Border War! Vermont vs. New Hampshire Skiing Part 5 – Mount Snow
—by Jay Flemma
Special to Slave to the Traffic Light Adventure Magazine—
DOVER, VT – If Smugglers’ Notch is “America’s Family Resort,” then Mount Snow is Party Central. 3-1/2 hours drive from Manhattan, 2-1/2 hours from Boston, and just over 1-1/2 hours from Hartford, everybody – and I mean everybody – makes their way to this southern Vermont Mecca of winter sports. Location, Location, Location: indeed. They descend on the region like a horde, they preen like they’re in Innsbruck and San Moritz, (or is it Patagonia and Hokkaido? I never can remember…) and they party like rock star divas until the dying of the night.
Shred shred shred. Rage rage rage. Lather, rinse, repeat. ***flashes rock hands***
Happily, they also support the vibrant local economy of two towns, Dover and Wilmington, bringing life to this otherwise thinly-traveled, but quaint and absolutely gorgeous recess of New England. And despite its generic name, Mount Snow has rightfully earned a place in the Pantheon of Great American Ski Destinations.
Mount Snow is eponymously named, but not for the reason you might initially guess. Originally called Mount Pisgah (which doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue) in 1953 a showman, entrepreneur, marine retiree, and eccentric named Walt Schoenknecht purchased 500 acres at the foot of the mountain from a fifth-generation farmer named Reuben Snow. Sealing the deal with a down payment of $20.00, Schoenknecht renamed the mountain and resort in honor of the farmer, and set to work creating what he hoped would ultimately become the largest ski area in the world.
Larger than life, but without being foreboding or imposing, and possessed of singular vision and indefatigable energy, Schoenknecht was a benevolent dictator if ever there was one, and Mount Snow was his wintry field of dreams. Dream big he did, but always with a plausible and sensible approach. Let’s organize the mountain ergonomically so people can move from trail to trail easily: so we’ll concentrate expert trails in one area, and novice trails in another. Let’s get people up the mountain speedily: so we’ll build super-fast lifts that move 1,200 people to the summit instead of 175. Let’s have the best instructors anywhere: so we’ll hire former Olympic athletes and international racers. And let’s have attractions no one else has: so we’ll put the hot tubs out next to the ski slopes so you can watch people ski down while relaxing, and we’ll but the ice skating rink indoors so people can use it year-round.
And so it went little by little, day by day, starting with a humble single chair monorail designed by Schoenknecht himself. There was no detail Walt didn’t hone to his liking and there was no end to is creativity and panache. It took 20 years for the $1,000 shares he sold investors to show a profit, but Mount Snow became everything Walt hoped it to be: a world-class ski resort with a galaxy of diversions.
At times Schoenknecht over-did it, the aforementioned galaxy of diversions sometimes devolving into an expensive cavalcade of whimsy. “Fountain Mountain,” a lodge-side mound of ice created by running an outdoor fountain all day and night was fun to sled down, but busted the water budget. The 500-gallon tropical fish tank in the lodge looked terrific until all the fish froze. And when Walt wrote a 1963 press release suggesting that the government explode a nuclear weapon in the region to increase the vertical descent of Mount Snow and Stratton so they could host the Olympics…well that was just chalked up to “Walt being Walt.”
Silly Walt! Everyone knows you don’t use nukes to build ski hills. You use them to divert Hurricanes away from Alabama. (Kidding! Kidding!)
A little crazy or crazy like a fox? As always with Walt, it was a little of both, but it worked. Mount Snow grew to be all he dreamed it could become – a destination and a scene, world-class, modern, and always embracing the next great advance in our sport.
Mount Snow survived various ups and downs since Schoenknecht surrendered much control of the resort. In the 1970s and ‘80s frills like air-cars, outdoor pools, and skating rinks had to be swapped out for updated lifts and ample snowmaking for 86 trails. After all, when you sit at latitude 37°57′ North, 67°55′ West, you need prodigious snowmaking and plenty of lifts, and for many of those years good snowfalls were few and far between in Southern Vermont.
It was investment in snowmaking and high-tech lifts that allowed Mount Snow to flourish while those around them sometimes struggled. They just added a 30 million gallon reservoir last year alone to add even more snowmaking to their already prodigious coverage.
