Border War! Vermont vs. New Hampshire Skiing Part 2 – Magic Mountain
—by Jay Flemma
Special to Slave to the Traffic Light Adventure Magazine—
LONDONDERRY, VT – Abracadabra! Presto, Change-O! Now you see it…now you don’t…and then – happily – now you see it again! Like a rabbit in a conjuring trick, Vermont’s fabled Magic Mountain has once again reappeared, and the winter sports world rejoices at its miraculous resurrection.
I choose that word with precision – resurrection – because on occasion over the course of the decades Magic Mountain was lost to us, discarded on the skiing scrap heap and filed under the dreaded “NLE” designation…“No Longer Exists.” But with new ownership, lots of sweat equity, almost 60 years of goodwill, and the undying devotion of its legion of fans, Magic Mountain is back, and its return is one of the great, feel-good stories in our sport.
Magic is one of those places skiers and snowboarders speak of in holy whispers. It’s old school skiing at its best. Magic is verdant, snow-frosted, tree-studded glades that seem like a reverie from which you never want to wake. It’s topsy-turvy, rocky, wild terrain peppered with towering moguls that bewitch and beguile even the most seasoned experts. And it’s an indelible character and rich history – one truly loyal to founder Hans Thorner’s Swiss heritage and vision – that created a community vibe of homespun camaraderie that’s all but unparalleled anywhere.
“A powder day at Magic,” said one loyal regular, “may be the closest thing to skiing the Rockies that you’ll find in the Northeast.”
Magic Mountain lies in latitude/longitude 43 degrees, 11 minutes north, 72 degrees, 36 minutes west, just outside the northeastern corner of the Green Mountain National Forest in the south-central Vermont town of Londonderry. The base lodge sits 1,350 feet above sea level, while the summit towers 1,500 feet further above, atop the north face of Glebe Mountain at altitude 2,850 feet. It’s part of what’s known in winter sports circles as Vermont’s “Golden Triangle,” a series of resorts that also include – among others – nearby Stratton and Bromley, both visible from the summit of Magic.
The overall mountain plan is excellent. The mountain conveniently divides itself into east side and west side, helping disperse people broadly across the terrain. The west has fewer trails of a more difficult nature, while the east has more runs and is generally easier, a few notable exceptions aside, such as the popular “Trick.” Glades are generously sprinkled on both sides. There are also two surface lifts, and a new “Green chair” servicing the east side should be open right around New Years Eve 2019, possibly before.
The eponymously named and colored Red Chair serves as the main lift, and accesses every trail and glade on the property. By taking the Red (or the nearly parallel Black Chair, also eponymously colored and named) each run at Magic is a top-to-bottom run, and you can ride every trail and glade upon disembarking at the top. On-line research indicates, (and our day was similar) that the mountain generally likes to groom the easier trails and leave the advanced runs, double blacks, and glades untouched after a fresh snowfall.
Magic’s indelible character and enchanting charm are defined by its rugged, steep, hurly-burly terrain, and by its myriad glades. Do not be fooled by the small size of the mountain, it has some of the steepest terrain in the east. In places – Redline, for example – the pitch can reach as much as 45 degrees. And let me tell you – that pitch looks a lot steeper when there’s a gaping maw of four foot moguls or a rocky drop-off waiting beneath. Pick your line, trust it, and most of all, execute! That’s the imperative at Magic. You better ski well, or it won’t just eat you, it’ll go all Hannibal Lecter on you, chianti and fava beans included.
Some runs are supermodel-slim, like Slide of Hans or Broomstick. Others are classic lift line runs, like the parallel Redline and Blackline that are the equal of anything you’ll find at Whiteface, Sugarbush, or Killington. And still others, like Upper Magician, Sorcerer, and Talisman, are mogul-studded joy rides that can bounce you around like a pinball.
Happily, there are also plenty of runs for everyone else too.
“The keystone to the entire west side of the mountain is Wizard,” explains Geoff Hatheway, whose SKI MAGIC, LLC has taken over operation of Magic since 2016 and has spearheaded Magic’s remarkable resurgence. “It’s our longest trail (1.6 miles) and you get phenomenal views of the valley and both Bromley and Stratton.” Wizard also showcases one of Magic’s charming personal touches, a long stretch of icicles along the trail’s edge, that the mountain paints multi-colors or otherwise decorates, depending on the season.
On the east side, less advanced riders can choose Betwixt, White Out, or several more intermediate runs, and even the Jerriest Jerry can ride Upper and Lower Magic Carpet top to bottom, taking in the breathtaking views, or traverse Wand from east to west almost all the way across the mountain.
The number of trails listed on the map (including the iconic glades) changes all the time, as the mountain continues to expand. Presently the number stands at 39 trails 11 glades covering a total of 205 acres, (60% of which has snowmaking capability) but look for that to increase, as more and more of the secret trails and glades get added.
Unlike other resorts that feature glades in name only Magic’s glades are truly a wild run through the woods. Where most Vermont resorts feared lawsuits and, correspondingly, widened trails and razed trees, Magic stayed true to its European alpine roots, eminently natural and idyllic. It was a close call, there was talk in the late ‘80s when the mountain was corporate-owned of clearing the glades. But in typical Magic Mountain fashion, a grass roots campaign rallied under the banner “Save Twilight Zone,” named for the wildest and most iconic of the forest trails, and the glades remained not only preserved, but protected.
“It’s refreshing to find a place that survived the Resort Chainsaw Massacre of the ‘80s,” said one Magic regular, who skied away before we could get their name. “Lawyers spoil all the fun.”
