STOWE — After nearly an hour of hiking up the steep, snow-covered Smugglers’ Notch Road, I was ready for a break. Lacking both snowshoes and traction spikes to help me through the snow, my lungs felt like they might leap out of my chest and my thighs burned. The camera strapped to my chest now weighed a ton and the waterproofing on my boots had long failed. With only about 100 yards until the summit, I pushed on in my search for Max Speed.
At the top, I immediately recognized him by the two video cameras mounted on the sides of his red and silver helmet. His snowsuit had the word “sledneck” emblazoned in red lettering on the pant leg and a helmet with the stars and stripes of the American flag. Two small cameras stuck out from each side like antennae.
“You must be Max,” I said, catching my breath.
As winter descended on the Green Mountains, I had received video clips of thrilling sled rides down some of Vermont’s mountain roads. The man behind the videos was a soft-spoken guy in a red, white and blue motocross-style helmet who went by the moniker “Max Speed.” Every video he sent featured reports on the latest snow conditions on the hill and then footage of rides down the 2,428-foot Lincoln Gap between Lincoln and Warren or Mount Philo in Charlotte. The rides seemed hellishly fast and the snow conditions unbelievably good, so I had hiked out see for myself.
It turns out Max Speed is actually the nickname of Tony Telensky of Jericho. Telensky is a maintenance worker at IBM in Essex Junction and works 12-hour shifts. This, he explained, gives him lots of time for sledding, in addition to skiing and snowboarding, which he does at neighboring Smugglers’ Notch Resort.
“Twelve-hour days are pretty long, but it’s worth it for all the days off,” he said. “It’s like being semi-retired.”
With an elevation of 2,170 feet, Route 108 traverses Smugglers’ Notch with hairpin turns winding around boulders the size of small houses. When the snow piles up, the road is closed until spring, creating an irresistible playground for cross country skiers, snowshoers, fat-bikers, ice climbers and of course, the sledders, who were ready to go.
Today, I joined a group of about 10, who launched themselves one by one, headfirst down the hill. As they darted past me and smoothly entered the first turn, they looked like sliding penguins. Suddenly they were all gone, leaving me at the top with Tony’s wife, Pam Telensky, who caught me up on some of their recent excursions.
In addition to Smugglers’ Notch, they also regularly head to Mount Philo in Charlotte and the more advanced Lincoln Gap Road, which connects the towns of Lincoln and Warren by way of a seasonal road that includes the steepest mile of pavement in the United States. “Min Speed” (her own sledding nickname, indicating her preference for slower speeds) told me the Lincoln side receives more sunlight and was softer, while the Warren side was hard and fast.
“It was total, sheer panic for me,” she said, recounting the descent into the Mad River Valley. “I took off and I couldn’t turn. I just kept picking up speed and I had to go with it until I could stop. I was scared to death and my legs were shaking when I got off. We’ve been riding these sleds since 2008 and yesterday was the most frightened I’ve been.”
But sledding, she said, is not just for the younger crowd.
“It turns old men back into little boys,” she said with a laugh.
In preparation for my first ride of the day, Pam graciously loaned me her helmet, which was bright yellow and featured pink and purple flowers. I took a running start and launched myself down the hillside. All that hiking suddenly became worth it as the trees and boulders passed in a black and grey blur. Forty-five minutes of hiking made for just under a minute of an exhilarating descent, but I lacked the fine sense of control needed to maintain both speed and control through some dramatic turns. The bright yellow sled nearly dumped me twice as I whipped around the crags, startling hikers and causing their dogs to chase my heels. But I somehow maintained control until my ride crawled to a stop as the road leveled out, a short distance from where Tony waited alongside Wayne Pierce, a co-worker and friend of Tony’s.
“Nice helmet,” Pierce said, “It’s just your color.”
Telensky first saw the Hammerhead Sled in a catalog for Eastern Mountain Sports in 2008. The sleds were designed in Shelburne, Vt. and resemble the Flexible Flyer sleds popular in the early 1900s. But unlike the wooden and steel models of years ago, these sleds feature lightweight aluminum, durable plastic runners, comfortable mesh seating and sensitive steering.
Telensky and his wife first got to try these sleds at a winter carnival in Barre in 2008. Then they went out and bought their own.
“In a week, we bought two, because why would you want one?” he said.
It was after this that the alter ego Max Speed was created. Not long after, Telensky and Pierce competed in a series of time trials at Tenney Mountain, a former ski area in Plymouth, N.H.; and the two were hooked on the sport.
On his days off, Telensky heads to hills in the central and northern part of the state with his wife, friends and co-workers, where they explore forest roads like the ones in Lincoln and Stowe, as well as Mount Philo, which he says is particularly good for beginner sledders because it features a big, graceful hairpin turn.
At all of these locations, the sledders record their adventures and the conditions with a collection of mounted GoPro cameras pointing in all directions. The regular snow reports of their outings are posted on YouTube and other media outlets.
“We do the videos to show people where to sled and what the conditions are,” Pierce said. “On some days like this, you would never expect the snow to be any good if you looked at the forecast, but the snow’s good if you go out and find it.”
I decided to take a break from the action and crouched on top of a boulder located at the apex of a turn, snapping away with my camera as they flew past. Most made graceful arcs with a few making skittering turns on the hard-packed snow. There were also a few wipeouts.
While hiking back up the hill, I caught up with Telensky for some tips on the finer points of sled control and conditions.
Here are a few:
When the forecast calls for poor skiing, that’s when the sledding’s likely to be best. On our day in the Notch, the group’s original plans had been to explore Mount Philo, but when a December thaw swung through the state, they knew they would have to find more snow elsewhere.
“Bad skiing means good sledding,” Telensky said. “That also goes vice versa – when weather calls for a big dump of snow, it gets too deep for the sleds.”
As for control, in order to maximize your speed, adjust your body position. For greater speed, slide back on the sled; for more control, stay forward. It also helps to sled in the tracks made by someone else. Another tip Telensky offered: don’t be the first person down the hill.
All of this sounded good, but I decided I needed some more practice and Telensky assured me the season would allow for plenty of that. Just the night before, Telensky and Pierce sledded Smugglers’ Notch in the dark, lighting their way with headlamps.
“It’s actually more fun than in the daytime,” he said. “It makes the fear factor go up by about a thousand percent because you can only see about a foot in front of you.”
It was a hike back to the top, but it went quickly as I pondered the thrill of a nighttime descent — all the while assuring myself that the ride down in daylight was definitely worth it.
Looking for some sledding? Check out this map for a hill near you: