Weekend at Sugarbush

Travel East
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Beautiful though it was, no one but the people who lived there had much use for the Mad River Valley before the middle part of the 20th century. Farmers scratched out livings on its fertile but narrow river-bottom land, and loggers worked the wooded slopes rising up to the east and west. But even by Vermont standards, the valley was remote and isolated: Few people came and few left; electricity and phone service didn't reach many homes until after World War II.

As local lore has it, farmers amused themselves during the long winters by lashing their feet to long wooden skis designed strictly for cross-country transportation, then attempt to ride them down hillside pastures. Turning and stopping weren't really options, and some degree of injury was probable. But it was fun. And who knew that they were on to the chi-chi leisure sport that would someday transform the Valley economy?

As downhill skiing caught on, the steep mountains that once isolated the Mad River Valley suddenly became the very attraction that brought carloads of affluent city folk. And by the late-Sixties, Sugarbush ski resort was the center of action. The ultimate irony: Rustic Waitsfield was especially trendy among New York's beautiful people, becoming a regular haunt for the Kennedy clan and other East Coast celebrities.

Sugarbush's image as "Mascara Mountain" waned over the years, but its reputation as a skier's mountain only grew. Neighboring Glen Ellen was annexed in 1979, roughly doubling Sugarbush's size, yet it still languished, and Les Otten bought it cheap (for less than $8 million) in 1994. Not even Otten, who had a golden touch with other resorts in those days, could dramatically increase skier visits. Not even after dumping some $20 million into on-mountain upgrades (against the advice of local ski-resort managers who feared such a huge investment could not be recouped). For today's visitor, however, that means first-class skiing amenities, without the masses that usually accompany them. Killington, for example, does almost three times as many skiers.

As for the Valley itself, it's different than it was in the old days, but not entirely. Yes, there are trophy homes hidden in the woods, and more Audi wagons than hay wagons. But there are still a few working farms. At Kenyon's Hardware you can still find a salt lick for the cows and a box of buckshot for your 10-gauge. And more than occasionally you'll hear the unvanquished Vermont accent.

As for lodging, visitors can name their pleasure, because the Valley's got everything from low-budget motels to high-end inns. The specialty is above-average B&Bs, of which there are several. If price isn't a concern and you like being in town, check in at the Pitcher Inn (see page 8E), in the village of Warren, three miles from the slopes. If it's first tracks you're after, there are condos on the mountain and close by, with all the amenities at either The Bridges or the resort's own Sugarbush Inn.

If you've never been to Sugarbush, the east flank of Mt. Abraham presents an imposing face as you pull into the huge dirt parking lot at its feet. The gut instinct at any new ski area is to get to the summit as soon as possible, so go ahead. A gondola used to climb the west wall of the valley in a single shot before its colorful but cramped cars were retired in the Seventies. Now you'll need to take two chairs: the Valley House, then, after a short warm-up run, Heaven's Gate. The latter deposits you atop the world, on 3,975-foot Lincoln Peak. You can gaze westward over the spine of the Greens to where Lake Champlain shimmers in the distance-a long silver sheet backed by the Adirondacks of New York-or eastward to the White Mountains of New Hampshire. To the north is another Vermont landmark, Camel's Hump-misshapen from this angle-with Mt. Mansfield just beyond.

When you've got your bearings, cycle for a couple of runs on some of the resort's toughest terrain-Paradise and Organ Grinder-or mellow out onhe intermediate S-turns of Jester and Downspout. Depending on the weather, it might be time to retreat to a more sensible altitude. On a cold day, there's no better place to ski at Sugarbush than the sunny slopes of North Lynx Peak, at the north edge of the area.

In between North Lynx and Heaven's Gate, however, is the Bush's signature terrain: the hallowed trails of Castlerock. When Otten bought Sugarbush, he immediately planned to ASC-ize Castlerock: that is, install snowmaking to ensure adequate snow cover and a high-speed lift to replace the original, plodding double. To many minds, he might as well have proposed back-filling the Grand Canyon. Local outrage mounted ("More 'Rock, less Otten," proclaimed a Valley bumper sticker), and Otten wisely backed down; Castlerock remains today as it ever was. The lift ride is 11 minutes, servicing 2,237 vertical feet of classic New England terrain that's only open when there's ample snow. With the chair acting as capacity regulator, it's not uncommon to turn a corner on Rumble or Middle Earth or Castlerock Run and find yourself alone amid the forest quiet. But don't be mesmerized: The terrain, never groomed, demands full attention.

