cod, debating whether or not to make the six-hour journey. I don’t want to deprive my 8-year-old son of his ski group, where he’s been both learning to ski upper mountain glades and developing bonds with his instructor and buddies, and I don’t want to miss the fresh snow. But from this distance, the forecast has me worried. I am getting, as they say, cold feet. I shoot the resort a Twitter message asking what happens to the eight-weekers in such frigid conditions. The reply: “They get raised Jay.”

Having grown up skiing at Jay Peak, I should have known the answer. And ultimately, it’s exactly what I wanted to hear. This is, after all, the resort that runs the delectably tasteless television commercial depicting a baby in a icebox. Full narrative: a young mom sits at the kitchen table as a timer ticks down. She turns to the freezer, opens the door to reveal a baby in Oakley-esqe goggles playing with ice blocks, then plucks him out and places him on the table, where he shakes snow off his head. The implication is obvious: a Jay Peak skier is tough, as impervious to cold as a Spartan to pain. The mythology goes further—you want your kids to grow up skiing here because afterwards, any other mountain is cake.

Situated just over half-way between the equator and the North Pole, Jay Peak is Vermont’s northernmost outpost, the last of the Green Mountains before the plains of Quebec. On a clear day, Montreal shimmers on the horizon; French is spoken as commonly as English on the lifts. And be careful on your iPhone because AT&T will think you’re in Canada. Just last week, I had to argue with customer service over roaming charges. When I explained I’d been skiing at Jay, he said, “But that’s still out of country, right?” Despite my indignation, I was also secretly pleased. Because, I believe, Jay skiers like to think of our mountain as a free republic, the crown of Vermont’s remote corner affectionately called the Northeast Kingdom.

Since long before I started skiing Jay in 1985, few people have come to the mountain for the “resort experience.” The mountain road is just that—a road, with a smattering of houses. The village consists of two ski shops, two inns, a general store and gas station, a pottery shop, and an old Coca-Cola machine standing in the middle of a field. There are usually more snowmobiles than cars in the parking lots. If you were driving up for the first time, you might think you were lost. And this is one of the key reasons that I drive directly past so many other ski mountains on my way north: because when I go to a mountain, I’m going for one reason: to ski.

Full disclosure time. I grew up in the Northeast Kingdom. I believe in the Jay Peak mythos to the point where I write stories for the resort’s weblog about my family’s experiences, especially my son’s development as a Jay skier. I don’t receive money for my work, but clearly I’m biased. I like the small resort, family atmosphere. I love the short or non-existent lift-lines. And I love that Jay skis like a big mountain.

The first and most-heralded superlative about Jay Peak is the most essential to any skiing or riding experience. Snow. A meteorologist could explain the phenomenon, but in lay man’s terms, it’s the Jay Cloud. We’ll wake up to clear skies down below, but the mountain will be shrouded in a not-very-mysterious blanket of dark gray. We’ll usually hit the snow at about the village of Jay. Because of this cloud feature, Jay Peak receives the most annual snowfall of any resort in New England. Some years, we’ve received more snow than Aspen. It’s still East-coast skiing most of the time, don’t get me wrong, but learning to switch through a variety of conditions is part of the challenge and fun.

Jay’s very liberal tree-skiing policy is my second favorite feature of the mountain. Basically, you can ski wherever the hell you want, just don’t expect Mommy to come pick you up—though for many skiers and riders, their parents do just that. When conditions permit, you can hike over the back side to neighboring Big Jay, shred down to the road, then hop in the car and drive back over to the lift. I credit snowboarders for helping to open up so many of the woods here; indeed, Jay Peak was one of the first resorts in Vermont to welcome riders to its slopes. And with so much freedom and accessible backcountry, it’s not surprising that telemark skiers are nearly as common as Canadians at Jay Peak. Even beginners get in on the glades; two years ago, my son led my wife and me down Moon Walk Woods after just his third lesson.

While some purists would probably be happy to reduce Jay Peak to lifts (including Vermont’s only high speed tram) and glades, the resort bit the bullet this past year and is moving forward with its first major facelift in my memory. The Tram Haus Lodge, a modern hotel with 57 suites ranging from studios to three-bedroom spreads, comes complete with a spa and café. Alice’s Table opened over Thanksgiving and offers guests elegant but casual dining with a view of the slopes. Next door is the Tower Bar, featuring wheels, cable, and other parts recycled from the old tram after its most recent retrofit. Opening this spring is the Ice Haus Arena, a modern rink that will host international events, and this summer a second, larger hotel complete with a mostly-indoor water park will break ground at the site of the old Hotel Jay.

Owner Bill Stenger has taken advantage of the EB-5 visa program to fund the expansion, a move that has been largely applauded by locals because of its strict guidelines for job creation. The resort has also made the commitment to supporting local products including everything from woolen blankets to free range meat. As with any change, some apprehension lingers that Jay Peak will finally be “discovered”—i.e. overrun with “white platers” from Massachusetts and New York—but it seems like the majority of us welcome the upgrades. After all, Jay still remains at least an hour farther north than the other major mountains in Vermont, a glade-covered rock hidden in the magical snow cloud of the Northeast Kingdom.

Mountain Stats:

Peaks: 2

Miles of skiable terrain: 50+

Skiable Acreage: 385+

Acres for off-piste skiing: 100+

Base Elevation: 1,815 feet

Vertical: 2,153 feet

Exposure: Northeast

The Trails

Total number of trails: 76 trails, glades and chutes

Difficulty of trails: 20% novice, 40% intermediate, 40% advanced

Longest trail: Ullr’s Dream—3 miles

Most scenic trail: Vermonter

Hairiest trails: River Quai and Green Beret

Easiest Learning glade: Moonwalk Woods

Best open slope: Can-Am Super Trail, 150 feet wide, 4,000 feet long, 1,800 foot vertical