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Home Runs

Home Runs

Travel
By Philip Higgs
posted: 01/14/2008

Halfway up the Lincoln Gap in our rented, front-wheel-drive, asphalt-only, bald-tire, city-mouse minivan, the passenger-side snow chains - too big, bought at an AutoZone 30 miles back when this inch-per-hour blizzard was just a dusting - have finally left us. After six hours on the road through New York State lake country, through the Town of Poland and Town of Norway, we are knee-deep in snow on the wrong side of a road, half-chainless and lost.

A couple of backcountry bros crunch up in their Toyota like two teen angels sent by the Lord.

"You guys alright here?

We've dropped our chains, the driver is lying in the snow with an arm under the axle, our self-proclaimed navigator left his maps back in Brooklyn ("Check it out! GPS!) and I was up half the previous night dodging snowmobiles, but I think we're on top of things.

"Where you guys going?

Skiing. Cosmic Hill.

"Cosmic Hill?

Did they know it?

"Never heard of it.

Did they know where Moretown is?

"Moretown?

Route 100? Vermont?

"Oh, you don't want to go this way. You want to go back that way. Back past the cemeteries, stubbled hayfields and peeling-paint dairies that our in-car GPS, apparently set to "quaint, chose over the plowed-clean highways. The Gap, one of two steep passes over Vermont's Green Mountains in these parts, is closed: "There's like five feet of snow up there.

Five feet? After an early season parched by El Niño, the past few weeks have been good to the Northeast. We just missed the Great Valentine's Day Storm of '07 - three feet in Oswego! - but the snowpack is still inching up, and every flake-starved skier in the East is headed toward Killington and Gore.

We won't be crossing poles with their ilk. Everybody wants to go Big. Big storms, big mountains, big bomber skis, 100mm underfoot. Big deal. What about going small? The East, maybe, is cursed by a perception of smallness, of tiny, icy hills only wee flakes fall on - yet you'll never find a skier more besotted by his sport than the Easterner. It's the inverse relationship of an obsessive love: The less you have it, the more you want it.

But even the Butternuts and Blue Knobs have their double chairs. We want smaller. Really small. Ropetow small. We want the lunatics who've hung ropes across their lawns and given their grassy knolls new names: Hedgehog Hill, Frosty Ridge, Cosmic Hill.

[pagebreak]

As it turns out, there are quite a few of these homebrewed hills, built by guys (always guys) who can't put words to why they do it - slightly manic tinker-types compelled by the idea of their own backyard ski areas. And so they buy property on sloped ground, cobble together found machinery and parts to fashion lifts, pray for snow and invite the neighbors for cocoa. Forget the slopeside condo. This is real ski-in/ski-out living.

***

When Kevin Thomas went looking for a house for himself and his new wife, Jenn, "I kept telling the Realtor, 'I want at least 150 vertical feet, north facing, with a 20 percent grade.' He ended up with 165 vert dropping away from an oblong one-story into locust scrub, set amidst the folded hillsides and slanting barns of the Appalachian Upland in what his state has taken to calling the Wilds of Pennsylvania. He also got a tractor, a 1950 35-horsepower Massey Ferguson, and within two months had strung a 635-foot-long loop of rope from base to peak, with a pulley at either end and the Massey at the top to power that rope - as well as any skiers that have happened to latch on - up his hill. Thus the Frosty Ridge ropetow was born. (His wife's family, the Frosts, settled the area in the 1800s.) "We bought the place at the end of August; we started skiing by the end of November, he tells me three years later. "I knew what I wanted. I had all the stuff lined up before I even bought the house.

Professionally, Thomas owns a small-town country-mus radio station, an "ad delivery device that's been known to broadcast from the local demolition derby. He's not really a country fan, but, he says, "as long as the fish are biting, the bait doesn't matter. Vocationally, he's a grade-A Eastern ski fiend, with a life-list than leans heavily on the small and the scrappy. He grew up three miles from the five-run Jericho Hill in central Massachusetts, trading odd jobs for ski time. During a brief stint living in Chicago, he worked as an instructor at an unnameable hill: "Basically, they dug a giant hole in the ground and piled up the dirt to make 140 vertical feet on a golf course, he says with only faint disapproval.

