Overall, we've had a cold but below average snow season here in VT. I know people in southern New England and the mid-Atlantic states wouldn't describe their winters that way, at least the snow part, but they got hit by a lot of storms that stayed south or east (or both) of Vermont. Things finally started to turn around in mid-February, and conditions this past weekend were the best they've been all season.
I had a large group of students this weekend. We have a party for the kids and their parents the last Saturday of the program, so we tend to have a lot of the kids show up. I got to the mountain early on Saturday and grabbed one of our "outback guides" to request a trip to the Slidebrook Basin. This is a beautiful area that sits between the two main parts of the Sugarbush resort. It is all glade skiing, well outside the main ski area boundaries. A handful of lines are maintained, but it's still wild territory. If an injury occurs in this area, it can take a long time for ski patrol to arrive. Our outback guides have emergency outdoor care training and they are required for trips to Slide Brook.
We got to the top of the North Lynx chair early and headed straight to the Slide Brook basin. The snow was simply amazing. We took the steepest main line into the basin, although it really isn't all that steep. About halfway down, we split the group for a bit. I stayed in the main line with some of the less adventurous students, while the others went looking for untracked lines. They found a lot of untracked snow and I was jealous that I missed it. But, it was still a great run.
In the early afternoon, we headed to an official glade called Gangster's Grotto. We hadn't skied it yet this season. This glade has multiple entrances and multiple descent routes. On skier's right, there is a tight chute that is frequently unsafe to ski, so I prefer to traverse to skier's left and then drop. But, as my students got to the chute, all they could see was snow - no roots, no rocks - just snow. They started chanting "Chute, chute, chute...", and after I took a look, I obliged them. We had an amazing run down the chute and the into the wide labyrinth of options below the chute.
Regretfully, we lost some skiing time after this run, when a handful of my students skied somewhere I'd told them not to go, and it took them 25 minutes to get down the hill. There were conflicting stories from the children. Some talked about it being a prank - hiding out uphill. Others said someone had fallen and others were helping. Given the amount of time it took for them to come down the hill, and the history I have with this group, I find it hard to believe it was simply a fall and rescue, although it might have started that way. And, they shouldn't have even been there to begin with, given that I'd clearly instructed them to take a different path and 6 of 8 ignored me. This incident marred an otherwise amazing day of skiing. After that run through the Grotto, I decided we needed to stay on trail for the rest of the day. I simply cannot run the safety risk in the trees with students who refuse to listen to directions. We ended the day with some racing, which seemed to make everyone happy.
Our goal on Sunday was the "Elite 8" - skiing all 8 of Sugarbush's double black diamond runs in one day, or in our case, in just 5.5 hours. I have done this with groups before, but I was skeptical that this group could pull it off. Every time we go inside for an alleged "5 minute warm-up break", half or more of the group buys food and we end up losing 20 minutes. I told the group over and over that we had no time to waste all day if we wanted to ski all 8 of the runs.
We started on Stein's Run, where I'd had a scary slide a couple weeks ago. There were soft bumps with lots of ice between the bumps, so this became a run where I tried to get the students to link turns across the tops of the bumps and not ski the troughs. Two girls really struggled, but we all made it safely. From there, we headed to Mt. Ellen via the Slide Brook Express chair, where it was cold and windy. This is where things began to go badly. Two girls insisted they needed to buy hand warmers. This necessitated an otherwise unnecessary trip to the base lodge. While I stopped in the men's room, the usual suspects bought candy, chips, brownies and cookies. I tried to impress upon them that we had no time for this, but they simply didn't care. I felt really bad for the two students who were most intent on finishing, knowing that the behavior of a few was ruining our chances.
We finally got to the summit and skied FIS. It was amazing. I hit no ice at all of the run, and this short, steep run is almost always icy. Back inside to warm up, and the same kids bought more food. Back up and we skied Black Diamond. This run was more challenging but FIS, but it's also fairly short, and the kids headed back inside to warm up. This time, despite me telling them to buy nothing, half the group bought candy or hot chocolate. Inside, I was seething.
We finally got back outside and skied Exterminator, and then returned to Lincoln Peak on the Slide Brook express chair. We headed inside for a quick lunch. Most people had been snacking all day, so I asked everyone to quickly get a small lunch so we could eat and get back outside. Three of the students bought a full meal plus ice cream. Instead of 15 minutes, they spent 40 minutes inside. We now had 90 minutes left and I knew there was no way we could do the required 6 chair rides to get to the four remaining runs.
We headed to Castlerock and the lines were surprisingly short. We headed to Rumble where some of the students struggled. Rumble is usually considered to be the most technical run at Sugarbush, and it took longer to get down than I'd hoped. Up until this point, I thought we were going to make it to 7 of the 8, and we would only be missing the recently groomed Ripcord. But, it was now apparent that we were running out of time. We headed back up Castlerock to ski Lift Line, which we'd skied earlier this season. I suggested that the students skip a particularly treacherous section about 1/4 of the way down, and use a snowy bypass route. But, two students ignored that request and one of them got into trouble - too scared to ski down and too far down to hike up. Before I could offer her any advice, she had taken off her skis and poles and tried to throw them down the hill. Then, she slid on her butt down the icy stretch - somewhat dangerous all by itself. Worse yet, one of her skis had gotten stuck well above her and she needed to hike back up icy terrain to get it. While she attempted this, another student had a bathroom emergency and hiked into the trees to urinate.
I was at my wit's end. But, I also realized this was my last run of the season as an instructor. I finally got everyone back together, the equipment was rescued (I didn't get the girl's equipment because she had done something really inappropriate in removing her skis and throwing them; I considered it a teaching moment), and we made it back to the Castlerock lift. It was 2:56. Ripcord and Paradise would have to wait for another day, perhaps another season.
I dropped the children with their parents and headed to the locker room. I did my end of season paperwork, handed in my uniform, all the while feeling frustrated with how the season had ended. These children are in our higher level program, although they were one of the youngest groups in that program. Earlier in the day, the best group in our lowest level program had managed to ski the Elite 8, plus a 9th run that I think should be a double-black diamond run. They were 6 year old skiers. My 10 year old skiers couldn't pull it off though. We didn't even come close.
It's honestly been my most frustrating season as an instructor. Certainly it didn't help that I missed 3 weekends of work after surgery, time that I might have used to create a bit more discipline within the group. But, with this group, I really doubt that it would have mattered.
I headed down the hill from the locker room to the Castlerock Pub. Beer never tasted so good. And, I started to relax, realizing that this was the beginning of my "free" skiing season.
Later this week, I have a professional development clinic, focused on skiing the trees at Sugarbush. I'll finally get to the places I was not able to get to with my students this year. And next weekend, I'll be skiing with my wife and friends, going places I want to go, at the pace I want to move. Despite some frustrations this season, and some obvious personal distractions, I really do love to ski. I'm looking forward to the rest of the season.