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Sugarbush: Back in Style

Sugarbush: Back in Style

Travel
posted: 02/06/2007

The fabric of Sugarbush's past is accented with gold lamé. Specifically, the quilted gold lamé wrapped around a floor to-ceiling pole near the bar of an otherwise traditional French bistro. Tucked beneath nondescript white-stucco condos that are part of Sugarbush's original village, a heavy wooden door leads into Chez Henri, a cozy den redolent of fondue and proudly featuring the aforementioned pole. A sign atop the pole bears the names of legends who've scaled it (hands-only): Killy, Duvillard, Eriksen, Cochran, to name a few. The very names evoke visions of the lively, athletic company and spirited times that typified Sugarbush in its youth. "You have to be very young and very light to climb it," explains co-owner Henri Borel, no longer so young, though still fit. He opened Chez Henri in 1964, at the height of Sugarbush's glory, when "Mascara Mountain" was the glamour capital of Eastern skiing and a playground of the rich and beautiful.

As improved airline service and the capricious tastes of fashion lured those who could afford it to Western slopes in the '70s, Sugarbush was stuck in time. Blessed with natural Vermont beauty and big terrain, it still enticed investors. But a community determined to preserve its unspoiled charm fiercely protected it. Just as gold lamé can come off as either hopeless anachronism or timeless classic, Sugarbush struggled to accessorize in a way that satisfied visitors and locals alike.

But today, Chez Henri's view of the mountain—long a vision of depreciation—is dominated by a fresh scene, as long-overdue base amenities come on line at the foot of the Gatehouse quad on Lincoln Peak. The centerpiece is Clay Brook, a lodge of 61 slopeside residences styled in the Vermont vernacular, with barn-red paint and a silo-like turret. Borel surveys the messy construction zone and sees nothing but upside. He has confidence in the current ownership, Summit Ventures, led by Win Smith, a former chairman of Merrill Lynch International. "He loves to ski, and he has some munnay," Borel notes of Smith in his enduring French accent. "And as we know from his life before, he knows how to manage munnay. We have been waiting for this for 40 years."

Win Smith skis almost every day, typically taking a NASTAR run at 10a.m., then roaming the mountain to sample the best snow from his new low-energy snow guns, which have allowed the resort to shelve its diesel generators. Today he takes the Heaven's Gate lift to the top of Lincoln Peak, where he can sidestep up a small rise to the very ridge of the Green Mountains. The views are almost Western in their vastness: east to Mt. Washington, north to Camel's Hump and Mansfield, west across huge Lake Champlain to the Adirondacks. It's an impressive vista, beggaring those of the hills around ski area summits farther south.

Yet as removed as it feels, Sugarbush is only three hours from the heart of Boston, five from New York City. It's closer to either city than Stowe is, and a mere 30 minutes farther than Killington. What you get for going that extra distance is bigger country—and more of it to yourself. Crowds dissipate across Sugarbush's two mountains, Lincoln Peak to the south and Mt. Ellen to the north, which together offer the best of traditional Eastern skiing. Lincoln—the original Sugarbush—is a massive bowl with ridgeline trails, fast fall-line cruising and challenging steeps. Its configuration funnels skiers into a single base area, but does so without the dangerous congestion that plagues areas of similar size. Mt. Ellen (known as Glen Ellen back when Killy was climbing the pole at Henri's) features more rolling groomers, plus steep, long mogul runs like FIS, Tumbler and Hammerhead that double as prime powder stashes. It's also home to the wide swath of the Inverness trail, where the students of Green Mountain Valley School (GMVS) train daily.

As ample as it feels already, Sugarbush has room to grow, and Smith ts animated talking about the frosted ridgeline between Mt. Ellen and Lincoln Peak."It's almost five miles across," he enthuses. "That's as big as Vail, and it could mean 4,000 acres of skiable area. Currently, skiing in that zone, known as Slide Brook, amounts to unsanctioned exploration for hardy backcountry skiers and a limited number of resort-sponsored tours. And expansion may be little more than a pipe dream given the local sentiment. Consider the example of Castlerock Peak, a wild, craggy territory at the back of the Lincoln Peak bowl. It has but a handful of narrow trails served by a slow lift with widely spaced chairs. Visitors are greeted by signs more foreboding than those greeting Dorothy in flying-monkey land: "All natural snow, no grooming, thin cover...Did we mention ROCKS?" Castlerock maybe a far cry from the broad groomers and high-speed lifts skiers are accustomed to these days, but the locals won't have it any other way, as Les Otten and the American Skiing Co. found out when their proposal to "upgrade" it met fierce opposition ("More Rock, Less Otten," as one bumpersticker put it). Smith agrees that certain trails should never be tamed—then admits that his team did have a plan for a highspeed quad on Castlerock. "But I think we would have been lynched," he allows.