Tall and dark-eyed, with an expression that seems morose until he cracks another dry one-liner, Thomas clearly prefers skiing's older ways, the crock-pot-in-the-cafeteria kind of community that's being kneed off America's hills by the Big. "You didn't buy a lift ticket, you bought a membership, he says. "A hundred dollars for your whole family to ski all year. That's, like, 30 cents a day - less than a cup of coffee.

For $3,000, Thomas went one better: His whole family can ski right out their front door. A pulley system, bought from Ski Denton, a 200-acre area an hour's drive west, was $500; 1,350 feet of nylon rope from an online boating supply was a buck a foot; five hours of a local pro power-dozing the hillside cost $60 an hour; $300 for extension cords and 500-watt nightskiing lights. The old-school nutcracker tow grips came from eBay; the Massey Ferguson came with the house. Most of the "lift towers - disused telephone poles with car rims bolted along the tops - are from the junkyard. "I got one rim from Jericho, he says. "That area's now abandoned, so it was just lying in the woods.

Other elements were harder finds. The pulley at the base is suspended from an adjustable length of steel cable. "That's one of those things I had no idea what I was doing, he says. "At the hardware store, they were like, 'What's your weight per linear foot gonna be?' I don't know. 'Well, what are you using it for?' Uh, see....

"I've been trying to make one of these since I was 12 years old, he says. "I made one out of old bicycle parts, but the rope wouldn't tension, or something else would go wrong.

I'm getting all this in six-second bursts, the time it takes for me to unclamp from the tow and pocket my nutcracker before we punch the next run. "I lost about 60 vertical feet by not going all the way to the road, but I was worried about vandalism. But gravity works on any hill, even one that at best rates a baby blue square. Family Run, a lumpy 20 turns groomed by snowmobile, parallels the towline in two tracks - a narrow set of S's to skier's left, or a narrow set of S's with a log jump to skier's right. Back through a few tight groves of locust trees is the rougher Gus's Run, which used to be Dylan and Gus's Run - named for Thomas's stepsons, who are 12 and 7 - but Dylan's been lax on the maintenance, so it's been rechristened.

[pagebreak]

While I stop to give my clamp-cramped hands a chance to rest, Kevin swings up the rope again and again, counting laps on an Avocet Vertech II altimeter he wears strapped to the outside of his jacket sleeve. "I've done over 20,000 vertical feet in a single day several times, he tells me later. That's 120 runs before lunchtime. "I've gotten to the point where I can just come around that last corner and grab right back on the rope. It's all technique.

Theoretically infinite vert, slopeside lodging, and après just a dirt-road drive down the way at the Colonial Inn in Mt. Mansfield: $3 pitchers of Genessee, sweetly refilled by the bartender before you ask; $3.50 for a hot roast beef sandwich with mashed potatoes. The jukebox is country-only - except for one Ozzy Osbourne disc - pool up front, darts in back, and the kitchen radio is broadcasting the high-school girls' basketball game. ("We're up by one, the bartender offers as we sit down.) What more could an upstate Pennsylvanian a half-continent from Vail want?

Thomas's next-door neighbor is selling off 17 acres. "That's black-diamond stuff over there, 40-degree slopes, he says. "That's Phase II.

***

Up at Wafler Farms, Paul Wafler's thousand-acre apple orchard in Wolcott, N.Y. - three hours north of Frosty Ridge, past Hector and Ovid and Clyde, N.Y., past restaurants serving fried hog offal and wineries handing out rosé Jell-O shots - they're expecting a big crowd. "Once that ropetow starts, it never stops, Wafler warns us on our arrival. "By 4:30, there's gonna be 60 kids showing up, and if I shut the rope off, they beat me, those kids.

Those kids don't come alone, either. Each brings a parent or two, maybe a grandparent and a couple of neighbors. On a Wednesday night or a Friday after school or a Saturday morning, kid after kid after kid cycles up Paul Wafler's little ropetow, skiing the four squat runs of Hedgehog Ridge for hours. "We fill the parking lot up, we fill the road up, and we fill the other parking lot up down by the barn, Wafler says, waving an arm at the distance. "It gets crazy here.

A garage geek with workshop prototypes of a lockable-heel telemark binding and an automated apple-crate stacker worthy of Henry Ford, Wafler has that brand of enthusiasm according to which, if you're not up for it - another run, another glass, another 360 on the snowmobile - well damn, Sport, you don't know what you're missing. "You gotta remember, the way we ski here is not how we ski when we go resort skiing, he says. "We might take the snowmobile out and we might drink beer; we do weird things, OK? What happens here is not what we do when we go out in public with other people.

