Gladerunner

Dodging trees, not crowds, at Vermont's Jay Peak

Outside

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There's only one way to ride an ice-encrusted chairlift in the middle of a frigid winter gale: the fetal position.

So I tuck my nose in my collar and remind myself of the two perfectly sensible reasons for risking midair hypothermia on this particular day. First, I'm at Vermont's Jay Peak, home of the best lift-served tree-skiing in the country. Second, it's the first decent storm of the season on a mountain that gets an average of 332 inches of cold powder straight out of Alberta every year—more snow than many resorts in Colorado see. For those two reasons alone, I will shiver, I will bury my face in my gloves, I will endure. Three years of western skiing have made me a sissy; it's time to toughen up.

Teeth chattering like maracas, I leap from the chair, straighten my semi-frozen torso, and swing my arms and legs to push some blood into the more numb extremities. Suddenly I see four ponytailed telemarkers skating uphill. Nobody skates uphill at a ski area unless they're going somewhere special, so I file in behind them. Stealthily as Mohawk scouts, the free-heeled four dip under a rope and ski into the woods. What else can I do but follow?

This, after all, is woodland-skiing paradise. Sitting just seven miles from the Canadian border in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom, Jay Peak is blessed with 20 pristine glades ranging from moderately difficult terrain (Beaver Pond Glade, Buck Woods) to sphincter-clenching steeps (Valhalla, Vertigo)—2,153 feet of heavily wooded vertical in all. A silviculturist might look up the mountainside and see ordinary northeastern hardwoods, but New England's hard-core skiers and snowboarders know that the trees of Jay are like no others on earth: not so tight you can't ski the fall line, not so loose you forget you're in the timber. And thanks to a Herculean cleanup after 1998's infamous ice storm, the forest floor is clean, clean, clean, which means you can go fast, fast, fast.

And I realize, perhaps a little too late, that that's exactly what I'm doing now. While the storm rages on the trails, the snow falls softly among the trees, which enhance my depth perception and boost my confidence despite the whiteout conditions. The first few turns aren't really turns at all, but sheer drops off a series of four-foot-high steps. By the fourth step I'm going much too fast, blurring past balsam firs, sugar maples, birches, and telemarkers.

It almost makes me want to return to the fetal position. Then I remember the advice a better skier once gave me: "Don't look at the trees, look at the spaces between the trees. Ski to the exits." Logic and experience tell me my exits will run out, but here on Jay they don't. I float through the natural slalom course until my quads burn and a decidedly less Zen mantra enters my head: "Ski good or eat wood." Not relishing the thought of tapping sap from a sugar maple with my teeth, I cut hard to stop, lean on my poles, and suck arctic air into my lungs between laughing fits. So what if I can't feel my face on the next chairlift up? I'm going back into the woods for more. 

SNOW HOW:

Jay Peak Resort is completing a $3.6 million expansion project, including construction of the Northeast's longest high-speed quad chairlift, that should be running by opening day in mid- to late November. To help fund it, prices will jump by five bucks to $49. However, Jay accepts Canadian currency at par for lift tickets, so convert your cash and save 30 percent. For details on lodging and tickets call the resort at 802-988-2611; for guided backcountry tours ($45 per person) call the Jay Peak Ski School at 802-988-2611, ext. 8298.

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