The French have a term for climbs in bike races that are so insanely steep and difficult they can’t be rated—hors categorie. No such designation exists for skiing and riding trails, but if it did, these, selected as the gnarliest of the gnar, would also defy categorization.
Forget the diamonds. Double black, triple black. It’s really just semantics when you’re talking about the toughest trails in the East.
These runs are guaranteed to induce first-turn stress that will have you talking to yourself (out loud); tightening your core, like it’s about to be a punching bag (it is); and maybe invoking guidance from your spiritual leader.
With names as enticing as their terrain—Misery Whip, Paradise, Rumble, and Black Hole, to name a few—any rider or skier who thinks he or she is hot shit ought to have these on a bucket list. These 10 trails, all of them in-bounds and lift-served, are as good, or bad, as it gets. As extreme skiing pioneer and coach Dan Egan put it: “These trails ski you, not the other way around.”
Most are narrow, natural snow only, ungroomed, and require full commitment:
There’s no bailout route.
Go big or go home.
Corduroy lovers need not apply.
Once you’re in, you’re in.
The narrowness means no shopping for turns.
The steepness means a fall and it’s game over as you careen downhill like a rag doll praying not to snag a rock or tree along the way.
“What makes these trails so hard in the East is, one, the way they cut them,” Egan says. “There’s very few options to ski them once you are in there. There’s very few lines. You have to conform your skiing to the trail. That’s a hard thing for skiers to do. That really separates skiers when you have to separate your skiing from what the terrain tells you to do.”
Egan rates Rumble at Sugarbush Resort and Goat at Stowe Mountain Resort high on the list of tough trails. They are classic old-school Eastern trails—narrow, winding, and unforgiving.
At Sugarbush’s next-door neighbor, Mad River Glen, Paradise is the stuff of legend. Like Rumble and Goat, Paradise’s challenge is multidimensional.
Terry Barbour, MRG Ski School director, is one of the few people on the planet who makes Paradise look skiable. “To ski Paradise,” he says, “you need to be able to ski a combination of steep, ungroomed terrain with drop-offs, cliff bands and frozen waterfalls, trees, rock outcroppings, ice, powder, packed powder, and bumps. There are so many line choices on Paradise that you could ski it a thousand times and still see more options.”
Up north at Jay Peak, the resort’s spin doctor, JJ Toland, took a scientific approach to determining the mountain’s toughest trail. Like any good marketer would do, he assembled a focus group, gathering patrollers and locals, and plied them with beer. The jury hung over Face Chutes and Staircase Glade. But after a tie-breaking chugging contest, Staircase Glade won, Toland reports.
“And here’s why: It’s a capillary-width glade run that threads you over and around some of the oldest and tallest evergreens in Vermont. Its western orientation means it acts as a snow-catch, so that days after a storm has past, the Staircase still offers powder shots, despite its 50-degree pitch,” Toland says, adding, “People often think the sign is misplaced, for when they peer over the edge and into the darkness of the glade, it’s unfathomable to most how anything so steep and tight could be skied.”
Ready for the challenge?
Here are the 10 gnarliest trails in the East. Fine print: All are in-bounds, lift-served, marked trails.
Paradise, Mad River Glen
Argument can be made, fairly convincingly, that this is the No. 1 gnarly trail in the East. Cliff bands, frozen waterfalls, trees, rock outcroppings, ice, powder, packed powder, bumps. Paradise is one-stop shopping for just about every gnarly condition a mountain can throw at you—in one run.
Sustained pitch is 40 degrees with some near vertical sections to keep you on your toes.
Ride MRG’s iconic single chair to find Paradise. You’ll be glad it’s not a high- speed chair—your quads will need all the rest they can get.
