Pico Powder Thursdays
Chasing untracked lines in the shadow of The Beast.
It felt like all the Northeast breathed a collective sigh of relief at the forecast last week, which promised an oasis of real winter at the end of an almost month-long string of rain events and hard refreezes. The see-sawing conditions lasted throughout the second half of December and into January, making things tricky for both skiers and mountain ops teams, dropping trail counts, and frustrating countless holiday ski week wishes.
I just needed to decide where that path would be. I’ve been spending most of my ski time in Vermont this season, and I was itching to visit some of the New Hampshire and Maine mountains for which I have days on my passes, but as the storm approached the snowfall estimates seemed to be favoring Vermont over points east, so even though I had used two out of the five days I had at both Sugarbush and Killington, I headed back into the Green Mountains to find terrain that had the best chance of being redeemed by a storm that was predicted to drop up to 18 inches in some spots by the time it was done meandering around New England.
Sugarbush was a dream on Wednesday for three glorious laughter-filled eight-inch powder runs before the wind started shutting lifts all over the mountain, closing off the Super Bravo chair as well as all of Mt. Ellen, and putting most of the ski area out of reach. So I took up customer service on its offer of a return voucher and called it a day before lunch (management deserves a lot of credit for issuing return tickets due to weather developments beyond its control, and it’s a smart customer relations policy that more ski area operators should adopt). With my afternoon suddenly free, I set off to soothe the sting of disappointment up the road at Lawson’s Finest Liquids in Waitsfield, where there’s always Sunshine on tap no matter the weather.
Wind holds are to be expected in the midst of a storm, and I try to get zen about these things, be the reed and whatnot, but I was frustrated by my truncated powder day – and by missing the opportunity to meet and possibly even ski with Glen Plake, who had been at Sugarbush the day before as part of his current Northeast ski road tour. (Because I’m late to the game, I generally don’t fanboy out over famous skiers, but Plake is the O.G. big air big hair punk rock ski god badass, the real deal, a guy who is and has always been ‘bout that life, and judging from all available evidence, a tireless force of positivity and enthusiasm for the sport.) I’d hoped I could time a “serendipitous” visit, but Plake’s notoriously vague about his road trip specifics, like some impish stoke elf popping in for surprise visits, and in the end all I found of Plake was a leftover promotional postcard and a social media feed full of other Northeast skiers who had stumbled upon Plake during his tour. I was bummed, and I guess it showed when I got back to my hotel.
“How was the skiing today?” asked Cameron, the youngest member of the family that owns and operates Mountain Sports Inn, my favorite Killington crash pad.
“You know that scene in the third Indiana Jones movie, when they finally reach the room with the knight and the Holy Grail, and the evil old guy who sold out Indy grabs the shiniest cup and drinks from it and dies and then the knight says, ‘He chose poorly.’? Yeah, that was me,” I said. “Wind holds closed almost everything down. I should have gone to Killington.”
“Yeah,” he agreed, then added, “I don’t think they closed anything.”
He could see that compounded my disappointment, so he asked, “Have you considered Pico tomorrow?”
And in truth, no, I hadn’t. The Ikon Pass has a lot of great options, but one criticism I’ve heard shared among passholders is that it doesn’t include days at both Killington and Pico. Sure, you get access to Pico, but if you want to ski it you’ll have to burn a Killington day, and most people probably aren’t willing to do that. And under normal circumstances, I’m one of those people. There’s always more open at Killington, and Pico sits in the shadow of The Beast.
But its relative lack of traffic is the point. Pico is closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, which just so happened to be the two days during which it snowed, so except for the wind and the relatively large collection of devoted locals who enjoy skinning up, the trails remained untouched. An estimated 14 inches of virgin powder, just waiting to be skied.
Powder Thursdays at Pico aren’t exactly a secret, but the ski area goes overlooked so often they might as well be. It’s a bit of a tradition for those regulars with season passes who can access both mountains to their hearts’ content, but it’s not something that is on the radar of those who aren’t in the habit of stopping at Pico. (It’s a tradition that may change on some weeks, however, as the resort has begun offering the ability to rent out the entire mountain to one group on Tuesdays and Wednesdays – whether for corporate team building days, weddings, or family reunions, Pico can be yours for just $6,500 for the day for up to 250 people.)
