Stowe is For Skiers

Now it has some of the East’s most lavish slopeside amenities. But to those who know it best, it’s still the hill that has no peer.
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Ski Stowe Vermont | Stowe VT tout

There’s one Eastern ski resort that’s better than all the rest. It’s got the best terrain, most efficient lifts, highest peak, rippingest skiers, richest history, raddest lift-served sidecountry, rowdiest nightlife, prettiest views, and best-looking women.

Anyway, that’s what Stowe skiers will tell you.

Home hills always stir passion and loyalty, but Stowe skiers seem almost fanatical. It’s not that they’re blind to any weaknesses—don’t get them going about the price of a pass, or the annoying new parking regimen, or this year’s relocation of the historic town-series race hill to an adjacent bunny slope—but they’ve given it a lot of thought and skied lots of other places, and they’re quietly confident that their hill is the best.

By any objective standard, Stowe does seem to attract and produce an unusually high percentage of expert skiers. Many of them have been skiing there for decades, darting through the hardwood groves of Tres Amigos and Angel Food, negotiating the steep double fall line of upper Goat, slashing fast early-morning arcs on Nosedive and Hayride, and ducking the rope across the top of Lookout. And for a long time, Stowe remained largely unchanged.

But recent years have brought an unprecedented explosion of development. Spruce Peak used to be the sleepy side of the street, home of the ski school, a big gravel parking lot, and the resort’s mellowest, sunniest runs. Now it’s a village of luxury—hotel, spa, shops, restaurants, performing-arts center, and lavish private homes, the product of hundreds of millions of investment dollars, with more yet to come.

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Has it improved the place? Ruined it forever? Find a few Stowe skiers who know the place best, and they’ll tell you.

Dr. Donald Miller remembers exactly when he started skiing Stowe. It was 1951; he was seven. “I remember the Toll House rope tow and Cubco bindings and all that, and I remember running gates at Spruce with Billy Kidd and others of that era.”

Miller—“Donnie” to his many friends—still vigorous at 70, still sees patients at his family practice in bucolic Cambridge. Medicine runs in the family (his dad was a Burlington surgeon). So does skiing (his little brother Woody has a son named Bode). And though he lives minutes from Smugglers’ Notch, which he admires, Miller makes the long commute to Stowe to get his 30 to 40 days a season.

“I just never get tired of it. That’s not something you can say about most mountains, and I’ve skied a bunch. The term you hear most, ‘sustained top-to-bottom skiing,’ might be a little overworked, but that’s the way it is at Stowe. Just top-to-bottom challenge, with no run-out at the bottom or flat spot in the middle.”

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He’s right: Sustained pitch is almost invariably cited by Stowe lovers. So is the work of the mountain-ops crew. “They do as good a job with snowmaking and grooming as anyone in the country. Every year I keep meaning to send them a note to tell them that, but I never do it.”

Kim Brown also made his first Stowe turns in 1951, and his seamed, leathery face is a fixture there. Vermont-bred, Harvard-educated, with many opinions and little trouble expressing them, he’s an architectural designer by trade and also one of Stowe’s preeminent historians. For years his weekly column chronicled the ski-bum life in the Stowe Reporter. You’re as likely to find him off-piste as on, often hiking up to the Chin for deep forays onto legendary pitches like Hourglass and Hell Brook. It’s the sheer diversity of terrain that continually delights him.

“We got Hell Brook and we got the Bruce Trail; we got the Front Four, which is really the Front Five [he rightly counts Lookout]; and we got all the woods in between. We’ve even got Smuggs on the back side.”

And though he’s a seasoned a bark eater, he’s not bothered by the ritzy new slopeside. “People keep saying all these changes are ruining the mountain. No, they’re not. We’ve got better lifts, better snowmaking, better everything, and it’s all paid for by the rich guys over on the other side of the street. Meanwhile, the skiing is as good as it was back in the ’50s. That hasn’t changed.”

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“The skiing at Stowe is, I think, the best in the East,” says Cece Teague, who traveled the world as a member of the U.S. Ski Team in the 1970s. Like Brown, she’s awed by the diversity of terrain. “The sustained vertical, the amazing tree skiing—there’s so much to choose from.”

Teague’s family commuted two hours each way to compete in the Stowe race program. (“Our coaches were all Germans and Austrians.”) Her brother John coached the illustrious University of Vermont ski team for a time.

And while the terrain variety delights her, it’s the camaraderie of the place that keeps her coming back. “I grew up on the mountain, so of course I just love all the people there. It’s a fun, fun place to be with the people you know and people who really love to ski. I can’t really afford it, but all my friends are there so I’ve got no choice.”

