A Rugged Lady in A Fur Coat

Search­ing for ski bums at the fan­ci­est re­sort in the East


Search­ing for ski bums at the fan­ci­est re­sort in the East.

Strong told me this story as we rode Stowe’s high-speed Four­run­ner quad chair up Mansfield’s flank. The quad shoots skiers so quickly up the moun­tain’s 2,150-ver­ti­cal-foot rise, leav­ing them just be­low the Nose, that there isn’t much time for yarn-spin­ning. It’s one of the most ef­fi­cient vert-de­liv­ery sys­tems in North Amer­ica, a vir­tual el­e­va­tor to the steep­est, most sus­tained, and most di­rect fall lines in the East—and to a clan­des­tine ma­trix of por­tals and pow­der stashes in the woods that ri­val lines in the West.

Toothy and a lit­tle goo­gly-eyed, with a slightly bat­tered, cyn­i­cal air, Strong brings to mind the Paul Gia­matti char­ac­ter in Side­ways, ex­cept the ex­per­tise is birch glades and deep snow rather than wine. I’d asked about the Rab­bit’s Nest, and Strong, in the time-hon­ored Stowe tra­di­tion of re­veal­ing noth­ing of such where­abouts, had de­flected by tat­tling on him­self. (His sen­tence, in lieu of a fine, was some hard time do­ing main­te­nance on the Long Trail, which runs the length of Ver­mont.)

Strong is a Stowe na­tive who’d re­cently hung out a sur­rep­ti­tious shin­gle as a guide. “Ski With a Lo­cal !!!! ” his busi­ness card read, with a photo of him tit-deep in a sun­lit pow­der field that didn’t look like any­thing I’d ever come across in Ver­mont. He is one of the last of the old guard—a holdover from the 1980s when farm­ers and ty­coons, dirt bags and Bogner­ites all cel­e­brated a mu­tual love for slid­ing over snow at the great­est moun­tain in the East. When I set out to find the ski bum scene there last win­ter, he was the first per­son I called.

I knew Strong like most peo­ple did, as the gar­ru­lous for­mer bar­tender at the Shed, the long­stand­ing pub on Moun­tain Road that served as the lo­cals’ fa­vorite wa­ter­ing hole for more than four decades. His fa­ther, Ken, opened the Shed in 1965, on the site of an old cider-mill. Ken, you might say, was the founder of Stowe après ski. In 2011, the Strongs lost their lease. The land­lord, an out-of-towner, found a more up­scale ten­ant. That was it for the Shed—and another blow to Stowe’s re­con­dite dirt­bag scene.

Since then, Strong, 42, had gone through a bit of an iden­tity cri­sis. He’d been scrap­ing to­gether a liv­ing do­ing some land­scap­ing and wood­work­ing. I’d come to know some hearty souls his age or older who got out al­most ev­ery day, but I’d been won­der­ing what had hap­pened to the next gen­er­a­tion of ski bums. One 30-some­thing friend of mine, who works in a ski shop in town, re­ferred to the vibe as a “weak­en­ing heart­beat.”

Strong had his the­o­ries, chief among them a dearth of jobs and a pro­hib­i­tive cost of liv­ing—the usual ski-town bug­bears. The moun­tain com­pany— owned by the too-big-to-fail in­sur­ance gi­ant AIG, un­til its sale, last win­ter, to Vail Re­sorts—mainly em­ployed non-ski­ing South Amer­i­cans on sea­sonal visas for its ser­vice jobs. And of course, the rent was too damn high, if you could even find a place to rent. “All those apart­ments with four dudes, each work­ing two jobs as, like, bar­tenders and in­struc­tors, those places are get­ting bought up

SO A COU­PLE OF NAT­U­RAL­ISTS ARE UP AT THE RAB­BIT’S NEST, a tiny shack be­low the Nose, on Mount Mansfield, Ver­mont’s high­est peak. It is sum­mer. They’re study­ing the Bick­nell’s thrush, a rare song­bird that prefers to nest above 3,000 feet. Ears peeled for its flute-like call, they be­gin to no­tice a saw­ing sound. Huh? They set off through a dense tan­gle of fir and spruce. Af­ter a while, they come across Chris­tian Strong, who is limb­ing one of his fa­vorite se­cret slots through the woods. The bust made the lo­cal pa­per the fol­low­ing week.

and knocked down or re­built for sec­ond or third homes,” says Strong. Another bell­wether: the ven­er­a­ble ski-bum race, which had been held ev­ery Tues­day for decades. “No one hangs out at the fin­ish and drinks beer,” he says. “It’s more like a re­tirees’ race. It’s dwin­dled from a party scene to a con­trolled not-party scene.”

