[Editor’s Note: This is the second of three installments on Jay Peak. Part One, a thumbnail sketch is here. Part Three, the people that you meet, is here. Part Four, a brief summary of recent history and a look at the future will drop soon.]
Jay Peak has two main areas – Tramside and Stateside, each with their own base lodge and parking – and the mountain can be best broken down by its four main lifts: the Tram and the Freezer on the Tramside, and the Bonnie and the Jet on the Stateside. The Freezer is officially called the “Flyer,” (the “Green Mountain Flyer,” to be exact), but the frigid, furious winds that relentlessly lash the rider have led the general public to forever rebrand it the Freezer. (***singing*** Step into the Freezerâ€¦step into the Freezerâ€¦step into the step into the step into the Freezerâ€¦)
There are 81 named trails and glades, with 40% of the skiable terrain rated expert, and just over another 40% being intermediate. Since there is no double black designation, first-timers at Jay should do some research before following their nose. If a run has a black diamond designation at Jay Peak, it has it for a reason, and even the intermediates can prove remarkably difficult depending on weather and conditions. Best of all, it’s great to finally find a venue where you have to respect the trail map.
The total vertical drop from the summit (altitude 3,968 feet) is a solid 2,153 feet from summit to base lodge. There are three terrain parks, all equipped with the latest toys and jumps for the high-flyers and tricksters. Jay features a total of 385 skiable acres, with over 100 acres of glades.
Ahhâ€¦the glades!!! Does Jay Peak have the best glades in the east? It’s damn bloody likely. The names of these glades alone are enough to both instill respect and fire your stoke. Names like Staircase, Vertigo, Canyonland, and Deliverance. Not scared enough? Okay how about Everglades, Hell’s Woods, Timbuktu, and Valhalla?
It seems every wood between trails has a sinister, sometimes frightening name. To get out of some of them you need a sherpa, a compass, a chain saw, and a priest.
“Jay has absolutely the best glade skiing I’ve ever seen, in America and beyond. People come from all across the country to ski those glades,” observed unofficial Jay Peak ambassador Jay Murphy, a decades-long passholder who logs between 75 and 85 days at Jay per season. On any trip to Jay Peak, taking runs with Murphy – who the press has dubbed the “Angel from Montgomery” – is essential. You mist pay your respects to the local potentate after all, and Murphy is regional skiing royalty.
“My favorites are Vertigo and Timbuktu, Murphy continued. “Vertigo takes you deep in the woods with a super steep and super tight set of turns. You have to make fast maneuvers to snake your way down. And Timbuktu lies all the way at the eastern edge of the property, off the Jet chair, Stateside. Our glades are tough and those are two of the hardest you’ll find anywhere.”
For those wishing to try tree skiing at a slightly less frenetic pace, Jay Peak’s intermediate glades on the lower mountain are wide and welcoming. Kokomo Glades are a gorgeous way for anyone to finish a run off the summit, and the Full Moon Half Moon, and Quarter Moon Glades are equally idyllic.
Still, the Tram is the beating heart of the resort, and is the only lift that accesses the summit. It’s a seven-and-a-half minute ride to the top in the 40 person cars. Upon disembarking, the view from the summit is nigh incomparable; on a clear day one can see for miles into Canada on one side, and all the way into New Hampshire from the other. Meanwhile the rime frozen, windblown trees seem like an army of evil snowmen, ready to come to life and do some sinister Ice Queen’s malevolent bidding. [Editor’s Note: At this time of year, the Tram only operates on weekends. Check schedules and weather accordingly as wind holds can happen with little warning.]
The summit is also home to the Face Chutes, the Holy Grail of Vermont steeps and drops. Only open when weather cooperates and powder is deep, a series of lines through the rocks and trees extends across the summit ridge, each narrower, steeper, rockier, and more knee-knocking then the last. Several extreme skiing events hosted by such organizations as Ski the East are contested here and on nearby trail Green Beret.
“When you’re up there looking down, your choice of line is critical,” Murphy confides earnestly. You must spot a good line and then execute it. Â It’s 100% commitment until you get past the rocks and into the powder fieldâ€¦and then you feel like you’re floating the rest of the way down.”
Upon negotiating the Face Chutes, the rest of the mountain is reasonably accessible. A connector trail called Northway takes you over to the Bonnie and the Jet chairs, or continue straight down Upper and Lower River Quai back to the Tram and the Freezer.
The Freezer terminates just below the peak, and on days when the Tram is inoperative, you’ll often find skiers and riders dismounting the chairlift and hoofing it the rest of the way to the summit, about a 20-minute walk, but infinitely worth the payoff in terrain.
Rule Number One when riding the Freezer: sitting in the furthest seat left of the chair is imperative! The Freezer earned its moniker, and even prepared with this article, and bundled up tight like Chilly Willy the Penguin, you will still be blasted suddenly from your right as you slowly wind past a gap in the terrain. It’s a cold ride no matter what: but the sudden jet stream of arctic winds lashes you ruthlessly like Mr. Freeze hosing down Batman.
