The Hills Less Skied - Ski Mag

The Hills Less Skied

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It's hard to imagine Ari Fleischer arcing high-speed turns on the steep sections of Middlebury Snow Bowl's race trail. But he could have.

Like any Middlebury College student, Fleischer, now the school's most prominent grad as President Bush's White House spokesperson, could have signed up for a dirt-cheap season pass, scheduled his poli-sci classes in a way conducive to morning runs, and been putting in 60-day seasons between pool games at The Alibi.

In fact, Fleischer was a pretty good skier, acquaintances say, who put in his share of days at the Snow Bowl. But, in large part, the ski area seems lost on most of the overachievers at Middlebury, who, safe to say, didn't get into one of the East's most prestigious liberal arts schools by neglecting their studies in favor of slope-time. Those who do manage to juggle both studies and freshies tend to pass the Snow Bowl by on their way to the longer, steeper runs at nearby Sugarbush and Mad River Glen. Others don't make their first run at the Snow Bowl until their last day as Middlebury students at the annual "ski-down," when mid-winter graduates, in cap and gown, process down the lower half of Allen, usually to highly comic effect. In a typical year only 600 of the school's 2,200 students bother to buy a pass, which this year cost only $265.

That's their loss. And missing out on the Snow Bowl experience is not a mistake other Vermont skiers and visitors should make. Shielded by the college's flush endowment from the real-world profit-loss anxieties of the ski industry, the Snow Bowl is a rare and untrammeled beauty: a ski area with up-to-date infrastructure and grooming, a not-insignificant 1,020 feet of vertical and a pleasant community-hill feel and culture.

The Snow Bowl is situated on the western slopes of the Green Mountain range in Ripton, 20 minutes east of campus and 15 miles south of Sugarbush. The drive up from the valley floor is one of Vermont's prettiest—designated for protection, in fact, as a scenic byway, owing to its access to the mountainous timber stands of the Green Mountain National Forest, as well as to the farmhouse and footpaths where poet Robert Frost spent many of his most fruitful seasons.

Did Frost ski here? No, surmises Middlebury English professor Jay Parini, a frequent Snow Bowl visitor and the poet laureate's preeminent biographer (Robert Frost: A Life). "He was a walker," Parini says, "endlessly hiking the Long Trail, which goes right through the Snow Bowl, where he would have crossed in sight of the lifts. So yes, he was a frequenter of the place, but mostly in summer and fall."

The kind of scenic beauty that brought Frost solace is the Snow Bowl's strong suit. Riding the Worth Mountain lift, it's easy to imagine the alpine pond below to be the frozen lake of "Stopping By Woods," or that the snow-laden birches leaning to left and right inspired "Swinger of Birches." In all directions, there are long Vermont vistas unspoiled by sprawl.

The ski terrain is divided into distinct trail pods. In the main base area, the base lodge is a cozy affair with a high, glass-walled prow taking a view of the slopes. (There's even a library, where students can hit the books between runs, if they must.) Most skiers click in and ride the Worth Mountain double to the 3,234-foot summit. From there, they can choose the backside, which is always least crowded (even by Snow Bowl standards). There, the Bailey Falls triple accesses a handful of mellow cruisers and easy black diamonds (Youngman, LaForce and Lift Line). Alternatively, skiers can traverse over to the even gentler slopes (Lang, Cameron and Kelton) off the Sheehan double.

But the original frontside trails—cut in the Thirties and Forties, some of them by CCC workers—are Middlebury's signature terrain. You realize that the term "winding, classic New England trails" is hackneyed when you come upon the real thing: Allen, Ross and Proctor make no apologies for following terrain that nature provideed, ranging in a single run from green-circle flats to black-diamond steeps ungentled by any bulldozer.

Mixed in are some surprisingly big-mountain terrain features. Squint a bit, and it's possible to imagine Jackson Hole in places. But if there's a drawback to the Snow Bowl ski experience, it's the maddeningly conservative boundary and trail-opening policies. Here and there are drop-offs and tree shots aching to be poached—and astonishingly untracked, despite tantalizing cover. (What's wrong with kids today? Too busy studying?) A couple of gladed sections constitute the official off-piste offerings. "We're a little cautious on that front," admits mountain manager Peter Mackey. On the backside, the steepest section of Bailey Falls Liftline is also inexplicably closed and trackless, its solid blanket of bottomless unblemished by anyone's mid-fats.

On the plus side, the Snow Bowl's grooming is impeccable, and thanks to the sparse crowds (just 50,000 skier visits per year), the corduroy often holds up till well after lunch. It's best, then, to bring the race boards—to hear the wind roar in your ears and feel the lightness in your gut as you arc over the near-cliff drop-off on Allen. That's the Snow Bowl's designated race trail, site of last year's NCAA championships. In fact, Middlebury is a regular stop not only of collegians but of Vermont youth racers as well. (World Championships medalist Doug Lewis, a Snow Bowl native, was once catapulted off the Worth Mountain chair when the bamboo he was toting clipped a tower.)

Competition has always been a Snow Bowl mainstay, dating back to its beginnings in 1934. The jumping hill stands derelict near the base area, dormant since insurance liabilities shut down NCAA competition. And there are no longer any downhills run on Proctor, ever since the death of a competitor prompted NCAA officials to ban speed events in the early Seventies.

A visit to the Snow Bowl begs one question: Why don't more people ski this place? At the very least, it's a nearby alternative for Mad River Valley visitors looking for something different and uncrowded. At best, it's an appealing destination on its own. The redbrick and white-clapboard village of Middlebury is as lovely and lively as any ski town in Vermont, with a range of dining, lodging and après-ski options to suit discerning Middlebury parents. And the skiing at the Snow Bowl is a sublime mix of beauty and unburdened slopes.

The good news? Unlike other homey, mid-sized ski areas, the Snow Bowl won't be going under anytime soon. When you're ready to rediscover the charms of undercommercialized skiing in scenic Vermont, it's there waiting.