It's about 10 a.m., and the little brown shack at the bottom of Stowe's Gondolier trail has been sending up steam for hours. Nearby, helmeted heads line both sides of two long wooden troughs packed full of snow. The troughs are exactly chin-high to the smallest faces, which eagerly await the opening of the sugar shack door. Finally, it opens. More sweet-scented steam billows out, and a man in a checkered flannel shirt emerges with a pot of thick boiling syrup, which he pours into each trough. Little hands plunge wooden tongue depressors into the hardened treasure, scooping gooey strands into their mouths, then digging for more. This is sugar on snow, icon of Stowe's annual Sugar Slalom.
For 66 years the Sugar Slalom has been a rite of spring for New England ski racers - a come-one-come-all, FIS-sanctioned race with the spirit of Mardi Gras and a start list that includes everyone from hula-skirted kids to GS-suited World Cup skiers. Of course, it isn't all about the sugar. The event, run by the Mount Mansfield Ski Club, is the last chance of the year for serious junior racers from the East to improve their international rankings by doing well in a low-pressure environment against a field that includes high-ranked competitors - including U.S. Ski Team racers who have typically switched to cruise-control this late in the season. This year, Chip Knight and Jimmy Cochran - MMSC alumni and 2006 Olympians - are among many national team skiers on the lengthy start list.
Saturday's race is the more formal one - open to licensed USSA racers aged 9 and up. Sunday's finale includes anybody over age 25 who feels like jumping into head-to-head dual competition. Talent is strictly optional. "Sign the waiver and you're in, says Scott Moriarty, chief of race and longtime MMSC coach.
That brings entire families - moms, dads, kids and, yes, grandparents - dressed in everything from Spyder and Bogner to Levi and Carhartt. Two-time Olympian and Stowe native Tiger Shaw, who's here with his three kids, explains: "It goes from being fun for kids to being a very important race for juniors because of the points opportunity. And then it goes back to being just fun for grown-ups like Shaw, who raced his first Sugar Slalom at age 9 and today races next to his younger brother, fellow Stowe legend and 1986 NCAA GS champion Andrew "Beach Shaw. Beach has more than the usual amount of honor at stake in today's race, having issued a challenge to Tiger's 13-year-old son, Gunnar.
Wagers and grudge matches are all part of the tradition, and, like maple trees in spring, Stowe's mix of charm and toughness oozes tradition. Sour pickles, apple cider and cider doughnuts accompany the syrup - always have. Intrepid coaches build "Coaches Corner, a hidden grill where venison cooks in the woods. And ever since 1940, Sunday's race has been run on the narrow, twisting, barely accessible steeps of Upper Nosedive - one of the nation's oldest trails, where decent snowpack and crazy spring weather are both good bets. The regulars, wincing, recall blizzards, rainstorms, lightning and fog banks of yore.
This year, however, race organizers have broken with tradition. They've moved Sunday's dual to the bottom of the mountain, where the lower elevation means kinder weather and the ease of access guarantees a spectator-friendly event. "If it's horrendous weather, which it is half the time, at least you're out of the fog down here, reasons Shaw, who counts himself among the majority who applaud the change. To the staunch traditionalists, Moriarty offers, "It's not in human nature to accept change, but sometimes change is good.
Moriarty, whose family in 1956 founded the successful Stowe ski-hat brand bearing his name, also raced the Sugar Slalom as a kid. He remembers it as the event of spring, drawing up to 600 racers. That number has dwindled to 250 or so, in part because of the extreme location, which only got hairier wwith the hip-deep ruts that typified the second run. The venue change is one way in which Moriarty and MMSC hope to build the Sugar Slalom back into a premier family event, enticing not only the diehard regulars but also a new generation of Stowe skiers looking for fun.
This year's event, blessed for once with sunshine, is fun indeed. Racing side by side, Cochran and Knight end their first run with 360s through the finish (to give the youngsters a chance), then turn up the heat on the second run (to give them a lesson). In the Shaw family, youth trumps experience, with Gunnar schooling Uncle Beach, and Tiger, once one of America's slalom aces, earns his spot as king of 40-somethings. Lefty Lewis, a guy racing with two synthetic hips and a genuine ear-to-ear grin, zips through the finish to raucous cheers.
By late afternoon, the sugar troughs hold nothing more than a few overlooked dribbles. The pickle barrels are empty. There's nary a doughnut crumb to be found. But music blares, there's time for slush runs on the Front Four, and, if you follow your nose, there's still action in the woods, where you just might scare up a taste of barbecued venison. Some traditions are unvanquishable.
The 67th running of the annual Sugar Slalom will be held the weekend of April 5—6 at Stowe Mountain Resort, Vt. For more information or to register, visit the Mount Mansfield Ski Club website at http://teammmsc.org/ target=_blank>