Hot Laps Into the Long, Cold Night
Repetition, humility, joy, and terror at Stratton 24.
There are many factors that go into a Stratton 24 victory, but one thing is paramount: gotta rip hot laps.
Shortly after 9 a.m., we join the rest of the participants in line for the American Express and form groups of six. Ten-minute wait, five minutes up, then aim for the Ursa Express, weave through a Jerry slalom on Grizzly Access, line up again. Ursa laps are worth 20 points, Amex laps are 10. Gondy laps are worth 30, but the gondola is on wind hold, where it would remain until dawn. Five-minute wait, seven minutes up, then Black Bear to Polar Bear. This early on, the trails are still frozen granular – sugar sand over Northeast boilerplate – but they hold an edge, mostly. Until the end section of Polar Bear, where the steep final 200 feet above the Ursa bottom station are already scraped clean. I slide and terror-clench, come in too hot toward the growing lift line, then turn hard on the already-deepening ice crystal beach just in time to meet the others and form groups of six.
The terror will return, but for now, gotta rip hot laps. Five-minute Ursa wait, seven minutes up, then Grizzly Bear to Bear Bottom. Things are already getting tricky, but we knew what we were getting into when we pulled together a team of four to take part in Stratton’s annual “ski all day and night like maniacs for charity” fundraiser-race-party. If the event had taken place just one day earlier, we would have been skiing spring bumps and bouncing through slushy glades, but as luck would have it a hard refreeze had set in and our fate was 24 hours of increasingly-scraped-off groomers. It’s still early, though, and Bear Bottom is skiing like grippy ball bearings. The snow wants me to go fast, but I make careful turns. Still, I have to dig in firm on the gathering ice sand before I overshoot the Ursa line entrance.
I tell myself to dial it back, but then again, gotta rip hot laps. We get in line and form groups of six. Eight-minute wait, seven minutes up, then over to Upper Standard. Adam and I talked our friends Sean and Brendan into joining us for this lunatics’ ski-a-thon. It wasn’t too difficult: the Stratton Community Foundation exists to help poor kids all over Southern Vermont – kids who live outside the charming Victorian confines of resort town Vermont, in communities where the poverty rate is as high as 77 percent. It funds supplemental food and nutrition, medical and dental care, as well as providing essential basics such as boots and winter coats. It was a no-brainer for me. I spent about half my childhood in poverty. I know all too well the deprivations, the challenges, the fears of poverty. So when I found out I could help poor kids by skiing, I was all in. And if that meant bombing white ribbons of death into the wee hours, then that was just part of the deal. At least, that’s what I remind myself as I’m sliding down large patches of remarkably translucent ice on Upper Standard. I go straight on the shiny bits, turn on the sugary bits, and follow the gondola towers back down to the Amex base.
Gotta rip hot laps, so it’s back in line, which is longer now – almost 12 minutes, compounded by the loss of capacity from a wind-held gondola. “Nice choice, John,” Adam says, like I’d just committed a strategic blunder, but in retrospect it didn’t matter. Apparently, a new points system has been instituted this year (we’re first-timers) which de-emphasizes the race aspect, and instead assigns points for various tasks completed. 20 points for each of three Ursa laps, 10 points for an Amex lap, with a maximum of 70 points per person per hour, and we’d maxed out on hourly points – at least for the next twelve minutes we spend in line. There are also points for fundraising totals, slalom races, uphill races, ski boot races, and a late-night trivia competition. A planned snowman-building contest is cancelled because no one brought chainsaws.
We form groups of six and strategize on the five-minute ride up. We decide our secret weapon is our willingness to go deep into the night, to ski when all these weak children, these teenage upstarts full of daytime piss and vinegar, will finally get tuckered out and settle into their jammies. We will strike before dawn!
We are old fools, me most of all, and we have no idea what we’re in for.
One thing’s clear: gotta rip hot laps. We aim for Ursa, back through the Jerry slalom of Grizzly Access, and line up again. We form groups of six. Ten-minute wait, seven minutes up. “Hey, maybe we shouldn’t go down Upper Tamarack,” I suggest to the rest of the group, admittedly spooked by a trail with which I have history. Hospitalization history.
“Oh, is that where you left part of your kidney on a tree?” asks Adam.
