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Coping With Killington

Coping With Killington

Some complain it's crowded, commercial and crass. But Killington is among the East's most popular resorts For a reason. Our visit finds expansive slopes, wicked steeps, and-if you know where to ...
By Joe Cutts, Deputy Editor, SKI Magazine
posted: 02/02/2006

Turns out there are two Killingtons.

One is a 4,000-foot peak in the heart of central Vermont ski country, battered by wind and storm, ribboned with steep, sinuous trails and spiked with sinister tree shots. There, in the gray light of a sudden snowstorm, with snow erasing his tracks each run, a hardcore adventure seeker can have as soulful of a ski experience as there is to be had in the East.

The other Killington is a zoo, overrun by the metropolitan masses of the Northeast, its four-lane access road feeding immense parking lots, its crisscrossing trails choked with clueless, skidding humanity. A place where any bib-wearing yahoo can kick off his rental boots in the KBL bar and declare-much too loudly-how pissah his day was, and how he just freakin' went straight, right down the whole freakin' mountain.

Two Killingtons. I've been to both. Compared and contrasted, weighed the pros and cons, debated back and forth in my head. And in the end, I'm not sure which Killington I like more.

As Eastern ski areas go, Killington was perfectly located and perfectly timed for success. Founder Preston Smith-with significant infrastructural help from the state of Vermont-knew from his winter hikes that he had excellent terrain and reliable snowpack when he opened Killington Basin Ski Area in 1958 with two poma lifts, an outhouse and a salvaged Civilian Conservation Corps hut for a base lodge. He also knew he had a geographic advantage over Stowe, Sugarbush and Mad River Glen. In those days, they were another two full hours north on winding two-lane roads.

Killington grew explosively throughout skiing's boom years of the 1970s and 1980s, always thriving and always on the cutting edge of snowmaking, grooming, instruction and resort marketing. Smith and his investors acquired other resorts: Sunday River and Sugarloaf, Maine; Mount Snow and Haystack, Vt.; Waterville Valley, N.H.; and even Bear Mountain, Calif. At its peak in the mid-1980s, Smith's publicly traded SKI Ltd. controlled 1.7 million skier visits, making it the most successful resort operator on the continent at the time.

Meanwhile restaurants, bars and hotels sprang up along the length of the six-mile access road, earning Killington a nationally renowned-even scandalous-reputation as the home of one of the craziest nightlife and après-ski scenes in the country. These were the glory days, and many a former Eastern ski bum has fond, hazy memories of freewheeling Killington winters in the '70s and '80s.

By 1996, when Les Otten acquired the SKI Ltd. resorts, skier visits had sagged under 1 million. Otten, who presided over the American Skiing Co., was a former Smith lieutenant. (Years earlier, he had been dispatched to Maine to run sleepy Sunday River, which he subsequently bought from SKI Ltd. and transformed into a thriving giant on the New England ski market.) Otten and ASC brought renewed energy and investment dollars to Killington, installing gondolas and high-speed quads, upgrading snowmaking and planning a grand base village. Then a series of difficult winters saddled ASC with debt in excess of $400 million, resulting in Otten's leaving the company in 2001. Plans for the base village, as well as an interconnect with recently acquired Pico Peak, have been on hold ever since.

Like a lot of people who live near the venerable slopes of northern Vermont, I've always been conflicted about Killington. I've had good times there. And some mediocre times. What you learn while skiing Killington is that its customers like to gripe. They gripe about liftlines and reckless skiers and prices and food. But mostly, they gripe about the people they find there-folks known in some circles as the Obnoxious New Yorkers (ONYs).

On the other hand, no northern Vermont resort offers Killington's immense terrain (1,182 acres, 3,050 vertical feet). We in the north are also envious of those "southern storms" that so frequently plaster the lower half of the sta. And after about April 15, if you want to ski, "Kmart" is the only game in town.

In the end, Killington may be the epitome of Eastern skiing. It's in Vermont-for now, notwithstanding the silly referendum on seceding to New Hampshire in a revolt over taxes. Yet it's close enough to the major metros that it lures hordes of New Yorkers. And New Yorkers, after all, are the epitome of Easterners. So despising Killington, in other words, amounts to self-hatred. And consider this: Last season Killington logged nearly 550,000 skier visits. All of those people can't be delusional.

