We kicked off our BJAMS ski program at Stowe today, and it really snuck up on me – it felt like we’d just finished this year’s December training day. We had to arrive early so that E could hand out everyone’s season’s passes, and once we were ready, I took Ty and Dylan out for some pre-session runs. It was the boys’ first chance to try out Stowe’s RFID lift pass system, and they were pretty psyched about how it worked as we hopped on the Sunny Spruce Quad. We saw a touch of snow yesterday at Bolton, but since the three small storms last week that dropped about a half a foot of snow, there hasn’t been anything huge. Powderfreak reported that the mountain did get another 2.7 inches overnight, and coupled with all the other recent light snows and wintery temperatures, the fresh tracks that Powderfreak snowed from the morning looked mighty fine. I was really worried when I heard PF mention some light rain in the lower elevations on Saturday, but it must have been pretty inconsequential because nobody is mentioning any ill effects.
We set out toward Lower Smuggler’s, hoping to find some “satisfying” turns like we found yesterday at Bolton. Lower Smuggler’s didn’t turn out to be that impressive; there was a lot of manmade snow on it that was rather firm, and not a lot of extra untracked snow off to the sides. With all the racing going below on Slalom Hill, we took the alpine slide tunnel and headed toward the meadows area to see how the natural snow in the upper meadows was skiing. We cut around the very top of the area in case it was crusty of coverage was poor, but once we cut back in we found that it didn’t matter – the snow was quite decent. Even though that area is south facing and very low elevation, there were a couple of inches of substantial powder over the base snow. The base was a little variable due to what seemed like wind and some previous melting, but the quality of the turns was impressive. At one point I believe I commented, “That wasn’t half bad… that wasn’t even a third bad!” There are still a few blades of tall grass sticking out here and there, but that’s really decent coverage for such a location with snowfall being substantially below average.
We had time for another run, so we took the Sunny Spruce again, and this time headed in the direction of Side Street. The skier’s left had some very nice snow, and when we passed the last exit from Lower Smuggler’s we saw that it looked great – it had several inches of powder on it, with just a few tracks. We added that to our hit list in case we got the chance to venture there later in the day. At that point it was obvious that there is some really good snow out there, and not just in the high elevations; when I probed snow depths in those middle elevations of Spruce Peak, I generally found 8 to 12 inches of loose powder before I hit a base layer. That’s great skiing for any time during the season. At the top of the Easy Street Double we cut over to the area above Meadows once again. The boys set down some more tracks in that powder, and were looking really good as they handled the variable snow that lay underneath.
When we got back it was time to start coaching. My partner for today was Mike, but as he was still working on getting his son Micah set up, I took all the kids out alone for an initial run. I had a good crew, with Luke, Jack, Alexia, Madeline, Ty, and Dylan. After what we’d seen on that last run, I knew the exact route to take; we headed toward Side Street, and traversed to catch that powder on the Lower Smuggler’s Exit. That snow was as good as it had looked. I then brought everyone into the powder above Meadows so that they could work on handling that uneven base, and they all did a pretty nice job.
We met up with Mike and headed over to the Gondola, finding that it was feeling especially wintery when we got up to the Gondola summit around 3,600’ or so. There was a bit of snow falling, some wind, and tons of snow on the ground; it was definitely a midwinter scene. Mike suggested that we hit the switchbacks along Gondolier, and as we headed down that way, I cut uphill from Upper Perry Merril to check out some of the snow on Upper Switchback – there was over a foot of powder up there over plenty of base, and if I hadn’t been coaching I suspect some off piste exploration would have yielded some really nice turns. The main issue keeping all off piste terrain from being accessible is just that snowpack is still somewhat low, so getting into the trees (especially steep stuff) isn’t quite there for all locations yet. With that said, Mike noted that yesterday he was out exploring the Goatdive woods and environs (on his super fatties and being very cautious) and had a good time. I’m not recommending this of course, since he’s very familiar with all those lines from hiking them in the off season, but things are certainly getting close for that type of terrain. The 26 inches of snowpack at the Mt. Mansfield Stake isn’t just 26 inches of fluff, there’s plenty of substance in there, and as Powderfreak and I talked about over in the American Weather Forum, that’s the snowpack depth where appropriate moderate-angle tree skiing gets going around here. We certainly weren’t planning to explore much off piste with the kids today anyway, but it was nice to find that there are some fantastic powder turns out there already. As we continued down below the upper mountain, we found that the lower sections of Switchback were OK, but for whatever reason they seem to be really icy in spots as I’ve often seen. One would think they’d get less traffic than Gondolier or Perry Merril, but something turns the snow bad in there – perhaps it’s the narrowness of the trail constraining traffic in a small area.
With another trip on the Gondola we decided to catch Cliff Trail so the kids could try out Stowe’s new Four Runner Quad. Cliff Trail, which far too frequently seems to be just an icy, concave mess with the way it is groomed and managed, was far better than usual – it was left bumped up! Neither Mike not I could remember the last time we’d seen it like that, but the conditions were so much better than what happens when they groom it. Perhaps it keeps people from skidding their way down the trail and turning it into an icy mess? Whatever the reason, the upper half that had been left bumped had far better conditions than I can remember from any recent outings. Farther down, Lower Nosedive was a return to annoying manmade snow… firm and not really that impressive.
We had a couple of runs off the quad, one down through to the Tyro area, and another in the North Slope area. There was some pretty nice snow near the top of the mountain, but neither trail was all that impressive with firm, Sunday afternoon, manmade snow conditions prevailing. I was surprised that Tyro was so firm, as it’s a little lower angle and out of the way, but for whatever reason it was pretty uninspiring. One trail that we didn’t ski was Liftline – but it looked pretty crazy with a lot of firm, snowmaking whales of all different configurations. On our final trip to the top it was really starting to get cold. We took a snack break inside the Octagon, but they were in the midst of closing so we headed out quickly and headed back to Spruce Peak. We managed to catch the s’mores session at the fire pit in the Spruce Peak Village, and the kids were happy about that, although we didn’t take any additional runs.
Upstairs in Spruce Camp, the Great Room Grill and Spruce Camp Bar were closing early today, so E and the boys and I decided to stop in at The Whip for food on the way home. We were still a little early for the full dinner menu, which starts at 5:30 P.M., but the kid’s menu was in effect and E and I had soup and salad like we’d been thinking about anyway. I think E and Claire had a very good first outing for the BJAMS ski program today, and with the big season’s pass distribution week behind us now, thing will hopefully continue on a good track when we next meet in a couple of weeks.
Overall there is already some impressive skiing and riding out there on the natural snow terrain at Stowe; I can see why people are coming from all over the place to visit, since it’s been a slow start to the season in many areas. There’s not much to complain about, and hopefully next week’s system will be another net gain to improve the skiing even more. Having skied at both Bolton Valley and Stowe this weekend, I can say that one good synoptic storm with an inch or so of liquid equivalent is going to produce a huge bump in open terrain – if it’s big enough both resorts could be close to 100% open. For Bolton, it may also depend on how prepared they are to get areas like Wilderness and Timberline going, but we’ll see what Mother Nature does and I’m sure they’ll take it from there.