Strong and I were do­ing a few runs to­gether, on a bul­let­proof mid­week win­ter’s day. We were on Mansfield, which faces Spruce Peak, the gen­tler, tamer area across the val­ley that is an­chored by a new re­sort. (A gon­dola con­nects the two.) To­gether, they com­prise about 500 acres of trails.

Mansfield is the go­rilla of the East, a moody, mus­cu­lar beast. Its prox­im­ity to Lake Cham­plain makes it the oc­ca­sional ben­e­fi­ciary of a Wasatchian lake ef­fect; clip­pers dump un­fore­told depths on its lee­ward face, where the ski lifts hap­pen to be. The show ponies are the so-called Front Four, the sheer, of­ten humped-up drops down the face—the el­e­va­tor-shaft crux of “Starr,” a proto-cor­bet’s, the nar­row flume of “Goat.” Th­ese runs are flanked by the un­du­lat­ing boule­vards of “Nose­dive” and “Hayride”—hoback­ian on a pow­der day—which are in turn skirted by sur­pris­ingly nav­i­ga­ble glades. Fur­ther north is another gon­dola—the gondy—a gate­way not only to in­bounds way-wen­ders like “Chin Clip,” but also to acres of side­coun­try for­est and the boot­pack to the sum­mit of Mansfield, from whence many won­ders un­furl. That morn­ing with Strong, a re-freeze had turned the woods and the Front Four to coral reef, so we su­per-g’ed it on the groomers. There’s talk, real un­pop­u­lar around town, of the new Vail over­lords in­tro­duc­ing a speed limit. They might as well rope off the woods.

THE FIRST SKI-BUM WAVE came in the ’60s, draft­ing off back-to-lan­ders who flocked to Ver­mont. Con­sider Jake Jake­speare, a Jersey boy who ar­rived in 1966, waited tables at the Stowe Flake, then signed on with the ski pa­trol. The Black Knights, as they were called, were com­manded by

“Strong was one of the last of the old guard—a ski bum holdover from the 1980s when farm­ers and ty­coons, dirt bags and Bogner­ites all cel­e­brated a mu­tual love for slid­ing over snow at the great­est moun­tain in the East.”

a crew-cut dis­ci­plinar­ian named Hal Wil­helm, aka the Kaiser, an em­bod­i­ment of the old-school Stowe of Sepp Ruschp. Crazy Jake, known for his sil­ver alu­minum skull cap and his pen­chant for pulling front flips, didn’t last on the pa­trol for more than a cou­ple of years, but be­came a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the hot-dog­ger era, which man­aged to make in­roads even to the icy shad­ows of Mount Mansfield.

Stowe’s be­gin­nings were hum­ble. The Civil­ian Con­ser­va­tion Corps got it started out of an old log­ging camp. The first run, the “Bruce Trail,” was cut in 1934. (Once a race­course, the Bruce, no longer on the map, is now a nar­row, stumpy un­pa­trolled track that is as Euro a tour as you’ll find in the East—con­nect­ing to a healthy pole­and-skate along some Nordic trails and then to the front stoop of the Mat­ter­horn, the de­fault après ski de­pot.) One day I skied the trail be­hind a meat whole­saler, an ev­ery-day up-and-down skier whose ski pants (circa 1976) had a full tear along the rear seam. There was noth­ing ironic about his an­cient Smith pom-pom hat. A friend, point­ing him out, said, “He’s got a hun­dred-foot of boat on Nan­tucket—if you count ’em all up.”

Yet al­most from the start, Stowe strived to be posh—a rugged lady in a fur coat. Dur­ing and af­ter the Sec­ond World War, it be­came a strong­hold for the be-sweatered WASP aris­toc­racy of Bos­ton and New York, pro­tec­tive of their er­satz Aus­trian ski hills. (Most of the inns and ho­tels were “re­stricted,” mean­ing off-lim­its to Jews.) That, thank­fully, has changed, but the sense of the re­sort as a place for peo­ple of means has not. Ver­mon­ters call it Gold Town or $towe.