I knew about the crowds and the nightlife. I had been warned about the ONYs. My plan was to hit Killington on a weekday when it would presumably be at its best, then compare that visit to a weekend day to see if it would be as bad as it's made out to be. I dropped in on a snowy Friday and stayed through a sunny Saturday last spring. But let me tell you about my second day first.

Saturday It's sunny but well below freezing, so I'm in no hurry. If I stall, maybe the temperature will rise and the snow will soften. Over breakfast I chat with Manfred-the Austrian owner of the Snowed Inn-about the World Cup Finals. Manfred, who runs a tidy operation just off the access road, says he still races occasionally. But today he's wearing a tennis T-shirt, and I suspect his mind is already slipping into summer.

It's hard to believe that season is nigh as I set out around 9:30. It's cold. So I grab coffee at Killington Market, then detour down one of the rutted dirt roads to sniff around. Most visitors never see this side of Killington: camps and houses on hillside lots, most of them neat and well cared for, surrounded by the tall, leggy shafts of beeches and maples reaching for sunlight. You can see why people like it here-especially if they're from the city.

Soon it's clear the day will remain chilly no matter how long I stall, so I head back out to the access road and up the mountain. Killington's parking lots are enormous, and today they're jam-packed. Groaning inwardly, I drop my skis at Killington Base Lodge, then nose my truck through row after row of cars before jamming it semi-legally into a snowbank 300 yards from the lodge-the only spot I can find. KBL is packed, too. Still, in less than a half-hour, I'm booted up and aboard the K1 gondola, speeding toward Vermont's second-highest peak. (At 4,393 feet, Stowe's Mt. Mansfield is first.)

I weigh my options. On a cold day, Bear Mountain bumps will be more work than I'm in the mood for. And in a meager snow year, Devil's Fiddle will be closed, its ledge outcrops thinly covered or fully exposed. The good cruising trails will be too crowded for high-speed arcs. In the end, I stick to K1 and the Canyon quad, choosing the steepest trails and working my way down the sides in short turns. It's more effort, but definitely leaves me with the feeling of having skied hard.

By midday, I'm warming to the experience. The trails may be crowded, but I time the liftlines and find them to be, at most, 15 minutes long. Not bad-and not my problem, thanks to a two-minute singles line. Each trip up presents me with six or seven new gondola mates. I always enjoy random gondola conversations, and today I'm specifically on the hunt for ONYs. But I meet nary a one. I meet a few genuinely nice people from New York and a guy from Connecticut who insists with unshakable confidence that my Bandit XXs are actually wider than the Rossi Bandit XXXs. (They're not.) But no one-from any state-is even borderline obnoxious. It's kind of a letdown.

And yes, the trails are crowded, but here's the thing: I witness no collisions. I encounter no surly employees. Nobody strikes me as rude or pushy. And nobody cuts me off. It's unfortunate that these masses don't have more room to move, but no one looks unhappy. In fact, far from it. I knock off around mid-afternoon and make a couple new friends in KBL. (Never hurts to buy a round or two.)

I know there are weekends and holidays when Killington is even more crowded and, yes, I'd leave the place to the tourists on those occasions. But looking back on the day during the schlep back to my truck, I'm thinking it went pretty well. Decent snow, good company, plenty of quality turns and no sign of ONYs. Not bad. And yet, no comparison to the day before.

Friday It's snowing hard, blowing harder, the light is flat, and my friend, veteran Killington ski-shop owner Lee Quaglia, is looking at me like I'm an idiot. We're riding the Canyon Quad, chins hunched into collars against the blowing wind, and I've just pointed to some sweet lines in the woods, to skier's left of The Canyon, suggesting that they look pretty good and maybe we should give them a try.

The woods in question are called Big Dipper. Lee skis Killington almost every day-and because he sees it every day, he knows what lies beneath the four inches of fluff that has accumulated overnight. It's been warm in recent weeks, and the snowpack has taken a beating. He also knows that, thanks to the boys in his state-of-the-art backshop, my skis are tuned to perfection.