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It's probably this awareness that has helped him to win over the community where others have failed. ASC, which acquired Sugarbush in 1996, spent $27 million on improvements. Three new high-speed quads, the relocation of three others, a 300-percent increase in snowmaking and the interconnection of Lincoln Peak and Mt. Ellen greatly improved skiing at Sugarbush. The payoff was to come in the form of slopeside real-estate sales at another of ASC's trademark Grand Summit hotels. But the proposal was flatly opposed by locals willing to fight to preserve a valley where, to this day, you won't find a single fast-food franchise. By the time a scaled-down version earned grudging approval, ASC was mired in debt. In 2001, ski-in/ski-out condos were selling for $100,000. Lifties could afford to live slopeside. And the skiing at Sugarbush had never been better. Smith and Company happily snapped up the resort.

The key to development lay in creating a modest, tasteful plan that would accommodate more guests while gaining community support and approval. In short, this part of the world would not accept another monument to the excesses of mountain real estate. The new Lincoln Peak development is a major facelift forSugarbush, yet it reflects this balance in look, feel and scale. In addition to the Clay Brook residences, Phase 1 includes an upscale slopeside restaurant (Timbers) and a handsome new Gate House Base Lodge on the site of the old one. This will not immediately alleviate the resort's bed shortage, and the payout is at least 10 years off, but that doesn't alter the grand plan. "We didn't buy this with an exit strategy," says Smith. "We bought it because we like living here." Indeed, this corner of Vermont casts a spell on you.

My first experience of Eastern skiing was at Sugarbush, when I arrived at GMVS as a junior racing refugee from California who needed a place to call home for a couple of weeks. Coach Dave Gavett took me in, let me train with his team and added me to the station-wagon load of kids he carted to races. I was instantly enchanted not only by the hospitality but also by the vibe of an utterly unfamiliar place that somehow felt like home.

Dave, now headmaster of GMVS, tours me around the 90-student campus. Despite the school's long list of alumni Olympians, he talks nothing of skiing. Rather, he goes on excitedly about the annual theater production, the new environmental building project that ties into the school curriculum and a college acceptance list (Harvard, Brown, Stanford) that could win a parent over to the benefits of ski-bumming. Facilities and accolades notwithstanding, I am most struck by the atmosphere—the same friendliness and sense of purpose that greeted and impressed me more than 20 years ago. The school seems to be a reflection of the community in its appreciation for well-roundedness.

Whenever I return to the Valley, I'm reminded of what draws and holds people here. My first stop today was the Warren Store; it's about as touristy as it gets around here, yet also an authentic local institution,where you'll comfortably hunker by the potbellied stove for a delicious breakfast burrito and where the wine selection includes budget Yellow Tail, pricey Opus One and a bit of everything in between.

On-mountain programs are similarly unique. John Egan, of the formerly extreme brothers Egan, is head of recreational services. He brings true adventure back to skiing, with overnight snowcave camps and off-piste skiing. Two-time Olympian Doug Lewis heads up the recreational racing programs. His NASTAR program, the biggest in Vermont, serves as a daily gathering point for Borel (in his French national team jacket) and a host of locals, all there for the irregular speed fix.

"Lewie" is a true Sugarbush product—a Vermont native and GMVS alum who, with his wife, Kelley, hosts a national morning show for the RSN channel. Like Egan, he exudes unbridled enthusiasm for both the sport and his home. And both of them have suitably daring runs named after them. Lew's Line is a dicey tree shot hidden off Organgrinder. "I've had a couple of close calls in there," Lewis admits. During a rare opening in his manic schedule, he offers to show my sons the jumps and hidden treasures in Sleeper Woods off Gatehouse Express. Before I can accept, they are gone. Several runs later, they return in hysterics—all three of them.

At day's end the kids and I head north on Route 100, past the twin temptations of John Egan's Big World Pub and Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, to the clutch of stores in the antique village that is Waitsfield proper. We turn east, crossing the Mad River by covered bridge, and climb the valley wall opposite Sugarbush on our way to the home of Dave and his wife Traudl, a former German ski champ. Their sugar shack is in full spring swing.

On the way, we check in at a Vermont postcard, our inn for the night. At a crook in the road sits a massive circular barn and matching yellow farmhouse—a dairyfarm till 1969, restored and reopened in 1986 as the Inn at the Round Barn. When you think "Vermont country inn," this is the ideal. Spotted Holsteins dot the pasture in summer, while ski, snowshoe and sleigh trails weave through the 80 acres of woods and fields in winter, all with stunning Green Mountain views. The inn is luxurious, yet comfortably functional, neither precious nor frou frou. Rooms feature sturdy antiques, exposed beams, lots of natural light and, in most of them, a working fireplace. Breakfast tomorrow will be a feast of waffles, hot scones and local maple-herb sausage. The setting begs us to settle in for the night, but it's spring in Vermont. The sap is running, and so must we.

