New England's most extreme rides push limits on bragging rights
by Brion O'Connor/
This article originally appeared in the February issue of New England Ski Journal.
Next to fishermen, and maybe the NFL’s bad-boy twins Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens, skiers spin the tallest tales around. And why not?
The sport, from its humble beginnings, has been a nonstop exercise in “can you top this?” Think of the wild ski films by Warren Miller, Greg Stump and Teton Gravity Research.
How much fun is it to get together with a few like-minded powderhounds and watch guys and gals hucking big air and ripping crazy lines? Haven’t we all dreamed, if only for a moment, of being a Glen Plake, a Michael Hattrup or a Scot Schmidt (OK, I admit, I’m a Stump disciple)? Think how much mileage Austrian Toni Matt got after his over-the-top schuss over Tuckerman’s Headwall back in 1939. That one gutsy run gave the fearless Matt bragging rights to last a lifetime.
As far as your own bragging rights, how about those good-natured, trash-talking sessions at the pub, knocking back a few après ski suds? Admit it. You love bantering with your buddies, constantly setting the bar higher. Heck, it’s one of the reasons that some of the best runs at ski areas are found right under the lifts. It’s a classic winter double whammy. Think you got what it takes? Well, give it a go, and don’t mind the spectators!
With all due respect to the big, burly mountains out West, the Northeast has its fair share of double black runs that will tighten the sphincters of even the best skiers and boarders. Add fickle New England weather, the ultimate wild card that can transform a marginal run into a sheet of bone-chattering
boilerplate, and a whole bunch of freshly cut glades, and New England offers enough outrageous terrain to satisfy most “extreme” appetites.
Two of my all-time favorite burly runs — Tuckerman Ravine in New Hampshire and the Thunderbolt Ski Trail in western Massachusetts — require a good hike to access.
Tuckerman, on the eastern shoulder of Mount Washington, needs no introduction. The Thunderbolt Ski Trail, named after the famous Revere Beach roller coaster, was carved into the side of Mount Greylock in 1934, and was one of the country’s most famous racecourses in the 1930s and ’40s. It drops more than 1,800 vertical feet in 1.6 miles, beginning just below the 3,491-foot summit of Mount Greylock, and ends at Thiel Farm in Adams. The Thunderbolt. It was described in awestruck terms in a 1939 guidebook to Eastern skiing as “one of the steepest and most difficult expert trails in the East.”
“This is a classic, and they started running the race there again last year,” Connecticut’s Jeff Hogan says. “It just might be the steepest, turniest trail in New England.”
For more off-piste exploits, check out David Goodman’s superb guidebooks, “Backcountry Skiing Adventures,” offered in Vermont & New York, and Maine & New Hampshire editions. On the lift-serviced side, New England resorts have plenty of grueling terrain, and there’s pretty lively debate over which is the most difficult.
To avoid any personal bias, I rounded up a number of expert skiers and expert ski writers, just like I might do for a fun ski weekend, to get their opinions on New England’s gnarliest runs. The results of this thoroughly unscientific survey follow. We’re not saying which is the “best,” but we’re pretty sure that any of these will get your adrenaline pumping.
Back in my feral youth, when my knees and lower back were held together by elastic, I might hit these with only slight hesitation and a healthy dose of reverence. Today, well into my second half-century, it takes a lot more for me to screw up my courage to even consider these runs, much less drop in. I make sure I strap on my Smith skid-lid, tighten the collar around my Arc’teryx jacket, get a decent warmup, and take a deep, deep breath. And maybe say a quick prayer before pushing off.
Just remember: Pain is temporary, but pride and bragging rights last forever.
Despite Saddleback’s welcomed revival, the top guns in Vacationland ski circles are still Sugarloaf and Sunday River, and that goes for the category of demanding ski runs as well.
“I’d propose Upper Bubblecuffer at Sugarloaf,” says free-heeler Paul Erhard of Massachusetts. “Starting from the snow fields, you have above-treeline skiing that drops steeply into a narrow, winding, old-school trail with crossing fall lines that provide a new look no matter how many times you ski it.”
