Border War! Vermont vs. New Hampshire Skiing Part 3 – Smugglers’ Notch
—by Jay Flemma
Special to Slave to the Traffic Light Adventure Magazine—
JEFFERSONVILLE, VT – First chair at the place that had the best snow: that was the game plan, but I was having trouble executing it.
Unable to sleep at 4:00 a.m., I spent the wee hours checking various apps in search of fresh powder, yet there was precious little to be found. New York was struggling mightily, not even a light dusting in nearly a month, and even most of the major Vermont and New Hampshire resorts, just two weeks removed from a two foot dumping from Winter Storm Bruce, now only had a fraction of their trails open. Was there anywhere worth escaping to?
But then, like the first ray of sunshine over a mountain’s brow that illuminates the valley below in a crown of glory, there it was, exactly what I was looking for: over two feet of powder at Smugglers’ Notch and almost everything slated to be open for the weekend. I could make a good run at hitting almost every trail worthy of note.
A few clicks and it was done; my pass would be waiting for me when I arrived at the mountain. As I put down the phone, a satisfied smile spread broadly across my face. Jackpot! With that luck, I ought to go rob a bank; they’d never catch me. Historic Smugglers’ Notch! – where for over 200 years its coves and caverns were the scene of swashbuckling adventure, first during the Napoleonic Wars, then later during Prohibition, two of the most defining eras in America’s history. Scenic Smugglers’ Notch! – perhaps of the prettiest of all Vermont’s winter destinations, tucked cozily in the shadow of Mount Mansfield the highest point in the state. And rugged Smugglers’ Notch! – reputed by one and all to be home of perhaps the rowdiest, gnarliest, steepest terrain in the East. It’s a bucket list place to be sure, a must-place pin for your skiing map.
First chair was at 9:00 a.m., for me a four-and-a-half hour drive with all but 11 of the 218 mile journey on two-lane roads. Smuggler’s Notch is north of Stratton, north of Killington and Pico, north of Middlebury, north of Sugarbush and Mad River Glen…it’s even north of Stowe, though in truth, the two are practically adjacent to each other. The only things further north are Jay Peak, the Canadian border, and more cows. Moreover, Vermont’s rural roads and ubiquitous small towns slow you to a crawl at times, and winter conditions make driving even more challenging. (The dateline for this story ought to be “Try-to-find-me, Vermont.”) Hey, VT! How about “Feeling the Bern” on some four-lane highways on the west side of the state? You know, connecting the various ski areas? Just an idea…
I cross into Vermont after passing Crown Point as the first streaks of dawn start to appear far on the horizon. Soon after, as I hit tiny Vergennes, the sun starts to rise, stretching slender crimson and golden arms across the sky. From there, it takes two hours to go the final 76 miles, mostly because as I finally reach Route 15, the last leg of the journey, a dingy old heap bearing the trademark “Sal’s Septic Truck” cuts in front of me and then reduces speed to a maddening 25 mph.
Septic truck?? Are you kidding me?! That’s the Skiing Gods having a laugh at my expense. Mile after mile passes, but there’s no way around this malodorous jalopy. My mood is blackening every second. I want to find “Sal” and beat on his kidneys with tree branches, and then suddenly…
WHOA!!!!! Stop the presses!
There it was in front of me. As I round a bend that hugs an idyllic lake, the mountains come into view, the trails unmistakable, etched in white into stern, rocky, tree-cloaked faces. Smugglers’ Notch reveals itself finally, at long last, in all its majesty, and the agonizing drive was worthy every second. It’s like that moment when the lights finally go down at the start of a rock concert: utter elation.
Septic truck? What septic truck?
Deep in the northernmost recess of the Green Mountains, Smugglers’ Notch is a geologic marvel and a particularly gorgeous one. The Notch is a high mountain pass traversing the intersection of the ridgeline of the Sterling mountain range to the northeast and Mount Mansfield, the highest point in Vermont, to the southwest. Vermont’s famous Long Trail, (a 273-mile hiking path that extends from Massachusetts to Canada), includes the Notch, and hikers, climbers, and skiers are often seen traversing up and down the Notch’s slopes even when the road through the pass is closed in winter to vehicles.
