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Baptize Me in Powder

Baptize Me in Powder

Travel
By Ben Hewitt
posted: 11/30/2005



It's a Wednesday night, a locals' night like any other night, and Gary Wetherbee and I have sidled up to the Belfry bar, tipping pints in the small, honey-lit room and sinking into the comfortable fatigue wrought by consecutive days of deep powder skiing.

In a circuitous way, I'm at the Belfry for one simple reason: I do not believe in the legend of Vermont's Jay Peak, which lies just a few miles up a narrow, winding, frost-heaved slice of pavement from the Belfry. Oh, I believe in Jay skiers like Wetherbee, whose left wrist lies on the bar like a wounded animal. He broke it skiing, and of course he skis with it broken. This is no small matter of pride, which I know because of how much he downplays it. "I call it brain-dead mind over matter," he says.

And I believe in the Belfry, the local's watering hole of choice, where the pints are poured with a practiced hand and the chair backs are draped in well-worn Gore-Tex and the parking lot is ringed by snowbanks higher than the peak of my hat.

What I don't believe in lies up the road a ways (or up the road a piece, as it's said around here). It's the legend that says Jay Peak is like no other mountain in the East-that snow falls there in such abundance and is of such quality that skiers will drive through the night, passing by other mountains of equivalent vertical and terrain, drinking bad coffee and listening to bad radio stations and nosing their cars into furious storms for one simple reason: They believe.

["The Snowiest Mountain in the East"]

2004-2005: 327 inches. 2003-2004: 361 inches. 2002-2003: 304 inches. 2001-2002: 378 inches. 2000-2001: 581 inches. 1999-2000: 488 inches. Those charged with the marketing of Jay Peak would like you to think that the numbers tell the story, that every storm takes skiers, quite literally, closer to the heavens. They say things like "The most snow in eastern North America" and "It's all about the snow" and "Welcome to the Deep." It is fair to say that Jay Peak, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, has staked much on its reputation as the snowiest mountain in the East. It's gone to great lengths to market the mountain as the antidote to the bumps and boilerplate typical of the region as a whole, hosting the East's only International Free Skiing Association-sanctioned big mountain competition, leading the open-boundaries charge long before other Eastern resorts, and feverishly thinning steep lines in the woods.

Unquestionably, it's worked. Jay's annual skier visits have risen by 20,000 over the past half-decade. There's the Canadian contingent, mostly Montreal-based rippers willing to wait through long border-crossing lines on powder mornings. There are the dedicated U.S. urbanites making the five-hour midnight runs from Boston. And there are the local boys and girls, smug in their belief that they live where everyone else wants to ski. When I ask Wetherbee if he ever skis elsewhere, he scoffs: "Why would I leave Jay's snow and terrain to go looking for Jay's snow and terrain?"

But perhaps Jay's marketing department has it all wrong. If the legend of Jay Peak is built on what falls from the sky, then the hard, tangible truth is built on people who thread narrow tree lines with broken wrists and spend their Wednesday evenings making jokes about it.

["The Devout"]

Just take William Akens. Poor Billy. It's not yet 9 A.M. on Tuesday, February 22, and already things have gone all to hell. First came the slow realization that he'd left his skis-a pair of Line Assassins mounted with Rottefella telemark bindings-in the rack at Jay's Stateside lodge the night before. Then came the drive up the hill to the Jay parking lot from the yurt he shares with his buddy Chris Casey, two miles that proved to be two too many for the clutch in his 13-year-old, Bondo-spackled pickup, which was already running on only three of its four cylinders. When I joke that at least the road homis entirely downhill, Akens gives me a wan smile. And I shut up.

Akens and Casey, best friends since they met in college in the early '90s, have spent the past seven winters in their yurt, relying on gracious landowners to provide a patch of soil on which to erect it. They've had to move it only once. Casey spent a year living in Vail, another year bumming around British Columbia, and yet another in Stowe, before settling on Jay. "I'm here for the snow and the terrain, for sure, but I'm also here for the scene, which basically isn't one."