And yet it’s not all third-homers. The ski bums and hard-asses still find a way. They live in Burling­ton, or down in Water­bury, or find cab­ins in the woods up north. I see them here and there—blow­ing by me on the tra­verse to An­gel Food, or pound­ing happy-hour PBRS down at the Den, the bar in a cor­ner of the old Mansfield base lodge, or while I’m skin­ning on a sub-zero af­ter­noon with some friends, along a back­coun­try ridge known as Sky­top. (We’d stopped in a grove of old gnarled birch to layer up and par­take of our fancy ar­ray of en­ergy bars and wa­ter bot­tles, and a guy in tight faded

“‘The woods are just as dark and cold as they were a hun­dred years ago,’ a pa­trol­man told me. This was a day af­ter a miss­ing snow­boarder had been found frozen to death in the woods af­ter dark, not far from the top of the gon­dola.”

jeans and a Bru­ins sweat­shirt, skull cap, and no gloves, foot­ball-player build, ham­mered past with­out say­ing hello.)

I have some his­tory here, too. My brother lives near the cen­ter of town, and I’ve been com­ing to Stowe ev­ery year for 15 years. He moved up from New York City af­ter the birth of his first kid, to es­cape the rat race and pur­sue a health­ier life out­doors: another mid­dle-aged flat­lander with some city money. He has a nice house and a good scene of work­ing pro­fes­sion­als, hockey dads, and mod­est trusta­far­i­ans, most of them avid skiers. He sells real es­tate. There are con­trac­tors, stock traders, sock man­u­fac­tur­ers, taxi driv­ers, video ed­i­tors, restau­ra­teurs. You get in line with him at the Quad, and it’s how-ya-do­ing to ev­ery­one in the maze. It’s like ski­ing with Joe Bi­den.

“It’s win­ter when the town sees each other,” says Strong, which was another way of say­ing the ski hill is the clos­est thing there is to a com­mons. But ad­mis­sion is ex­pen­sive. You have to have ei­ther some money, a moun­tain-re­lated job, a rac­ing con­nec­tion, or a scam. A so­ci­o­log­i­cal sur­vey of the lift line, once you ex­clude the tourists dur­ing the hol­i­day crush and the lo­cal kids in the rac­ing suits, turns up a lot of mid­dle-aged dudes in re­ally nice gear. It’s be­come a fancy spot, a Yan­kee twist on Sun Val­ley or Jack­son Hole. The com­forts and en­tice­ments of AIG’S big new lodge at the Spruce base have brought in the kind of peo­ple who would not have been caught dead (or may ac­tu­ally have been found dead) hud­dling in wool blan­kets on the old, slow blue-ice sin­gle chair that made get­ting up the Front Four as for­mi­da­ble as get­ting down. From the pa­trol’s head­quar­ters atop the Quad last win­ter, you could see the cranes loom­ing over the mak­ings of an im­mense Yel­low­stone-club­cal­iber man­sion near the Spruce base—17 mil­lion bucks was the ru­mored cost. Strong and a cou­ple of friends had re­cently built a two-story wind­ing cherry-wood stair­case for such a house. This, too, made the lo­cal pa­per.

THE AIG BUILD-OUT at Stowe of the last decade has only made this round of gentrification more acute. It’s also al­tered the flow of bod­ies. On week­ends and hol­i­days, the quad opens at 7:30 a.m. For years, a lu­natic could get there at dawn and get the goods, but by last sea­son, the masses had caught on, and the place was packed be­fore eight. There were a few days when it took hours for cars to travel the last mile or two to the re­sort. The park­ing lots filled up early and some peo­ple who’d trav­eled up, booked rooms, rented gear, and bought tick­ets ($124 a day, on week­ends) had no choice but to bail with­out mak­ing so much as a turn. That’s enough to make some­one want to quit ski­ing al­to­gether. (It’s any­one’s guess how Vail will change the cal­cu­lus. The fact that an Epic Pass now costs half as much as the old Stowe sea­son pass would sug­gest an in­flux of even more skiers and cars.)

But it’s still the north coun­try, and the moun­tain it­self hasn’t changed. A good win­ter gale or Arc­tic clearout can thin a crowd, boy. “The woods are just as dark and cold as they were a hun­dred years ago,” a pa­trol­man told me. This was a day af­ter a miss­ing snow­boarder had been found frozen to death in the woods af­ter dark, not far from the top of the gon­dola. There are more peo­ple than ever

ven­tur­ing into the bush, many of them with­out a clue. “There’s a lot of work we do that peo­ple don’t see,” the pa­trol­man said. “They think this is Dis­ney­land.”

