It’s lunchtime, and my wife and two sons have finally found a spot, nestled on the floor in an upper corner of the K-1 Lodge.
Just outside, there’s a similar, hefty crowd of people, some of the estimated 18,500 that came on this day to Killington Mountain Resort in order to witness the Killington Cup, the wildly-successful entry on the women’s race circuit that has single-handedly returned the East Coast to World Cup viability.
We had all just watched as World Cup champ Mikaela Shiffrin finished in fifth place in her first of two giant slalom runs, all amidst a decidedly supportive crowd for the product of Burke Mountain Academy. Shiffrin would finish just off the podium in fourth place, one day before the slalom race, an event that the 24-year-old handles with ease, no matter the location.
But here in Vermont, where the Vail native honed the skills that have helped lead to three overall World Cup titles, the reception is more raucous than anywhere else. Shiffrin’s history in the Green Mountain State, not to mention her prowess on the slopes, has created three straight years of the Killington Cup becoming an annual must-attend event in the Northeast. The event brings a sampling of the sort of World Cup experience that had been lacking for decades in New England, long seen as a lame stepchild to what the mountains in the western U.S. could offer professional ski racing.
Yet the Killington Cup proved there was an appetite here, with the overwhelming popularity of Shiffrin serving as the primary catalyst.
The 2018 event would bring 39,000 spectators to the base of Superstar over the course of the tail end of Thanksgiving weekend. It also forced some visitors to eat their chicken fingers on the floor with so much space having already been occupied in the aging K-1 Lodge.
By next season though, that coveted floor space will be gone, part of Killington’s latest redevelopment plan that promises to completely transform the K-1 experience, moving Killington into the future at a time when its popularity has ferociously spiked, particularly during this annual November weekend.
The Beast of the East is growing bigger, getting better. Then again, what else is new?
As I’m sure you might recall, the beginning of the 2018-19 skiing and riding season in New England was like stepping into a midseason fantasy. Healthy amounts of November snow, combined with prime snowmaking conditions, created surfaces better expected in late January, never mind in the wake of pumpkin pie hangovers with a handful of leaves still clinging to their vines. A week before Thanksgiving, Vermont ski areas already were reporting base depths of anywhere from 20-56 inches.
By this point, Killington already has been open for more than a month, kicking off its public season on Oct. 20, when “snowliage” became the term for the chance to ski amidst the fading kaleidoscope of color in the Vermont mountains. That was three weeks ahead of the schedule the resort saw in 2018. If you think the word “epic” is tossed around a little too much for its own sake in skiing and riding circles, even you had to agree that the conditions to begin last season were … well, you know.
So, as far as first days of the season can be concerned, my sons, 11 and 8, couldn’t have been thrust into a more perfect scenario. After dropping my 5-year-old daughter off for her full-day lesson, the three of us made our way to the Snowdon Triple, where the alluring scent of the Waffle House immediately captured the senses of my sons. Somehow getting them to wait at least a run or two, we made our way up for first turns of the season, shooting down blue squares such as Bunny Buster and Chute to begin things on a genteel note.
While I’ve been a frequent veteran at Killington for some 20-plus years, this was the first time my kids had gotten to experience The Beast. So, on that note, considering the hectic hubbub that populated the resort, it was sort of difficult to relay to them some of my favorite experiences there. Superstar, after all, was closed to the public so it could host the World Cup races, allowing me to only point the legendary trail out from the base, relaying that it’s the site of the longest season in the East, only months from now to feature the wafting scents of sunscreen and BBQ to accompany the deep, mashed potato moguls that will last into June. Despite the healthy amount of snow, it’s not quite tree season yet, which means I can’t show off the glades off Vagabond (Tin Man, Scarecrow), where I experienced some of the deepest snow I’ve ever come across on the East Coast following the legendary Valentine’s Day storm in 2007.
Killington checks off its share of boxes when it comes to considering it among the best destinations in the East. The nightlife scene all along Killington Mountain Road is well-documented, but in terms of terrain, learning facilities, ease of access, capable lift service, and that all-important vibe, Killington is one of Vermont’s most popular destinations for a reason. Despite the bigness that the resort prides itself upon, there’s a general sense of intimacy at the mountain as well, a comfort in not getting swallowed up by The Beast, but instead reveling in its wide embrace.