Goat is an old-school classic and part of Stowe’s famed front four. You’ll find 36 degrees of moguls on a narrow, winding trail over ledges, boulders, and streams. Goat’s double fall line would throw even the most sure-footed mountain goat for a loop, according to Stowe’s PR guy Jeff Wise. And the 2,150-foot trail guarantees thigh burn well before you reach the end. Astrologists say Capricorn, the goat, is hard-working and determined. You better be ready to be the same or Goat will buck you off fast. (Access via the FourRunner quad)
John Egan, Sugarbush’s extreme-skiing guru, makes his living showing people how to huck cliffs, slide through glades, and ski steeps. He calls Rumble “one of the few remaining unadulterated old-school, East Coast trails.” It’s also a proving ground with 2,633 feet of unrelenting terrain that’s tested and taught the best. The trail’s “mystic” qualities have been preserved, Egan says, meaning no one’s messed with the drop-offs, boulders, and stumps that litter the run. And unless there’s a lot of snow, there’s a rock face to clear to even get on the trail, so you better be ready to rumble with this trail if you want to survive it. Rumble is on Castlerock Peak, which is served by the Castlerock double chair.
Black Hole, Smugglers’ Notch
Smugg’s calls this a triple black diamond. Start with 600 feet of 65 to 70 percent grade vertical (read: elevator shaft) and hop onto 1,600 feet of steeps, cliffs and bumps through ungroomed woods on the resort’s Madonna Mountain. Fair warning: Gravity’s pull is so strong in a black hole that even light can’t get out. Beam yourself there via the Madonna I Summit lift.
Devil’s Fiddle, Killington
This is a bump run that will have you begging for mercy and making a deal with the devil just to get it over with. Steep + sustained = suffering. Plus, the bumps can reach monstrous heights. As if that isn’t enough, there’s nothing like a good cliff drop to spice things up. Extreme skiing pioneer Dan Egan sums it up like this: “Devil’s Fiddle is nasty.” Accessed via the Bear Mountain quad.
Staircase Glade, Jay Peak
Jay is famous for its glades, but this one is the king of the hill. Served by the Flyer quad, it has a 50-degree pitch and it’s tight. While it’s a signed trail, people don’t believe they’re embarking on an actual trail when they “peer over the edge and into the darkness of the glade,” according to Jay Peak’s Toland. Handle this trail, and you’re a true stair master.
Black Magic, Magic Mountain
Only about 15 yards wide, the upper section of Black Magic features 40- to 50-degree pitches, two major rock cliffs, a third major face with large rock features, and pine trees. After 500 vertical feet of that fun, Black Magic opens up into Black Line where you confront another cliff area and a steep face covering an added 800 feet of vertical drop. Served by the Black Chair.
Lookout Below, Whiteface Mountain, New York
Rarely groomed, narrow, and steep, the mountain’s PR person says even she’s too chicken to ski Lookout Below. On Lookout Mountain, Lookout Below is a classic Eastern, old-school profile, and there’s no escape route on this 1,000-foot-long trail on the mountain affectionately known as “Iceface.” Ride the Lookout Mountain triple.
Misery Whip, Sugarloaf Resort, Maine
A misery whip is a crosscut saw operated by a logger on either end to fell huge trees. Misery Whip at Sugarloaf is a trail that might make you feel like that saw being tugged in two directions through a resistant object. It’s an old T-bar line turned trail, and it’s narrow, steep, and bumps up huge. Oh, and it never gets groomed. Ready for a little whip lash? Access by Skyline lift.
DJ’s Tramline, Cannon Mountain, New Hampshire
DJ’s Tramline wasn’t cut for skiing or riding. It was cut in 1938 as the most direct route to the top of the mountain for the tram. In 1980, it became an official trail, only it remained pretty much as it was: steep, rocky, narrow, and offering no way out. Throw in Cannon’s notorious teeth-chattering windchill, and you’ve got one fun run. Get to it via the Tramway.
DISCLAIMER: We know there will be much discussion and maybe some disagreement as to which trails deserve to be designated the gnarliest in the Northeast. Go on our website, vtsports.com, and comment on our blog under the Gnarly Trails post. Remember: we only considered in-bounds, lift-served, named trails in this list. We know there is tons of off-piste terrain that has plenty of gnar. That debate is for another day.
REMEMBER: Ski and ride at your ability. These trails are for experienced, very advanced skiers and riders only.