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Echoes of the Ski Winter That Wasn’t

Most of us have moved on from winter. But for skiers, the memories of the past season echo like one long car crash.

Vermonters have enjoyed a winter of lower heating bills and the occasional day without wool hat and gloves. Skier and boarders, though, have suffered through the worst winter in living memory.

Someone reported that this was the mildest winter since 1955-56. I can’t really confirm that, having been three years old at the time.Stein photo

But it was certainly the warmest winter since I first strapped on skis in 1957. (Hickory wood skis, bear trap bindings, and a rope tow powered by an old Chevy engine from the 1940s.)

This past ski season wasn’t a disappointment due just to the lack of snowfall, although that certainly qualified as Disaster #1. We rarely got more than a dusting of white.

Disaster #2: Seemingly every snowfall was followed by a tumultuous drenching of cold rain.

What should have been powder turns on the Snow Bowl’s Proctor trail instead ended up in the upper reaches of our rivers.

Ski Vermont reports that the previous (2014-15) winter set a record for resort visits, topping 4.67 million skier/rider days. In a typical season, winter tourism (driven largely by skiing) pumps more than $900 million intro Vermont’s economy.

This winter’s numbers will likely be lower. And we fell pathetically short of the average of 220 inches of snow that fell in the 2014-15 winter.

This year’s lack of snow proved to a huge burden for even the most popular Vermont ski shops. The end-of-season discounting began painfully early for shop owners and employees.

It’s said that when life gives you lemons, you should make lemonade. For ski gear hounds this spring, that has translated in to “When winter gives you rain, look for bargains on equipment.”

Though I wasn’t in the market for skis, for example, I couldn’t resist 50 percent off on a shiny new pair of Nordica NRGY skis.

I hadn’t bought a new pair of boards in many years. These astonishingly good skis – just one of many terrific brands out there – were a reminder of one bright spot for skiers: Winter might disappoint, but the equipment is getting better all the time.

It used to be that only snowboarders could easily carve turns. Now that magic is available to virtually every skier. The climate may be melting, but technology marches on.

At the Snow Bowl this winter, thanks to solid snowmaking and good grooming, it was a decent season for the front side of the mountain once the temps dropped more consistently below freezing in January.

Mad River Glen, however, was not so lucky.

Its snowmaking “system” consists of two small, outmoded guns to freshen a bit of terrain near the base. MRG lives and dies the old fashioned way, with natural snowfall.

After a 2014-15 season that extended from early December into April, Mad River was open this winter for an estimated 45 days – and some of those were just on the bunny hill.

“Ski It If You Can” became “Fuggeddaboutit.”

When Mad River closed for the season in mid-March, its roadside sign said simply “Uncle.”

Snowmaking came to the rescue at Sugarbush and other big resorts. But again it was mid-January until conditions were decent.

The enormous amount of snow that Sugarbush makes each winter has meant that they’re still open this week. Stowe, Jay Peak and Killington are keeping a few lifts running, too.

So while sensible folks have already planted peas and put out their patio furniture, a few of us diehards are still hitting the hill.

That’s because while artificial snow can make for some icy sliding during the winter, the manmade stuff turns into white gold when it warms up.

At Sugarbush this past Sunday, I discovered the groomed runs were morning manna. And as the sun softened the steep stuff toward noon, it brought all the delights of easy-turning corn snow and forgivingly soft bumps.

The best of the day? Stein’s Run, no doubt.

Stein’s is a precipitously steep, straight shot down the fall line. Catch an edge on it in the winter and you could end up sliding for 200 yards.

But when the trail is bumped up in spring T-shirt weather, it’s pure forgiving fun.

The run was named after Stein Ericksen, the Norwegian skiing legend who helped
design it when he headed the Sugarbush ski school in the 1960s.

I remember seeing Stein there as a kid. It was like watching God on skis.

Stein died this year at age 88, having inspired an entire generation of Baby Boomers to take up skiing and stay with it as we aged.

Skiing Stein’s on a warm spring day is a kind of tribute, then, to all the great skiers of the past — and to all of the weekend powderhounds who keep hope alive.

Until Vermont’s climate morphs into Florida’s and they shut off the snow guns for good,
we’ll still be out there looking for one last day on the slopes.

 

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