Wafler strung up his rope in 1997, after the first of his two boys was born. "I think my youngest was walking for about three months before we threw him on skis. Wafler's own dad, Fritz, who turns 80 on Tuesday, had run a tow behind the farm back when Wafler was a kid. "We had that for about four days. Super dangerous, he says. "But my father offered that up for us, and I wanted to do one for my two boys.

In case you're worried, like any proper parent should be, about the effect of a posse of preteens hanging out near such machinery: Wafler's son Kyle is now a 10-year-old ripper on telly skis, and younger brother Jacob's airs off the Hedgehog jumps are positively Nordic. "The worst injury we've had is somebody slammed a finger in the car door when they were leaving, says Wafler.

If you were to go all the way to the very top of Hedgehog Ridge and hold one end of a tape measure above your head, then send someone down to the bottom of the hill with the other end to find a mouse hole, and you're particularly tall and the mouse is an excellent digger, you might measure 110 vertical feet. The whole Hedgehog, round-trip, is a 90-second blink. And 48 seconds of that is standing at the top of the run thinking, Damn, Sport, let's do that again.

Wafler gets in his 20 runs or so, but for most of the night he plays part patroller, part bartender, part nanny, part coach: "Pump it up, Kyle! Hit the jump! or "Hey Sue, when Richie's mom gets here, can you get the new boots out for her? or, running around with a portable, gas-powered blender called The TailGator, "You want tequila or rum?

The rest of the adults tend to take their 20 runs and buckle down to business at the voting booth - a portable shack from the '40s, formerly property of the city of Rochester, now housing a wood-burning stove and evaporating cases of red wine and Canadian beer at the low end of Wafler's ski hill. "We call that our Stein Eriksen lodge, says Wafler. Someone pops a head in: "We got a crock of chili, we got jambalaya, we got pulled pork sandwiches, he hollers. "Eat! Everybody here seems to have known each other since at least high school. George sells New York State winhe bartender offers as we sit down.) What more could an upstate Pennsylvanian a half-continent from Vail want?

Thomas's next-door neighbor is selling off 17 acres. "That's black-diamond stuff over there, 40-degree slopes, he says. "That's Phase II.

***

Up at Wafler Farms, Paul Wafler's thousand-acre apple orchard in Wolcott, N.Y. - three hours north of Frosty Ridge, past Hector and Ovid and Clyde, N.Y., past restaurants serving fried hog offal and wineries handing out rosé Jell-O shots - they're expecting a big crowd. "Once that ropetow starts, it never stops, Wafler warns us on our arrival. "By 4:30, there's gonna be 60 kids showing up, and if I shut the rope off, they beat me, those kids.

Those kids don't come alone, either. Each brings a parent or two, maybe a grandparent and a couple of neighbors. On a Wednesday night or a Friday after school or a Saturday morning, kid after kid after kid cycles up Paul Wafler's little ropetow, skiing the four squat runs of Hedgehog Ridge for hours. "We fill the parking lot up, we fill the road up, and we fill the other parking lot up down by the barn, Wafler says, waving an arm at the distance. "It gets crazy here.

A garage geek with workshop prototypes of a lockable-heel telemark binding and an automated apple-crate stacker worthy of Henry Ford, Wafler has that brand of enthusiasm according to which, if you're not up for it - another run, another glass, another 360 on the snowmobile - well damn, Sport, you don't know what you're missing. "You gotta remember, the way we ski here is not how we ski when we go resort skiing, he says. "We might take the snowmobile out and we might drink beer; we do weird things, OK? What happens here is not what we do when we go out in public with other people.

Wafler strung up his rope in 1997, after the first of his two boys was born. "I think my youngest was walking for about three months before we threw him on skis. Wafler's own dad, Fritz, who turns 80 on Tuesday, had run a tow behind the farm back when Wafler was a kid. "We had that for about four days. Super dangerous, he says. "But my father offered that up for us, and I wanted to do one for my two boys.

In case you're worried, like any proper parent should be, about the effect of a posse of preteens hanging out near such machinery: Wafler's son Kyle is now a 10-year-old ripper on telly skis, and younger brother Jacob's airs off the Hedgehog jumps are positively Nordic. "The worst injury we've had is somebody slammed a finger in the car door when they were leaving, says Wafler.

