Posted December 5th, 2010
Photo by Sandy Macys for Sugarbush
Enter the words “church” and “Vermont” into a Google image search, and chances are you’ll bring up page after page of stereotypical, iconically beautiful white-steepled houses of worship, set against the forested, rolling mountains of the Green Mountains. But die-hard skiers looking for some of the best extreme skiing the East has to offer know a different kind of church—the church, located high over the shoulder of Castlerock Peak at the Sugarbush ski area. As you ride the Heavens Gate lift, you’ll see it to your right, perched between Lincoln and Castlerock peaks.
In this context, “the church” is a 30-or-so-foot cliff with a short apron of snow before you plummet into the trees. With enough skill—or enough stupidity— (YouTube clips provide ample evidence of both) you can huck The Church, and experience the kind of in-bounds extreme skiing normally reserved for bigger mountains out West or abroad.
There are other such areas on the mountain, though the Church is the only one that’s talked about in magazines, or that locals will openly discuss. It’s just one reason SKI magazine recently rated Sugarbush #1 in the East for terrain variety. That variety has certainly satisfied the likes of John Egan, the resort’s resident extreme skier emeritus.
The Resident Extremist
Egan came to the valley in 1976, and though he’s skied some of the biggest and baddest lines on imposing peaks all around the world, he’s chosen to call Sugarbush his home mountain. That speaks volumes. Chances are you’ve seen him in a Warren Miller flick, or a magazine, or a commercial. And on the slopes at Sugarbush.
He told me the story of a ski writer who came to town from Mammoth, CA The writer simply couldn’t understand how Sugarbush skiers claimed to be skiing “this radical stuff,” Egan explained. Then Egan’s 6-year-old son asked if he could huck off a 30-foot piece of frozen ice. The writer spun around in just enough time to see the young tike take to the air, then stomp the landing. “Then she got it,” Egan says.
There’s plenty of terrain to keep the likes of Egan satisfied. “The Paradise area off of Heaven’s Gate,” he explains, “there’s so much good skiing, all steep, with some drops, either on or next to the trails. The narrow trees we have are harder skiing than some of the narrow chutes you find out West. It takes a pretty calm, cool, collected person to fly through that stuff.”
Egan’s favorite line on the mountain? “Castlerock lift line,” he says without hesitation. It has cliff drops, and is spicy enough to keep the attention of any extreme skier. In fact, that’s a major factor for why the ski run hosts the Castlerock Extreme Challenge, which is part of the Ski the East Freeride Tour.
Slide Brook Basin
Then there’s the 2,000-acre expanse separating Lincoln Peak from Mount Ellen known as Slide Brook Basin. During summer, the broad swath of mountainous, forested wilderness is off-limits as critical wildlife habitat, especially for black bears. But during winter, when the bears are hibernating, the terrain opens up to adventurous skiers.
The resort, in a sense, considers the terrain neither open nor closed. You ride the North Lynx Triple to North Lynx Peak. Make a right off the chair, and watch for an open slot in the trees on your left. A traverse leads to glade run after glade run. Most fall away into the depths of Slide Brook. Each one is tempting, and it helps to have a Sugarbush guide who knows where to go and where to score the best snow. (Called a Slide Brook Outback Tour, they last 2.5 hours, run twice per day, and feature two guides per tour who specialize in Slide Brook.)
All routes pop out onto German Flats Road, where you can flag down the Mad Bus, a Mad River Valley shuttle, and catch a free ride back to the main Lincoln Peak base area. Unless you ski Slide Brook as I did, during “shoulder” season, when the shuttle wasn’t running. I ended up out onto the road and had to shoulder my skis on my pack and hoof it three miles in ski boots along the side of a paved road back to my start.
The Lincoln Limo
Lastly, there’s the Lincoln Limo, which is unique because it’s cat skiing. In the East. The cat comes from Ski Cooper in Colorado, and when skiers find it in the East, their first reaction is often one of “I can do that here?” Yes you can, and it comes in two flavors.
During the core ski season, Sugarbush uses the snowcat for first tracks powder skiing the morning after a big dump. Instead of spinning the lifts, you and a few of your closest friends (or perfect strangers, if you don’t have enough folks to fill the cat) get a private ride to the top of the mountain, from which you have your pick of lines and access to untracked powder before the mountain opens to the rest of the world. The powder cat ran about a dozen times last season, and roughly 20 the season before that.
Then there’s the second flavor—spring cat skiing on Mount Ellen after the mountain closes for the season. Imagine renting the cat for the day, and having the mountain literally to yourself—no lifts running, no one else skiing. It’s just you, up to 11 close friends, a barbeque lunch arranged by the resort at the base of the Upper FIS ski run, and a snowcat available to help you log more or less as much vertical as you can manage to squeeze into a day. Pretty sweet. Plus, at $1,800 for the day for the cat (which equates to $150 per person), it’ll cost you a fraction of what a similar experience might elsewhere.
Whether you’re looking for hard core extreme skiing, “extreme-light” with a touch of guiding, or a unique cat skiing experience with cushy service, Sugarbush delivers.
Peter Bronski (www.peterbronski.com) is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in more than 70 magazines, and a frequent contributor to Vermont Sports. He recently relocated from Colorado back to his native New York, and it excited to ski more of what the East has to offer.