I pull into Dave's driveway around 5p.m. and look across the valley to where Sugarbush's trails are etched down the mountain, then down to where the sugarhouse puffs away. Inside, the air is sweet and steamy. Dave and a friend stoke the fire under a huge vat of sap. Scrawled on the wall are the dates of the first and last boils of each year. I wonder aloud about the implications of the warm winter we've had on the sap run, and Dave repeats an old timer's advice: "The best time to predict the sugaring season is in May." Sugaring is a blend of sophisticated equipment (the reverse osmosis machine sounds like a Star Trek invention to me) and exact science, contingent on the marriage of earthy raw materials and unpredictable weather. The random nature of its outcome is entirely in harmony with Vermont's fickle ethos.

When the sap boils down to a certain density we fill pitcherost struck by the atmosphere—the same friendliness and sense of purpose that greeted and impressed me more than 20 years ago. The school seems to be a reflection of the community in its appreciation for well-roundedness.

Whenever I return to the Valley, I'm reminded of what draws and holds people here. My first stop today was the Warren Store; it's about as touristy as it gets around here, yet also an authentic local institution,where you'll comfortably hunker by the potbellied stove for a delicious breakfast burrito and where the wine selection includes budget Yellow Tail, pricey Opus One and a bit of everything in between.

On-mountain programs are similarly unique. John Egan, of the formerly extreme brothers Egan, is head of recreational services. He brings true adventure back to skiing, with overnight snowcave camps and off-piste skiing. Two-time Olympian Doug Lewis heads up the recreational racing programs. His NASTAR program, the biggest in Vermont, serves as a daily gathering point for Borel (in his French national team jacket) and a host of locals, all there for the irregular speed fix.

"Lewie" is a true Sugarbush product—a Vermont native and GMVS alum who, with his wife, Kelley, hosts a national morning show for the RSN channel. Like Egan, he exudes unbridled enthusiasm for both the sport and his home. And both of them have suitably daring runs named after them. Lew's Line is a dicey tree shot hidden off Organgrinder. "I've had a couple of close calls in there," Lewis admits. During a rare opening in his manic schedule, he offers to show my sons the jumps and hidden treasures in Sleeper Woods off Gatehouse Express. Before I can accept, they are gone. Several runs later, they return in hysterics—all three of them.

At day's end the kids and I head north on Route 100, past the twin temptations of John Egan's Big World Pub and Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, to the clutch of stores in the antique village that is Waitsfield proper. We turn east, crossing the Mad River by covered bridge, and climb the valley wall opposite Sugarbush on our way to the home of Dave and his wife Traudl, a former German ski champ. Their sugar shack is in full spring swing.

On the way, we check in at a Vermont postcard, our inn for the night. At a crook in the road sits a massive circular barn and matching yellow farmhouse—a dairyfarm till 1969, restored and reopened in 1986 as the Inn at the Round Barn. When you think "Vermont country inn," this is the ideal. Spotted Holsteins dot the pasture in summer, while ski, snowshoe and sleigh trails weave through the 80 acres of woods and fields in winter, all with stunning Green Mountain views. The inn is luxurious, yet comfortably functional, neither precious nor frou frou. Rooms feature sturdy antiques, exposed beams, lots of natural light and, in most of them, a working fireplace. Breakfast tomorrow will be a feast of waffles, hot scones and local maple-herb sausage. The setting begs us to settle in for the night, but it's spring in Vermont. The sap is running, and so must we.

I pull into Dave's driveway around 5p.m. and look across the valley to where Sugarbush's trails are etched down the mountain, then down to where the sugarhouse puffs away. Inside, the air is sweet and steamy. Dave and a friend stoke the fire under a huge vat of sap. Scrawled on the wall are the dates of the first and last boils of each year. I wonder aloud about the implications of the warm winter we've had on the sap run, and Dave repeats an old timer's advice: "The best time to predict the sugaring season is in May." Sugaring is a blend of sophisticated equipment (the reverse osmosis machine sounds like a Star Trek invention to me) and exact science, contingent on the marriage of earthy raw materials and unpredictable weather. The random nature of its outcome is entirely in harmony with Vermont's fickle ethos.

When the sap boils down to a certain density we fill pitchers with hot syrup, then dispense it into Dixie cups to quaff with cold beer. Outside, the night chills, the sap stops running, and the friends who have gathered for the boil relax. Dave and Traudl's two boys and mine dash about, hucking snowballs at a cardboard Budweiser box, then spraying down the tanks, eating pizza and drinking syrup until my little one finally falls asleep in my lap, his sticky face nestled in my shirt-sleeve. In case I'd missed the point thus far, it hits home that this place, this scene and this feeling will never go out of style.

FEBRUARY 2007

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chers with hot syrup, then dispense it into Dixie cups to quaff with cold beer. Outside, the night chills, the sap stops running, and the friends who have gathered for the boil relax. Dave and Traudl's two boys and mine dash about, hucking snowballs at a cardboard Budweiser box, then spraying down the tanks, eating pizza and drinking syrup until my little one finally falls asleep in my lap, his sticky face nestled in my shirt-sleeve. In case I'd missed the point thus far, it hits home that this place, this scene and this feeling will never go out of style.

FEBRUARY 2007

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