“The Freezer is a nightmare,” agreed Murphy, who made a point of positioning himself to the immediate left of Your Author on the Freezer, meaning my five-foot-seven, 129-lb. frame was blocking the vicious, biting wind from his six-two, 220 frame. Thanks for that! So be certain to board as far as you can on the left at all costs, and let the “biggenses” block the wind for you instead.
The trail network off the Freezer gives you a choice: take the iconic intermediate trail Ullr’s Dream down the furthest side of the mountain or follow one of two catwalks – Alligator Alley or Northway. Alligator Alley follows the lift line for a time, allowing experts to turn east on JFK, Northwest Passage, or Green Mountain Boys or continue on to Exposition. Intermediates can take Wedelmaster, and all of them except Expo intersect with Ullr’s and the Kokomo Glades.
Northway takes you to the Bonnie side. Happily, trails intersect well from Bonnie to Freezer, and vice versa, but you have to keep an eye on the turns, they come up fast. Some entrances are nearly hidden.
Bonnie actually stands for “Bonaventure.” (Not “St. Bonaventure,” sit down, Mike Vaccaro!) From the terminus of the Bonnie, only Upper Goat Run takes you back to the Tram side and either the Tram or the Freezer. Occasionally – and your mileage may vary – occasionally the top of the Bonnie lift line called Upper River Quai is open and also heads Tramside, but Your Author hasn’t seen the ropes dropped on it thus far in his career.
Who needs it? Guys are doing double flips off rocks on the lift line of the Bonnie, right next to woods aptly named Deliverance. Northway continues down to the Jet area and a plethora of trails mid-mountain. It also leads you past the entrance to 601.
You remember 601. That trail I took that should have had a sign reading either “Abandon all hope ye who enter here” or “Don’t not transgress the Pillars of Hercules!” I’m told it’s named after a patroller who never used her name on radio calls; she just said, “This is 601 hereâ€¦” Truthfully, it could be named 601 after the 601 rocks on the run. Or maybe the 601 moguls. It feels like 601 miles. About halfway down, there’s an escape hatch, the only chance to skedaddle to the trail on skier’s left, but if you miss that, you’re committed for the rest of the way.
The aforementioned “hatch” is a 90-degree perpendicular catwalk that intersects at the base of a headwall – no runout or anything – just stick a landing while bouncing off a mogul, hop-turn left on a nickel-sized landing area, and continue on like it was nothing. Among the most difficult of Jay’s on piste runs under ordinary circumstances, I drew the shortest of short straws: the worst weather Jay Peak saw all seasonâ€¦by an order of magnitude.
For months continuously, Jay had the best snow in the east, but five days before I was to arrive the following weather pattern manifested itself on back-to-back-to back days: 60 degree thaw, then minus-10 degree deep freeze, then 70-mph winds. Perfect powder turned to bulletproof ice.
It was as though a Kurt Vonnegut character had dropped a chip of ice-nine. (Look it up, or ask the person next to youâ€¦)
So back to my run down 601 and you can understand why even the Jay Peak ski patrollers were pie-eyed with horror.
“What the hell were you doing there?” gasped one, incredulous. “Of course, that would be murder.”
On another trip with similar ghastly weather, a soupy fog thick as vapors from a witch’s brew made visibility nigh impossible beyond three feet. Snow cascaded down sideways as well. As we passed the entrance to 601 on Northway I pointed the trail entrance out to a buddy.
“Wanna try it?” he asked. Ha! I’d take a ring to Mordor before I’d try 601 with zero visibility. No, I needed soothing after that first misadventure and in the midst of a maelstrom. Time to head over to the Jet.
Servicing its own web of trails, but also connected to and from the rest of the mountain with reasonable ease, the Jet chair is the first run to open at the mountain for the season, and the last to close. According to Murphy, they’ll be skiing the Jet in bikinis in May. At times, the Jet might be the only groomed run on the mountain, (yet another reason Jay Peak is so beloved by its fan base: it’s authentic.
The lift line, Jet, is straight as a pool cue and just nosedives. Everyone agrees there are three parts to the run: take off, terminal velocity, and bringing her in for a landing. Look for wide eyes on newbies as they finish their first descent.
UN, also straight as a ramrod, but far narrower and always studded with moguls lies directly to skier’s right of the Jet while the rumbling, winding, narrow Kitzbuehel tumbles along skier’s left. And of course, some of the mountain’s most iconic glades are on this far southeastern side of the mountain, including Kitz Woods and Timbuktu.
Indy Pass has clearly been an enormous boon financially and in terms of exposure for Jay Peak as revenues and visits have jumped significantly. Happily, new owners Pacific Group Resorts, Inc announced last fall, shortly after submitting the winning bid. It seems, for now they are determined to keep the independent idiom of Jay Peak and its inimitable character intact.
So, make the trek to Jay Peak. Sure, it’s a schlep all the way up to “Try-to-find-me, Vermont,” but it’s not to be missed under any circumstances: an indisputable bucket list requirement. Revel in the east’s sickest pow, drop into some of its fiercest steeps, and explore the densest of its glades. Just make sure both you and your gear are in tip top shape before you arrive, and don’t say we didn’t warn you about the Freezer. BFFs or not, they sit on your right.