It’s also the kind of populated place that can’t allow itself to age gracefully. Killington is near the top of the list when it comes to attracting the metro crowd from both Boston and Manhattan, which means service and comfort need to always be at the forefront. And when you pack almost 40,000 racing fans at the base of the mountain over the course of one weekend, even The Beast is going to feel the pinch.
Which brings us back to the chicken fingers on the floor.
Killington broke ground on its latest, dramatic improvement in July, a replacement for the K-1 base lodge. The new lodge will be 58,000 square feet, which is slated to be some 21,000 square feet larger than the current lodge. It is set to open for the 2020-21 winter season in time for the 2020 Audi FIS World Cup. A new four-person, fixed-grip chairlift is set to makes its own debut this winter, replacing the old North Ridge Triple.
“This is a significant step in fulfilling our vision to transform the way guests experience and enjoy Killington for years to come,” Mike Solimano, president and general manager of Killington, said.
They also are the latest improvements in what has been a three-year stretch of home improvement for Killington, which has seen the addition of Woodward Peace Park, the new Snowdon Six Express bubble lift, the return of South Ridge lift service, and three tunnels that do a magnificent job in improving flow at busy trail intersections.
As for the lodge, the three-story design will be more than 50 percent larger than the existing lodge and will include a full-service bar, a food court, a coffee bar, and ceiling-to-floor windows with unobstructed 180-degree views of the Green Mountains. Of the most welcome aspects of the plans — seating will be increased from 650 to 975, and the lodge promises to have an open floor plan, something that is often a missing component at the current lodge, known for its frequent bottlenecking.
Killington designed the new base lodge with regard to what it had accomplished high above, where the Peak Lodge has become a desirable destination atop the K-1 gondola. These aspects include mixed seating arrangements, a grandiose fireplace, and an upscale food court set to offer fresh, farm-to-table cuisine. This new lodge can double as a multipurpose space, hosting conferences, weddings, groups, events and more. Skier services will include rentals and tune shop, lift ticket sales, retail store, changing rooms — including a mother’s nursing room — bag storage and additional restrooms on all three floors.
The new North Ridge chair will improve access to some of Killington’s best intermediate terrain, which also happens to be the first areas of the mountain to open each winter season. On that note, the “longest season in the East” didn’t necessarily get extended, but the quality of access to the terrain in the early portion of the year should provide the resort with a little more backing behind its accurate claim.
It’s also staking its claim in long-term viability. Over the last two years alone, parent company Powdr has spent more than $60 million in improvements. Particularly with Vail adding to its Epic Northeast stable with the offseason acquisitions of Attitash, Wildcat and Mount Snow (adding to New England properties Stowe, Okemo and Mount Sunapee), the need to make the Beast’s Ikon footprint even firmer on the landscape required deep investment.
Getting bigger and getting better have long been philosophies for Killington since its inception. This time, though, the resort has upped the ante both in terms of the scope of the project as well as the cost.
But it’s all done with thoughts of feeding The Beast for decades to come.
My Mountain Road experiences have shifted somewhat, from the long evenings spent as an early adult at a variety of watering holes up and down the hill, to being among the first people sat on a Saturday evening at the Lookout Tavern. The Killington fave is set to fill up rather quickly, but with dusk just beyond us, and three hungry young skiers, famished from the day’s work, seeing the Wilburs as the early bird special sort during ski season isn’t necessarily anything out of the ordinary.
Killington has clicked with all three of the kids, an immediate attachment that isn’t always a slam-dunk during their first foray at any resort. They’re fascinated about the prospect of returning to the area in April, May, even June, experiencing the joy that is late-season skiing with a host of dedicated faces joining them. Some of my favorite ski memories are at Killington, particularly when the sun is shining, the bumps are soft, and the weather hints of a change on the horizon, but not before leaving you with the best parting gifts of all.
But every season also has a beginning. And on this first day of the season, we finished out our afternoon by picking up my daughter from her ski lesson, tipping her instructor, and then began the sometimes-laborious task of getting a tired 5-year-old out of all her equipment. But this time, as I loosened the boots to take them off, she gave me a look.
Why was I taking them off? We weren’t done.
So, we, along with her brothers, took a couple runs up the carpet at Snowshed, the first time I’ve had the pleasure of skiing with all three of my children at the same time. By February she was joining the three of us on chairlifts throughout the region, but that first run down an ever-so-slightly-pitched slope, was perhaps most enjoyable.
Not that I needed the nudge, but I guess you could say The Beast clicked with me, too, that weekend. Again.