After two runs on Rumble-probably the resort's toughest trail-your stomach will be rumbling, too. Lucky for you, Sugarbush has one of the best slopeside dining experiences anywhere in North America. Find your way to Chez Henri (just across the covered walking bridge north of the base area), where proprietor Henri Borel still presides over a classic French bistro experience. Don't rush: Have a glass of red and relax. The French have such a sensible approach to skiing.After lunch, there won't be time or inclination to make the Slide Brook Express connection to Mount Ellen (a.k.a. "Sugarbush North").

It's better to explore what's left of South. Board the Super Bravo quad again and head to the southern edge of the area. On the way up you can decide whether you're up for Stein's Run (Stein Eriksen briefly headed the ski school here before moving to Deer Valley, Utah). Go left off the top of Super Bravo and it's a long, easy traverse to the top of three challenging black-diamonds: Stein's, The Mall and Twist. Keep going, and you'll find easier terrain on Spring Fling and Snowball, which form the southern boundary of the resort. There's rarely a line on the Valley House chair, a fixed-grip double that accesses the southernmost trails. And on busy weekends, intermediates can cycle on the Spring Fling Triple, all the way at the south edge of the area. There's easily enough terrain here to keep you occupied till last chair, when you can pack up the skis and set out to explore the Valley in earnest.

If you love charming Vermont villages, you're in luck: The Mad River Valley has two. At the north end, Waitsfield is as lovely as they come-almost to the point of cliché with its white-steeple church, clapboard homes and covered bridge. Park the car on Bridge Street, have a drink at The Spotted Cow and browse the eclectic handful of shops.

Warren, about six miles south, is even tinier and tidier, anchored by the dignified Pitcher Inn and the Warren Store. In between, at the junction of Routes 17 and 100, is a collection of shops, gas stations and restaurants, variously referred to as Irasville or "the new part of town." It's car-oriented and charm-free, but there are a few businesses worth checking out. One is independently owned Mehuron's Market, which is refreshingly different from today's homogenized supermarkets, with a particularly good wine section.

For restaurants and nightlife, the Valley isn't quite Stowe or Killington, especially for sheer quantity. But there are nonetheless a few quality spots for dinner: The Pitcher Inn and The Common Man, among them. For something more egalitarian, try pizza at American Flatbread, which is no ordinary pizzeria. For starters, the huge oven is wood-fired, and it sits right in the dining room, so you get to watch. And while you wait for a table, there's plenty of reading: The walls are covered with lefty slogans and essays-food for thought, as it were. You might have plenty of time to read them all: American Flatbread is popular, and only open Thursday through Saturday, so the line is often out the door.

If you're up for a little nightlife, start with a quiet drink at The Den, a popular spot at the junction of Routes 17 and 100 in Irasville. When you're ready for a little more action, cross over to the Mad Mountain Tavern for pool and rowdiness. And when it's time to dance it all off, cross Route 17 to Gallagher's, which rocks into the night with live music. Remember through it all, this isn't Aspen, and Sugarbush's glam days were long ago. The décor at all three places is strictly rustic, and the attire is typically Larry-Darrel-&-Darrel chic.

Provided you haven't stayed too late at Gallagher's, Sunday is reserved for exploring Mount Ellen, still known to most locals as Sugarbush North. As its name implies, it is located about four miles north of Lincoln Peak on the same ridgeline (almost halfway to Mad River Glen, another appealing draw for a Valley ski trip). Many find North to be an even more charismatic mountain than South (with the exception of Castlerock). The trails are a little narrower and twistier, and there's no base-area buildup.

Take a couple of warm-up runs on the Inverness slopes, at the northern edge of the area, and don't be discouraged to see scores of 15-year-olds skiing much faster-and better-than you do. This is the home hill of Green Mountain Valley School, a race academy. Any of those kids could be the next world-champion downhiller, like Daron Rahlves, a GMVS alumni who was kind of small and ordinary as a student there.