Andrew “Beach” Shaw, a guy who brims with energy and irrepressible bonhomie, grew up on Edson Hill and remembers a teenage Peter Kidd—Billy’s brother, now a fellow ski rep—bombing around the pasture at the foot of the road (where Gracie’s is) at the wheel of a tortured automobile. (You can’t do that anymore.)

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Shaw, the 1984 NCAA GS champ for UVM, and his brother Tiger, World Cup slalom ace, now CEO of the U.S. Ski Team, both grew up racing at Stowe and, like Teague, were coached by Austrians imported by legendary ski-school director Sepp Ruschp. Shaw’s Stowe roots run deep (see: Shaw’s General Store, est. 1896), and he loves the richness of the history. “Sepp brought over the best coaches in the world, and they put guys like Ron Biedermann onto the U.S. team. The history of the town and the skiing are amazing. The Green Mountain Inn…the old CCC base lodge…the Johnson Woolen Mill blankets on the old single chair. I remember the old T-bars over where the triple is now: If you were a little kid, those big Ts would pull you 10 feet in the air. You just had to hang on. …There’s just an authenticity to the place that you can still feel. Nowhere else has that.

It was racing for UVM that brought Kristi Brown to Stowe. (The team has trained there for as long as anyone can remember.) Brown (no relation to Kim) is a regular—and a devastating ringer—at the Tuesday Ski Bum Races, and she’s continually amazed at the quality of the field in a town stacked with talent. “Definitely some of the fastest racers anywhere.”

After college, ski-industry marketing and modeling jobs took her around the world. “But the place always pulls you back. A lot of us have gone out West and had our time, but we all come home, and I’m not sure that’s true at other places. It’s our ’hood. We pay a lot for it, but we love it.”

Stowe is the kind of place where, if you’re snowed in, you can ski to the bottom of the road, stick a thumb out, and hitch a ride to the mountain in minutes. “You know the only people on the road are delivery trucks or skiers rallying to the mountain.” She’s not sure which is better, an egg sandwich at the Octagon in the morning (“arugula, caramelized onions, and bacon; it’s the best”) or a can of PBR with friends on its deck in the afternoon.

If anyone appreciates the meaning of legacy in Stowe, it’s a guy carrying around the name Von Trapp. Now 42, Sam Von Trapp grew up in Stowe and is executive vice president of the famous Trapp Family Lodge. Like Shaw, he’s a product of the Stowe schools' Friday-afternoon ski program, and he’s an articulate summarizer of what makes Stowe so appealing to so many skiers.

“There’s a reason it was called the Ski Capital of the East for decades. It’s a confluence of the fact that there’s so much history—the first chairlift in the East and all that—and the fact that it’s so geographically gifted in terms of having the tallest peak in Vermont and being a real snow magnet. And then you’ve got the culture of the town. There’s a sense of place and community here that goes back long before skiing.”

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Von Trapp is a huge fan of the investments the resort has made. “It’s unbelievable what they’ve been doing. Now you’ve got the beautiful new base at Spruce or the rustic feel of the old lodge over at Mansfield. Pick your experience.”

Eric MacConnell grew up skiing the Berkshires, but when she and her husband, Chris, planned their wedding, they chose Stowe. “Because it means so much to both of us.”

MacConnell is yet another of Stowe’s illustrious racers, winner of the 2001 NCAA GS title. She came to Stowe in 1998 as a UVM recruit and has skied there every year since. Like so many, she loves the efficiency of the FourRunner Quad, but not just for the diversity of terrain it accesses. “From the quad you can access anything you want—trees, steeps, mellow groomers, whatever. But the other thing is that skiing at Stowe is very social because of that one lift. You can go there alone and there’s no doubt you will find someone you want to ski with. You’re always bumping into people you know in that liftline.”

Despite countless ski days at Stowe and what might be a record number of disciplinary reprimands, Geoff McDonald, age 32, is another UVM graduate who admires Stowe. He and his buddy/partner, Chris James, are the guys behind Meathead Films, which found a niche making East-based ski movies. Now their focus is on selling their wildly popular Ski the East paraphernalia, but it’s McDonald’s cinematographer’s eye that spots something unique about Stowe.

“There’s something we notice skiing around the Northeast. You go to the Adirondacks or Maine or New Hampshire and the trees are just so thick you can’t shoot. But in this part of Vermont they’re just more naturally open. I don’t know if it’s the species or what.”

Whatever it is, it makes Stowe’s tree skiing the best there is, McDonald says.

But that’s not all: “Stowe is epic on any scale, whether it’s the history or the elevation or the terrain or the snowfall. It’s got legit above-treeline terrain, epic steeps, chutes, cliffs, scenery—things you don’t get anywhere else. I mean, you ski around the region, and there are other places that are good or even great. But Stowe, I would say, surpasses them all.”

(Photos by Preston Schlebusch)

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