Vermont has always been a hotspot for colorful history, with many of its towns founded decades before the Revolutionary War began, and Smugglers’ Notch is easily among the most iconic, romantic, and fascinating locales.
“They smuggled everything through the Notch: booze, provisions, even cattle and other livestock,” explains resort public relations maven Mike Chait, himself quite a history buff, “first during the years leading up to the War of 1812, and then again during prohibition.”
Chait’s recollections are correct. Fearful of being dragged into the highly volatile, three-way morass of political relations between France, England, and Spain, President Thomas Jefferson passed the Embargo Act of 1807 which forbade trade with Canada (France’s ally) and England. It was a good idea on paper: France had been a crucial supporter during the Revolutionary War, but so soon after winning self-government, no one in the fledgling nation relished the idea of angering Britain again. Nevertheless, Napolean’s meteoric rise and commensurate militarization petrified everyone around the globe. So Jefferson tried to appease both sides by staying out of the fray.
The embargo, however was a severe hardship to Vermonters in particular, so reliant on trade with Canada. The choice for locals was simple: flaunt the embargo or starve to death – really no choice at all. And so pirates became heroes, bringing food, drink, medicine, and bribes back and forth across Lake Champlain. Sea battles between smugglers and coast guard left a haze of cannon smoke and cordite over the icy waters, and the thunder of the carronades was a constant refrain.
Needing places to hole up and hide contraband, the countless coves, caverns, and caves of the Notch were a blessing to procurers and clients alike. Vanishing like a Cheshire Cat, smugglers melted into the mountain passes. It got so bad, government officials tried blasting them out by blowing up powder kegs of gunpowder wherever they thought caches or criminals might be found. 100 years later, Prohibition brought the same Olympian fury from government officials, and the similar, crafty, hair-raising escapes from the bootleggers.
Cut to a quarter-century after Prohibition’s end and we find America experiencing a Golden Age of skiing. Resorts, particularly in the northeast, were blossoming and thriving. And so, like so may others from the era, Smugglers’ Notch Resort was founded in 1956 by skiers for skiers.
OVERALL MOUNTAIN PLAN
Located in latitude 44 degrees 34 minutes North, longitude 72 degrees 46 minutes West, Smuggs, as it’s known to its friends, is divided into three parts. From left to right as the skier faces uphill you see Morse Mountain (the beginner and novice area), Madonna Mountain (where most of the expert terrain is found, but home to many intermediates as well), and Sterling Peak (home to most of the intermediate trails, with a fistful of advanced/expert terrain). Development first began on Sterling, but in the early ‘60s IBM chairman Tom Watson, Jr. took over operations and began work on Morse and Madonna, along with the resort village, in keeping with the desired European flavor he tried to emulate.
Smuggs’ three mountains are somewhat sequestered from each other with Morse particularly isolated, sitting below and to one side of the other slopes. The total vertical drop for the resort is listed as 2,610 feet, however that’s misleading as it measures from the top of Madonna to the bottom of Morse, but the two mountains aren’t truly connected. From a summit of 3,640 feet, the vertical drop of Madonna is still a stern and difficult 2,010, while the vertical drop of Sterling is an equally respectable 1,410 feet from a summit of roughly 3,000. Madonna and Sterling have one or two trails that connect each other and criss-crossing between the two is easy.
There are 310 acres of piste and a whopping 750 acres of glades. Indeed, much like Magic Mountain in southern Vermont, Smuggs is also renowned for the excellent authenticity of its glades. Far from the tree-cleared “glades in name only” of the larger resorts, glades at Smuggs are supermodel slim, yet rugged as a wrestler. “Bermuda,” “Poacher’s Woods,” “The Shire” are popular, as is “Norwegian Woods,” which makes me wonder if the founders were Beatles fans. What? No trail named Morning Dew or Sugar Magnolia? And then, of course, there’s the only triple black diamond run east of the Mississippi – the Black Hole glades, which are hilariously immortalized in a YouTube clip where an amateur videographer spends the entire film sliding down one step at a time like a Jerry.
