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Life Under A Cloud

Life Under A Cloud

Travel East
By David Healy
posted: 11/30/2000

In Vermont, the word on Jay Peak passes through liftlines like a game of telephone. "Did you hear what they got at Jay?" someone asks. "Yeah," a nearby voice replies. "The radio said 12 to 14 and still dumping."

By day's end, it's 18 to 22 with more on the way. "Yeah, right," some cynic inevitably sneers. "Who's reading the stake? Al Gore?" But those familiar with "the Jay Cloud" just shake their heads and grin, knowing that every cynic today is one less person tracking out the powder tomorrow.

"When I first started working as a meteorologist," says Steve Maleski, Vermont Public Radio's "Eye on the Sky" weather guy, "people used to talk about a 'Jay Inch.'" What else could explain such wildly inflated snowfall totals? "Well, one year we compared the melted-precip data with the reported snowfall, and it squared. They're just very favorably located."

Favorably located? That's one way to put it. During last season's La Niña washout, Jay Peak picked up a Tetonesque 488 inches. That was a record, to be sure, but not a freak of nature. The area's annual snowfall averages 340 inches and has topped the 400 mark four times in the past seven years.

My own first run-in with Jay's bounty came a decade ago, when a rogue late-fall storm dumped 3 to 5 feet on the mountain. In the time it took management to restore power and plow out enough parking spaces to open-it was only Nov. 12, after all-I had dropped everything and headed north. By noon, temperatures were in the 40s and the powder had morphed into an eastern brand of Sierra cement. But I'd seen enough to be counted among the Jay faithful, and I've been making regular pilgrimages ever since.

Most recently, it was for my annual birthday bash, spent cruising the slopes with childhood buddy and ski partner Charlie Brown. Unlike the Peanuts character, this guy can ski. Or at least could ski, before being sentenced to hard time behind a desk in Chicago.

Since Jay is little more than a slap shot from Canada, I pick up Charlie at Montreal's Dorval Airport with every intention of driving the hour and a half back to Montgomery Center, a funky Vermont farming community nestled against the south side of Jay Peak. But with cold rain and snow pelting the windshield and glazing the roads, we take refuge north of the border for the night.

On weekends, Francophones course down the autoroute, flavoring rustic Jay with their stylish ski suits and enthusiasm for good food, fine wine and the great outdoors. Midweek, especially in early December, only a handful of the local hardcore-and college students playing hooky from the University of Vermont, 90 minutes away in Burlington-are in evidence. But, merci beaucoup, you can still get killer poutines-a Quebecois staple of french fries topped with cheese curd and gravy-in the Jay cafeteria.

As is so often the case, the weather changes as we approach Jay Peak. First the mixed precipitation gives way to little white pellets and then complex flake structures the size of quarters. By the time we hit the parking lot, there are 5 to 7 inches of dense stuff underfoot and a topping of smoke falling fast. Stomachs wound tight with anticipation, we fumble through our gear bags with one eye on the next tram as it bears down on the base area.

Though oft compared to Jackson Hole, Wyo., both for epic storms and signature red tramcars, Jay Peak more closely resembles the Matterhorn. From a distance, the summit-though a comparatively modest 3,968 feet-juts skyward like the stony backdrop of a Bond flick. Up close, Jay's vertiginous Face Chutes recall the Jackson analogy and provide respectable training for Corbet's wannabes, with 36-degree pitches and 20-foot drops, all in-bounds. No wonder the International Free Skiers Association selected Jay to host one of two first-ever East Coast tour events this February.

But it's Charlie's first day on skis for the season, so we skirt the extreme stuff, heading past Ullr's Dream to JFK, a mellow black-diamond at wends its way down the mountain. It's 10 a.m., and there's just one set of tracks on the slope. Then three, then five, then seven, as we yo-yo the 2,100 vertical off the tram, scoring new lines while mixing and matching the bottom half of each run. We'd be happy to stay on the trails all day, as good as the snow is, but no visit to Jay is complete without a sampling of its woods.

Jay Peak was founded in 1956 by the local Kiwanis Club to promote business in this remote corner of Vermont's Northeast Kingdom. Today it is a tribute to skiing the way it used to be, and yet it is squarely on the vanguard of the modern treeskiing movement. Jay offers the most-and arguably best-glades this side of Steamboat.

"When I first came here, I'd see these guys with snow in their mustaches and smiles on their faces like they'd just swallowed a bird," recalls CEO Bill Stenger. "They all had their secret stashes. It was pretty obvious to me we had to connect with that element of fun."

A dozen years of dogged clearing and fastidious maintenance have created a well-marked network of 20 glades and put more than 100 acres of terrain in play. Stenger and his axe-wielding right-hand man, grooming supervisor Dave Heath, have just added "Beyond Beaver Pond," a coveted glade previously accessible only with an off-piste guide.

"There's always something to be had up here if you know where to look," Heath grins. At most resorts, glades bump up and "go sour" under heavy skier traffic, he notes. Not so at Jay. "Really, we have almost a magic situation of snowfall and wind that always seems to renew the glades," Heath affirms.

