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A Separate Peak

Travel East

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We’re awakened by the sound of snow sloughing off the roof. Then the phone rings. “Have you looked out?” asks our friend John without even saying hello. I stumble to the window and peek out, squinting at bright light on brilliant snow. While we slept, a Nor’easter and a cold Canadian high have tangoed over Vermont’s Green Mountains, leaving everything-cars, mailbox, birdhouse-under a foot of poofy powder. “7:45 at the liftline,” John says as he hangs up. He doesn’t need to say where. It’s a Pico day.

The sun isn’t even over the ridge when my husband and I arrive at Pico’s base lodge, a rustic three-story structure built in 1968. A few people mill about, some eating breakfast from the cafeteria, others putting on their boots in front of the giant stone fireplace. Within minutes, we are outside, wading through foot-deep powder to the Golden Express quad where our friends wait. The groomers have gone home long ago.

Two lift rides later, we stand at the top of 3,967-foot Pico Peak. Five miles away, Killington’s summit glistens in the morning sun. A few skiers trickle off the lift behind us, but after the first rush of hardcores, most of the chairs are empty. As we buckle our boots and snap our powder skirts, Pico feels like our very own mountain.

“Steep, steeper or steepest?” John asks. From skier’s right to left, Pico’s trails go from mellow-steep to scary-steep. Only one of them, Forty-Niner, is a true intermediate. It also gets the most traffic, being the most regularly groomed of Pico’s summit trails.

We decide on medium-steep and head for KA, a narrow, twisty classic named for Karl Acker, the Swiss slalom specialist who taught skiing at Pico way back when. Acker was hired by Pico’s founders, Brad and Janet Mead, whose daughter, Andrea Mead Lawrence, became one of Pico’s legends when she became the first American skier to win an Olympic gold medal, taking two at Oslo in 1952.

The Meads opened Pico on Thanksgiving Day in 1937. Having skied the Alps, they thought skiing in America should be grander than a ropetow in a cow pasture. Nine miles east of Rutland on U.S. Highway 4, Pico was exactly the mountain they were looking for: easily accessible and right in the snow belt (annual inches: 250 average). In the beginning, they cut three trails-called simply the A, B and C slopes-on Little Pico, a mere bump in front of and to the left of the main summit. They installed a ropetow (replaced in 1940 with North America’s first T-bar) and opened for business. The intrepid were also welcome to hike to Pico’s summit for a run down the 2 1/2-mile-long Sunset Schuss trail.

By the Forties, Pico was one of Vermont’s premier areas. During President’s Day Weekend of 1941, more than 10,000 skiers purchased tickets. But a decade later, business began to falter as skiing boomed in other parts of the state. In 1958, Killington opened just 10 minutes up the road, and Pico struggled in the shadow of the newer, glitzier resort. Still, local families remained loyal to Pico, many of them inspired by Lawrence’s gold medals and the racing programs of Pico Ski Club.

In its 50-plus years, the race club has produced eightOlympians-including Lawrence and Suzy Chaffee-and even one World Skiercross champ, Megan Brown of nearby Brandon.

When American Skiing Co. finally brought Pico under its wing in 1996, many people figured Pico would be an overlooked stepchild of Killington. “I had mixed feelings about it,” says Lawrence, who is understandably sentimental about the area. “It was Big Business moving in. But Pico is a small area, and it never would have made it alone. The only way it could was if someone like Killington bought it. I just hope it remains a family area. That’s its tradition.”

Lawrence is happy to hear that tradition seems to be prevailing. So far, the massive weekend crowds of Killington continue to shun Pico, and it remains physically separate from its larger sister resort (a long-standing plan to connect the two is on hold inddefinitely). For now, it’s what it always was.

“Pico offers classic New England skiing, but with a Killington edge,” says George Potter, vice president of Pico operations. “You get Killington’s snowmaking and grooming, without the crowds. You can still find powder at 2 in the afternoon.”

This is a fact not overlooked by locals. Three years ago, Potter sold 150 season passes. This year, he sold more than 1,300. And there are others who want to take advantage of Pico’s uncrowded slopes. The Killington Mountain School, a prestigious youth race program, relocated to Pico in October 1998. The Vermont Adaptive Ski & Sports program, which offers ski and snowboard lessons to people with disabilities, followed in 1999.Far from ignoring Pico, ASC has slowly been upgrading Pico’s infrastructure. One major improvement was “wind-proofing” the 6,200-foot-long Summit Quad. For years, this vital lift-the only one to the top-closed when it was windy, which was about half the time, Potter says.

Now it operates 90 to 95 percent of the time, he says. And when it does close, Killington honors Pico tickets.

ASC also has amped up Pico’s snowmaking, which now covers three-quarters of the mountain. The trails that remain au naturel are perhaps some of the most fun on the mountain-particularly the glades. But in a throwback to true New England skiing, weeds still sometimes poke through the snow on these trails.

On our glorious powder day, we see no weeds-not even in the glades. A third of the way down, where the pitch mellows, we head left to Birch Glades. Its entrance was once hard to find. Now a catwalk, Easy Street, runs straight into it. And yet the powder still seems to last.

Rather than go all the way to the base area for the two-lift shuffle, we ski straight to the Summit chair, which starts a couple hundred feet above the base. On the way up, we watch skiers linking turns on Pike, a wide, white swath beneath the chair. Stretching all the way from peak to base in one continuous 1,967-vertical-foot run, Pike is arguably the longest “working” vertical in all of Killington. We scout lines, hoping the few people on the lift ahead of us will go elsewhere. But we needn’t worry; there is still powder in plenty.

The following run, we find more freshies in a place where we knew we would-Summit Glades, a trail on the far right side of the mountain that’s always good for ungroomed natural-snow madness. Next we take on the rarely open, ominously named Giant Killer, a trail so steep that fresh snow often slides off the natural ice shield that usually guards its entrance. It’s the kind of trail you only want to ski on a powder day.

Next on our Tour de Powder is the Outpost Double Chair, which serves another knob of terrain near the bottom of Giant Killer, farther toward the right-most edge of the area. The lift looks like something made from an Erector Set, but trails like Bronco (steep and sustained) and Sidewinder (narrow, twisty and sometimes weedy), are worth the ride.

Finally, we head to Little Pico-back to where it all began. Pausing at the top of the old A Slope, we take a deep breath-several, actually-and look down the 38-degree pitch toward the lodge. It is almost lunchtime. The parking lot is full for a change, and the base area is actually quite crowded-by Pico standards, at least.

But we don’t care. In four hours, we have skied our fill-feasting on moreuntracked powder than many people see in a year. Pico has been ours for an entire morning. Somehow, that makes sharing a little easier.