On-map glades are peppered liberally on both sides, but there is a gargantuan amount of off-map terrain that locals are only too happy to show off to visitors, including the fabled “Birthday Bowls” that explore the Notch itself, and the “Balcony,” a popular spot for picnics and photos with the Notch as a backdrop.
Generally speaking, what you see is what you get when it comes to the trail map. Single black diamonds may be more skiable/rideable for mid-level skiers, but on occasion intermediates can be more challenging than your hometown slopes, mostly depending on the day’s conditions. But with 76 trails to choose from, there is wondrous variety, and everybody will easily find their favorites on either side.
“FAMILY, FAMILY, FAMILY”
You might think it strange that Smuggs’ reputation for high adventure could sleep cheek and jowl with an unshakable dedication to kids and beginners, but if there is one thing that surpasses how wildly fun the terrain is, it’s the resort’s universally praised reputation for being a place for the whole family. Families, parades, and hot chocolate, (fireworks, calliopes, and clowns), that was the vibe the founders desired, and with unwavering focus, that has become the resort’s highly successful brand.
“Family, family, family!” gushed frequent resort guest Steve Pearce, who’s been there several times over many decades. “That’s their indelible identity, and they do it as well as anyone in the U.S. We go back all the time.”
It seems the readers of Ski Magazine agree: in the last two years they have given Smuggs back-to-back “Best Resort in the East” awards, remarkable when you consider how tiny Smugglers’ Notch has to go head to head with the juggernaut PR machines of mega-resorts like Killington, Stowe, and Stratton. Say “Hey!” for the little guy, indeed.
Even employees of rival resorts – places that themselves have outstanding reputations as being family-oriented – are equally impressed, candidly admitting that, “They really care about teaching the kids well; that’s their raison d’etre. The kid’s camp is so good, the parents can go have fun and ski the rest of the mountain, and know that the kids are going to get better with every run they take. And they have not one, but two entire mountains to move up to as they improve.”
DAY 1, A STERLING REPUTATION
Sterling Mountain’s real name, by the way, is Spruce Peak, but the resort calls it Sterling, after the early 1800’s town that actually straddled the mountain, (now defunct – the town couldn’t survive economically while being split in two by the range), and after Sterling Pond, located directly atop the peak and just past where you disembark form the chairlift. Not only do they actually stock the pond with trout, they bring the fish up the chairlift – and as a joke some times leave a fish to ride down solo. They also play hockey on the pond as well, and often times you’ll see players disembarking the lift in their uniforms, sticks and skates in hand.
Despite the best efforts of Sal’s Septic Truck, I was fourth or fifth in line for first chair of the day, and worked my way through Sterling for day one. The morning session saw spins down intermediates Rum Runner and Treasure Run, before turning to the black diamonds at Smugglers’ Run (solid) and Bootlegger (the only icy run of the day).
I was feeling my oats, my Head Rallys turning as though they were attached to me since birth, so when I ran into two guys at the top of “Poacher’s Woods,” I thought maybe it was time for my first taste of glade skiing.
Four turns in I got lost, my “buddies” had disappeared, and the trees were so deep, I thought the Blair Witch was going to get me. 25 minutes later after swimming in snow up to my chest and throwing my skis up the mountain one step at a time, I collapsed onto a trail and decided that after that misadventure, it was time for lunch.
CHARACTERS WITH CHARACTER
We don’t just write about skiing, we write about the people who ski. It’s the personalities that color our sports that give us the greatest happiness….well, that and shredding moguls. Now as Winston Wolf famously said in Pulp Fiction, just because you are a character, doesn’t mean you have character. Happily, at Smuggs they have character-filled characters colorful enough to fill the rolodex of Central Casting, with nicknames to boot. There’s Rockin’ Ron, Straight Nate, Big Mike, and Hugh Johnson, whose nickname is too colorful to put in print, but rest assured, he earned it for his sublime skiing. A heart as big as his smile!