I'm a fanatic about a good tune. But I also contend that skis are meant to be skied. If something looks good, I'll sacrifice my edges for a few good turns. Maybe it's a Vermont thing. But I defer to Lee's judgment for the moment. We take a couple runs on Snowdon, which is sweetly groomed and utterly deserted. Yes, deserted: As packed as Killington will be tomorrow, today's liftlines are a minute at most.

Around 2:30, Lee has to get back to the shop, and before he's made it to the edge of the parking lot, I'm back aboard the K-1, beelining for Big Dipper. To my disgust, I find it roped off. That explains why the snow looks so tasty from the lift. So I'm confronted with a moral dilemma: Do I duck under the rope? Well, that would be unethical. And as I discover on the next run, it's not even necessary. A little farther down East Glade, you can cut right and arrive at the same terrain without any rope-ducking.

So I dive in. Am I skiing alone in the woods? Yes, and I know it breaks every ski rule I first learned when I was a kid. I vow to exercise extra caution, and besides, I'm within hailing distance of the Canyon Quad. What could happen?

I exercise extra caution-for about the first 300 yards. But the snow that has fallen steadily all day is, as I've suspected, deep enough to fill in the hard, icy bumps left by recent freeze-thaw cycles. I feel the occasional tug of rock on my bases, and I know my edges will pay, but it's been a lean winter, and this is fantastic: trees, bumps and soft, silky powder just dense enough to really smooth things out. I lose all judgment at about the time the terrain offers me a choice: Stay left, where the run suddenly plunges down a steep rock- and log-strewn pitch, or go right, where there's an easy but too-traveled bail-out option. Below, where the steep pitch moderates, there's more than an acre of untouched terrain, unmarred by those who have taken the safe line. Not only can I do it; I can nail it.

But the moment I drop in, two facts become apparent. While I've duly noted the protruding ledges, I've underestimated how hard the ice is beneath the snow. Worse, my bindings aren't cranked high enough for such conditions.

Before making two turns, I prerelease, teeter and tumble headlong down the pitch. Panicked, I grab a beech trunk and arrest my slide. For a moment, I think I'm safe. But I'm not. When I try to climb up to my lost ski, I discover that what lies under the new snow isn't snow at all. It's an ice river, much too hard and steep to offer my boots any purchase.

Below me, it's worse: a 100-foot slide-for-life punctuated by rocks and tree trunks that will surely end my season. Let's recap: I'm alone in the woods, near the end of the day, and in a jam. Way to go, hot shot.

I actually consider shouting for help, yelling over totwo.)

I know there are weekends and holidays when Killington is even more crowded and, yes, I'd leave the place to the tourists on those occasions. But looking back on the day during the schlep back to my truck, I'm thinking it went pretty well. Decent snow, good company, plenty of quality turns and no sign of ONYs. Not bad. And yet, no comparison to the day before.

Friday It's snowing hard, blowing harder, the light is flat, and my friend, veteran Killington ski-shop owner Lee Quaglia, is looking at me like I'm an idiot. We're riding the Canyon Quad, chins hunched into collars against the blowing wind, and I've just pointed to some sweet lines in the woods, to skier's left of The Canyon, suggesting that they look pretty good and maybe we should give them a try.

The woods in question are called Big Dipper. Lee skis Killington almost every day-and because he sees it every day, he knows what lies beneath the four inches of fluff that has accumulated overnight. It's been warm in recent weeks, and the snowpack has taken a beating. He also knows that, thanks to the boys in his state-of-the-art backshop, my skis are tuned to perfection.

I'm a fanatic about a good tune. But I also contend that skis are meant to be skied. If something looks good, I'll sacrifice my edges for a few good turns. Maybe it's a Vermont thing. But I defer to Lee's judgment for the moment. We take a couple runs on Snowdon, which is sweetly groomed and utterly deserted. Yes, deserted: As packed as Killington will be tomorrow, today's liftlines are a minute at most.

Around 2:30, Lee has to get back to the shop, and before he's made it to the edge of the parking lot, I'm back aboard the K-1, beelining for Big Dipper. To my disgust, I find it roped off. That explains why the snow looks so tasty from the lift. So I'm confronted with a moral dilemma: Do I duck under the rope? Well, that would be unethical. And as I discover on the next run, it's not even necessary. A little farther down East Glade, you can cut right and arrive at the same terrain without any rope-ducking.