Better still, bringing friends off the map to ride the secret glades is encouraged as part of the Magic experience. Take it as a badge of honor and a sign that you’re now accepted as part of the Magic Family if someone points you towards the woods with look of excitement on their face. In particular, “The Wishbones (East and West)” a pair of wishbone shaped clearings are the newest secret to be passed from the cognoscenti to the newcomer.
We caught Magic on a perfect day. Winter Storm Bruce dumped 23” the Tuesday before, and four more fell between then and Friday. Every trail and glade was open – Hallelujah! – and by Saturday morning, the west side looked like Narnia during the reign of the White Witch, a winter fairyland dripping in frost, and an endless sea of moguls on Talisman and Sorcerer, my personal favorites…for now.
A FINAL EXAM IN SKIING
Still, celebrating opening day at Magic was definitely like getting a mid-term exam on the first day of classes. There are no intermediate trails masquerading as black diamonds, and even the intermediates can be a bumpy ride. Many say Magic is Vermont’s proper rejoinder to New Hampshire’s Wildcat – small but fill of wild, steep terrain, a place for serious skiers and boarders. Are you going to shred Magic, or is Magic going to shred you? It’s a little of both!
“At Magic, there’s no hiding, there’s no faking, there’s no crying!” agreed Hatheway.
As if on cue, as I finished…well, survived my roughest run of the day, Slide of Hans->Potter, (back-to-back double-black), I came upon two boarders spread-eagled on the ground like snow angels and gasping for breath.
“Are you guys okay?” I asked.
“We’re fine!” one hollered in reply. “Those glades just kicked our ass!”
“MORE SWISS THAN A SWISS WATCH”
Best of all, Magic maintains the mom-and-pop, homespun, close community feel founder Hans Thorner intended. “More Swiss than a Swiss watch” was his motto, and he was a pioneer when it came to building trailside accommodations, turning ski areas into resorts, and promoting après ski in all its European grace and style: a little bit of Switzerland in Vermont. Hatheway, director of ops Matt Cote, and the rest of the Magic team have their finger firmly on the pulse of that zeitgeist, and it promotes an all for one and one for all mentality among regulars and noobs alike. When you go to Magic, you come back with six new friends, the energy is that infectious.
“Everybody there has the passion for the place,” explains skier Andrew DiGiovanni, a longtime Magic patron. “Many of these people have been coming for decades. It’s a big, welcoming skiing family!”
Magic overcame a lot to get here. While the first quarter-century saw the mountain prosper under Thorner’s stewardship, corporate ownership in the late ‘80s through the ‘00s saw mixed results at best, closure at worst. The mountain changed hands in ’85, ’98, ’02, ’06, and ’14; more owners than the Overlook Hotel (look it up).
“Our biggest challenge is infrastructure,” Hatheway notes candidly. “It’s old; you never know when the next pipe is gonna blow. But at every opportunity we are improving it. There wasn’t a lot of capital invested since the 80s, but we’re changing that. It’s expensive, but we are adding more snowmaking.”
If there is a drawback, Magic does really need a lot of fresh snow. Everyone agrees that an icy day at Magic is too much hard work to be fun. The same is true if there is thin cover. Watch the snow reports carefully and drop in as soon after a dumping as you can. Because on a powder day, with the right kind of eyes, you can see exactly the kind of vision Hans Thorner had, a wild, verdant ride that exhausts the legs, but fires the soul.
“Anyone who complains about a powder day at Magic should go sit in the base lodge at Stratton with a pumpkin spice latte, where they belong!” wrote on On the Snow app commenter. That brought laughs from everyone.
If Stratton is the pumpkin spiced latte of ski resorts, (as that irreverent wag claims), then Magic must be the double tequila shot. Small but not boring, charming but not ostentatious, this Cheshire Cat of ski resorts has joyfully reappeared with a broad grin shared by every skier and boarder in the know, and all the winter sports world is richer for its return.
Quality of Snow/Grooming – 9.25
Variety of Terrain – 9.50
Lifts – 9
Snow coverage – 9.0
Natural Setting – 8.5
Kid/Family Friendly – 10
Character – 9.5
Challenge – 9.5
Lodges – 7.5
Dining on Mountain – 7 (“Bring your own lunch,” writes one journalist)
Overall – 9.083
[Editor’s Note: This is the second article in our series analyzing the battle between Vermont and New Hampshire ski resorts. As the series progresses, here are the places we’ll visit:
For New Hampshire: Attitash, The Balsams, Bretton Woods, Cannon, Gunstock, Loon, Sunapee, Waterville Valley, Wildcat
For Vermont: Jay Peak, Killington, Mad River Glen, Magic Mountain, Mt. Snow, Smuggler’s Notch, Stowe, Stratton, Sugarbush/Sugarbush North]
SET YOUR SOUL FREE – MAGIC VERSION – with apologies to Phish
Ride the pow, ride the pow
Set your soul free
We’re all here together
In a Magic family
Everyone can see
Ride the pow, ride the pow
Set your soul free
OTHER ARTICLES IN THIS SERIES
PART 1 – WATERVILLE VALLEY
PART 3 – SMUGGLERS’ NOTCH
Golf in the Region – Ekwanok Country Club, Manchester, VT
It’s not just the best golf course in Vermont, it’s also one of the most historic and venerable in America. Ekwanok Country Club, just 20 miles from Magic as the crow flies, was the first foray into golf course architecture for the Walter Travis, the “Grand Old Man” who won a British Amateur and who went on to share design credit for fabled Garden City, his home for so many years.
Ekwanok’s out and back routing features a unique T-shape. It’s greens are, typical of Travis, wildly undulating, and the bunkering is deep, severe, and ubiquitous.
Ardent golfers from around the country call the course home, and many travel from across the country even just for a few events a year, that’s how highly esteemed it is.