Click on the “About” page on the website for Sugarbush Resort and the story begins in 2001, when Win Smith and three partners purchased the central Vermont resort. That’s understandable, since Smith and Summit Ventures are still the majority owners. But, with all due respect, the story of this legendary resort is much bigger than Smith or his partners, and it dates back well before 2001.
In fact, Sugarbush, and especially Glen Ellen, was one of the formative ski areas of my impressionable youth. I grew up in northeastern New Jersey, during the 1960s and early ’70s, and was hopelessly enamored with the glamour boys of ski racing — larger-than-life characters like Jean-Claude Killy, Billy Kidd and Toni Sailer. At the time, skiing held such unbridled promise.
Glen Ellen and Sugarloaf represented my first foray into “big time” alpine skiing. As kids, my siblings and I got to dabble in smaller hills in Jersey, like Great Gorge, and New York. Finally, Mom and Dad loaded us and all our gear into our cavernous Ford Country Squire and pointed it north toward Vermont. We were joined by our neighbors, Karen and Jim Agura, and their kids, Eddie and Vivian.
Mrs. and Mr. Agura were Austrian, which meant that, to us, they were the epitome of skiing know-how. They loved Vermont, and specifically the neighboring resorts of Glen Ellen and Sugarbush. That affection never waned, and never went unrequited.
Now, to be fair to Win Smith and Sugarbush, if you keep clicking through links on the resort’s website, you’ll find a “history” of Sugarbush. Then, you’ll understand that Sugarbush predates my own “come to Jesus” moment in the late ’60s.
First opened on Christmas Day, 1958, Sugarbush had all the elements of a classic New England ski hill, with veterans from the 10th Mountain Division like Jack Murphy and Ivy-educated financial types like Damon Gadd and Peter Estin driving the dream, and an Italian gondola whisking skiers to the top of Lincoln Peak. By 1960, Vogue magazine tabbed Sugarbush with its famous moniker, “Mascara Mountain.” The name perfectly reflected its appeal to members of New York’s high society, glitterati like designer Oleg Cassini, actors Kim Novack and Paul Newman, and the Camelot clan of the Kennedys. Legendary ski filmmaker Warren Miller put Sugarbush on the big screen in 1960 with “Swingin’ Skis,” the first of at least four Miller films to feature the resort. The dashing Olympic champion Stein Eriksen brought his European flare to the resort for several years in the early 1960s before high-tailing it to Deer Valley in Utah.
Meanwhile, Glen Ellen was launched by Walt Elliot five years later, in December of 1963, boasting the “greatest vertical descent in New England” with 28 trails, three chair lifts and a T-bar. By the time my family arrived at the start of the next decade, the area had grown to 32 trails, mostly intermediate and expert terrain. Though my memories from nearly a half century ago are a little shaky, I vividly remember the shaking in my 12-year-old legs that resulted from skiing the mountain top to bottom all day long with my siblings.
We stayed at a tiny little spot in Waitsfield called The Snuggery (previously known as Ulla Lodge — named after the nordic god of snow, Ullr — and today as the Hyde Away Inn), with the kids staying in a bunk-style dorm room. At night, the older kids — Eddie, my brothers Sean and Chris, and I — would sneak downstairs to the inn’s common area, or Zach’s Tavern, where my folks, the Aguras, and other adults were regaling one another with tales of the day, and days bygone. It was the epitome of what skiing should be, in my mind. Boisterous, rowdy and fun — laughing in the face of Old Man Winter.
In hindsight, these were truly halcyon days of the sport, and these two resorts. In 1977, Roy Cohen bought Sugarbush and added Glen Ellen two year later, renaming it Sugarbush North (which, frankly, I never liked). The resort changed hands several times before Les Otten brought Sugarbush under the American Ski Company umbrella in 1994, making major improvements that included the Slide Brook Express Quad (allowing skiers to cross between the two areas without relying on a shuttle).
Smith, a former Merrill Lynch executive, and the current ownership group took the reins in 1901 and immediately got to work putting together a master plan that would return Sugarbush to its glory days. Over the ensuing 17 years, the resort has invested almost $70 million in improvements on both mountains, with almost $7 million earmarked for snowmaking, with new snow guns and energy-efficient compressors, and more than $8 million on new lifts.