Right now, the snow is about as good as it gets. Jay's been in the flow for the past two weeks, soaking up nearly five feet of low-moisture Clipper dust out of Canada. The night before, nine inches had fallen, buttering the already creamy snow and soothing the angst of a certain ponytailed man of 34 who is one pair of skis and one clutch short of where he was only a few hours ago. The 10 inches aren't vastly more than other Vermont resorts received, but it sure as hell isn't less, either.

Akens and Casey and I boot up and hop on the Stateside Triple. (Jay has two base areas: Stateside-so named because it's the area of the resort farthest from Quebec-and Tramside, where the bulk of skiers converge.) The Triple accesses the Dip, a wide apron of moderate-angle woods that's technically out-of-bounds and demands a short shuttle, both convenient factors in that they discourage widespread pillaging by skiers unfamiliar with the area. On big days, or on busy weekends when the rest of the mountain is clogged, it's not uncommon for locals to spend the entire day in the Dip. A dozen Dip runs in a day is a possibility. Impromptu shuttles run regularly-every year, Wetherbee invests in a dilapidated minivan, rips out the backseats, sticks a bottle of something high-test under the driver's seat, and donates it to the cause.

Of course, there are inbounds stashes on Jay. Over on Tramside, Beyond Beaver Pond is one of the mountain's better-known treed sections, thanks to thoughtful thinning and a consistent-but-not-overwhelming pitch. The Face Chutes drop directly off the peak to skier's right of Tuckerman Chute, another pencil of a line that's good for maybe three laps. On Stateside, Kitz Woods and Timbuktu are the glade runs of choice for those not aware of-or up for-the car-shuttle options.

But they ain't the Dip, which on this day is skiing spectacularly. On each run we find snow that's never seen P-tex. Casey is absolutely flying, his bobbing, athletic style the perfect match to the Dip's fully chargeable lines. Wetherbee's in there too, knocking off smooth tele turns with one pole, his wrist cast held protectively against his chest. I'm following, honoring unstated Powder Law Number Three, which conveys first-track rights to locals, all while thinking that there might just be something to this Jay legend I've been hearing so much about. And Akens? Akens is smiling again, his ponytail flying in the air behind him, his mind no longer dwelling on stolen skis and a rust-shot truck.

["Jay Cloud Meteorology"]

It's called the Jay Cloud, and depending on whom you talk to, it's either gospel-or more marketing run amok. "They've pushed the Jay Cloud so much that if Smugg's has 10 inches, we've gotta have 18, all because of the Cloud," Wetherbee had told me that night at the Belfry, referring to the ski area to the south, Smuggler's Notch. "I mean, look at today. They advertised 35. I'll kiss your ass in public if it was over 30." He'd thumped the bar with his cast for emphasis. At the time, I'd almost argued that in powder-skiing terms, the difference between 30 and 35 inches was largely academic, but I caught myself just in time. Either way, I didn't want my ass kissed, and if I were to sustain my disbelief in the face of huge powder days, I'd need all the help I could get.

Still, Wetherbee-as fervent a Jay supporter as exists-gave credible voice to the primary knock against Jay: Is it possible that it has painted itself into a corner? That by virtue of receiving more snow than other mountains in the area, and by reporting with, well, perhaps optimism is the kindest word, it has created a situation whereby anything less than more isn't enough?

To find out, I pay a visit to the basement weather station of Jim Roemer, a tall, thick-chested, outspoken meteorologist who's made a career out of providing weather reports to skiers and ski resorts, including Jay.

On the day of my visit, a nor'easter is marshaling its forces and tracking along a path that should deposit it directly over Jay. Despite a case of the flu, Roemer is in a fitful state as he pulls up the National Weather Service forecast, which is calling for a modest six to eight inches.