The compressed discs in my lower back won’t disagree, but they also insist upon adding Upper Gondola Line, Upper Boomaguer, Wedge and Misery Whip to Erhard’s favorite. Massachusetts’s Matt Plum, meanwhile, casts his vote for the wooded wonderland of Can’t Dog Glade on Sugarloaf’s eastern border, off the King Pine Quad, alongside the double-black Ripsaw.
At Sunday River, White Heat has been wowing freestylers for decades, starting with Wayne Wong right through the current crop of mogul meisters.
“White Heat is the trail if you like bumps as big as Volkswagens and a lift line audience,” says my brother, Michael O’Connor, who now rips his lines in Snowmass, Colo. At the very least, I need to add Shock Wave on White Cap, Vortex on Aurora Peak, and Caramba on Jordan Peak as honorable-mention candidates
Thunderbolt isn’t the only tough trail in the commonwealth.
Berkshire East near Pittsfield, in western Massachusetts, boasts a 1,200-foot vertical from its 1,840-foot peak. First opened a half-century ago as Thunder Mountain, Berkshire East can certainly bring the noise. Simply put, it’s all about the pitch. The Summit Triple Express services the best of Berkshire East, a series of steep double-black (Tomahawk and Beast) and black-diamond runs (Flying Cloud, Lift Line, Jug and Upper Competition) that will energize your fast-twitch muscles.
“The Beast Glades at Berkshire East are incredibly tight and steep, some of the toughest glades around,” says Jeremy Davis, founder of the New England Lost Ski Area Project (nelsap.org).
Because most conversations about “extreme skiing” in New England begin and end with Tuckerman Ravine, you’ve got to give New Hampshire full props.
Another beauty, though, can be seen just to the east. Backcountry aficionado Krisztina Holly admits she didn’t spend much time in bounds while living in the Northeast, but she has high praise for exposed runs under the old gondola line at Wildcat in Pinkham Notch such as Top Cat and Lift Lion. Those trails, Holly says, “have the benefit of crazy weather at times to add to gnarliness.”
Exposure is a major reason why you’ll find Cannon’s Front Four — Avalanche, Paulie’s Folly, Zoomer and Rocket — plus a few others at this famed Franconia ski area near the top of many visitor’s lists of fiendish trails.
“Coming off the tram can be like you are walking on the moon or some uninhabitable place with the wind howling,” says Jim Reynolds of Massachusetts. “The run over from Taft Race Course to Upper Hardscrabble and Cannonball under the upper chair can be life-threatening in the right kind of ‘freeze your face off’ scratchy conditions.”
“Upper and Lower Hardscrabble at Cannon are tight, twisty, un-groomed,” O’Connor says. “Most of the time, there was a frozen stream running across the trail where you could see rocks and dirt through two feet of clear blue ice while making a necessary left-hand turn. I always remember hoping there was snow on the other side so I could catch an edge and make the turn before slamming into the trees.”
Guidebook author and avowed powderhound Lafe Low admits to having a soft spot for Cannon’s Tramline off the 4,060-foot summit.
“It’s rarely open, but when it is, it is some narrow, steep, rock-strewn skiing,” Low says. “And you have the tram audience critiquing your run.”
Of course, adjacent Mittersill has been an off-piste playground for the past quarter-century, and should continue to offer up some terrific terrain now that a new double chair is up and running.
Saving the best for last, Vermont was the clear winner in our informal poll (after Tuckerman). When you think “gnarly” in the Green Mountain State, you’ve got to think Mad River Glen. This old-school hill outside Waitfield provides plenty of old-school thrills and chills. Frequent visitor Che Elwell of Massachusetts is partial to Liftline, a “tight, straightline run that’s never groomed.”
“It’s under the single chair, so in full sight of some of the best skiers around,” says Elwell, not the least bit self-conscious. “Oh, and can you say, ‘Waterfall drop’?”