The numbers at Mount Snow are easy to remember: the 600 acre facility features a base lodge that sits at 1,900 feet, a summit peak at 3,600 feet, and 20 lifts to service the 86 trails. Better still, the mountain is conveniently divided into individual sections: the front side, the Sunbrook Bowl, The North Peak, and the Carinthia terrain park. All are self-contained, but with a fistful of connector trails, it’s fairly easy to move across the mountain. There are several lodges conveniently located at the main base, summit, and Carinthia slopes, along with other shacks and stands.
Walt Schoenknecht wanted a big mountain to match a big city appeal and clientele. Mount Snow’s front side delivers, boasting some of the widest trails on the eastern seaboard, “Super trails” as Walt called them, “like they have out west, enormous in size and scale.” Some runs, such as Snowdancer and South Bowl are wide enough to be golf holes, (which is ironic because, as we see later in this article, some of the golf holes are mountainous enough to be ski runs….) Exclusively consisting of intermediate cruisers and easy coasters, the front side is also the hub that connects the other sections of the mountain. Serviced by two speedy chairs, one the now famous (or infamous, to purists) “Bluebird” chair, featuring a protective blue windshield to keep you warm and dry as you head from the base to the summit. Humorously, old-schoolers still grumble about how it “violates the ethos of the sport” and that “the only thing missing is an on-board pumpkin spice latte machine.” Slackers…
As you disembark at the summit, the North Peak lies to your right, home to every expert trail on the mountain except one. In that respect, it resembles the Castlerock Chair at Sugarbush or the summit chair at Cannon. Serviced by two side-by-side chairs, you can spend all day riding the bumps on Boulder Pile, Jaws of Death, Ripsaw, (the only double black diamond at Mount Snow and billed as “the steepest front side pitch in the east”), and Free Fall. Some other black diamonds are really intermediates masquerading as experts, but the trails I just named will offer plenty of bumpy rides. Still, there isn’t a no-fall zone anywhere on the mountain, so lock and load and enjoy the view of the lake; it’s bombs away.
The Sunbrook area, directly opposite the North Peak and also accessed from the summit is filled with intermediate cruisers as well as a machine-made expert mogul run called Bear Trap. Remember, machine made moguls are closer together than man-made, so traditionalists might prefer the North Peak, but with rock music and jam bands blaring from the loudspeakers, Bear Trap has a vibe and following all its own.
Last but certainly not least, there’s Carinthia, a state-of-the-art terrain park that’s played host to the X Games since the early 1990s and was home to such snowboarding luminaries as Mac Forehand and five-time U.S. Olympian Kelly Clark. Carinthia has every feature under the sun, from tiny bumps to gargantuan jumps, from pipes to rails to a freaking wishbone-shaped tree (WISHBONE-SHAPED TREE!!!) where you can soar between the branches like a human football kicked for an extra point or get smeared against the trunk like Wile E. Coyote. Highlights include Prospector, Mineshaft, and Nitro->Junkyard. Inferno came highly recommended as the iconic run on the face, but sadly it was too thinly covered and half-melted for a run that day. We will return and report further as this season progresses.
“Carinthia is definitely in the spirit of Walt Schoenknecht. The whole idea of a massive snowboard terrain park is something that he’d have loved,” explains professional snowboard instructor and Mount Snow bon vivant Morgan Bitton. ““Carinthia is an entire mountain face of parks – all four skill levels: a, b, c, and d – so everyone from grommets to champions can learn and train there. And the new $22,000,000 Carinthia lodge is spectacular and a great vantage point to watch events held on the lower features.”
THE DUCHESS OF DOVER
Bitton is more than just a snowboard instructor. She’s cut from exactly the same mold Schoenknecht searched for in his teachers – talented, dedicated, and most importantly personable. Everyone knows Morgan and stops to say hello. From first chair to last call she’s holding court. She’s the Duchess of Dover and no trip to Mount Snow is complete without an audience with Her Grace. Emilia Clarke, eat your heart out; the Dragon Queen ain’t got nuthin’ on the Duchess. A fixture here since 1993, she can recall three decades of the mountain’s and region’s events.
“I love it so much, I bought a house here in 2001. Why wouldn’t I?” she asks, beaming. “The snowmaking has always been great. The Bluebird lift was a game-changer because you’re protected on a windy, snowy, icy day. And the Learning Center and the Discovery Lodge are terrific places to have the guests meet with teachers and get to know them. Even back in Walt’s day he wanted us to be showing them a great time all the time.”