Stowe is the only ma­jor ski area in the East where the lift doesn’t take you to the top. The lifts end 700 ver­ti­cal feet be­low the sum­mit, to keep the top wild for hik­ers and lichen. There are 200 acres of Arc­tic tun­dra on the ridge­line. This makes for un­ri­valled lift-ac­cessed back­coun­try ter­rain. (The ridge’s pro­file re­sem­bles that of a man’s head, in re­cline. Hence, from south to north: Fore­head, Nose, Chin, Adam’s Ap­ple.) The 45-minute boot­pack from the top of the gondy to the Chin, the high­est point, gets you com­mand­ing views of the White Moun­tains, the Adiron­dacks, and Lake Cham­plain, when the sky is clear, and ac­cess to two alpine chutes, Pro­fan­ity and the Hour­glass, which drop you into an eerie moon­scape of rimed-up spruce ghost dwarves. You can skin south along the ridge and drop into the Rock Gar­den, a boul­der labyrinth, or the steep-and­deep play­ground of the Kitchen Wall, a lee­ward snow trap. You can also drop over the other side, west to­ward the lake. Best know your way (read: dark, cold). Or you can skip the lift al­to­gether and go skin­ning in the sur­round­ing peaks and ridges of Mansfield State Park, hack­ing the Nordic trails for an ap­proach.

Be­low the Chin last win­ter, with my teenage son and a lo­cal friend I’ll call B (I pro­tect my sources), a day af­ter a storm, I eased through the pil­lowy waist of the Hour­glass, mashed some turns in the apron, and then bobbed over a boul­der drop to see a Ja­panese fam­ily, stand­ing ski-less and kneedeep on the flats, point­ing a cou­ple of cam­eras at me. This was still a ways from the top of the lift. We could hear cheers go­ing up, a quarter mile or so south. Turned out the boys from Meat­head Films, the TGR of the East, were huck­ing a cliff near the Kitchen Wall, above where the boarder was found. The Ja­panese had the wrong guy. We tacked far­ther north, away from the pa­parazzi. A lone skinner, hav­ing lost his way in the ghost dwarves, hollered up to us, and we di­rected him back to­ward the gon­dola and kept go­ing. Another storm seemed to be blow­ing in. To the north, Jay Peak had a golden-hour glow. We poked our way into the tight con­fines of Hell Brook, a clas­sic, dicey route that, to the dis­may of my knees, had al­ready been but­terknifed by some board­ers. Wan­der­ing off in search of fresher snow led to dense thick­ets and hid­den drops. Wrong turns have dire con­se­quences. The Meat­head crew trig­gered a deadly slide back here some years ago. I’d also heard a story about a kid who once got lost and went over

“A day af­ter a storm, I eased through the pil­lowy waist of the Hour­glass, mashed some turns in the apron, and then bobbed over a boul­der drop to see a Ja­panese fam­ily, stand­ing ski-less and knee-deep on the flats, point­ing a cou­ple of cam­eras at me.”

a cliff, fly­ing right over the heads of some as­cend­ing ice climbers. Even­tu­ally, Hell Brook spit us out into the Notch, the nar­row pass be­tween Stowe and Smuggs.

Ear­lier we’d been bash­ing around in the woods just south of the area bound­ary and also down a tight hik­ing trail be­tween the Quad and the gon­dola, in the com­pany of Gor­don Dixon, a 54-yearold builder in town. From New Jersey (“My fam­ily is five gen­er­a­tions of ice farm­ers”), he at­tended the Univer­sity of Ver­mont, where he met his wife. They set­tled in Stowe. (She works in the tour­ing cen­ter, which is how he got his pass). Dixon was on tele skis. Each time we bush­whacked our way to some pre­sumed clear­ing, he ut­tered the stan­dard barkeater’s pref­ace: “It should open up.” It’s all rel­a­tive. By the third run, re­cal­ci­trant branches had scarred up Dixon’s mug with bloody cuts. “Bizarre gardening ac­ci­dent,” one of us said. But some­times it re­ally does open up. On a lower gra­di­ent, we found our­selves in well-spaced birch, not a track any­where. Cold, but not dark. Pretty deep, too. A bit of un­likely Ja­pan.

