Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Skiing Report: Sugarbush's Elite 8 in a Day

I have to admit that I dislike the use of the word "Elite" in the context of the "Elite 8" here.  Sugarbush has 8 ski trails designated as double-black diamonds.  Someone, somewhere, probably to sell some T-shirts, dubbed them "The Elite 8".  To be honest, two trails that don't make the list - Bravo at Mount Ellen and The Mall at Lincoln Peak are just as difficult as at least half of the trails that make up the Elite 8, but the trail designations were done way before my time.

Earlier this season, one of my students suggested that we ski all of the Elite 8 in a day.  At that point in time, one of the trails wasn't even open yet, so I had to say no, but I kept the idea in the back of my head.  Saturday, on the way to the mountain, I was trying to decide what to ski for the day.  We'd had some dense snow earlier in the week and a slight thaw/freeze.  That had me concerned about being in the trees, especially tree runs without lots of traffic, where snow might be set up very firmly.  So, my mind wandered to the Elite 8.  I knew that there would be some challenges, but every trail was open, and some of the normal impediments to this challenge were absent.

High winds can shut down lifts and make this impossible in a day.  Cold temperatures can be very daunting, especially on the three trails found at Mt. Ellen.  Long lift lines at the Castlerock lift, like those we'd find on a holiday weekend can be a problem.  And, lack of snow coverage can be tough on skis, but it's not a showstopper if the trails are open.

For Saturday, our high temperature was going to be close to freezing and little wind was expected.  Fog was expected to be a factor, with low cloud ceilings, but this can be overcome.  The lift line at Castlerock would be manageable.  I was guessing our worst issues would be thin cover on a few of the natural snow trails.

Oh yeah, we had to complete this in 5.5 hours.  And it had to be safe.

As my group assembled before 9:30, I started to float the idea.  There were unanimous agreements that it was a "must do".  It was nice to see the kids that happy.  One of the students immediately decided to do a day-long live "broadcast" on Instagram.  That meant that my four students who weren't there on Saturday were mad at me before we even got started.  I simply couldn't wait for a day where everyone was present.  We've had 24 ski school days so far this year, and only once have all ten students shown up.  I simply had to go for it when the opportunity was there.

Stein's Run
This is not a run that I'd normally choose for a warm-up.  It is steep and long, with an awkward double fall line.  However, due to grooming a week ago, the bumps weren't too big, the trail wasn't too icy, and logistically, this was almost necessary to make the day work.  I'd already skied a bit before 9:00, but this was the first run for each of my students.  Every single one of them beat me to the bottom.  Most of them complained it wasn't fun (too firm, too slick, etc.), but that didn't matter, because we wouldn't see it again that day.

From the bottom of Stein's, we skied to the base, rode the Gate House chair up and skated across to the Slide Brook Express.  This chair is an inter-connect, built when Sugarbush purchased the old Glen Ellen ski area and incorporated that area into Sugarbush.  The ride is just over 11,000 feet in length and takes almost 15 minutes to complete.  Yet, that is much faster than the shuttle buses that run between the two base areas.

When we arrived at Mt. Ellen, my immediate goal was to ride the North Ridge Express chair to the top of Exterminator.  But, the North Ridge Express is a notoriously fickle chair, and it wasn't running when we got there.  This necessitated a trip to the base area, a ride up the Green Mountain Express and another ride up the summit quad.

FIS is a snow-making trail, so I knew the coverage would be good.  It's often icy, but rarely dangerously so.  Entering the run on skier's right subjects the skier to Sugarbush's steepest on-trail pitch, but this entrance is often icy and daunting.  Everyone entered on skier's left and we found some ice with lots of soft bumps on the way down.  Most of us stayed far left, in an area that used to be trees, but is now moguls interspersed with snowmaking guns.  A couple students went to the middle of the trail and found ice and instantly got back to the right or left side.  The most difficult part of this run was fog.  I basically stared at my feet the entire way down, with limited depth perception, and constantly wondering if I was on ice, snow or a mogul.  But, we all made it down safely and fairly quickly.  This one is steep, but short, just like the next one.

Black Diamond
Please don't ask me why a run called Black Diamond is rated as a double-black.  I do know that I show my age every time I ski this one, because I find myself singing Kiss's "Black Diamond" to myself the whole way down.  This is technically a natural snow trail, but it does get some drifting snow from the guns on neighboring FIS.  While there were some rocks showing, this narrow trail was in much better condition than I expected.  Another short one, and we had three of the eight done.  The fog had lifted somewhat, and it was easier to see here than it had been on FIS.

At this point, we skied to the mid-mountain lodge for a short break.  The logistics of this day required a late lunch, so we took a short break for a snack, drink, bathroom break, whatever was needed.  We wouldn't be close to a lodge for quite a while after we headed back up.

I saved this one for the last run at Mt. Ellen because it is the longest of the three and the only run to end below the base of the summit quad.  This one is all natural snow and the headwall tends to be icy.  But, while the snow was thin, the headwall was fine, the bump lines were sweet, the snow was soft, and we got through the steep pitch quickly.  One student skied up to me partway down, worried about the icy headwall.  I explained that we were already well below that spot, so she didn't need to worry.  She took off like a shot and left me well behind.