As we break for lunch, the magic seems to be easing up-just the occasional flake fluttering in from the West. But like a lone sentinel at the top of Vermont, Jay gets hammered from three directions: southwesterlies up the Champlain Valley, Alberta Clippers sailing down off the Canadian Shield and cycling Nor'easters that pick up moisture from the mouth of the St. Lawrence. Throw in the multiplier of being the highest mountain in the neighborhood-a phenomenon known to meteorologists as the "orographic effect" and to locals simply as the "Jay Cloud"-and you've got snowstorms that home in on the area like ski bums to happy hour.

Fully fortified by a large order of poutines, Charlie and I grab an old T-bar to traverse to the Bonaventure Chair and one of Heath's favorite glades: Vertigo. If there's a knock against Jay Peak-other than the monster commute and its arctic climate-it's that the lifts are inadequate. But last year's addition of the Green Mountain Flyer-a high-speed quad dubbed the "G.M. Freezer" by local wags-has done a lot to increase Jay's uphill capacity and improve access to the best intermediate terrain, including Ullr's and the Northway. And tram upgrades this season have shortened liftlines even further. Though the new tram cars are no longer Jackson Hole red, they are a couple minutes faster and fitted with top-quality no-fog windows that will give passengers a bird's-eye view of the freeskiing antics in February.

From Bonaventure you get a different angle on Jay, but mostly your attention is captured by the Can-Am, a super steep bump run that for a dozen years was groomed with winch-cats to stage the annual George Syrovatka Citizen's Downhill-a Jay tradition. The race-open to the first 200 competitors who come up with the entry fee and a crash helmet-has since moved across the mountain to Derick Hot Shot and The Haynes. While those slopes aren't quite as hairy as the Can-Am, Syrovatka-a former speedskiing world record holder now pushing 50-notched an impressive 75 mph on last year's course. The top speed was well into the 80s. Happily, Jay isn't all wild child. On prime learning terrain well segregated from the speed zones, the biggest race is to score chocolate chip cookies dispensed by Moose, the lift op at the bottom of the Queen's Highway T-bar. Local parent Steve Wunsch credits Stenger for Jay's down-home feel. "Honestly, it starts at the top and telegraphs through the staff," he says. "That's what makes Jay feel like family."

With no kids in tow, we set out for the trees of Vertigo. Getting there requires a short section of the precipitous River Quai, where hop turns are the rule. Triggering surface slides with each turn, I simply get too pumped to cut into the trees. Instead, I reconnoiter with my partner some 500 vertical feet later as Charlie spills out of a maze of balsam firs, twisting turns in the corn-starch powder. "Whew!" he bellows before doubling over and sucking wind for a full three-count. "OK?" I inquire. "Oh yeah," he wheezes, rolling his eyes skyward.Overhead, the switch is on "snow" again, leaving us alone with our thoughts and an internal glow stoked by the knowledge that wherever we ski today, it'll be fresh. From Timbuktu to Hell's Woods we go; occasionally the inner fire erupts, and we shout it out to the heavens.

Back at the lodge, weary but grinning, we pack up-far more slowly than we unpacked. Nearby, I recognize Jay's marketing guy chatting at the ski school desk. "What's the forecast, Conrad?" I query. "Six to eight on top of what we already have," he crows, then adds slyly, "Maybe more." The Jay Cloud is overhead, and we have no reason to doubt him.

A PEEK AT JAY'S FUTURE
With local and state permits in hand, Jay Peak is poised to break through to major four-season resort status. Groundbreaking on a 27-hole golf course and 40-acre learning facility is expected this summer. Meanwhile, Jay Peak Village-an "environmentally integrated" slopeside development with indoor swimming and other family amenities-will eventually add 1,200 new units, bumping Jay's meager bed-base from 900 to as many as 5,000. The properties will range from mountainside condos for $80,000 to single-family homes pushing $500,000.wn-home feel. "Honestly, it starts at the top and telegraphs through the staff," he says. "That's what makes Jay feel like family."

With no kids in tow, we set out for the trees of Vertigo. Getting there requires a short section of the precipitous River Quai, where hop turns are the rule. Triggering surface slides with each turn, I simply get too pumped to cut into the trees. Instead, I reconnoiter with my partner some 500 vertical feet later as Charlie spills out of a maze of balsam firs, twisting turns in the corn-starch powder. "Whew!" he bellows before doubling over and sucking wind for a full three-count. "OK?" I inquire. "Oh yeah," he wheezes, rolling his eyes skyward.Overhead, the switch is on "snow" again, leaving us alone with our thoughts and an internal glow stoked by the knowledge that wherever we ski today, it'll be fresh. From Timbuktu to Hell's Woods we go; occasionally the inner fire erupts, and we shout it out to the heavens.

Back at the lodge, weary but grinning, we pack up-far more slowly than we unpacked. Nearby, I recognize Jay's marketing guy chatting at the ski school desk. "What's the forecast, Conrad?" I query. "Six to eight on top of what we already have," he crows, then adds slyly, "Maybe more." The Jay Cloud is overhead, and we have no reason to doubt him.

A PEEK AT JAY'S FUTURE
With local and state permits in hand, Jay Peak is poised to break through to major four-season resort status. Groundbreaking on a 27-hole golf course and 40-acre learning facility is expected this summer. Meanwhile, Jay Peak Village-an "environmentally integrated" slopeside development with indoor swimming and other family amenities-will eventually add 1,200 new units, bumping Jay's meager bed-base from 900 to as many as 5,000. The properties will range from mountainside condos for $80,000 to single-family homes pushing $500,000.

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