Searching for Zen in the Steeps of Southern Vermont
Updated: Feb 17, 2021
With its gnarly terrain and relaxed, retro vibe, Magic Mountain is the perfect place for one weekend warrior to find balance.
As the Red Chair climbed toward the summit, I peered at the steep minefield of fluffy moguls, rocks, grass and stumps passing beneath me on the liftline. I was at Magic Mountain in the recent wake of an eighteen-inch January storm coming on the heels of a long early winter snowfall drought, growing increasingly giddy with each lift tower I passed.
“Does Rachel know that you ski trails like this?” Jenna shouted from the chair behind me, her voice muffled by a multi-layered COVID shield of masks, gaiters and buffs. The answer of course is yes, and Rachel (my wife and Jenna’s close friend) isn’t pleased, but she understands why.
Sure, I ski for the same reasons as most: I enjoy the exercise, the time spent outdoors, and the judo move of turning dreary, gray and damp Northeast winters into fun-filled seasons of adventure. And those are all great reasons to ski and make for a persuasive pitch to my friends and family who have yet to try winter sports and choose instead to bitch every time the thermometer dips below fifty degrees, but they’re not the reason I got addicted to skiing.
I ski to meditate.
It might sound far-fetched to some, especially given that 99% of my ski season is in bounds at ski areas and resorts, but skiing is the only activity wherein I can tune out everything and everyone around me. With an endlessly busy mind fueled by a near-terminal case of attention deficit disorder, I find it virtually impossible to focus my thoughts in a singular, linear direction. My attempts at traditional meditation have been like holding back the rising tide.
Skiing’s ability to clear my mind unlike any other activity has been incredibly seductive, and so I’ve driven tens of thousands of miles to spend every second I can spare to pursue the therapeutic relief that skiing provides. When I began eight years ago, simply focusing on learning fundamentals and not falling on my face scratched this itch, but as I improved and the basics became second nature, my racing thoughts crept right back in. Sure, it’s fun and relaxing to slarve my way down a groomer with some buddies, but if I want to clear my mind and give my brain a break, I need the harder stuff. Give me steeps, give me moguls, give me cliffs, give me trees. Hell—give me some ice in between just for shits and giggles.
Give me a place like Magic Mountain.
While the die-hards may be largely familiar with it, most casual resort skiers don’t know about this gem of a mountain in southern Vermont, and few of them have skied it. With 1,500 feet of vertical drop spread across over two-hundred acres just southeast of Londonderry, Vermont, Magic Mountain has plenty to offer for beginner and intermediate skiers all served up with the kind of low-key, family-friendly vibe that we at ICM tend to gush over.
“I already had a passion for this special ski area and felt it was both an opportunity and responsibility to secure Magic’s place for generations to come as a uniquely Vermont throwback ski experience,” says Geoff Hatheway, the President of Magic Mountain, about his efforts to buy the place a few years ago.
Hatheway has a special way of running this independent ski area, and it sticks out like a shining beacon in a sea of big-corporate industry consolidation and the associated profit-motivated operational practices. He raised his kids skiing at Magic and purchased the mountain after years of negotiations in 2016. Without sacrificing any of the retro character that makes Magic special, Hatheway and his team have progressively made thoughtful, incremental improvements to the ski area that make the experience a little better every year.
In 2018, a fixed double chair was installed on the defunct green liftline, accessing some of the best trees and steeps on the mountain (an awesome sleeper area on powder days) as well as much of the available beginner terrain. A new fixed quad, Stratton’s former Snow Bowl Quad, is currently being installed on the black liftline and will triple uphill capacity to the summit when it opens later this season. Beyond that, various improvements have been made to snowmaking coverage and efficiency, and this year Magic replaced their tubing park with what is now southern Vermont’s only nighttime terrain park, and only the second nightime skiing option in the state. “Our focus has been on improving the delivery of a consistent product with lifts and snowmaking while keeping the original spirit and character of Magic alive and thriving,” says Hatheway.
While there may be more people at the mountain thanks to increased season pass sales and participation in the Indy Pass, Magic still never feels crowded, especially once you’re on the slopes. Daily ticket sales were limited to 1,500 even before Covid-19, ensuring that patrons spend more time skiing and less time waiting in line, even on the busiest of days. “We believe in a less crowded ski experience versus just selling as many day tickets as possible,” says Hatheway.
This refreshing, experience-focused style of management, along with a mountain overflowing with steep, technical lines, led to them winning Liftopia’s award for “Best Overall Ski Area in North America” three years in a row. The experience is crystallized well in Magic’s motto, “Where Skiing Still Has Its Soul.”
But the terrain is why I journey to Magic a few times each year, particularly when there’s fresh snow. Southern Vermont has several excellent ski areas, but the southern Green Mountains aren’t famous for steep slopes. Magic is the notable exception, with various faces of Glebe Mountain (its geographical home) reaching angles up to forty-five degrees. While other ski areas have cleared and graded wide, manicured and, frankly, innocuous trails for the masses, Magic Mountain is teeming with narrow twists, double fall lines, cliffs, and trees. Beyond the solid handful of gentle blue and green cruisers that make this place accessible to the masses, Magic’s slopes are raw and craggy and as rewarding for those who ski them as they are damaging to the P-Tex under their feet.
Among the trove of great technical lines at Magic, a few stand out in particular. Twilight Zone and Goniff Glade are both steep, widely spaced glades that are perfect spots for face shots on a powder day—though they’re actually better described as trails punctuated with a smattering of trees than they are traditional glades. If cliffs and showboating are your thing, Red Line, Green Line, and, soon, Black Line all feature rolling steeps and a series of cliff bands beneath their eponymous chairs (a few of them near-mandatory on Red Line). For classic New England tree skiing, cut through the low-angle evergreens of Disappearing Act or the steep, tight, high-octane chutes of White Tiger or Wardrobe. And for your friends who join you that ask such questions as “does your wife know you ski this crazy shit?”, the entire looker’s left side of the mountain is full of great green and blue cruisers like Magic Carpet and Medium that also run from the summit and funnel back down to Magic’s lone base area (which is also great for kids who want to venture off on their own).
In addition to offering the right mix of terrain for deep powder, Magic Mountain is closed Monday through Wednesday with the exception of holidays and following major storms, so the powder is often served up fresh and untouched. Pow day frenzy and limited uphill capacity can add up to much longer lines than usual, but you’ll be rewarded with freshies for the entire day—a rare offering that makes this ski area our top choice when a Nor’Easter zeroes in on southern Vermont.
On this visit, we missed the recent foot-and-a-half dump by one day, but I knew there would be plenty of fresh snow to be had in the trees and in the less-visited corners of the mountain. At the top of Red Line, I pause under the chair to pick the line for my first few turns. I clack my poles, point my tips down the fall line, and I drop in. The world around me quickly narrows to the width of the trail as powdery white moguls climb up the hill and pass beneath my feet. I feel the wind lapping at my face and the soft snow compacting under my bases then splitting apart as I dig my edges in. I hear the whoosh of the snow splashing off my tails into the trees and onto the trail beneath me. Not a single thought in my mind about work to be done or decisions to be made—just a steep, natural, technical line to be skied for my first time this winter.
My focus is interrupted by a command from above to “send it,” and I oblige.