SU­PER SUN­DAY AT RIM ROCKS, a pop­u­lar tav­ern in a mini-mall along Moun­tain Road. The pres­ence on the menu of Heady Top­per, the prized Ver­mont IPA (Al­chemist, its brewer, re­cently opened a brew­ery up the road), made up for the pre­pon­der­ance of pa­trons wear­ing Pa­tri­ots jer­seys. Ken Strong was there wear­ing a name-tag; the own­ers have given him a part-time gig as a greeter. Jay Bowen, a con­trac­tor, Stöckli rep, and all-around Stowe am­bas­sador, who once skied Mansfield for nine months straight, stopped in to say hi to the guys. Another guy walked up and in­tro­duced him­self as Alex Stein, owner of the Edel­weiss deli, also up the road: killer chili. Stein, it turns out, is the pop­ulizer,

“He led us past some glades I’d never been able to find, the sun cathe­dral­ing through spires of birch. Clumps of new snow be­decked the bark and moss.”

if not the in­ven­tor, of the Fris­bee dog, as in the prac­tice of teach­ing a dog to catch a disc. In 1974, he smug­gled his dog, Ashley Whip­pet, into Dodger Sta­dium, dur­ing a ma­jor-league game and ran onto the field to demon­strate for eight min­utes, much to the de­light of broad­caster Joe Gara­gi­ola. “Here I am, a Jewish guy from Ohio, and I wind up on Wide World of Sports.” My brother Bi­dened his away around the room. Here are your Green Moun­tain ski bums, deep into mid­dle age.

The next morn­ing, my son and I met Noah Labow, 37 and in his sev­enth year as head coach of the freeski­ing teams at UVM and the Green Moun­tain Academy, and a kind of den dad to the “No­tion” gang of itin­er­ant East Coast rip­pers. “I’m here most morn­ings. One of the 80 hard-core peo­ple stand­ing in line,” he says. Orig­i­nally from Blairstown, New Jersey, he went to John­son State Col­lege, on the other side of the Notch—per­haps the big­gest source of fresh tal­ent in the lo­cal ter­rain parks and the Mansfield woods. He’d lived in Sum­mit County, Colorado, and coached up in Maine at Carrabas­sett, at Su­gar­loaf—he’d also ap­peared on “Amer­i­can Ninja War­rior”—but he’d since set­tled, with his wife, in Mor­risville, up the road from Stowe, in an old farm­house on a cou­ple acres. “Stowe is too ex­pen­sive,” he said. “Un­less you get, like, a sweet care­taker’s job. But here in town and re­ally the whole area, you have amaz­ing restau­rants, craft brew­ers, cheese­mak­ers, bak­ers—lots of artsy, cre­ative, en­tre­pre­neur­ial young cou­ples do­ing cool stuff.”

There was about half a foot of fresh snow, on top of some of the left­overs of one of the win­ter’s best storms. He led us past some glades I’d never been able to find, the sun cathe­dral­ing through spires of birch. Clumps of new snow be­decked the bark and moss. Japow! My brother had been re­fer­ring for years to a spot called Chi­nese Ba­nana, and we soon found our­selves there, ex­cept it turned out it was called Johnny’s Ba­nana—i’d heard him wrong. My son, pogo’ing through gi­ant boul­ders and frozen wa­ter­falls, caught Labow’s eye and seemed sud­denly to be en­ticed by the idea of a Green Moun­tain col­lege ed­u­ca­tion. I found my­self in a gully wider than my skis and opened the throt­tle a bit. By gum, it’d opened up.

Af­ter we skied down to the Smug­glers’ road, we hoofed it back to­ward the re­sort. Now and then, skiers came out of the woods and waved to Labow. By the park­ing lot, Labow said he was go­ing to meet some friends, to hit some chutes off the shoul­der of Spruce Peak, an area I’d eyed from afar and heard about of­ten but never skied. I won­dered if we could come along, but Labow said, “It’s kind of a lo­cal thing,” and then split.


Photo: Daniel Rönnbäck Skier: Ta­tum Monod Lo­ca­tion: Mus­tang Pow­der, Bri­tish Columbia

Photo: Greg Pet­rics

A lit­tle Wasatchian, a lit­tle Hoback­ian, but still en­tirely Mans­fiel­dian.

Pho­tos: Lenny Christo­pher

$towe is for those with means. Still, the ski bums per­sist.

Clock­wise from top: Photo: Lenny Christo­pher Photo: Lenny Christo­pher Photo: Justin Cash

Skier: Dy­lan Dipen­tima Photo: Brooks Cur­ran

Yeah, it’s Vail now, but it’s still bet­ter than any­thing at Dis­ney­land.

Skier: Noah Ranallo Photo: Brooks Cur­ran

Stowe has a lot of mid­dle-aged dudes with city money, but don’t quite write off the Ipa-swillin’ bark-eaters yet. They call the place home, too.

Clock­wise from top: Photo: Justin Cash Photo: Brooks Cur­ran Photo: Dana Allen

Skier: For­rest Twombly Photo: Brian Mohr

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