The Devil's Half-Dozen: National Stowe, Vt.
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Cut in 1952 to create a “challenging slalom hill” for the U.S. Championships, National is the oldest of Mt. Mansfield’s famous Front Four ski trails. It plunges 1,590 vertical feet over a running length of 3,875 feet with an average pitch of 36 degrees. The entire run faces northeast, so it holds snow-and stays icy-long after other runs have softened. “National just keeps coming at you,” says Dave Merriam, Stowe Snowsports School Director and U.S. Demo Team Coach. “It’s the sustained vertical that’s intimidating.”
How to ski it: The initial pitch can be so icy that your first turn often collapses into a near-terminal sideslip. And there?s the fact that National’s notoriety attracts no shortage of technically challenged joy riders, whose traverses tend to create undercut, nonsensical bump lines down the center. That’s why I almost never ski a middle line on upper National. Instead, I immediately seek the right edge, making deliberate short turns until I cross under the lift. The left side can work well, too, but it’s complicated by the presence of potentially hazardous snowmaking hydrants.
National slashes across Lift Line at a junction known as Birch Tree. The added traffic means yet more ice. (And here a critical-and vocal- audience studies your every move from overhead on the Fourunner Quad.) Below Birch Tree, National “eases up,” but not much. The right half is sometimes groomed, while the untended left half develops gargantuan bumps. I stay right and make big GS turns.
The last pitch above the run-out is a shaded hockey rink, tipped up to nearly 40 degrees. I try for complete, chatterless carves, in hopes of earning quiet nods of approval from those looking up from crossover trails below. If I’ve gotten to this point without making more than five errors, I reckon I’ve struck a truce with National-for that day.
4. National’s final pitch is a mellow blue run with relatively soft snow that meanders toward the flattening base of Mt. Mansfield. Many expert wannabes ski only this part and boast that they’ve “done National.” We know better.
Unless it’s snowed a lot recently, don’t even think about tackling National with wide or even midfat skis. You need to get to an edge instantly. Best is a ski that’s narrow underfoot, and not too long to negotiate the steep sections and tight moguls.
Practice your short turns to control speed on super steeps. And make sure your pole plant is bombproof: A missed pole plant on National quickly begets a face plant.