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  • John Giuffo

Chasing Bruce's Leftovers Around Vermont

Updated: Dec 5, 2018

It pays to remain flexible when hunting powder in the Northeast.

With 21" of fresh powder blanketing its slopes, Magic Mountain in southern Vermont was the place to be last Thursday. Photo: John Giuffo

Every day on skis is a small victory.

Each one is a negotiation with our other responsibilities and obligations; a deal we make with our loved ones, our jobs, and our bodily limitations. There’s always some relative’s birthday party, or work-related function, or injury, ache, or sprain that threatens to get in the way of our precious slope time. So much has to go right for us to even scrape together the time and finances necessary to go skiing that it seems greedy to want some of those days to be powder days.

And yet we crave powder every bit as much as our western counterparts. Arguably more, since it’s comparably rare.

So when Ullr sees fit to gift us with yet another unbelievable Northeastern autumn snowfall, we don’t ignore his generosity lightly. In fact, I’d argue it’s all the more incumbent upon us to do whatever we can to carpe the shit out of that diem, and beg, borrow, steal, or lie our way to the hill.

I’d already planned on skiing Winter Storm Bruce’s bones at Stratton Thursday, then meeting my buddy Brendan to ski Smuggler’s Notch on Friday, then we’d both meet up with Adam and a couple of his friends Saturday at Sugarbush. But as the forecast totals trended upward last Monday and through Tuesday night, most of those plans changed.

And because we had both bought Ikon base passes, along with the Silverton Spring Pass (was $179, now $499, includes three days each at Smugg’s and Mad River) and the My Champlain Valley Ski & Ride Card ($175, includes one day at each of 11 ski areas around New York, Vermont, and New Hampshire, including Magic), we had the flexibility to choose which destinations would give us the best chance for face shots.

Brendan sent me a text at 10pm Tuesday night with a link to Magic Mountain’s snow report. No comment, just a link to the report which read: “Bruce Almighty…a Thursday 19-inch full-on Powder Day…the entire mountain will be OPEN including all the woods! (In NOVEMBER!)”

“I think we need to ski Magic on Thursday,” I replied.

“Yup.”

We don’t all have a writer’s schedule that allows us to take off and follow the snow, so I was glad when he told me he was willing to burn a personal day to take advantage of the most incredible semi-opening day Magic Mountain has ever had. “If I don’t take personal days in situations like this, then why do I have them?” he said. Not for nothing do we call him Sendin’ Brendan.

Sendin' Brendan leaping powder moguls at Magic. Photo: John Giuffo

For the uninitiated, Magic Mountain is a small southern Vermont ski area that packs more thrills than comparably-sized mountains. With a 1,500-foot vertical drop, one lift for the day (five total during midseason), and 50 trails – nearly half of which are categorized as advanced or expert – it’s a firecracker of an old-school New England-style ski hill, and beloved by devotees who prize its gnarly cliffs and the most extensive glade network in southern Vermont. “Where skiing still has its soul,” as their slogan goes.

That soul was in mortal peril for a while, as a host of prior operators tried to keep Magic alive unsuccessfully. There was a six-year span in the ‘90s when the mountain had closed entirely, followed by a number of other owners, culminating in the purchase of the mountain in late 2016 by Geoff Hatheway, a longtime Magic skier and passionate local, who pulled together a new group of investors who were able to help fund expanded snowmaking, lift upgrades, and improvements to the base lodge.

“One of the first things we did was buy a magic carpet-style lift in order to open a learn-to-ski area,” said Hatheway. “In the past, if you were a beginner and you rode the lift up, you had almost no easy options to get back down from the top. We were also able to install a double that goes up to the mid-mountain, which accesses some beginner and intermediate terrain.” Teams were working on getting the Green Chair double running during our visit. It was my first visit to Magic, and even from the bottom I immediately understood why so many people had recommended it to me over the past few years – the undulating fall line beneath the Red Chair looked both deceptively tame at times, then riotously steep, with cliffs dropping down the lift line that made the terrain feel like some of the steeper stuff at Smuggler’s Notch or Mad River Glen.

“People call us ‘the Mad River Glen of the south,’ but I’d rather they come to think of Mad River as ‘the Magic of the north,’” said Hatheway.

Magic Mountain's famous red chair gave us access to an entire mountain full of untouched November pow. Photo: John Giuffo

The new snowfall by the end of Bruce totaled 21 inches, and as the line grew so did the excitement. When patrol gave the all-clear and the chair began to load, there were whoops all up and down the line. A powder day in November! No one could remember the last time the mountain looked that tasty, that early in the season. We rode up, cheering on those first few rippers who sent it straight back down the lift line, over cliffs and across sneaky water bars.

Brendan and I turned right at the top and made our way over to Magician, a winding trail that starts off steep and stays steep for almost two thirds of the way back down before mellowing toward a green runout. We dropped in and started yelling immediately. “Oh my god, it’s so good!” “This is crazy!”

The storm had started warmer and cooled as it progressed, leaving a heavier layer beneath the powder and making for a firm, thick soup which would have been difficult to turn in at any point in the season, but especially in late November when we’re all still getting our ski legs back.

I hit an undercover water bar about halfway down that first run and tomahawked forward, then began laughing uncontrollably. The only thing hurt was my pride.

Those water bars would become a recurring theme on subsequent runs. We lapped the black diamond terrain of Black Line, Talisman, and Sorcerer, ventured into glades such as Disappearing Act and The Hallows, and at some point in each run, we encountered water beneath a melted band of snow that required careful navigation. It was, after all, still November, and it wasn’t at all surprising that the mountain’s watersheds hadn’t yet frozen solid.

