Hope for the Best, Plan for the East
Seeking post-rain redemption at Jay Peak and Bolton Valley.
A change in the cold pattern is right around the corner, but the weather these past few weekends has been rough, to put it mildly.
The first of our two planned ski days over New Year’s weekend was not going as we’d hoped, what with the recent rains and all, but when you’re a Northeast skier looking to make turns after two back-to-back freeze-thaw cycles, you make do.
We knew conditions would be crispy and that was fine with us – we are Ice Coast Magazine, after all – but we didn’t plan for the ball-wrinkling terror of a hard-frozen, scraped-off, peak-season Jay Peak the Sunday before last. After dropping onto Lower Northway, the gravity of our situation was immediately apparent. Sure, we’d been skiing Jay’s icy frontside trails all morning, but we’d been finding pockets of soft comfort here and there. Small caches of grace on which to engage an edge. This was different.
The slope was sheer carnage – a bit like that scene in Titanic where people were sliding down the upended deck, completely out of control, every man, and woman, and child for themselves. There were multiple people down or helping someone else who had fallen.
No matter how forward my pressure, no matter how carefully I edged, no matter how sharp those edges – we’d just had a fresh 1-2 put on our edges a half hour before at the base workshop – there was nothing to be done but side-slip slowly, angle my hips toward the uphill, and be prepared for a fall that was almost certainly coming.
Adam somehow avoided falling, but I fell once, and Adam’s buddy Nate, who had joined us for his first day of skiing in ten years, fell three times, including one slow, never-ending butt slide that transitioned into a head-first slide with me yelling “Get your skis back under you!” from below before he finally managed to swing back around and stop himself.
“That was the worst trail I’ve ever skied,” I said to Adam as I reached the bottom and he scraped his way down behind me. He nodded and shouted, “I’m still alive! We’re all still alive!” He agreed it was the worst trail he’d ever been on, and so did Nate – a former ski racer – when he made it down a moment later looking like he’d seen a ghost.
This is the East Coast; we’ve all had icy days where our goals slowly shift from “let’s have fun skiing!” to “let’s all take this really seriously and try to survive together so we can be better prepared to ski this shit next time.”
But these were the most challenging conditions I’d ever skied, and that includes the time last season when an icy trail and new, sticky gun snow collaborated to send me into a tree, and then to the hospital with a couple of broken ribs and a partially-dead kidney. I’ve been skittish on ice ever since.
Also in the back of our minds was our friend Rennie (a key part of the Alba Adventures cast of ski fiend family members), who had been skiing at Pico the week before Christmas on a very similar day – a hard refreeze following rain – and wound up with a double-fractured femur after hitting an iced-over watershed.
Appropriately cautious and humbled, we decided to call it a day. It’s not always an easy decision to stop skiing early, but recognizing when we’re out of our comfort zones and acting accordingly is one of the keys to safely skiing the Northeast. Don’t look at it as money wasted on a lift pass; look at it as money saved in hospital expenses. Sometimes you have to lose an afternoon to save a season.
When we planned a group trip to Burlington for New Year’s weekend, we knew it was possible we’d encounter less-than-ideal conditions, which is why we chose a destination that was within easy driving distance of a half dozen of our favorite Vermont ski areas.
“Follow the snow” is one of the essential Ice Coast skills, but that’s a difficult adage to follow when vacation plans are set months ahead and a rainstorm has run roughshod over the entire eastern seaboard two days earlier. We did our best by hoping that Jay, with its far-north location and reputation for making its own weather, would be the spot to hit the day after the rains stopped, but the hard refreeze made the going tough for everyone. The mountain ops team at Jay did a bang-up job of getting the place ready for the holiday weekend traffic, but there’s only so much that can be done with a groomer in some situations.
Soaking our fear-clenched muscles in the hot tub back at our Burlington hotel that night, we discussed which ski areas would be likely to have the most tolerable conditions for the longest the next day and decided that Bolton Valley was our best bet for some decent turns. Nate, however, wasn’t convinced.
“Will it be more of the same tomorrow?” he asked, “Because if it is, I’m inclined to opt out.”
It was an understandable position, especially considering that our worst day on skis was his grand homecoming after a decade off planks, but I told him there was no way to tell what the following day had in store.
