I wasn’t first in line that morning at the FourRunner Quad, but I was pretty darn close. It was a classic New England powder day at Stowe Mountain Resort with about 18 inches of fresh snow piling up in the Green Mountains overnight, all coming after the lifts had closed the afternoon before. And the day before was pretty sweet, too, a storm day that — while challenging for visibility — persistently dropped a foot-and-a-half of snow all across rugged Mount Mansfield and blanketing the valley below, where picturesque Stowe village rests.
All remnants of the storm were now gone, and the line of people magically swelled as always happens on mornings like these when you find yourself in the right place at the right time — bluebird and untouched powder awaiting us all. The energy was palpable, anticipatory legs stomping down the cold and muffled snow beneath, uncontainable whoops and hollers echoing into the air, steam rising from random cups of coffee smuggled to the scene, smiles everywhere you turned.
And finally, a chorus of cheers when the lifties finally waved the first foursome forward.
Just a few lift towers from the Octagon Café (i.e. the top), my pole straps already looped around my gloved hands, a particularly early rising tele skier bombed down Liftline (one of the resort’s legendary “Front Four” trails), bounding perfectly powerful and graceful deep powder turns that drew yelps from all above, especially when he lost control and cartwheeled end over end, emerging with a face full of snow and a grin from ear to ear.
When someone mentions Stowe, and they often do in the ski circles within which I frequent, this perfect moment in time is the cover image forever imprinted in my memory. Yet, the story of this classic American resort that stretches over nine decades is chock full of historical firsts … and that tradition isn’t about to stop now.
In the 84 years since the first saw blades began clearing trails on Mount Mansfield, Vermont’s highest mountain at 4,395 feet, Stowe Mountain Resort has effectively responded to the desires of die-hards, to the community it would rely on for partnerships and support, and to all the visitors trekking to the resort town whether they cared to carve a single turn on Mount Mansfield or not.
Today, Stowe is an international destination replete with activities all four seasons, including skiing and snowboarding, Zip Tour and TreeTop Adventures, Stowe Rocks indoor rock climbing center, Gondola SkyRide, the historic Auto Toll Road, Summer Adventure Camp, shopping, dining and, of course, the historic villages of Stowe and Waterbury.
I’m pleased to have experienced Stowe in all four Green Mountain seasons, on skis, on bicycles, in hiking shoes and running shoes, in restaurants and in swimming holes. The classic New England resort town always delivers.
For me, it has always been about the skiing first. Today, the resort boasts 116 trails across 485 acres totaling 40 miles. Twelve lifts (including a highspeed summit gondola) work together to whisk as many as 15,000 passengers upward per hour, maxing out at 3,625-feet in elevation with the ability to descend 2,360 vertical feet in a single run. Most of this classic terrain is rated intermediate (55 percent), while beginners (16 percent) and experts (29 percent, not counting the plush secret woods stashes) will have plenty to challenge them and to keep them happy.
Out of depression, joy
It was 1933 when the Civilian Conservation Corps — a Depression-era jobs program — first cut ski trails on the eastern face of Mount Mansfield. The first trail cut was the Bruce Trail, followed in 1934 by the thrillingly steep visionary trail that captured everyone’s attention — Nose Dive.
Until the first rudimentary rope tows were installed in the late 1930s, “daredevil” skiers would test their resolve on Nose Dive by hiking to the summit and literally diving off of Mount Mansfield’s nose. It wasn’t for the faint of heart. These were among the pioneers that, once entrapped by the magic of Mount Mansfield and all that was possible here, popularized a little-known winter sport and inspired tremendous economic development around it. Also around this time in the early 1930s, the Mount Mansfield Ski Patrol was founded, the oldest ski patrol in the country and a precursor to the formation of the National Ski Patrol.
One of Stowe’s most influential pioneers arrived in 1936 from Austria, where he had been a member of the national ski team. Sepp Ruschp came to Mount Mansfield to serve as a ski instructor for the Mount Mansfield Ski Club and to coach skiing at various clubs and institutions throughout the valley. As the president and general manager of the Mount Mansfield Company, he organized the legendary Stowe Ski School and championed trail and lift expansion not just on Mansfield, but at Spruce Peak, where he saw tremendous potential for the guest experience due to its sunny exposure.
Another seminal moment in Stowe’s history was the 1946 installation of the first chairlift in Vermont, the Mount Mansfield Single Chair. At the time, it was the world’s longest and highest chairlift (6,330 linear feet rising 2,030 vertical feet) and it remained in service until 1986. At the time, the single chair resolved complaints from the aforementioned daredevils and racers who were required to hike to the top of Nose Dive in order to launch from the summit.
When the original Nose Dive was widened in 1966 in order to meet FIS downhill racing standards, the result beckoned intermediates to start joining in on all the fun. The trail had already hosted state, regional and national championship ski races, but widening it made the trail far more popular among the regular folks. In fact, it was designated as one the 10 top ski runs in the United States by Sports Illustrated magazine later that year.
In his 1966 article, “America’s Best Ski Runs,” SI’s Bob Ottum wrote about Nose Dive: “The Seven Turns have been eased into a continuous wriggle. You can snake through them … Upper Schuss still schusses, and Shambles Corner (at midpoint on the map) can still undo you — if you let it. When Ruschp unveiled the new Nose last year, some of the first racers dived it at 60 mph, and for the first time in ski history the old belly-breaker also was full of intermediates.”
As more and more people starting coming to Stowe to ski, the single chair’s capacity was maxed out. In fact, as Stowe lore has it, one guest in particular was so frustrated with the wait time that it ultimately led to his purchase of the resort. That guest was Cornelius Van der Starr, chairman of American International Group.