“And broke two ribs. On a day much like today, with a freeze following a thaw,” I remind him, even though he knows the whole story.
Of course, what they hear is, “Hey guys, let’s go straight to the heart of my trauma for this next run.” I take slow, careful turns on Tamarack, yet I’m still losing edges left and right, slightly terrified each time a carve turns to a slarve. This time, I stay on my feet, chalk it up to exposure therapy, and it’s back to the Ursa lift.
“Is this our seventh or eighth run?” I ask the group, but no one quite remembers so we check our phones. We form groups of six. Ten-minute wait, seven minutes up. “Let’s go over to the Sunbowl side,” Adam suggests, but I remind him there are no points for Sunbowl laps. “We can’t win anyway,” he says, which is true, because the rules are weighted toward teams of at least six people, and 420 points is the most any one team can earn per hour [Ed note: niiice].
“We definitely won’t win with that attitude,” I tell him, and we take Black Bear over to Bear Down, which is as scratchy as Tamarack was, but by now it’s all getting scraped off to a greater or lesser degree and I can’t remember if this is our ninth or tenth run. We’re getting to the Groundhog Day zone now, where the laps fade into one another in a blur of sitting, intermittent terror, and line-waiting. Ursa, Ursa, Ursa. Rinse and repeat. Gotta rip hot laps.
Adam and I stop for lunch at one point because I’ve been up since three in the morning and oatmeal bars only do so much, and because it turns out that constantly worrying about losing an edge and wiping out a family of four is emotionally taxing. Sean and Brendan keep going, because gotta rip hot laps.
Then it’s back in line for the Amex. We form groups of six. Five-minute wait (early lunch for the win!), five minutes up, aim for Ursa, Jerry slalom, make that turn into the lift line wide and slow. We form groups of six.
Five-minute wait, seven-minute ride, five-minute run. Groups of six. Hot laps. Here and there we’re jolted out of routine by the specter of involuntary manslaughter.
Sometime in the afternoon we bring in our skis in for a tuning because, sure, they could use fresh edges, but also mostly because wondering which tree will be the one to do you in gets tiring. We check the leaderboards: Ice Coast Magazine is tied for 12th place (out of 45 teams), and among individuals, I’m the only member not in the top 30. Sendin’ Brendan hasn’t stopped and is in 9th place.
Less than an hour later, we’re back in line for the Amex. We form groups of six. Ten-minute wait, five minutes up. Aim for Ursa, dodge Jerry, don’t forget the wide turn. At 4 p.m., Stratton closes to day visitors. The only way back onto the lift is with a Stratton 24 bib.
Our options shrink as only the American Express will run until dawn, but the crowds shrink with them. We no longer need to form groups of six, but that doesn’t stop the most determined teens from bombing through the loading gates at the last minute and shoving their way onto the earliest possible chair. Gotta rip hot laps, sure, but this seems... excessive. Desperate.
The portable spotlights are lit, the sun sets, and shit gets weird.
No more lift lines. We’re our own group of four, but half the time we find two kids squeezed onto our chair at the last minute, like surprise remora fish on a shark’s gills. Gottariphotlapsbrogottariphotlaps.
Soon enough, most participants break off for dinner, either at Grizzlies or at one of the eateries in the village. Some families have rented on-mountain condos or ski homes; others are owners who participate every year. But there’s a die-hard group of skiers and riders hot lapping the Amex, mostly teens, and now they’re straight-line tuck-bombing the four remaining open trails.
Gotta rip hot laps, yes, but, ahem, the rules clearly state that anyone caught in a tuck would be penalized, and possibly even ejected from the contest if flagrant. These are, apparently, daytime rules that disappear with the Stratton yellowjackets who had been slowing everyone down during normie hours. Nighttime at Stratton 24 is straight-up Lord of the Flies, where flagrant tucks, line cuts, and near-misses rule.
Form groups of four, sometimes six, watch kids straightline the entire trail, cut the line, do it again. Their very youth mocks us: Rip your hot laps, old man, go ahead. Every chair ride is a reality check, a tiny humiliation. The team slips from 12th to 19th. Brendan drops ten places but he’s never stopped skiing. Time moves differently now.