The possibility of finally getting to make some proper powder turns had me stoked, and I got to the base area an hour before the 8:30 opening – plenty of time to grab a quick breakfast sandwich, boot up, and get in line with the rest of the clued-in Vermonters who know where to find the goods after a midweek storm.
The communal excitement was palpable, and a cheer went up as the Golden Express quad began to load. The next couple of hours were full of giddy exploration and refamiliarization, of finding untouched, soft snow everywhere, dodging the occasional patches of solid ice – on which the new snow couldn’t stick and was easily blown off.
I kept returning to the Golden Express and the Little Pico triple chairs, looking for slivers of un-skied snow here and there, and joining the constant flow of people slowing down near the base of the Summit Express chair, only to continue down Lower Pike in frustration as we waited for patrol to open access to the top. Lines formed, broke off, then reformed at the Summit chair base station in anticipation of upper-mountain powder.
And when it finally did open at 10:30, it seemed like every single person on the mountain gravitated toward the lift at the same moment, all of us desperate to see what kind of snow was at the top.
Time passed in a blur of joy. The runs down Forty-Niner and Upper Ka were some of the best I’ve taken so far this season, full of whoops and inspiring me to sing along to my playlist at the top of my lungs. Summit Glades were a bouncy, well-filled-in slice of spread-out tree skiing, full of dense pockets of fluffy snow, with the occasional encounter with cooked-in bulletproof ice beneath. It felt like some giant had come along and haphazardly slathered a foot of western snow on top of the familiar Northeast hardpack.
I was just happy to be skiing trees again. Sunset Woods had filled in nicely, and Ka Glades, while definitely low tide in spots, provided plenty of opportunities for fresh powdery tree skiing, with small steep sections and even a couple of tasty-looking cliffs for those looking to get extra sendy.
And though the steep expanses of Upper Pike, which runs right beneath the top portion of the Summit chair, and Upper Giant Killer, which runs off Upper Pike to skier’s left, were roped off, that didn’t seem to be stopping very many skiers and riders.
It was clear why patrol had kept these trails roped off despite the healthy snowfall – the skier’s right side of both trails were a patchwork of glare ice and grass poking through – no-ski zones off of which the wind had ripped all new snow, but that same wind had deposited that snow at skier’s left, and all that deep powder was just too much to resist for those who knew how to navigate around no-ski zones.
I’m not one for ducking ropes, poaching lines, and then writing about it, but rumor has it that the roped-off sections of Upper Pike and Upper Giant Killer held some of the best snow on the mountain. At least that’s what I was told by someone at some point. We’re talking primo, chalky blower pow, true hero snow – cold smoke swirling on top of colder ice and rock.
But poachers weren’t high on patrol’s list of concerns, and there seemed to be an all-around laid-back vibe wherein the locals knew where they wanted to go and what they wanted to ski, and no one was telling them they couldn’t. By the afternoon, though, ropes had dropped on those popular upper mountain trails, erasing all concerns about skiing out of bounds.
When the thigh burn became too much for the Advil to tame, I headed in to the Last Run Lounge for a beer and some lunch. I bumped into Randy, a diehard from Jersey who I had met during a powder day at Magic in Snowvember, as well as Doad, a Killington local and daily ripper who loves skinning up backcountry lines on his splitboard and has an unerring talent for finding powder stashes long after most of the mountain gets tracked out.
And if I had any doubt about choosing Pico over Killington last Thursday, it would have been quashed when I met Scott Esposito, the East Coast Rep for Teton Gravity Research and the captain of the Stokemobile, which is exactly what it sounds like – a giant trailer full of high-tech gadgets, ski goodies, music, and the occasional athlete, built to wander the Northeast and spread the stoke at festivals, events, and concerts. If a group as plugged-in and essential to the sport as TGR was drawn to Pico’s powder Thursdays, I knew I had chosen wisely.
I’ll be honest – I was doubtful about a mountain whose groomers are great but gets less snow, has less terrain, and is open fewer days than its sister mountain, but Pico holds plenty of thrills and surprises, and all that’s required to discover them is a little luck, some good timing, and the willingness to ski out from beneath the shadow of the giant up the road.