Smith also has overseen the development of an impressive slopeside hotel and private town homes, plus an upgraded base lodge and skier services buildings at Lincoln Peak. Mount Ellen, meanwhile, remains largely unchanged. There’s a certain magic, and a distinct charm, in that discrepancy.
Much to my disbelief, given my Peter Pan complex, Sugarbush celebrates its 60th anniversary this winter. Though the resort is entering its seventh decade, it’s not slowing down one iota, nor is it applying for AARP status. Ask longtime Sugarbush enthusiasts and it’s clear that the resort’s sublime mix of storied history and stellar amenities still has a strong pull.
“Sugarbush is my home mountain, and from the beginning it has felt like home,” said Che Elwell, who lives on Boston’s North Shore. “It’s a place where I can confidently head out skiing and run into friends within the first few runs. There is a great balance between a large ski area with the feel of a local mountain.”
Likewise, Boston’s Bruce Chafee, who has been skiing at Sugarbush for the past 19 years, said the resort stands out in part because of the “connection between skiers and management.”
“It’s hard to quantify, and maybe because some of my Valley friends have friends in high places, but it feels as though Win (Smith) is one of us, and makes the mountain fit us,” said Chafee.
What makes Sugarbush such a great fit? The reasons are myriad. For me, it’s the remarkable variety of terrain, and the distinct sense of character that each mountain has retained. According to Chafee, it’s a combination of “friends who also ski there, the Valley’s town character, the restaurants, the people.”
“The lifts and lodges at Sugarbush are nice,” he said. “The amenities aren’t over-done, like the fireplace at Mount Ellen. You’ll find real skiers, from John Egan and pros on down to kids ripping. The ‘mascara’ seems to have faded.”
Anne McGrath, a native of France and current resident of Holliston, Mass., has been skiing at Sugarbush since Smith took ownership, and she credits his hands-on approach for making sure the resort mirrors what the customers want.
“What sets Sugarbush apart from the crowd is that it is privately owned, and not part of a big corporation,” said McGrath. “You can bump into Win Smith on the chair lift or on the slopes every single day and give him your feedback. And he listens to every single detail, from the lock on the bathroom to the grooming of the slopes.”
Of course, in this day and age of analytics, some folks will want to know the numbers. So here’s the tale of the tape regarding Sugarbush. The resort features six “peaks” — Mount Ellen, Lincoln, Castlerock, North Lynx, Gadd and Inverness — covering roughly 4,000 total acres, with 111 trails totaling 53 miles across 581 skiable acres, 97 acres of wooded runs and three terrain parks. The breakdown across ability levels looks like this: 26 beginner trails (almost 19 percent), 47 intermediate trails (34 percent), 30 advanced trails (21.6 percent) and eight expert trails (5.8 percent). Adding the 28 wooded areas brings the total to 100 percent.
The average snowfall of more than 250 inches, combined with a dedicated snowmaking and grooming crew, allows Sugarbush to boast fairly predictable conditions. The proof is in the number of season-pass holders that line up every spring.
Mount Ellen is the highest peak, at 4,081 feet, with a 2,600-foot vertical drop. It is still the intermediate/advanced wonderland that I remember from my youth, with that same nostalgic vibe at the base lodge. Sure, it may have less natural snow than Mother Nature once graced us with, but modern snowmaking and grooming helps balance the ledger. Classic runs include scintillating black diamonds like Exterminator, Looking Good (naturally, located right under the Summit Quad), Hammerhead and Bravo, and entertaining blues like Elbow (originally known as Devil’s Elbow) and Rim Run, plus glade sections like Moose Run Woods. Next door, Inverness is the dedicated area of the Green Mountain Valley School, with steep, fast runs that require confident edges.
“I usually avoid skiing on Saturday at Lincoln Peak, as it is way too crowded,” said McGrath. “But you can escape the crowd by going to Mount Ellen, where you can find phenomenal snowmaking since the new snow guns were put in place a couple of years ago. It has great natural terrain, with no lift lines as well as awesome groomers.”
Elwell agreed, saying: “While there are great skiers everywhere at Sugarbush, at Mount Ellen you can often ski amongst past and future world-class competitive skiers.”
However, for families with young children (especially those who are still at the early stages of skiing’s learning curve), Lincoln Peak is your best bet. A quick glance of TripAdvisor reviews suggests the resort could do a better job educating visitors about the lack of beginner terrain elsewhere. That’s not a problem at Lincoln Peak.