Head for the summit via the Green Mountain and North Ridge Express quads. At the top of the former, you'll see the Slide Brook Express quad coming in from your left, a four-mile ride that links Mount Ellen to North Lynx Peak at Sugarbush South. From the top of North Ridge, head over and cycle on the Summit quad, which accesses trails as ornery as you'll find anywhere in the East: Exterminator, FIS and especially Black Diamond-a steep bump run barely three troughs wide and right under the lift. But don't despair: There are also good views and mellow cruising on Rim Run, Panorama and Lookin' Good. The mid-mountain Glen House is a small out-of-the-way lodge good for lunch. And don't call it a day before you've found Tumbler and Hammerhead, two narrow bumpers below the Glen House that were somewhat orphaned when ASC truncated the Green Mountain chair. Locals still mourn the loss of easy access to these and other trails lower on the mountain and do their best to avoid the resulting choke point atop the North Ridge Express, where intermediate skiers are funneled onto Elbow and Lookin' Good.

For the most part, though, crowding is hardly a problem at Mount Ellen, or almost anywhere at Sugarbush. Only on the busiest weekends will you have to battle the kind of skier traffic common at other marquee resorts in the East. Throw in the kind of snowmaking firepower that Les Otten brought to bear (wholly unneeded during last year's spectacular snowfall), the best lifts money can buy, and the rural charms of the Valley's agricultural landscape, and a weekend here begins to look like one of the shrewdest decisions you've ever made.watch. And while you wait for a table, there's plenty of reading: The walls are covered with lefty slogans and essays-food for thought, as it were. You might have plenty of time to read them all: American Flatbread is popular, and only open Thursday through Saturday, so the line is often out the door.

If you're up for a little nightlife, start with a quiet drink at The Den, a popular spot at the junction of Routes 17 and 100 in Irasville. When you're ready for a little more action, cross over to the Mad Mountain Tavern for pool and rowdiness. And when it's time to dance it all off, cross Route 17 to Gallagher's, which rocks into the night with live music. Remember through it all, this isn't Aspen, and Sugarbush's glam days were long ago. The décor at all three places is strictly rustic, and the attire is typically Larry-Darrel-&-Darrel chic.

Provided you haven't stayed too late at Gallagher's, Sunday is reserved for exploring Mount Ellen, still known to most locals as Sugarbush North. As its name implies, it is located about four miles north of Lincoln Peak on the same ridgeline (almost halfway to Mad River Glen, another appealing draw for a Valley ski trip). Many find North to be an even more charismatic mountain than South (with the exception of Castlerock). The trails are a little narrower and twistier, and there's no base-area buildup.

Take a couple of warm-up runs on the Inverness slopes, at the northern edge of the area, and don't be discouraged to see scores of 15-year-olds skiing much faster-and better-than you do. This is the home hill of Green Mountain Valley School, a race academy. Any of those kids could be the next world-champion downhiller, like Daron Rahlves, a GMVS alumni who was kind of small and ordinary as a student there.

Head for the summit via the Green Mountain and North Ridge Express quads. At the top of the former, you'll see the Slide Brook Express quad coming in from your left, a four-mile ride that links Mount Ellen to North Lynx Peak at Sugarbush South. From the top of North Ridge, head over and cycle on the Summit quad, which accesses trails as ornery as you'll find anywhere in the East: Exterminator, FIS and especially Black Diamond-a steep bump run barely three troughs wide and right under the lift. But don't despair: There are also good views and mellow cruising on Rim Run, Panorama and Lookin' Good. The mid-mountain Glen House is a small out-of-the-way lodge good for lunch. And don't call it a day before you've found Tumbler and Hammerhead, two narrow bumpers below the Glen House that were somewhat orphaned when ASC truncated the Green Mountain chair. Locals still mourn the loss of easy access to these and other trails lower on the mountain and do their best to avoid the resulting choke point atop the North Ridge Express, where intermediate skiers are funneled onto Elbow and Lookin' Good.

For the most part, though, crowding is hardly a problem at Mount Ellen, or almost anywhere at Sugarbush. Only on the busiest weekends will you have to battle the kind of skier traffic common at other marquee resorts in the East. Throw in the kind of snowmaking firepower that Les Otten brought to bear (wholly unneeded during last year's spectacular snowfall), the best lifts money can buy, and the rural charms of the Valley's agricultural landscape, and a weekend here begins to look like one of the shrewdest decisions you've ever made.

Related

3.  Sugarbush, Vermont

Sugarbush

The ski area offers 111 trails, served by 16 lifts, spread across three peaks, each with its own distinct flavor.