Mike and Hugh took me on an exhilarating tour of Sterling that afternoon, everywhere from the Pond to the Balcony and down every trail of note I didn’t have a chance to hit during the morning session, including Full Nelson and Black Snake, the best bumped-out, black diamond joyrides of the day. Hugh is not only the resort’s in-house writer, he’s reputed to be the finest skier on the mountain. Who says wedeling is dead? The goal is to ski an aesthetic line, make it pretty, so I just skied in Hugh’s tracks, and together we looked like one of those Swiss instructional videos. The only thing missing was somebody yodeling as a soundtrack.
Now if you ask Hugh who the finest skier on the mountain is, he won’t hesitate in picking Straight Nate. Straight Nate got his nickname because all he does is point his skis straight downhill. Straight Nate won’t give you an aesthetic line. He’ll just drop in from above, swooping past like a superhero, only instead of a cape, he wears a black ski suit emblazoned with a giant Grateful Dead Steal Your Face on his back and dancing skeletons in top hats on his chest. Narrow, bumped-out lift line? Straight down! 15 foot drop-off? Straight down! Thickest trees in the deepest glades? Straight down! Who needs turns? Turning is for chumps! He’s Vermont’s proper rejoinder to Gherman Titov.
After that it was time to chill out at my studio (which was so huge, it could easily sleep five) and a dip in the resort’s pool and Jacuzzi. With the village located directly adjacent to Morse, (you can ski to your room), everything you need is convenient to your condo – food, entertainment, supplies, and kid’s camp activities.
DAY 2, LADY MADONNA
What a difference a day makes. Feet of fresh powder arrived by the time Day 1 arrived, and the groomers were silky, speedy corduroy. Saturday’s conditions turned sour at first, but then rallied miraculously. Despite an all night freezing rain, mountain ops did a brilliant job of getting Madonna ready for weekend visitors. The weather, so horrid overnight, warmed and cleared mid-morning, and the icy crust that greeted us for the early runs corned up nicely as the morning progressed. Props also to the ops team for giving us warning that some intermediates could qualify as experts, depending on the trail and the day’s conditions. Catwalk, for example, the gateway to much of Madonna’s terrain was not only changed to an expert run for the day, it even featured a warning that “falls could result in uncontrollable slides.”
Happily, none of that came to pass. After warming up on Chicoot and Drifter->the Lift Line, (a wonderfully bumped out, classic lift line run),It was time to hit Catwalk and what has been called by many the iconic run at Smugglers’, Upper F.I.S. Despite the posted warnings, the day had brightened and Catwalk was just fine. Better still, the warnings kept most people off F.I.S., so the powder had not been scraped off, and the moguls were heavenly. Another run feared to be icy, but in reality was just fine was Shuttle, the trail that connects Madonna to Sterling, and was an interesting and particularly scenic part of the mountain to explore.
The rest of the afternoon was spent re-skiing the weekend’s greatest hits. Hugh joined in for another trip to the Balcony before hitting Full Nelson again. Then Upper FIS->Mulcahy’s Link->Lower FIS, (the best run of the weekend, I see why they call it iconic). The last run of the trip was an easy cruise down the east side of Madonna. Time to tailgate in Lot 1 like a local. (It’s not to be missed, you’ll come back with five new friends.)
They call the mountain’s inimitable and infectious vibe “Smuggs Love,” and they mean it. The sentiment is dead solid perfect. There’s a reason why this small, homespun resort has grown to become on of America’s most celebrated and beloved: Smugglers is the perfect mix of tough, character filled terrain and family fun. Smuggs is one of those places that you’ll never forget you visited, no matter how old you get. It’s too much fun, and the people are supercool. They make you feel like you’ve been friends for years. Every guest gets treated like family.
Dripping with character and loaded with characters, i.e. every local you meet, it’s a northern rejoinder and metaphoric bookend to southern Vermont’s Magic Mountain. Also, like Magic, it’s independently owned, reasonably priced, and locally controlled.
“We read that there was good snow, so we drove up all the way from Buffalo,” said skier Dan Alistar. “We’re definitely coming back. The way the trails flowed back-and-forth all across the mountain really let’s you get a lot of mileage out of every run. And it’s really beautiful.”
“We love how old school it is. The village is cute and charming, and the mountain is rough and tumble. That’s the way it should be,” beamed an effervescent blond from Toronto named Ally, who drove down with her boyfriend Todd, “Our drive put yours to shame!”