If you were to go all the way to the very top of Hedgehog Ridge and hold one end of a tape measure above your head, then send someone down to the bottom of the hill with the other end to find a mouse hole, and you're particularly tall and the mouse is an excellent digger, you might measure 110 vertical feet. The whole Hedgehog, round-trip, is a 90-second blink. And 48 seconds of that is standing at the top of the run thinking, Damn, Sport, let's do that again.

Wafler gets in his 20 runs or so, but for most of the night he plays part patroller, part bartender, part nanny, part coach: "Pump it up, Kyle! Hit the jump! or "Hey Sue, when Richie's mom gets here, can you get the new boots out for her? or, running around with a portable, gas-powered blender called The TailGator, "You want tequila or rum?

The rest of the adults tend to take their 20 runs and buckle down to business at the voting booth - a portable shack from the '40s, formerly property of the city of Rochester, now housing a wood-burning stove and evaporating cases of red wine and Canadian beer at the low end of Wafler's ski hill. "We call that our Stein Eriksen lodge, says Wafler. Someone pops a head in: "We got a crock of chili, we got jambalaya, we got pulled pork sandwiches, he hollers. "Eat! Everybody here seems to have known each other since at least high school. George sells New York State wine: "The rosés really are getting popular again. His parents own the Bonnie Castle B&B down by Sodus Bay; Mom's stopping by later. Dickie's not skiing tonight; he broke a few vertebrae and dislocated his shoulder when he crashed his snowmobile into a post and went over the bars: "Not a scratch on the snowmobile, of course.

[pagebreak]

Around 8 o'clock, Wafler shuts down the tow and starts pulling kids off the hill to more than one "whyyyyyyyyyyy? "I'm gonna jump the snowmobile, he announces. He hits the roller four times in succession, higher each time. Down at the base, a solemn kid pokes his mom: "Why's he doing that? Wafler's wife, Sue, pipes up: "Because he's a showoff.

***

"Would you mind signing a waiver? asks Peter Avedisian before we head down Cosmic Hill.

Last night, in our minivan, the unpassable Lincoln Gap a memory, we crested the Appalachian Gap in reverse. (Snowy roads, front-wheel drive, gear-heavy rear: You do the math.) By the time we hit our hotel beds in Moretown, Vt., the sky had cleared, the stars were out and the sun, when it rose in four hours, would light up great cakes of new snow: 11 inches in 24 hours, four feet in the past three weeks.

Sure, I'll sign a waiver.

"If you're an expert skier, it's cake, Avedisian says as we boot out the front door of his house, which also doubles as the Cosmic Hill lift shack, warming hut and core-shot repair shop. "No après. We ski and people leave.

We line up and drop in. Avedisian flashes the top bumps, popping a baby back scratcher off the third, and rails through Lower Snowcloud. I fluff Cecil's Drop, a six-footer off a rhino-sized rock just before Sun Bowl, a powdery depression midhill, and bunny hop the creek crossing. We funnel into a flattish glade. Off in the woods is what looks to be a neighbor's meditation room, or maybe it's an outhouse. In the foreground, no spindly ropetow but the Cosmic Hill T-bar: nine wooden crosses drifting like boat anchors up a line of bona fide lift towers. "It's not a state-inspected lift, he warns. "It's really pretty safe, I would think. Those ropetows, now, they can kill you.

He's had ropetows, back in the day. The one his landlord never knew about, that scaled the 50-foot vert behind his rental house. The one that preceded his T, that he installed two years after building his own house, this house, with a couple of friends. "None of us knew what we were doing, he says. "It was just, like, 'Let's build Peter a house!' When that rope rotted away, Avedisian lugged a 1969 Mueller JR T-bar down the defunct slopes of New Hampshire's Frontenac Ski Camp, and brought it home, thrusting Cosmic Hill into what someone skiing in 1939 would have called the future.

Avedisian, who is slight but solid and who lets his words hang in the air long enough to make you think he's forgotten you're there, is another of the garage-tinkerer geniuses native to the hidden hills of the East. Eighty-some inches of Cosmic's base is Avedisian-made, blown from low-flow snowguns he makes himself. "I've always dabbled, he says. "I had miniature snowguns when I was 12 or 13; I used to just make piles in my backyard. Then I was like, I'm gonna start skiing on this.