As always, it’s the people that ski and board that color our sport the most vibrantly, and Morgan is no exception. Not only does she make everyone around her a better skier or boarder – it’s electric dropping in on her wing and shredding the lift line on the North Peak – but she brings the Sun with her wherever she goes, as does every employee of Mount Snow.
THE SPIRIT OF SCHOENKNECHT
Indeed the après ski has always been an enormous draw. After all, everyone wants to be part iof the haute scene. If Smuggs is the family place with costumed animal mascots, then Mount Snow is the keg party. The outdoor pool and hot tub were jammed, and every restaurant from Dover to Wilmington was humming with life, and the Lodge buzzed with energy long into the night. With the right kind of eyes, the Mount Snow we find in 2020 sure looks an awful lot like something Walt Schoenknecht was intending.
If there are any drawbacks, high winds can shut down lifts, leading to long lift lines. They could use some more expert terrain, especially on sections of the mountain besides North Peak. And of course, like every other resort in the east, food on the mountain is a bugaboo, despite there being a grillion restaurants in the base lodge. The line was half an hour for a mac and cheese alone. Mount Snow has more choices, and the quality is a step above the cafeteria garbage you get elsewhere, (a B- as opposed to everyone else’s collective C-), but the menus are still loaded with deep fried fat and heavy options. Only kids eat that crap while skiing. Serious athletes won’t touch that while skiing/boarding. We haven’t seen the options in the Carinthia Lodge, and we reserve the right to supplement this next winter, but right now food is the one thing every ski area is flagging on. Can I just get a G#@$&*!n pan bagnat, pleeeeeeaaaase??!!
“THEY SHOULD BUY HAYST…OH WAIT…”
Many people ask why Mount Snow hasn’t bought Haystack Mountain, which immediately abuts a far edge of Mount Snow’s property. It seems like a no-brainer.
The simple answer is, they tried it once and it didn’t work. Nobody went there except the overflow,
Balloon, meet pin.
Haystack later went private, renaming itself “Hermitage,” and re-pronouncing itself “Hermitaaaaaaaaaaajjjjjjjjj,” like Taj Mahal. It also failed, and the mountain languishes yet again, except as a target for blind tee shots on Mount Snow Golf Club.
Quality of Snow/Grooming – 9.25
Variety of Terrain – 8.75
Lifts – 8.75
Snow coverage – 9
Natural Setting – 9
Kid/Family Friendly – 9.25
Character – 8.75
Challenge – 9
Dining on Mountain/Base Lodge – 8.25
Overall – 8.889
MOUNT SNOW GOLF CLUB
Everyone we asked agreed: Mount Snow’s golf holes are actually harder than Mount Snow’s ski runs…much harder.
It’s to be expected of Geoffrey Cornish, the architect who designed the golf course. Cornish was a contemporary of Robert Trent Jones, Sr., (“Trent,” as he’s still referred to in the golf design industry), and the two shared more than a mutual respect and admiration. For many decades they were also the foremost proponents of the Penal School of golf course design. If you hit the ball off line: PENALTY! A prolific designer with hundreds of original courses to his credit, Cornish is a giant the field, and nowhere are his designs more prominent than in his beloved New England.
Actually located in the town of Wilmington, this Cornish design is exactly what you expect when you hear his name: long, watery, and hilly. In short: difficult. The Black tees – intended as both the member and resort tees – are 6,539 yards long, typical of the “longer is better, harder is better” mentality that drove golf course design in the middle-60s, when the course was constructed. That converts to a stern 71.7 course rating and a bloated 141 slope. For a bogey golfer, that’s harder than about 95% of golf courses in America. There is, happily, a white set of tees that plays 6,040, but that still translates to a stiff 131 slope. Believe it or not, the locals consider those the senior tees. They play long, tough golf in this part of the country.
Everything at Mount Snow starts at the tee box; you have to drive the ball long and straight. More then half the tee shots are blind and almost all of them require long carries over crests in the fairway. In many places, the fairway is actually tilted back toward the tee box, so the natural lay of the land kills the momentum of your drive, acting as a restrictor plate on driving distance. It’s quite ingenious, actually. Colonial Country Club in Texas did the same thing a few years ago to great effect. So does Forsgate Country Club’s fabled Banks Course.
True golfers embrace blind shots, and Cornish showed us how to use them skillfully at Mount Snow. On one tee box, your target will be a ski run on nearby Haystack Mountain. On another hole your target is a Japanese maple on the far tree line. And on still another, slug it right over the bunkers guarding the knee of the dog leg. The speed slot is right behind them. The blind shots at Mount Snow are glorious because they are well-executed and visually thrilling. That being said, you better be ready, because there is a boatload of them.