"Bullshit!" bellows Roemer, making Holstein, the 20 pounds' worth of cat dozing on his lap, twitch his ears. "We're gonna fuckin' get nailed here. The NWS has their head up their ass." Spittle, which I deftly avoid, flies from his lips. "Fuck, man. I'm gonna go three feet."

Roemer mashes a thick finger against the dot on his computer map that represents Jay. "Look, the Jay Cloud exists, it's a real thing. Part of it is just because it's colder up there. At 32 degrees, an inch of moisture is worth 12 inches of snow; at 25, it's worth 15 inches; and once you get below 17 degrees you're looking at 30 inches plus. So if it's five degrees colder at Jay, they're gonna get more snow."

Then he points slightly north of Jay, where there is...nothing. "See? See that? There aren't any mountains up there to suck up snow. You go south," he slides his finger down the screen to the northern tip of New York's Adirondacks, "and you've got mountains to the west of Vermont." Those peaks create what's called shadowing, which, in stark skier's terms, means that if you're not skiing Jay, then someone else is getting the snow that was supposed to be yours.

Roemer agrees that Jay sometimes exaggerates snowfall, but only "as much as anyone else." The reality, according to Roemer, is that Jay's snow totals fall somewhere between the marketing department's hype and the pundits' pessimism. "They're getting 10 to 15 percent more snow, there's no question about that." And then he turns his eye to the map that depicts the gathering storm as an angry swirl of yellow and green. "Look at all that fuckin' moisture!" More spittle. "Look at it!" Holstein scampers from the room.

["Big Jay"]

There's no denying I've had a good run at Jay. On four mornings, I've pointed my old pickup north, and on four mornings I've been greeted by a deep layer of powder. But if I'm no longer a skeptic, I'm also not yet a believer. After all, the entire northern half of New England has been in the same storm track, and conditions are epic regionwide. I could have pointed my truck at almost any northeastern mountain and found the same thing.

Then came Big Jay. Situated slightly south and west of Jay Peak proper, Big Jay is accessed via a 30-minute skin (if the skin track's smooth) from the tram and is widely regarded as the finest piece of lift-served backcountry skiing in the East. It's rumored to receive even more snow than the main mountain, though no one measures, so it's impossible to verify. Skiable lines drop a healthy 1,800 or so feet, down a pitch that's extraordinary not so much for its steepness (though it probably averages 35 degrees) as for the consistency of its slope. Not many people ski Big Jay; the difficult access, the level of skill it demands, and the long runout dissuade the masses. Still, it's a crucial part of Jay's mystique. When conditions are right, Akens and Casey make the trip daily. It's now two days after my visit to Roemer, the storm is just winding down, and the yurt boys are antsy to make a run of it.

Whoever cut these lines knew exactly what they were doing. On Big Jay, more than any piece of treed try knock against Jay: Is it possible that it has painted itself into a corner? That by virtue of receiving more snow than other mountains in the area, and by reporting with, well, perhaps optimism is the kindest word, it has created a situation whereby anything less than more isn't enough?

To find out, I pay a visit to the basement weather station of Jim Roemer, a tall, thick-chested, outspoken meteorologist who's made a career out of providing weather reports to skiers and ski resorts, including Jay.

On the day of my visit, a nor'easter is marshaling its forces and tracking along a path that should deposit it directly over Jay. Despite a case of the flu, Roemer is in a fitful state as he pulls up the National Weather Service forecast, which is calling for a modest six to eight inches.

"Bullshit!" bellows Roemer, making Holstein, the 20 pounds' worth of cat dozing on his lap, twitch his ears. "We're gonna fuckin' get nailed here. The NWS has their head up their ass." Spittle, which I deftly avoid, flies from his lips. "Fuck, man. I'm gonna go three feet."

Roemer mashes a thick finger against the dot on his computer map that represents Jay. "Look, the Jay Cloud exists, it's a real thing. Part of it is just because it's colder up there. At 32 degrees, an inch of moisture is worth 12 inches of snow; at 25, it's worth 15 inches; and once you get below 17 degrees you're looking at 30 inches plus. So if it's five degrees colder at Jay, they're gonna get more snow."