Turns become rare. Hot lap Lower Standard, Betwixt, Yodeler, and the icy berms of the East Byrne Side park for spice. Form groups of four to six, depending on the mood of the nearest teen. Five minutes up. Brendan has started cackling at everything, and he’s formed a unidirectional rivalry with a kid he calls Captain Hot Laps. I can’t blame him. Captain Hot Laps is dressed like a white and black flying squirrel, and there’s definitely something about him that’s rivalry-worthy. It’s probably the squirrel outfit.
Form groups of four, five minutes up, plot to maim Captain Hot Laps. He must be stopped. Lap Lower Standard again, more confidently now that I know where each bare patch is and where each cache of sugar lies. There’s a stretch of Tink’s Link that’s covered in rock-solid seeded ice moguls, and kids have started taking off their skis, walking up, and riding down the bumps on their butts, and sometimes on their stomachs. I’ve never before seen this happen, and it goes on for more than two hours.
Five minutes up. An empty snowboard wrapped in neon lights comes shooting down out of the darkness on the empty trail below like some sort of ghost train, and we watch it disappear back into the night. Maybe this is how The Purge starts? Rocket down Lower Standard, down Betwixt, down Yodeler, despite that one super-dark patch near the top that is basically a leap of faith into the yawning maw of night.
Sometime before 10 p.m., bone-tired and loopy from fear spasms, I head into the lodge to get ready for the trivia contest. Adam and Sean join me. Brendan, unbelievably, is still ripping hot laps. We do well during trivia, but always one or two wrong answers behind the winners, and we lose each of the six rounds. Trivia ends at midnight, we gather the camp mattresses and sleeping bags from the back of the Jeep, and we claim enough floor space for three of us. Brendan is still out there somewhere, feral, unknowable, more mountain than man by this point.
Sleep comes in fits and starts, but I wake before my 5 a.m. alarm. No sign of Brendan. Is it possible? Is he still out there? A mild panic sets in before Sean finds him passed out on the carpet downstairs, where he’s been since 1 a.m. – still, hours longer than any of us could muster. We give him an air mattress for another hour or so as we head out for the final four-hour shift.
We check the leaderboards: the team has dropped to 25th place, and I’m at 99. – almost knocked out of the top 100! We literally slept on the main rule – gotta rip hot laps.
So that’s what we do. Hot laps, five minute rides up, Lower Standard, Betwixt, Yodeler, again and again and again for an hour and a half. The night seems endless, and the temperature has plummeted. Everything hurts: the cold on my face, my toes jammed into my boots, my clenched butthole.
Any fun has long been drained out of the act, but we’ve gotta keep ripping. I’m forgetting stuff. Did I even sharpen my edges yesterday? What is an edge? By the time the sky glows indigo and the first shafts of predawn color shoot into the distant peaks, I’ve never been so happy to see the sunrise. It’s a glorious one, too – full of angry reds and oranges, shot through with yellows, blues, and purples. We pause to take photos but not for long because hot laps.
The gondola begins to spin. I ask a patroller when it opens and he tells me 7:45. Enough time to rip two 30-point hot laps, followed by a 10-point Amex hot lap, and a chance for all of us to finish out the 8 o’clock hour with our 70-point maximums.
When enough people have gathered in front of the gondola base, we join the line and form groups of eight. Settle in for the ten-minute ride up, then we make our way to Upper Spruce, which had been groomed overnight. The sun is up, the corduroy is untouched, and I make the most confident, playful, downright enjoyable turns of the past 23 hours. For the first time since yesterday morning, I’m having fun skiing without worrying about sliding off a trail to my doom.
I meet Adam near the bottom and we take off our skis. He heads toward the gondola and asks, “You coming?”
I’ve got a big smile on my face, but I shake my head, no. “I’m done,” I tell him. I want to end on a high note – damn the extra 40 points. It would have made no difference to our team rank – we are firmly in 15th place out of 78 teams – and I’ve climbed the individual boards to 75th – well among the top 100, which is good enough for me. Thanks to our friends and families, we raised $1,750 of the $307,316 total raised for Vermont’s poorest children, I skied 53 hot, often-unsettling laps, and I checked “ski at sunrise” off my must-do list.
I’ve done enough skiing and questioning my reality for one day, and I’ve never been so happy to pack up my gear and start the long drive south. I’m going home.