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Whose Woods These Are


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Here’s what it says on the Jay Peak, Vt., trail map: “Woods are not open, closed or marked.”

It’s right there in black and white. But if for some reason you’re not entirely clear on what that means, ask a Jay regular on a midweek powder day. He’ll look at you funny as your steamy tram car bumps past Tower 2 and begins its final climb to the summit, then pull down his snow-crusted neck gaiter and reply: “It means ski wherever the hell you want, man. But it’s your ass. Don’t expect anyone to come save it if you screw up.”

That is what it should say on the trail map at Jay Peak, where managers have been looking the other way since…well, long before other Eastern resorts warmed to the idea of letting customers ski where they want to. But the wink-wink, open/unopen woods policy is only half the equation at Jay. Because tree-skiing’s no fun without fresh snow, and thanks to sparse crowds and freakishly abundant snowfall, snow is Jay’s specialty.

Take last season¿phenomenal even by Jay standards. Over the course of the best winter anyone can recall in three decades¿with not only suffocating snowfall, but constant, comfortable temperatures and nary a thaw¿the resort reported an astonishing 571 inches. In a year when the rest of North America saw average amounts, Jay was the snowfall king of the continent.But first, a word about that total-accumulation figure. And the word that comes instantly to the mind of Vermont meteorologist Mark Breen is “inaccurate.”

“I don’t know how they’re measuring it, and snowfall is one of the most difficult aspects of weather to measure,” he allows. But Breen notes that reliable measurements at Mt. Mansfield, 30 miles south, and Mt. Washington, 75 miles east, put the season totals at 322.9 inches and 301.9 inches, respectively.

“I could even buy up to 400 inches, but 571? I was up there in April, and I didn’t see an almost two-fold increase over Mt. Mansfield and Mt. Washington.”

Such killjoys, those weathermen. But why quibble over numbers? Breen admits there’s truth to the perception that Jay gets more snow than anybody else. “They are definitely in a favored location,” he says. “It’s a combination of being the most northerly tall peak of the Green Mountains, which makes it one of the first recipients of moisture coming through there, and also the tendency of departing storm systems to bring winds from the north and northwest, which pick up leftover moisture and push it up against the mountain. As the air is forced higher, you see additional clouds the famous ‘Jay Cloud’ and snowfall.”

Well, it’s a good thing Jay is favorably located for something (other than moose hunting). Unless you’re from Montreal¿which is as close to Jay as Denver is to Loveland in Colorado¿getting there can be an ordeal. And being there can be an exercise in making your own fun. The greater metropolises of Montgomery Center (pop. 992) and Jay (pop. 426) won’t blind you with bright lights. Content yourself, then, with the happy convergence of the East’s deepest snowpack and a truly great mountain for skiing.

Jay juts just shy of 4,000 feet at the top of Vermont¿the last citadel of the Greens before they dribble across the Canadian border and peter out on Quebec’s maritime plains. Its clientele has always been an incongruous mix. There are the urban sophisticates from Montreal, who arrive wearing leather garments of every color except brown or black. There are the undergrads and hardcore ski bums of Burlington, who trek the extra 45 minutes in search of snow or to avoid the crowds of Stowe or Sugarbush or Mad River. There are the locals¿well-grounded, conservative types more inclined to snowmobiling than skiing. And then there are the just-plain-loonies that the place seems to attract¿adherents of the Jay Cult, willing to live in campers in order to be there when the next big dump arrives.

And why not? The skiing is as good here as anywhere in the East. Families and casual skiers find an abundance of easy groomers, but Jay is mostly about expert, untamed terrain¿whether in the woods or on the trail, where judicious grooming favors a natural surface. Yes, there are steep corduroy cruisers off the Stateside area’s Jet triple chair, but a day at Jay is more productively spent off-trail, searching out pockets of untracked on thickly forested inclines you’d swear weren’t skiable if you weren’t looking at someone else’s tracks. No line is too narrow, no landing too tight that a Jay tree-hound won’t point ’em and trust in Ullr. And if you can’t live with a few sapling wounds to the face and the occasional rip in your Gore-Tex, well, Bretton Woods, N.H., is 90 minutes away.

Who cares how they’re measuring the snow at Jay? When you’re talking about the difference between a foot and 15 inches, it’s academic.

Jay Peak, Vt.
Getting There From New York: I-87 to Exit 42, then Route 242 to Jay (6.5 hours). From Boston: I-93 then I-91 to Exit 26 (Orleans), then Route 242 to Jay (3.5 hours)
Average Annual Snowfall 351 inches.
Record Season 571 inches, 2000-01.
Biggest Dump In Recent Memory 54 inches, March 21-24, 2001.
Length Of Season Mid-November to Late April.
Best Time For Powder February, March.
Price Of A Lift Ticket $52.
Skiable Acres 450, includes glades but not woods.
Information 800-451-4449;