From here, we skied some intermediate trails back to the Slide Brook Express and returned to Lincoln Peak.  It was just about noon and an obvious time to take a lunch break.  If we had 6 or more hours to complete these 8 runs, I would have agreed, but we didn't have that much time.  So, I had my students skate ski across a clearing and then herringbone uphill to the Castlerock Connector trail.  We followed this trail to the Castlerock chair.  In ski school, we are pretty lucky because we get to cut the lines at most chairs.  But, Castlerock is some of Sugarbush's prime "wild" skiing terrain - no snowmaking and no grooming, with limited lift access through a double chair.  We needed to wait in line with everyone else.

Lift Line
Lift Line is probably my son's favorite trail at Sugarbush.  Even when the coverage is good, you need to pick through some rocks at the top.  Then, partway down, you can dance down a mostly rocky face on the left or just huck yourself off a giant rock.  Oh yeah, there is a detour around this ski-destroying section of the trail.  But, below the headwall section, the skiing can be sublime.  Some sections have a straight-down-the-trail fall line and other sections have a double-fall line drawing you towards the trees on the left.  You have an audience - the people on the chair.  And the snow can be fantastic.  It truly is a great trail, even though it was a bit thin on Saturday.  And just like all the other trails, I was the last one in the group to get to the bottom.

At the bottom, we got right back in the line for the Castlerock chair.  Next up was Rumble, one of the most challenging trails in all of New England.  It's steep.  It's narrow.  It twists and turns a lot.  There are giant boulders for obstacles.  And the snow was thin.  But, when it's in great shape and it's not crowded, it can be wonderful.  This trail takes you far enough from other trails that you feel like you are all alone at times.  When I'm on this trail solo in good conditions, I'm as happy as I ever am while skiing.  This time, though, having a brand new tune on my skis, I wasn't as happy.  The kids took off like rockets, while I tried to pick my way through the rocks and trees, keeping damage to my skis to a minimum.  The lower part of the trail was really fun and I managed to finally catch up.  The group was relieved to hear me say is was lunch time.  I was almost 1:30.

Normally, we take a fairly leisurely lunch.  It's not that I want to waste any time, but we ski fairly hard most of the time.  Taking some time to socialize, re-hydrate and get some calories makes a lot of sense, especially for 12 and 13 year old students.  But this time, we needed to eat quickly and get back outside.  We had two trails left to do, and they were both off the summit at Lincoln Peak.  I wanted to be heading up the mountain before 2:00, if possible.  We ate quickly and headed to the Super Bravo Express chair.

Normally, to get from Super Bravo to Heaven's Gate - the summit chair - we would meander through one or more fun tree runs on the way.  This time, we had no choice but to simply zip down Downspout and get to the chair as quickly as possible.

Ripcord is a long trail with lots of snowmaking.  Due to some weirdness in our weather this winter, this trail that is normally a long mogul field is more mixed right now.  Visibility was terrible - a complete whiteout due to fog, just like we'd seen on FIS.  That made this run challenging, at least for the first half or so.  After that, visibility improved and we were able to get to the bottom very quickly.  It was now 2:20, and barring any real setbacks, we were going to finish the Elite 8.

When Paradise - a natural snow trail - is in great shape, it might be my favorite trail at Sugarbush.  You enter the trail through a somewhat narrow gap that tends to generate strange bump lines.  Then, the top of the main run, often called the Ballfield, isn't steep, but is often full of rocks that want to trip you if you get caught going too fast.  Next, due to some rocks and trees, you dive through one of three narrow but short chutes.  Then, you encounter an odd double fall line for a while, with smatterings of trees in the trail as well.  After you clear this section, you get to a really nice bump line that is the beginning of Lower Paradise.  Then, another bump line that tends to have thin cover.  And, finally a boulder on the right with an ice and rock field on the left is the final challenge before completing the trail.  Conditions were thin, and I was a bit careful to not trash my skis.  At about 2:40, we hit the end of Paradise, and exited onto Lower Ripcord.  We'd done it.  If I had been less cautious, we might have done the whole thing 20 minutes faster.

We still had to ski down the mountain, including a little bit of expert terrain on Lower Ripcord.  We took our time and arrived at the place where the kids and parents reunite each day about five minutes early.  Every single one of the kids was excited about what we'd done, and instantly started telling their parents.  Two of my students, who are very intense and never want to take a break, were actually tired.

All in all, it was an adventure, a non-trivial goal, and a success.

Now, how do I top that day?  I've got three weekends of teaching left and I need to find something even more adventurous before our snow season comes to an end.


Jeff Farbaniec said...

Sounds like a great day of skiing. That's an impressive list of trails for an individual skier, even more impressive for a group of 6 or 8 kids considering not only the difficulty but how spread out they are.

Anonymous said...

The new Elite 8
Having a beer at Eight different locations at Sugarbush.
Starting at:
Green Mountain Lounge
(does a PBR & Cigar on Slidebrook Chair count for anything? Win thought so)
Allyn's lodge (more than 1)
Wunderbar (more than 2)
Timbers (more than 3)
Castlerock Pub (more than ...)
Slidebrook Inn

And we got the t-shirts to prove it!!
Completed Mar 3, 2013