The original Sugarbush summit, Lincoln Peak is just a shade shorter than Glen Ellen at 3,975 feet elevation, with a 2,400-foot vertical drop. Combined with Gadd Peak (3,150 feet) and North Lynx (3,300 feet), Lincoln makes up Sugarbush’s primary terrain, with all runs flowing into Lincoln Peak Village. You’ll find extensive novice terrain, but plenty of top-end routes as well.
“Jester is a beautiful, winding, ridgeline run that has four or five tight cutkingpine back turns that, if you want to set your edges, make for amazing race-feel runs,” said Elwell. “If it isn’t crowded, doing a ‘Jester cross’ is a great way to finish out a day. You also have Ripcord and Organgrinder, two steep fall-line trails, and in between them you have Spillsville, an ungroomed, natural-snow bump run.
“Best of all, this area of the mountain has Paradise and Paradise Woods,” he said. “Paradise defies description. It has it all, from wide bumps to tight turns, a few overhead high drop opportunities. And then you can break left into Paradise Woods, which gradually becomes less trail and more woods.”
The commitment of Smith’s team to the overall ski experience also resulted in two Lincoln Peak standard-bearers. The Schoolhouse is home base for all children’s day programs, and The Farmhouse hosts Sugarbush’s acclaimed Ski & Ride School, which includes the first-timer-to-life-timer program, private and group lessons, back-country tours and bumps clinics.
“My daughter has gone through the ski school, the seasonal programs and GMVS Ski Club over the past 12 years,” said Elwell. “She has excelled as a skier, and had some amazing coaches. I do think honestly that the Sugarbush seasonal programs are great, but are a bit expensive.”
Castlerock, at 3,812 feet with a 2,237-foot vertical, holds a special place in the hearts of skiers who like to mix white knuckles with their downhill lines.
“Castlerock is, of course, a unique and fantastic ski area,” said Elwell. “No grooming, and only two people getting off the lift every 15 seconds once you get to the top. So you have your choice of oldschool fall-line trails like Liftline, or my favorite, Rumble, a winding, tight, tree-lined trail with natural obstacles throughout.”
A favorite of local snowshoers, the 2,000-acre Slide Brook Basin is Johnny Egan’s playground, a backcountry Shangri-La that is chock full of indigenous wildlife and unparalleled skiing. Egan, the legendary extreme skier and Sugarbush’s chief recreation officer, not to mention a participant in numerous Miller films, hosts full- and half-day sessions here (though other Ski & Ride guides are available).
“We have a group that meets every Saturday called the Bush Pilots,” said Egan, who, like Sugarbush, is celebrating his 60th birthday this year. “There’s 30 in that group, men and women. And it’s hardcharging, 10-2, every Saturday, no breaks.”
Of course, no review of Sugarbush would be complete without a mention of the resort’s Cabin Cat Adventures. First Tracks is an exceptional experience, delivering you to the untouched, early morning trails of Lincoln Peak on powder days (reservations required). The cats also are used for the early evening, hour-long trips to the summit of Lincoln Peak called Sunset Groomer Rides, and an elegant, multi-course culinary experience, Fireside Dining at Allyn’s Lodge (“Special and cozy,” said Chafee). Come April, the cats are employed for private spring skiing at Mount Ellen. Talk about having the mountain to yourself.
But, as Elwell and others are quick to point out, Sugarbush also has embraced early risers who don’t mind earning their turns.
“Sugarbush, like many other ski areas, has instituted more liberal uphill access rules, so skinning up in the morning to earn that first set of turns is another great experience,” said Elwell. “That allows you to get a great cardio workout, enjoy the calmness of the early morning and get first tracks, hopefully on fresh snow. However, even first tracks on fresh corduroy is pretty awesome.”
The nightlife at Sugarbush, and the surrounding communities, is still a bit underwhelming, but locals don’t seem to mind. The Green Mountain Lodge at Mount Ellen, the Wunderbar at Lincoln Peak and Castlerock Pub are still big hits, with a vibe all their own. The French bistro Chez Henri, first unveiled by skiing chef Henri Borel in 1964, is still a special treat. You’re also likely to find a crowd in town at local joints like the Mad River Barn and the Hyde Away Inn (yes, the old Snuggery). Just remember, it’s the people who make the party in the Mad River Valley. And Sugarbush attracts the right people.
Just as it did 60 years ago.