So I dive in. Am I skiing alone in the woods? Yes, and I know it breaks every ski rule I first learned when I was a kid. I vow to exercise extra caution, and besides, I'm within hailing distance of the Canyon Quad. What could happen?

I exercise extra caution-for about the first 300 yards. But the snow that has fallen steadily all day is, as I've suspected, deep enough to fill in the hard, icy bumps left by recent freeze-thaw cycles. I feel the occasional tug of rock on my bases, and I know my edges will pay, but it's been a lean winter, and this is fantastic: trees, bumps and soft, silky powder just dense enough to really smooth things out. I lose all judgment at about the time the terrain offers me a choice: Stay left, where the run suddenly plunges down a steep rock- and log-strewn pitch, or go right, where there's an easy but too-traveled bail-out option. Below, where the steep pitch moderates, there's more than an acre of untouched terrain, unmarred by those who have taken the safe line. Not only can I do it; I can nail it.

But the moment I drop in, two facts become apparent. While I've duly noted the protruding ledges, I've underestimated how hard the ice is beneath the snow. Worse, my bindings aren't cranked high enough for such conditions.

Before making two turns, I prerelease, teeter and tumble headlong down the pitch. Panicked, I grab a beech trunk and arrest my slide. For a moment, I think I'm safe. But I'm not. When I try to climb up to my lost ski, I discover that what lies under the new snow isn't snow at all. It's an ice river, much too hard and steep to offer my boots any purchase.

Below me, it's worse: a 100-foot slide-for-life punctuated by rocks and tree trunks that will surely end my season. Let's recap: I'm alone in the woods, near the end of the day, and in a jam. Way to go, hot shot.

I actually consider shouting for help, yelling over to someone on the Canyon Quad to send a patroller. But pure hubris checks that impulse. A kind snowboarder stops above me to offer aid, but we agree that by trying to help he'll only risk taking us both out. Forty minutes later, using a pole as a probe and cautiously planting each step, I've picked a safe, circuitous route up to my ski and crept back off the ice-far humbler and mostly unharmed.

The remainder of the run, of course, is untracked bliss. But the incident is a reminder: Killington is big mountain, not to be trifled with. It will kick your butt if you're not careful. And what more can be asked of any mountain?

Naturally, I cycle back for more of the same. By now other poachers have wandered in too. I just miss making a third run because the quad has closed. So I head down the long runout to KBL, thinking about the day. Despite my adventure-no, because of it-the outing ranks as one of the best I've had all season. As crowded and commercial as Killington can be, it can also be: deserted, stormy and abundantly challenging.

Skidding to a stop at KBL, I look back up at the mountain, its summit shrouded in clouds. Two Killingtons-like Frost's two roads diverging. Take the one less traveled, and it can make all the difference. Or run with the crowds, if you like. Either way, you'll find something to gripe about-and, with the right attitude, plenty to cherish.

NOVEMBER 2004

r to someone on the Canyon Quad to send a patroller. But pure hubris checks that impulse. A kind snowboarder stops above me to offer aid, but we agree that by trying to help he'll only risk taking us both out. Forty minutes later, using a pole as a probe and cautiously planting each step, I've picked a safe, circuitous route up to my ski and crept back off the ice-far humbler and mostly unharmed.

The remainder of the run, of course, is untracked bliss. But the incident is a reminder: Killington is big mountain, not to be trifled with. It will kick your butt if you're not careful. And what more can be asked of any mountain?

Naturally, I cycle back for more of the same. By now other poachers have wandered in too. I just miss making a third run because the quad has closed. So I head down the long runout to KBL, thinking about the day. Despite my adventure-no, because of it-the outing ranks as one of the best I've had all season. As crowded and commercial as Killington can be, it can also be: deserted, stormy and abundantly challenging.

Skidding to a stop at KBL, I look back up at the mountain, its summit shrouded in clouds. Two Killingtons-like Frost's two roads diverging. Take the one less traveled, and it can make all the difference. Or run with the crowds, if you like. Either way, you'll find something to gripe about-and, with the right attitude, plenty to cherish.

NOVEMBER 2004

 

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