Then he points slightly north of Jay, where there is...nothing. "See? See that? There aren't any mountains up there to suck up snow. You go south," he slides his finger down the screen to the northern tip of New York's Adirondacks, "and you've got mountains to the west of Vermont." Those peaks create what's called shadowing, which, in stark skier's terms, means that if you're not skiing Jay, then someone else is getting the snow that was supposed to be yours.

Roemer agrees that Jay sometimes exaggerates snowfall, but only "as much as anyone else." The reality, according to Roemer, is that Jay's snow totals fall somewhere between the marketing department's hype and the pundits' pessimism. "They're getting 10 to 15 percent more snow, there's no question about that." And then he turns his eye to the map that depicts the gathering storm as an angry swirl of yellow and green. "Look at all that fuckin' moisture!" More spittle. "Look at it!" Holstein scampers from the room.

["Big Jay"]

There's no denying I've had a good run at Jay. On four mornings, I've pointed my old pickup north, and on four mornings I've been greeted by a deep layer of powder. But if I'm no longer a skeptic, I'm also not yet a believer. After all, the entire northern half of New England has been in the same storm track, and conditions are epic regionwide. I could have pointed my truck at almost any northeastern mountain and found the same thing.

Then came Big Jay. Situated slightly south and west of Jay Peak proper, Big Jay is accessed via a 30-minute skin (if the skin track's smooth) from the tram and is widely regarded as the finest piece of lift-served backcountry skiing in the East. It's rumored to receive even more snow than the main mountain, though no one measures, so it's impossible to verify. Skiable lines drop a healthy 1,800 or so feet, down a pitch that's extraordinary not so much for its steepness (though it probably averages 35 degrees) as for the consistency of its slope. Not many people ski Big Jay; the difficult access, the level of skill it demands, and the long runout dissuade the masses. Still, it's a crucial part of Jay's mystique. When conditions are right, Akens and Casey make the trip daily. It's now two days after my visit to Roemer, the storm is just winding down, and the yurt boys are antsy to make a run of it.

Whoever cut these lines knew exactly what they were doing. On Big Jay, more than any piece of treed terrain I've skied, the shots open and shut at precisely the right moments. Just as you start feeling claustrophobic, just as it starts to seem as if the course you're on can only end badly, you spy a slot and beyond it a wide expanse of white, and you slip through and you're in the goods again.

At the top of Big Jay we stop to take our climbing skins off and shrug back into our shells. It is quiet; the wind has died, and there's no sound but our own, and we're not making much. The snow is thick on the ground, and even on fat skis, we're sinking to our knees. Turns out, Roemer was right on target.

We beat skier's left, to the outermost, least-trafficked lines. But with conditions like these, it hardly matters where we go. Akens jumps in first, pumps a few quick turns, and slips out of sight. Casey goes next. And me? I pause, looking over my tips at one of the sweetest lines I'll ever ski. Then I drop, and it's not mere belief I feel as snow billows over my head. Hell, no. It's faith.

November 2005ed terrain I've skied, the shots open and shut at precisely the right moments. Just as you start feeling claustrophobic, just as it starts to seem as if the course you're on can only end badly, you spy a slot and beyond it a wide expanse of white, and you slip through and you're in the goods again.

At the top of Big Jay we stop to take our climbing skins off and shrug back into our shells. It is quiet; the wind has died, and there's no sound but our own, and we're not making much. The snow is thick on the ground, and even on fat skis, we're sinking to our knees. Turns out, Roemer was right on target.

We beat skier's left, to the outermost, least-trafficked lines. But with conditions like these, it hardly matters where we go. Akens jumps in first, pumps a few quick turns, and slips out of sight. Casey goes next. And me? I pause, looking over my tips at one of the sweetest lines I'll ever ski. Then I drop, and it's not mere belief I feel as snow billows over my head. Hell, no. It's faith.

November 2005

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