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  • Adam Kaufman

A Notch Above Expectations

Following the January thaw(s), Smuggs surprises with soft turns and hidden powder.

Old school New England-style trails are one of the draws of Smuggler's Notch. Photo: Adam Kaufman

We’d been planning a trip to Northern Vermont for weeks, and for my cousin, Justin, and my buddy, Jim, it was their first day back on skis this season. They were a little worried about the snow conditions – we anticipated bulletproof boilerplate following a thaw and flash refreeze everywhere – and they asked me if I thought we should cancel.

“Honestly, we’re probably going to spend the weekend skiing icy groomers, but we’ll make the most of it,” I told them, not wanting to sound discouraging while trying to maintain the stoke.


In the wake of a rainstorm that soaked the entire Northeast, I tried to set realistic expectations and remain optimistic. But with up to two inches of rainfall followed by a hard freeze at sub-zero temperatures, there wasn’t much sugar-coating to be done (except from the sugary frozen granular that got skied off and pushed to the trail edges).


I was frustrated by missing out on Winter Storm Harper, which had covered ski areas all over upstate New York and New England with up to two feet of snow over Martin Luther King weekend. I typically avoid the crowds, long lines, and the higher prices of holiday weekend skiing, and besides, holiday weekends have been plagued by rain and less-than-ideal conditions over the last few seasons. Ullr was generous this year though, and my Facebook and Instagram feeds were overflowing with magazine-quality powder porn.


The final weekend of January looked promising, and early forecasts showed minimal rainfall followed by potentially significant snow. Unfortunately, as the week progressed the prognosis grew worse, and on Thursday I found myself trudging around New York City in 60-degree rain. I didn’t want to imagine what was happening to my beloved snow up north.


Justin and Jim’s fears won out, however, and they both canceled. Oh, well. I emailed Mike Chait, the Public Relations Director at Smugglers Notch, who I was supposed to meet and possibly take some laps with that weekend. I explained that my friends had canceled due to anticipated icy conditions and trail closures, and that I was also reconsidering my visit.

“Ice?,” Chait responded, as though it were an impossibility. “[We got] three-to-five inches of fresh overnight and it’s skiing pretty well. Came in like a speeding train, so it bonded really well.”

A handy reminder to stop and take in your surroundings at one of Vermont's most beautiful mountains. Photo: Adam Kaufman

I was admittedly skeptical. On the one hand, snow reporters are notorious for sugarcoating conditions reports and embellishing snow totals like fisherman boasting about the size of their catches. The range of what eastern snow reporters refer to as “packed powder” runs the gamut from soft and chalky hero snow to barely-edgeable, frozen granular hardpack. On the other hand, Smuggs’ "No Bull" weather report gives it to you straight, and the Vermont ski areas north of I-89 always seem to squeeze a little extra snow from every storm.


No matter. My ice-averse comrades might have been scared off, but I would venture on my own to Smuggler’s Notch and see for myself just how good (or bad) the conditions truly were.


I got a hint at what I’d be facing on the drive up. The wind whipped across Vermont’s roads on Sunday morning, loudly whistling through the gaps in my rooftop ski rack and blasting sudden bursts of snow across the road at every open pass. My Subaru rocked back and forth in the gusts and, clutching the wheel at ten and two, I fought back and steadied the car.


I arrived around half past eight, but Smuggs was strangely empty for a midwinter weekend – save for the groups of racers that were there to compete in the Eastern Cup Giant Slalom race. When I got to the summit, there wasn’t a single person in sight. I expected the worst. “Everyone else must have come here Saturday and been scared off by the conditions,” I thought to myself. But I had just tuned my skis for a reason, and I’d be damned if a bit of ice was going to stop me.

A mostly-empty Sunday morning at Smuggs that proves the adage "you won't know until you go." Photo: Adam Kaufman

I traversed over to Upper FIS, a wide fall-line trail that swoops down one of the steeper facets of Madonna Mountain, Smuggs’ highest peak, and stood there contemplating my decision. In the flat morning light, the snow below me seemed featureless. I didn’t know what to expect.

