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In 1958, Mount Snow was indisputably the coolest place on earth-at least in the eyes of a 9-year-old. The snazz factor started at the beginner hill, where a massive and ever-morphing frozen fountain the color of Crest toothpaste threatened to topple onto some unwary visitor. It’s gone now, that lawsuit waiting to happen, along with its even more ambitious 1965 successor, Fountain Mountain, a 350-foot geyser erupting from Snow Lake to form a frozen sugarloaf. It loomed beneath egg-shaped, Jetson-style “air cars” that connected the ski hill to the 1962 Snow Lake Lodge, a marvel in itself, with its indoor jungle, waterfall and hot-and-cold “Japanese Dream Pools,” much beloved of bone-weary skiers (the sport was a hell of a lot tougher then). The entire gestalt, in retrospect, makes one wonder if perhaps the resort’s founder, Walter Schoenknecht, somehow got a jump on late-’60s psychedelia. One thing is certain: Schoenknecht, the Disneyesque visionary, who’d foreseen the place’s potential when he hiked to the summit of 3,600-foot Mt. Pisgah in October of 1949 and found 18 inches of snow, had a real gift for anticipating the zeitgeist.
Back in the ’50s, the place was just plain sexy. The entire complex was crawling with stretch-panted snow bunnies (creatures of considerable mystery for a clueless girl who’d just discovered a stack of Playboys under her brother’s mattress) and their counterparts, square-jawed ski instructors, tan and tall and enchanting. The best place to watch them was the outdoor pool in its steamy glass corral, where you could rent a bathing suit if you’d forgotten yours, and alternate giddily between the icy air and sultry water. This, of course, was in the days before condos and hot tubs and, indeed, all but the most rudimentary of creature comforts. To my mind, Mount Snow was a hotbed of hedonism.
So it seemed the perfect spot for an impromptu empty-nest extravaganza-a stolen weekend of unbridled Sybaritism-for two somewhat superannuated snow bunnies (would that make us dust bunnies?). I sent an email to my friend Kathy O’Dell, whom I’d met when we could still outski our children (now adults, or nearly). “I’m with you, girlfriend,” she zapped back. We met up a few miles shy of the mountain, at the Hermitage, where a well-chosen chardonnay and some succulent quail helped us catch up.
I’d booked a room at the slopeside Grand Summit hotel, figuring we’d need every advantage to get in gear and on the hill at a reasonable hour Saturday morning. I’d recommend it, too, for anyone weary of the usual parking-lot schlep. A Magic Carpet is there to gently swoop you up to the base area.
Lifts open at 8 on weekends. Are we there? Not quite-too busy scarfing maple-sopped banana nut bread French toast at Harriman’s, the Grand Summit’s in-house restaurant. In fact, by the time we’ve collected Kathy’s rentals (her stuff has gathered a couple of years’ worth of dust, plus a few product recalls), it’s pushing 10. We decide to cash in on my ski-writer perks and head out with a guide-the big plus being carte blanche to cut liftlines, which by this point are, let’s say, substantial. Civilians can buy the same privilege by signing up for a group clinic starting at $33 for two hours-a worthwhile ploy.
Our pro, Michael Purcell, predicts that the hoi polloi hordes will funnel through in 15 minutes, which turns out to be true. (We later time it). Mount Snow has an uphill capa-city of more than 36,000 skiers per hour. I don’t think the numbers are quite that high today; still, we’re glad to be up, up and away and soon over the top-headed for the North Face, Mount Snow’s hidden cache of bumped-up, certifiably scary steeps.
Lucky for us, Ripcord, with its huge moguls, is roped off. This is 2001-02, after all, the Winter of Shockingly Little Snow, and beyond the manmade ribbons we ski on, the landscape is brown. Ordinarily you can hang out on the all-expert North Face all day, making pit stops at the Summit Lodge annd thereby avoiding the masses, but today that’s not to be. We move on to Sunbrook, the fun, southerly side, with its ego-boosting cruisers and Bear Trap, a broad mogul cascade that offers quite a show for riders of the double chair overhead. It puts you back on the front face, midway along a top-to-bottom toll road called Long John, which locals refer to as the Long Island Expressway. Everyone-tyros to tear-asses-seems to favor this green traverse. Michael warns us to keep up.
By this time, he’s seen enough of our skiing style-or lack of it-to offer some suggestions. They’re helpful, too: I especially like his analogy comparing the uphill ski to Ginger Rogers (who had to do everything Fred did, only backward, in a gown and high heels). But we old dogs are not about to learn any new tricks. What we really want to know is: Where aren’t the crowds? Michael helpfully leads us down the sidelines of the El Diablo terrain park. This detour has two advantages: (1) only avid support people (a.k.a. parents) use these uncrowded alleys; and (2) seeing what these kids can do will quickly make you quit your whining. With the suggestion that, later in the day, we try skiing directly under the lifts (“No one goes there”) or on slopes that have been closed for morning races, Michael leaves us. We repair to the Timber House Grill for a great lunch of grilled portobellos. (That’s my tip for bypassing the cafeteria lines: The table service is just about as swift.)
After lunch we make a few more runs, though we never really do find that sweet spot unknown to all others and the constant swirl is making me grouchy. But any disgruntlement quickly dissipates at the full-service Grand Summit spa. It’s not the hushed sanctum one comes to expect (owing to its proximity to the outdoor pool, where exuberant children fashion their frozen hair into Plake-style spikes). But the treatments do the trick: I give the lava-rock massage a solid four stars.
Kathy and I debate heading out for more of the valley’s fabled cuisine but settle on Harriman’s again, since breakfast served us so well. Dinner more than delivers: mussels in saffron cream, sea bass with paillettes of grilled asparagus in sweet miso sauce, a 100-proof tiramisu-all served up in a casual atmosphere that provides the extended families around us with just what they need, too.
The following morning, we give Haystack, Mount Snow’s smaller, satellite mountain, a try. It’s a good move. Haystack is the Town & Country version of Mount Snow-sort of like a private club. The lodge is a handsome, modern construction, with a visible endoskeleton cheerily painted green, red and yellow. There’s a race today, and inside, junior competitors pull on their Lycra suits as Cyndi Lauper belts out Girls Just Want to Have Fun. (Indeed.) Haystack has a couple of challenging runs, such as Wizard and the Warlock’s Woods. And because it’s only open on weekends and holidays, the local powder hounds know to go there first on Saturday if there’s been any fresh snow that week. But mostly, Haystack is known for its cruisers, and the would-be hotshots tend to pass it by.
With the race activity neatly localized, Kathy and I have the sinuous blues virtually to ourselves: Finally, we can run free. Kathy soon comes up with a slogan for Haystack (she’s good at this stuff): “For people cool enough not to care if they’re cool.”
It’s so cool, we forget we’re even skiing. We’re breathing, flowing, flying. Skiing as it’s meant to be.