Story by Andrew Seale
BURLINGTON, VERMONT — Toronto’s grinning skyline is hardly an exhale away as my Porter Airlines flight begins its descent toward the tangled string of blinking lights below known as Burlington, Vermont.
The flight is just under an hour from Billy Bishop Airport in Toronto, but geographically speaking, I have no real idea where I am. And, as someone completely terrified at the prospect of hurtling down a hill with planks attached to my feet, I’m not quite sure why I agreed to go on a whirlwind tour of Killington, Sugarbush and Stowe, three of the Green Mountain state’s top ski resorts.
It’s one of those situations in life where you say, “Sure, this might as well happen.”
Getting My Bearings
As it turns out, Burlington is only two hours south of Montreal.
Tucked neatly in America’s shoulder blade between New York, Quebec, New Hampshire and Massachusetts — Vermont is a New England state that is undeniably Canadian. Sparsely populated with absurdly friendly and eco-minded maple syrup sympathizers.
As our host Sarah Wojcik of Ski Vermont, two other Canadian journalists, and myself whiz through the Vermont darkness towards Killington, I notice the tree-lined hamlets and rows of houses all with a single candle in the window have a surreal “train model town”-type quality to them.
The looming peaks in the distance, on the other hand, don’t carry the same quaint quality.
In the morning, Bear Mountain and the peaks of Skye and Killington sit framed like tectonic elbows against the soft sepia sky.
The thing about learning to ski is after a while you start to lose track of the time and what temperature you are in.
You learn of new muscles. As though they were specifically formed so they could burn as you pizza (point your skis together like a slice of pizza) and French fry (skis positioned in parallel) your way down the slight incline of the beginner’s hill.
Henry Hotchkiss, our permafrost-cheeked, 19-season veteran instructor, patiently tracks our progress.
I fall. Repeatedly. Because that’s what you do when you’re overambitious and attempting to skip the learning curve and B-line to the learned stage.
By mid-afternoon I have another “might as well happen” moment when I agree to take the long way down from the newly built Peak Lodge — a dining lounge at 4,100 feet (1,250 metres)— with Rob Megnin, Killington’s director of sales, marketing and reservations.
We criss-cross the mountain along Great Northern, a meandering trail known for its friendliness toward beginners. The route is just one of the 212 that slash their way along the seven mountains that make up Killington.
At the bottom, out of pure exhaustion, I go for the handshake despite the fact Megnin has prepped himself for a fist bump. It ends in an awkward hand-grab thing and I remind myself to be more coordinated in the future both on and off the hill.
With shaky knees and sore muscles I make my way back to the Killington Grand, our slopeside home for the night.
We head north on Route 100 toward Sugarbush Resort, snaking our way through the pine-lined valleys in a massive SUV with a finicky four-wheel drive.
An hour later, we roll up to Clay Brook — a red barn-like structure with a silo that has been converted into residences and hotel rooms — set against the pristine backdrop of Castlerock and Lincoln Peak. The area was once known as Mascara Mountain for its reputation as a hot spot for the young, rich and famous like the Kennedy clan.
Although Sugarbush still has an air of romance hanging about, these days it’s found the middle ground between couple’s retreat and family adventure.
Once again I find myself working my way down a rookie hill with a private instructor named Milo — a former policeman from Cape Cod, who used to vacation here before he and his wife decided to move to Vermont. It seems everyone here is from somewhere else. It reminds me of Vancouver in that sense.
The day whips by as I practice parallel skiing on one of the 111 trails (there’s also 20 wooded areas or “glades” as Milo explains for off-trail skiing), picking up speed then swooping back toward the hill, carving these sloppy arcs in the criss-crossed powder.
Mad River Glen or “The First Run”
We decide an hour or two of skiing is in order and head across to Mad River Glen, Sugar Bush’s wily cousin a bit farther down the road.
Mad River Glen, is one of the last bastions of natural snow skiing in the East Coast with its no snowboarders rule, its 45 marked trails and abundant glades. It’s also where I decide to make my first solo run.
My first solo chairlift ride goes well, except for the fact that I forget to get off at the end and leap from an uncomfortable height. Naturally, I wind up a crumpled mess of skis and ski poles. Still, I’m able to convince all those who witness that, “I totally, meant to do that.”
The glide down is serene. I watch the “blue” signs (for more difficult trails) whip by and direct myself towards the “easier route.” Slow arcs. Shins pressed against the front of my boots. Trying to remain calm while the sweat drips down my back. Turning leg soft and eyes ahead.
I find an open spot and try an experiment, less arc, letting gravity pull me down the hill. Before I can let out a shaky exhale I’m at the bottom enjoying a delicious hot chocolate, in the lodge below.
When we arrive at Stowe, the closest resort to Montreal on our journey, the sun is just dipping behind the mountains.
You get used to the idea that time means different things depending on where you are in the mountains. It’s surprising anyone bothers to keep track at all.
We watch as the employees send 26 Chinese lanterns into the sky — fluttering like fireflies — one for each country (Canada included) represented by the resort’s staff.
The next day is a blur of blues and green runs. Stowe is the antithesis to Mad River Glen — a snowboarder’s paradise with plenty of freestyle terrain and 114 trails. It’s perfect for the intermediate skier and I’m terrified most the time. But it’s a good fear. An adrenaline rush; a rewiring of the brain. In fact it’s a stellar feeling, to be there amongst the trees while people zip by, skis and snowboards and powdery snow spraying in the air. I’m simultaneously cold and warm, suspended in this moment here in the trees, coated in crystalized glass lit up by effervescent sunrays.
I realize I can ski.
I feel enlightened! Alive! A part of some great 8,000-year-old tradition! It’s an epiphany and I want the moment to stay. I want to lie down here and feel the snow slip down my neckline while I make snow angels! To prove that I was here!
And then just like that the flight drags its heels off the de-iced tarmac and I’m airborne toward Toronto and drowsy above Lake Champlain — another sappy and nostalgic skier with the gentle click of ski-boot buckles imprinted in my mind.
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