“Mad River Glen has the best stuff, but I would propose Paradise over Liftline,” Erhard says. “It doesn’t have the critical crowd factor, but the trees, double waterfall, steeper fall line, rock drops and the knowledge that you could make or end your skiing history with every run makes this a top choice. On the right day, it truly is paradise.”
Low agrees. “Paradise at Mad River Glen is an absolutely amazing run: steeps, trees, huge bumps, waterfall jumps — one really big one,” he says. “You really don’t want to fall here.”
Nearby, at Sugarbush, Castlerock Peak got rave reviews. Site of the annual Castlerock Extreme Challenge (March 5 this year), Castlerock is also home to Rumble, which Elwell describes as “an old-school ungroomed, tight, winding run with a nasty boulder drop immediately followed by a 90-degree right-hand turn.”
Exterminator off adjacent Mount Ellen isn’t too shabby either.
Of course, no list of rambunctious runs would be complete without Stowe.
“Goat and Starr at Stowe are two of the gnarliest,” says Carolyn Beckedorff, the 2010 U.S. masters national racing champ. “Starr because of its shear steepness at the top, and Goat because of how narrow and steep it is. Both runs are famous for their giant moguls and, unfortunately, also some legendary New England ‘hardpack.’”
“The legendary Front Four at Stowe have always taught the brazen the meaning of respect,” outdoor author Steve Jermanok says. “All double diamonds, Starr has a 37-degree pitch, while Lift Line and Goat are serpentine trails where you have to turn on a dime. But it’s National that instills panic in most skiers as they look over the lip and quiver, ‘I think I’m gonna try something else.’ Smart idea.”
To the south of Stowe and Sugarbush, the Beast of the East is always willing to stand up and be counted when it comes to challenging terrain. Killington’s Anarchy Glades “are tight, steep and full of terrific surprises,” Erhard says. Outer Limits and Vertigo, like White Heat at Sunday River, are among the reigning mogul runs on the East Coast.
Just west, at Pico, outdoor columnist Carey Kish cherishes the double black diamond Upper Giant Killer.
“The trail map makes it look like a regular trail, but it ain’t,” Kish says. “Accessed by the Summit Express Quad, I’ve witnessed many skiers track excitedly through the trees to the opening, peer down and say, ‘No way!’ Yep, it’s crazy steep, narrow and usually rife with rocks, stumps and ledge drops. Perfect! No place for the faint of heart. Bump and grind your way down this beauty, and then run it out down the mountain on the blue cruisers for about 2,000 feet of very fine vertical fun.”
Close to the Massachusetts border, Mount Snow serves up the Jaws of Death, a fave of ex-pat Jules Older, former editor of SkiPress USA. Actually, the run is now known simply as “Jaws,” no doubt at the insistence of the resort’s legal eagles. Though sometimes overshadowed by Ripcord, Jaws has great history. It first opened in 1958 and was a marquee black diamond through the 1970s. Still is, in my book.
To the north is another standard-bearer in Jay Peak, and a surprise entry.
“Smugglers’ Notch, because of its family reputation, is often overlooked,” says Vermonter Peter Oliver, former East Coast editor for Skiing magazine. “All the upper Madonna stuff — Freefall, Robin’s, Liftline, Black Hole — is nasty.”
Having been there, and survived, I’m not going to argue. Not one bit.
Closer to the Northeast Kingdom, underneath the Jay Cloud, Jay Peak is New England’s unrivaled King of Snow, and it has the terrain to match. You have to love the fact that Jay’s trail map doesn’t even have “double” black diamonds. It’s just a single black diamond; buyer beware. Plum is partial to the mid-mountain Everglades that fall from Goat Run, while others set their sights on the upper mountain.
“The Face Chutes at Jay Peak have to be some of the best sustained, steep terrain so close to a lift,” Erhard says.
“Just riding up the tram, you wouldn’t think people could or should ski right under the tram at the top, and you’re right — but they do,” Low says. “This is one of the very few places that gives me that same feeling as skiing Tuckerman Ravine — if you fall, you’re screwed.”
But you’ll have the best tales to tell après ski, provided you’re not recuperating at the First Aid station.
Brion O’Connor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org