“It could be similar, or it could be slightly better,” I guessed cautiously, not wanting to be the reason he paid for a second day only to spend it ice skating for three hours – or, even worse, getting injured and putting him off the sport for another decade. “You won’t know until you go,” I reminded him, but Nate had had enough ice.
So Adam and I rolled the dice on day two, as junkies will do, and hoped that Bolton’s elevation (at 2,100 feet, the highest base area in Vermont) would help us find better conditions. We also thought the relatively smaller crowds would help keep things skiable a bit longer. What we did not expect was a giant, mostly-empty playground with edgeable trails that remained grippy and fun all day. And we certainly didn’t expect to be able to ski the trees, yet there we were that New Year’s Eve morning, throwing down confident carved turns and ducking into low-angled, well-spaced glades that were juuuust soft enough to allow for swoopy turns over crusty ruts. Jackpot conditions, considering.
It was my first time visiting Bolton Valley, but by the afternoon I felt like I’d loved the place forever. Each of Bolton’s three peaks had at least a couple of trails available, although it was obvious that the rains had done a number on the resort’s trail count, there was still plenty of terrain to explore.
Only one black trail remained open – Spillway, which cuts down below the main Vista Quad chair – but we were okay with not skiing steeps after the anxieties of the previous day. We ripped down the blue heavens of Alta Vista, Old Turnpike, and Sure Shot (which had me singing out loud the Beastie Boys song of the same name), ridiculously happy that we were able to simply put down an edge and rely on the snow to hold it through an entire turn. Carving groomers is never as much fun as it is following a frustrating day of sliding down bulletproof ribbons of death.
And when we took a wrong turn and found ourselves at the top of Vista Glades, we looked at each other, I shrugged my shoulders, meaning “this could be fun or this could be horrible,” and we dropped in – a possibility we didn’t dare entertain at Jay the day before. A half inch of fresh snow had fallen overnight, but it was just enough to help make confident turns down the bumps and ramps that form naturally in these well-trafficked trees. Vista was my kind of glade – not too technical but with fun steep sections and mini not-quite-cliffs, wide-open and well-cleared, and riddled with options. The sort of zone you could ski a dozen times in a day and never ride the same line twice.
Still, we took our tree turns slowly until we hit the mellow glades of Wilderness Woods, where the low angled slope helped us make much more confident, rhythmic, and downright fun decisions. We laughed and whooped our way over the small rollers, banks, and root bumps of those trees twice, and a big part of our joy was the relief at being able to have so much fun skiing again just one day after a day spent constantly worrying I’d lose an edge and take out a family of four.
I was enjoying it so much that when we stopped near the entrance of the Sleepy Hollow glade, I was eager to drop right in. Adam wasn’t so sure, not knowing what lurked beneath, but I pointed to the sign and said, “Dude, it’s an open blue glade – how bad can it be?”
The answer, it turned out, was pretty damn bad. The snow was crusty and thick down here, not having seen as much traffic as the previous two glades, and as we slowly picked our lines down we found ourselves being funneled between two not-so-small watersheds that converged on each other, ending in a six-foot embankment of ice, snow, rock, and running water. Lots of running water.
We had a choice – cross here where a number of tracks indicated those who had made this same mistake before us had gone, which involved taking off our skis and walking through foot-deep ice-cold runoff before climbing up a steep embankment, or hike back up to find a more advantageous spot to cross.
Hoping to keep dry, we hiked up, occasionally post holing through the crust to our knees, but staying mostly on the compacted areas, until we found a somewhat less steep snow bank on the side of a somewhat less deep section of water, where Adam could butt-slide down to creek bed, carefully pick his way across the ice and water, then climb up the other side before I passed him our skis and repeated the process. It wasn’t pretty, but it got the job done, and we were able to ski out the side of the glade back onto the trail.
“Hey, we got in the cardio portion of our day, right?” I said to Adam by way of apology. He wasn’t amused. “It’s like we got the full Bolton backcountry experience,” I tried instead, in a “look on the bright side” sense. Still, he wasn’t sold on my optimism.
“We’re all still alive!” he reminded me, which got us laughing before we turned and ripped down Bolton’s groomed blue curves as fast as we could go.