The more we skied, the more we wanted, but my legs simply weren’t having it. I took an early lunch to recharge at the Black Line Tavern while Brendan continued sendin’. Then it was back on the lift for another half dozen runs before the leg burn sent us both packing. We were completely spent, overjoyed at our bounty, and looking forward to another two days of early-season midwinter-quality skiing.

The drive northwest to Burlington took almost three hours, and our plans changed yet again over pizza and beers at Zero Gravity Brewing’s downtown pizza joint/brew pub. We knew that Smuggs hadn’t yet opened the Madonna side of the resort, but we’d been hoping Bruce would have pushed up their operational plans for our favorite side of the ski area. Alas, we were 24 hours too early to access a fully-open Smuggler’s Notch.

Then we checked Mad River Glen’s video snow report, and marketing director Eric Friedman seduced us into calling an audible, with shots of thigh-deep powder and remarks about how criminally un-skied the mountain remained after Bruce. Mad River it was, then. Our Silverton Spring Passes were already starting to pay off.

We arrived Friday morning to a surprisingly-empty Mad River Glen. We booted up and got to the Single Chair five minutes after it began spinning and we never waited for a lift the entire day. Bruce’s remnants were less chopped up than they were the previous afternoon at Magic, and there were powder stashes everywhere in the tree and on trails such as Paradise.

Mad River Glen's iconic Single Chair carried us up to a rime ice-encrusted summit wonderland. Photo: John Giuffo

Conditions looked incredible when Adam filed his report from MRG last weekend, and it was insane to realize that another 27 inches of snow had fallen since then. General Stark Mountain rarely looks as good in mid-January. It was absolutely mind-blowing to ride up the lifts and scope out untouched lines everywhere between the snow-draped trees. The snow wasn’t quite as heavy as it had been at Magic, but powder skiing at Mad River is never easy on the legs, and the agony intensified. My mind wanted to take endless laps but my quads felt like they’d gone ten rounds with the entire Lollipop Guild.

Brendan kept going, of course, dropping down the showboat zone of Chute beneath the top section of the Single Chair, and venturing into the trees of Lynx and Gazelle. But after a leisurely lunch at General Stark’s Pub – which had four different varieties of Lawson’s beers on tap – and with the help of three Advil, I rejoined Brendan for some more laps.

It was only my second visit to Mad River Glen, so there was still a ton of terrain I’d never seen. I had a blast exploring trails such as Gazelle, the steep and challenging double lift line run, as well as mellower blues such as Quacky, Snail, and Porcupine. The mountain was so much larger than I remembered it being on my first visit two years ago, but then again that was also a super-deep powder day – with the usual long lines – and there were only so many runs one can take at Mad River on a busy day.

By the time I made my way down the winding expanse of Antelope later that afternoon, I was well and truly done. I had sweated through all my layers, the padding in my helmet was sweat-logged, and my legs were jelly. It felt criminal to not ride until close but it felt stupid to push myself toward possible injury, so we again called it a day.

It’s a special kind of hurt, that early-season leg pain. It makes getting up from a seated position tricky, but the burn feels good as well. It’s a sign that you’re earning you ski legs, and that you’ll be in a much better position to handle heavy powder days like these later on in the season. So we had dinner at Mad Taco in Warren, which has one of the best beer menus in Vermont as well as what is probably the best Tex-Mex food in the entire state. A visit to the brand-new Lawson’s Finest Liquids brewery and taproom followed, and we sampled some offerings we hadn’t yet encountered, including an amber ale named Maple Nipple that helped us end the day on a perfectly Vermont note.

But our Green Mountain road trip wasn’t over yet. We passed out early in our Warren hotel room then woke just in time to get to Sugarbush up the road for their 8am opening. It was our third day in a row, and we used our Ikon passes to get us on the hill this time, where we met Adam and two friends, John, a snowboarder, and Maggie, a former ski racer for St. Lawrence University in Upstate New York.

We rode down the groomed sections of Lincoln Peak at Sugarbush, going from sunshine down through an inversion cloud. It was glorious. Photo: John Giuffo

And though Sugarbush wasn’t able to open the entire resort – most notably, the Castlerock area and Mt. Ellen remained closed – they did open the North Lynx chair, which gave access to the relatively-untouched steeps of Sunrise and Morning Star. I dipped into the heavy, settled fresh snow for a run, but found myself eagerly limiting my adventuring off the groomers. My legs were thick fire and the Advil just wasn’t helping any longer.

There’s a period of a couple of weeks at the beginning of every season when I have to fight through fatigue by the end of the day, and I’m happy to endure the pain in order to get to a place where I can rip without pause. But I’ve found it’s also necessary to give myself some rest days – time when the micro-tears in my muscles can heal and help build up my strength for the season ahead.

So I was more than happy to spend the majority of the day ripping groomers and getting fast on hero snow. The corduroy heaven of trails such as Jester and Snowball were just what I needed, and I opened up the throttle for the first time on this trip, carving turns down the groomed portions of each run and only occasionally dipping into the edges for sips of pow.

Adam rips down through the clouds at Sugarbush on a picture perfect day. Photo: John Giuffo

We took some laps together, then broke into smaller groups or to venture off to ski solo for a bit. I felt unhurried, worn out, and content. And though I avoided some of the steeper terrain and the heavy powder of the glades that day, I didn’t feel like I missed out. After all, we had spent three days gorging on fresh snow at the tail end of what is officially an historic Snowvember (between five and six feet of snow across Vermont), and I felt like I made the most out of this Vermont road trip.

Sure, not everyone can just drop their responsibilities and chase powder around Vermont, and it can get prohibitively expensive to let snow totals make your ski destination decisions for you, but with a little multi-mountain pass planning and some willingness to be flexible, it’s possible to chase those winter storms that The Weather Channel started naming a few years ago – even in November.

© 2018 by ICE COAST MAGAZINE.

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