I clanked my poles together and dropped in anticipating the signature “scrrrrrittttchhh” of frozen hardpack, but the sound never came. Instead I heard the lovely whisper of powdery snow under my skis as I slashed into a pillow-y mogul. Now beneath me I could see the details of the path ahead; a series of soft, powdery ledges separated by roughly twenty feet of hardpack, but nothing my freshly sharpened edges couldn’t handle. I couldn’t believe I had this endless playground of softer-than-expected snow mostly to myself.


What ice I did encounter was sparse and easily avoidable. Groomers like Chilicoot and Drifter were quilted with firm, grippy packed powder. Doc Dempsey’s Glade, with its steep bumps and widely-spaced trees, was coated with a few inches of wind-buffed powder. Skiing natural trails in the east typically requires a zen-like acceptance of mangled bases (“tools, not jewels” as they say), but this was a decidedly different experience. The recent rain and subsequent hard freeze had locked in all of the P-Tex-hungry rocks and stumps, so I could ski confidently without the slightest concern for what lurked beneath.


I was having such a great time that I began to feel guilty about misinforming my friends—about mistakenly steering them to cancel their plans to join me. But my guilt was displaced by pure elation as I shot through the trees in Red Fox Glade then across the lift line into a fresh, untracked area. I watched the soft, light powder devour the tops of my boots as I floated effortlessly from one turn to the next.

Powder still lurks in the trees at Smuggler's Notch days after a storm has passed through. Photo: Adam Kaufman

Given the superior conditions on the natural snow and the still-small-but-growing crowd that finally arrived around eleven o’clock, when I rendezvoused with Mike for a few laps we elected to stay in the trees. With dozens of glades scattered across Madonna and Sterling peaks, Smuggler’s Notch is a tree skier’s paradise. The on-map glades are already fantastic, but go with a local who is well-acquainted with the resort’s seemingly infinite stashes if you want the true Smuggs experience. Those who can stomach mandatory lines down steep, narrow chutes with banked turns are rewarded with virgin snow in open glades even several days after a storm.


It only takes a few laps to realize that Smuggler’s Notch is not like most other resorts. Sure, the owners have recently invested $5 million in developing and maintaining a modern, luxurious resort complete with condos, restaurants and a recently-upgraded kid-friendly “Fun Zone 2.0,” which features a myriad of activities including mini-golf and a ninja warrior course. However, the ski area itself is nearly identical to what it was decades ago, and both the resort’s operators and their faithful patrons take pride in this. The fixed-grip double chairs are slow and leave you exposed to the elements or to a barrage of unsolicited conversation from an overly chatty stranger (guilty as charged). But your patience is rewarded with uncrowded slopes and lasting snow quality. Many of the trails here are narrow and serpentine, with an endless variety natural terrain features—an ice cliff here, a natural halfpipe there. While a handful of terrain parks do exist, the best freestyle skiers here are typically found launching off cliffs and tapping trees.

The reward for your fixed-grip chairlift patience is snow that stays fresher longer. Photo: Adam Kaufman

Despite its abundance of advanced and expert terrain, Smuggler’s Notch primarily prides itself as a family resort. Chait joked that resort owner, William Stritzler, once advised his staff, “We’re not in the skiing and snowboarding business. We’re in the business of helping parents tire their kids out.”


True to that advice, there is a great progression of trails here that provide a fun experience for all ages and abilities. An entire third of the resort, located on the slopes of Morse Mountain, is devoted to children and beginners. Ski here on a Saturday and you’ll see the next generation of skiers and riders, with their parents and instructors, being introduced to the joys of winter one turn at a time. “We don’t judge you here by how you dress or how well you ski,” said Chait. “We judge you by how much fun you’re having.”


If fun is the metric by which we are to be judged, then on that Sunday I may have been the best skier in the entire Northeast.

© 2018 by ICE COAST MAGAZINE.

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