Better still, the fairways are wide – a few exceptions like 14 and 17 aside – and they keep the rough a reasonable length; you can play golf shots out of it instead of hacking a few yards back to the fairway. (They’re still not as wide as South Bowl or Snowdancer, though. You want to drive a golf ball down trails like South Bowl and Snowdancer. And you want to ski down holes like three and 14.)
An archetypal mountain golf course, it’s a difficult walk, especially between greens and tees, but it’s also outstanding terrain for golf because there’s nary a level lie between tees and greens. If there is a drawback, the rudimentary shapes, smaller size, and frequently uphill settings of Cornish’s green complexes sometimes underwhelm. After such dramatic tee shots, the approaches seem a bit bland by comparison. (Just like in a great song, you want a big bang at the end…) Additionally, Cornish once again leans on the Doctrine of Symmetry; the course plays to a par of 36-36=72, with two par-3s and two par-5s on each side.
Mount Snow is, however, eminently natural; it blends in seamlessly with the surroundings, and it makes you think all the way around. The best holes are the par-5s, where Cornish used horizontal sweep to the fairways to infuse strategies, while also combining vertical movement in the earth to create bi-level fairways, such as at the excellent second hole.
Trent Jones would have loved Mount Snow for its brawn: its length, hills, and difficulty. But I like Mount Snow for its brains: it makes you plan every shot and gives you multiple ways to play many of the holes. In that respect, Cornish (the protégé) actually surpassed Trent (the master). And in a clever bit of routing, the course returns to the clubhouse at 15 as well as 9 and 18. So you can play three, six, nine, and 12-hole loops as well as 18. Plus, 16-18 makes a convenient playoff loop. Bonus!
As a post script, we met some people that said they played golf at Mount Snow Golf Club and skied the mountain on the same day, but that’s a rare exception. Your weather window for pulling off that double in southern New England lasts perhaps a week or two. Built on clay soil, you’ll get no roll in shoulder seasons and maybe even a few mud balls, but in high summer, all those fairways rolls make for particularly interesting and adventurous golf.
A WORD ON THE OPIOID CRISIS DEBATE
As every avid skier is aware, members of the Sackler family now own a majority of Mount Snow’s former parent company, Peak Resorts. The Sackler family also owns Perdue Pharma, the makers of OxyContin, and they are squarely in the cross-hairs of serious backlash for their role in the opioid crisis.
However, with all of the misguidedness of a congested bloodhound, in light of the revelation that members of the Sackler family now control a large interest pf Peak Resorts, people are actually asking the question “Is it ethical to continue to support Mount Snow?”
As both a lawyer and a journalist, the answer to that question is a resounding yes.
No less a personage than Chuck Klosterman, one of our generation’s greatest pundits on both sports and popular culture provides excellent guidance on the question of “Where does personal responsibility end and corporate responsibility begin?” To paraphrase Klosterman and expend ever-so-slightly on his answer: Corporate responsibility begins when corporations break the law, act unethically, or burn the locals. Personal responsibility never ends.
Applying that dichotomy to the question of punishing Mount Snow for the alleged crimes and mis-deeds of members of the family of their former corporate owners is painting with too broad a brush. Mount Snow did not break the law, Mount Snow did not act unethically, and Mount Snow did not burn the locals. Neither did Peak Resorts. More specifically, neither Mount Snow nor Peak Resorts is responsible for anything the Sacklers or Perdue Pharma did, and trying to punish the Sacklers and Perdue Pharma through Mount Snow or Peak Resorts is not just punishing the wrong people (the locals), it’s cutting off your own nose to spite your face.
We all detest the opioid crisis, but let’s not punish innocent employees of a completely different company over it. That’s not justice…it’s not even vengeance. It’s indiscriminate and reactionary and completely counter-productive.
Should Peak Resorts, Mount Snow, and all their collective employees suffer for the crimes of a completely separate entity just because they have similar individuals as owners? If the justice system and America’s capitalist economy work properly, the answer is no.
[Author’s Note: As we got to press, not only has Vail bought Peak Resorts, (and therefore Mount Snow), some Peak Resorts investors have sued to stop the sale. We will update this story as events progress, but it looks as though Peak has been dissolved. The sale went through earlier this week.]