He's not a cycler, pushing for 50 laps or 15,000 vertical feet every day; he's a contemplative dude. He is "in touch, as the soulful might tell you: The Big is not for him. "I went to Vail once, he says, "but it was closed. We're a 10-minute drive from Mad River Glen. Killington - 19 inches last night - is an hour south. Peter Avedisian skis five times a week without ever popping a clutch. Paul Wafler can have his full parking lots. "The best thing about the backyard is you don't get cold, and when it's powder, you're not fighting anyone, Avedisian says. "A couple of times there have been five people here at once. You really notice on a powder day how quickly it gets tracked out. Three people is the best - no, two is the best.

""The rosés really are getting popular again. His parents own the Bonnie Castle B&B down by Sodus Bay; Mom's stopping by later. Dickie's not skiing tonight; he broke a few vertebrae and dislocated his shoulder when he crashed his snowmobile into a post and went over the bars: "Not a scratch on the snowmobile, of course.

[pagebreak]

Around 8 o'clock, Wafler shuts down the tow and starts pulling kids off the hill to more than one "whyyyyyyyyyyy? "I'm gonna jump the snowmobile, he announces. He hits the roller four times in succession, higher each time. Down at the base, a solemn kid pokes his mom: "Why's he doing that? Wafler's wife, Sue, pipes up: "Because he's a showoff.

***

"Would you mind signing a waiver? asks Peter Avedisian before we head down Cosmic Hill.

Last night, in our minivan, the unpassable Lincoln Gap a memory, we crested the Appalachian Gap in reverse. (Snowy roads, front-wheel drive, gear-heavy rear: You do the math.) By the time we hit our hotel beds in Moretown, Vt., the sky had cleared, the stars were out and the sun, when it rose in four hours, would light up great cakes of new snow: 11 inches in 24 hours, four feet in the past three weeks.

Sure, I'll sign a waiver.

"If you're an expert skier, it's cake, Avedisian says as we boot out the front door of his house, which also doubles as the Cosmic Hill lift shack, warming hut and core-shot repair shop. "No après. We ski and people leave.

We line up and drop in. Avedisian flashes the top bumps, popping a baby back scratcher off the third, and rails through Lower Snowcloud. I fluff Cecil's Drop, a six-footer off a rhino-sized rock just before Sun Bowl, a powdery depression midhill, and bunny hop the creek crossing. We funnel into a flattish glade. Off in the woods is what looks to be a neighbor's meditation room, or maybe it's an outhouse. In the foreground, no spindly ropetow but the Cosmic Hill T-bar: nine wooden crosses drifting like boat anchors up a line of bona fide lift towers. "It's not a state-inspected lift, he warns. "It's really pretty safe, I would think. Those ropetows, now, they can kill you.

He's had ropetows, back in the day. The one his landlord never knew about, that scaled the 50-foot vert behind his rental house. The one that preceded his T, that he installed two years after building his own house, this house, with a couple of friends. "None of us knew what we were doing, he says. "It was just, like, 'Let's build Peter a house!' When that rope rotted away, Avedisian lugged a 1969 Mueller JR T-bar down the defunct slopes of New Hampshire's Frontenac Ski Camp, and brought it home, thrusting Cosmic Hill into what someone skiing in 1939 would have called the future.

Avedisian, who is slight but solid and who lets his words hang in the air long enough to make you think he's forgotten you're there, is another of the garage-tinkerer geniuses native to the hidden hills of the East. Eighty-some inches of Cosmic's base is Avedisian-made, blown from low-flow snowguns he makes himself. "I've always dabbled, he says. "I had miniature snowguns when I was 12 or 13; I used to just make piles in my backyard. Then I was like, I'm gonna start skiing on this.

He's not a cycler, pushing for 50 laps or 15,000 vertical feet every day; he's a contemplative dude. He is "in touch, as the soulful might tell you: The Big is not for him. "I went to Vail once, he says, "but it was closed. We're a 10-minute drive from Mad River Glen. Killington - 19 inches last night - is an hour south. Peter Avedisian skis five times a week without ever popping a clutch. Paul Wafler can have his full parking lots. "The best thing about the backyard is you don't get cold, and when it's powder, you're not fighting anyone, Avedisian says. "A couple of times there have been five people here at once. You really notice on a powder day how quickly it gets tracked out. Three people is the best - no, two is the best.

t.

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