The majority of mountain development took place under AIG during its nearly 70 years of ownership, including the debut of Spruce Peak (1949-50), the arrival of snowmaking (1967-68), installation of the first gondola (1968), new base and summit lodges, Forerunner Quad to replace the single chair (and later replaced with a new FourRunner Quad), and a new Poma gondola to replace the original (1991-92).
By far, the most transformational mountain improvement during AIG ownership was the decade-long development of the Spruce Peak Village Center, a $400 million slopeside lodging and amenities construction project that broke ground in 2009. The Village Center includes the 300-room Stowe Mountain Lodge hotel, timeshares and condos, the Spruce Camp Base Lodge, an Adventure Center (new for 2017) that houses all childrens’ programs, a performing arts center and the Stowe Mountain Club. A village green serves as the setting for concerts in the summer and an ice skating rink in the winter. The green is encircled by upscale shops and a grocery.
The AIG era as related to mountain operations came to a close last year, when Colorado-based Vail Resorts purchased Stowe Mountain Resort for $41 million, making Stowe the company’s first resort on the East Coast. With the sale, Vail Resorts acquired all assets related to mountain operations — including lift ticket sales, the ski and snowboard school, lifts, snowmaking, food and beverage, and retail and rental services. Spruce Peak Realty and the Stowe Mountain Lodge were not included in the sale.
Beginning in the 2017-18 season, Stowe is now included on the Epic Pass and Epic Local Pass. The Epic Pass, at $859 for adults, offers unlimited, unrestricted access to Stowe as well as to 45 resorts in the Vail family, including Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone and Arapahoe Basin in Colorado; Whistler Blackcomb in Canada; Park City in Utah; Heavenly, Northstar and Kirkwood at Lake Tahoe; Perisher in Australia; Afton Alps in Minnesota; Mount Brighton in Michigan and Wilmot Mountain in Wisconsin.
More than Front Four
They are classic. Starr, Liftline, National and Goat. The Front Four at Stowe. These double-black ski trails epitomize classic New England ski runs — narrow, tight turns, double fall lines, rocks and stumps, natural snow and remarkable vistas. The Front Four have become a rite of passage for serious skiers, and while today’s equipment advances make them a bit more accessible than in decades past, they remain challenging in any condition.
But Stowe also offers some great intermediate cruisers. From the top of FourRunner and looking down, skier’s right, trails like Toll Road, Ridgeview, the Lord Loop and Lookout Loop are waiting. Upper Hayride and Centerline (blue-blacks), Sunrise and Lord are popular cruisers that also are accessible from the Lookout Double chair. And North Slope, T-Line and Gulch can be accessed from FourRunner, Lookout or, more directly, from the Mountain Triple.
To the west, the mountain’s “Chin,” are some of the most popular trails in the East, immediately accessible off the Gondola, which terminates at the Cliff House Restaurant, elevation 3,625 feet. Perry Merrill (upper and lower) winds from top to bottom and Gondolier is a sensational carving run directly beneath the gondola that features a consistent pitch and fall line, perfect for railing high-speed turns on skis and snowboards. Past the Gondola, out of bounds, is some of the East’s best and most easily accessed backcountry treeskiing.
Spruce Peak is geared toward beginner and intermediate skiers and riders. Lower Spruce — the area nearest the Spruce Base Area Complex — is a great place to learn, while Upper Spruce is the next step up.
Center for adventure
Besides the “epic” Vail Resorts purchase of Stowe in 2017, this season also marked the grand opening of the resort’s $30 million Stowe Mountain Adventure Center in the Spruce Peak base area, a facility that is redefining how resorts can cater to children and families. The Adventure Center serves as the hub and home for the Stowe Ski and Ride School, with beginner lifts just steps away from the building, and is home base for Stowe’s Cubs Child Care and the Summer Adventure Camp for kids ages 3-12. It also is the launching point for all the resort’s guided hikes and snowshoe treks, as well as for the ZipTour Adventure and TreeTop Adventure in summer.
The 108,000-square-foot center’s post-and-beam design complements the other large buildings that make up the Spruce Peak base complex, harkening back to those constructed in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps.
The building also includes an indoor climbing center called Stowe Rocks, which features three climbing areas. For the youngest climbers, there’s the Kid Zone Wall, where hand and footholds look more like oversized refrigerator magnets than rocky crags. For more experienced climbers, the 30-foot program wall is equipped with harnesses and ropes, as well as auto-belay systems. And experts invited to tackle the 40-foot-high replica of the Smugglers’ Notch rock formation, Elephant’s Head.
For parents who might not be interested in joining their children on one of the walls, the center’s new restaurant, The Canteen, offers food and drinks (including adult drinks), and the Adventure Outfitters retail shop is within the complex as well.
And speaking of shopping, the options are many for those looking to spend money, another Stowe tradition. The Stowe Shop in Spruce Plaza carries all Stowe-branded apparel and items. First Chair Alpine Co. features upscale brands like Bogner, Dale of Norway, Harricana, Kari Traa, We Norwegians, Ugg, Postcard, Pajar, Vuarnet, Hestra, Capranea and cashmere by Islefield and Erin Snow. This shop also carries a wide selection of original Vermont items, including jewelry and crafts, books, candles, scarves and more.
Both Spruce Peak Sports and Front Four Sports offer a wide selection of popular softgoods and hardgoods brands. And even when you’re out skiing or riding, accessories and logo wear is available at Midway Retail (located in the Midway Lodge) and Summit Retail Shop (located at the top of the gondola).