Yeah, but you didn’t have to deal with Sal’s Septic Truck.
Quality of Snow/Grooming – 9
Variety of Terrain – 9
Lifts – 9
Snow coverage – 8.75
Natural Setting – 9.25
Kid/Family Friendly – 10
Character – 9.5
Challenge – 9.25
Dining on Mountain/Base Lodge – 7.5
Overall – 9.083
MUSICAL INTERSTITIAL BETWEEN SKI DAYS:
DEAD SESSIONS LITE AT MOOG’S IN MORRISVILLE, 12-07-18
DAY 1, 10:01 pm. Kevin Shapiro is freaking. He just spilled soda all over himself, it’s two minutes before the final three sets of a six show, no repeats run for his killer band, Dead Sessions Lite and – now sopping wet – he has to do the work of two drummers. Remember: the Grateful Dead had Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann. Kevin has he, himself, and him. He’s on an island out there, like a cornerback covering a Hall of Fame receiver with no safety over the top for help. With a roar that would have frightened a banshee out of an Irish castle, he heads off in search of a dishtowel, snarling at his laughing friends and family that, “You’re not helping!”
Happily, everyone else at Moog’s Place in Morrisville is beaming. Moog’s is the place you have to hit for music when you come to Smuggs. Along with Nectar’s in Vermont, it’s one of the great rock ‘n’ roll bars of the northeast: a springboard for neophyte jam bands to show their chops and a popular showcase spot for tribute bands. Once Kevin gets situated, they’re in for a treat, because the Dead Sessions projects, in their various incarnations, are one of the preeminent Grateful Dead experiences in the country. And they love their Grateful Dead here. (It’s Vermont after all; you can’t spit without hitting a crispy critter.)
Originally started just over a decade ago when various Vermonters formed a rotating line-up of about a dozen different musicians, Dead Sessions is presently stewarded by Vermont musical legend Seth Yacovane. Seth not only has a plaque at Nectar’s located directly below Phish’s, he’s started countless musical acts including the eponymously named Seth Yacovane Band. Dead Sessions – “Heavy” or “Lite,” depending on whether they have six players or less – is one of Seth’s most famous projects, and Moog’s, just 22 miles from Smugglers’ Notch, is essentially his home base, though he played over 300 shows last year alone.
“Seth figured out how to arrange Grateful Dead songs for a quartet, and so when we play a small place where not everyone can fit on stage, or when we just can’t get six people, we call it Dead Sessions Lite,” explains Shapiro, now dry and back to his usual, amiable self.
“Seth is prolific and ambitious. It’s astonishing what he does musically, He was rocking Nectar’s when he was just 15, absolutely stunning,” continues Shapiro, as he readies for the band to move from acoustic to electric for the second and third sets. “They’re throwing me in the deep end, I hope I can swim.”
Swim he did, quite well actually, as did keyboardist Sheila Metcalf (herself a piano instructor as well as excellent performer) and bassist Andy Burke. They didn’t just make four sound like six, they made four sound like 16, launching headlong into some of the most difficult and interesting material. Forget the easy three-chord wonders; second set opened with a blistering Help->Slip->Franklin’s with a particularly superb and perfectly executed Slipknot. A later stretch went Unbroken Chain, Passenger, Lazy Lightning->Supplication. During Passenger, Yacovane was playing slide with his half-full whiskey glass. (Next time, take a slug too!) And I haven’t danced to Music Never Stopped like that since 1989. It was absolutely joyous.
I left after a funky Viola Lee Blues led into a haunting Lost Sailor->Saint of Circumstance to open the third set, but whether you can see the entire ensemble at the Rusty Nail or somewhere in New York City post-Phish, or whether you catch a quartet of DSL after skiing in Vermont, they’re not to be missed. After all, they not only completed 18 sets with no repeats, each show was a total knockout. So much so that I’m reminded of the immortal words of Tom Marshall, “Put that bread in your jar, Piano Man.” #trollthejoel
[Editor’s Note: This is the third 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]
OTHER ARTICLES IN THIS SERIES