As my husband and I drive up the Killington access road, constellations of snowcat lights twinkle high in what should be the night sky. It's a beautiful sight on this calm, almost warm Friday evening. But we arrive with some trepidation.
That's not because Killington's size intimidates us, though it's the largest and highest in the East, topping out at 4,234 feet on Vermont's second highest peak. No, we're worried because we know the Big K is famous for being a partier's paradise, and we're—well, pushing 40, and not really big partiers anymore. Even back when I could function on two hours of sleep, I was hard-pressed to ski and dance in the same day.
As we pull into the Killington Grand Resort Hotel, we wonder what we're doing here.The parking lot is full of SUVs, but the hotel is quiet. We check in and hit the heated outdoor pool for a dip. We could cruise the access road—see who's playing at the Pickle Barrel, dance with the Friday night rowdies at the Wobbly, toast the weekend with a nightcap at the Outback. But it's our first weekend away from a certain energetic toddler who has never slept past 6 a.m. in her life. Embarrassing as it is at a resort as well-known for nightlife as it is for skiing, we just want some sleep.
Saturday dawns sunny and warm, two ingredients that ensure Killington will be jamming. On days like this, the trick is to stay ahead of the crowd, and that starts with getting up early. So just before 8 a.m. we're crossing the long footbridge over to the Snowshed base area, and 10 minutes later we're gliding over to the Killington Base Lodge, or KBL. Here, at the heart of the resort, the crowd is gathering, but we're early enough that no line has formed at the K1 Gondola, which will whisk us to the summit.
The K1 opened in 1998 as a much-needed replacement to the old double chair—a ride so long (and often so cold) that skiers were issued blankets. Although it was not constructed until 40 years later, the gondola was part of Killington founder Preston Smith's original vision. Smith conceived Killington in the mid-1950s as a resort with more lifts and trails than any other in the East. At the time, that meant three mountains, 13 trails and six lifts—including one European-style "cabin lift" he never built. Killington opened in 1958 with seven trails and two Pomas on Snowdon Mountain. Year after year, it grew relentlessly. Today you can't ski it all in a day—or even in a weekend. With its 11-mile breadth, from Sunrise Mountain in the east to Pico Peak in the west, it has more than twice the skiable acreage of its competitors. That's why people flock here—and why, it must be said, Killington is frequently mobbed. The trick is knowing how to beat the crowds.
Fortunately, there are six separate base areas, including Pico, which the American Skiing Co. brought into the fold in 1997. That makes it possible to avoid access road traffic hassles. Skiers arriving from the east can park at the Skyeship Gondola base on U.S. 4. Experts wishing to cut to the chase can head directly to the Bear Mountain base area. Families might want to insulate themselves from the crowds entirely by sticking to Pico. But most still start at either Snowshed or KBL and head to the terrain that suits them. That was another of Smith's goals. Rather than finding a market niche, he thought big: His resort would be all things to all people. Or so he hoped.
Killington is also a resort of firsts. Smith installed snowmaking when most New England resort owners thought it unnecessary. Pipes were installed on Snowshed in 1963, then added to upper-mountain trails eight years later. Last year, with a new pipeline bringing plentiful water up from nearby Woodward Reservoir, the resort was unaffected by a drought that devastated other resorts. Killington began its season Nov. 6, well ahead of its competitors.
From the top of the K1, we ski the fresh corduroy on Double Dipper before anyone else, then head over to Bear aroundd 10:30. The party has already started on Bear's sunny, south-facing slopes, and Outer Limits is the main attraction. The legendary bump run is so steep that people ski it—or in some cases slide down it—just to say they have. Below, the deck of the Bear lodge is filling up. We pay our respects to Outer Limits, then, after a couple of runs, take seats on the deck. The aroma of Coppertone and hamburgers fills the air; occasional cheers go up for especially spectacular wipeouts on the slope above. It's like dinner theater: Outer Limits is the stage, and everyone takes a turn as performer.
A wave of people soon fills the liftline, so we escape to Needle's Eye, a pod of ego-inflating blue cruisers that give Bear-weary legs a rest. We grab lunch at Raul's Burrito Stand in the Skyeship mid-station, eating while sitting atop a picnic table. Behind us, four pierced and soul-patched snowboarders eat and sway to the Bob Marley emanating from the mid-station. If snow were sand, this could be Baja.
From Needle's Eye, we head to Skye Peak, where Superstar cuts a wide swath back down to KBL. At the top of it is a pinnacle of manmade snow, the stockpile that will enable the resort to stay open into June. We avoid the line at the gondola by skiing gentler Snowdon Mountain. Later, the gondola line shortens, and we finish up on the challenging Canyon terrain. On our last ride up, we hear there's good après-ski action at the Lookout Bar & Grill. We're ready. Despite the fair-weather crowd, we've skied our fill.
Down on the access road, Killington après-ski proves irresistible. At the Lookout, we're sucked into the revelry as soon as we open the door. Sheer momentum carries us to the bar, where we order pints of Vermont-brewed Long Trail Ale. A petite blonde holds court with four guys still in their snowboard boots: a classic Killington après-ski scene.
Beers downed, we head for quieter shores—the bar of the Birch Ridge Inn, where we have dinner reservations. Over cosmopolitans, we chat with Mary Furlong and Bill Vines, who, like many innkeepers in Vermont, traded corporate jobs for simpler lives. We relax in their cozy eight-table restaurant and are glad to find a quieter side to the nightlife on the Killington access road.
But after dinner, we survey the legendary scene. Even without the big-name bands that often play these Killington hot spots, the lots are full at the Wobbly Barn, the Outback and Pickle Barrel. We're tempted to join the party, but decide that another night of uninterrupted sleep mustn't be compromised. OK, call us middle-aged.
Sunday, we awaken to the sound of wind whipping outside the hotel and opt for a leisurely breakfast at Peppers, as well-known for breakfast as it is for its bar. Behind the bar, an orange juice machine—like something out of Willy Wonka—continuously squeezes oranges that tumble into it from a crate somewhere above the ceiling. A guy slumps on the bar and stares at the machine as if each orange is his head. He is no doubt waiting for his order of "Hangover Helper": home fries, sausage, bacon, scrambled eggs, gravy and melted cheese heaped on toast. We go for omelets, then head to the cold slopes to ski them off.
The Big K is quiet today. Perhaps it's the temperature, perhaps it's a collective hangover. The all-but-empty lifts and trails feel almost spooky. We make some leisurely turns down firm corduroy on Skye Peak, then head to Rams Head for a preview of where our toddler will likely learn her first turns. There is something for everyone at Killington—even those of us who fall asleep before the main act has taken the stage at the Wobbly.